Right and Ought: Schopenhauer on Kant



Right and Ought: Schopenhauer on Kant


In The Basis of Morality Schopenhauer undertakes a wholesale critique of Kant’s moral philosophy. He begins by attacking the very idea of a categorical imperative: morality should not be conceived as consisting of imperatives at all; the concept of the “moral law” is defective; moral rightness should not be analyzed in terms of duties, obligations, or ought-statements; and there are no unconditional obligations anyway. Kant, he thinks, has unknowingly modeled ethics on the Decalogue, which presupposes a “theological ethics”: commands from God, fear of punishment, desire for reward. He writes: “Kant, then, without more ado or any close examination, borrowed this imperative Form of Ethics from theological Morals. The hypotheses of the latter (in other words, Theology) really lie at the root of his system, and as these alone in point of fact lend it any meaning or sense, so they cannot be separated from, indeed are implicitly contained in, it.” (17) A consequence of this assimilation is that ethics emerges as a form of egoism (“Eudaemonism”), since it builds ethics on the (long-term) happiness of the individual. I think Schopenhauer is onto something here and I propose to articulate it in my own way. This has radical consequences for our understanding of the nature of moral value and the way we have to come to talk about morality. The concepts of command, duty, obligation, and ought are not properly speaking moral concepts and should be jettisoned from moral philosophy (!).

            The quickest way to see this is to focus on the imperative as the canonical form of an ethical pronouncement. An imperative utterance has an addressee and an agent, as well as some expectation of reward or punishment (which can take many forms, ranging from approval or disapproval to cash payments or imprisonment). This is part of the semantics of the imperative mood: someone gives the command and there are consequences for obedience or disobedience. Legal propositions are like this. In the case of theological ethics we have God as legislator and enforcer—hence the “divine command” theory. Thus it is in the interests of the addressee (us) to obey the commands, which makes morality a matter of enlightened self-interest. But in fact morality is not like this (true morality), since here we act irrespective of self-interest. So we can’t base morality on these concepts: morality does not issue from commands expressed in imperative form that we must obey or else pay the penalty. God could issue such commands, but without God the idea is pure anthropomorphism. There is no agent of such moral commands and no system of reward and punishment (unlike the law). In fact, as Schopenhauer says, morality has no intrinsic connection to this set of concepts: we have no moral duties or obligations, and there are no moral laws. These concepts belong to theological ethics (or human-based ethics), which is not true ethics. Of course, such duties or obligations can exist alongside ethics, but they don’t form its essence: for we may indeed be rewarded or punished for our response to imperatively expressed commands (by God or by other people). But these facts can’t constitute our moral reasons for acting as we do, on pain of reducing ethics to prudence. The rightness of an action (thought, desire, person) cannot be analyzed as compliance with a moral command. All commands have a conditional or relative structure, being predicated on the existence of a commander equipped with the power of sanction. I obey the command on condition that I want to avoid the consequences of non-compliance. But this has nothing to do with morality proper. Kant’s problem, inherited from the Christian tradition that shapes his moral outlook, and contrary to his intentions, is that he is tacitly assuming a theological conception of ethics, which works from a basis of self-interest. According to Schopenhauer, then, we should separate morality completely from these ideas; it is indeed contradictory to speak of categorical imperatives (imperatives can never logically be categorical) or moral laws or moral duties. That is to try to locate morality in a sphere alien to it—the sphere of commands, consequences, and retributive agents. There is a sharp conceptual separation between the right and good and the imperative form, with all that it implies. There may be a correspondence between the two, but there is no identity, no reduction. We have got used to talking this way because we have lived for so long with theological ethics, but it is the wrong way to talk (to think). It is impossible to base ethics on a foundation of commands.[1]

            It might aid intuition to consider a strange possible world, namely one in which the ruling god is morally imperfect. Suppose the inhabitants of this world are morally superior to their god in respect of moral judgment, so that they find themselves disagreeing with his moral decrees. Suppose, for example, he holds that lying is always wrong, without exception, and will punish you if you infringe this rule. The people in this world realize that this is not morally correct, since there are clear exceptions to such a rule. They will then be confronted with a dilemma: either you obey the god’s rule and thus behave immorally, or you disobey his rule and get into trouble with said benighted god. The god is obliging you to follow his rule (his imperative), but you judge that this obligation is contrary to true morality. If the punishment isn’t so severe, you might disregard this imposed obligation and do what you know is right; if it is severe, you might say “This is morally wrong but I am obliged by my god to do it anyway”. In the same way the law may oblige you to do what you deem wrong—just as your job may require you to carry out certain duties that morally repulse you. This is often the case with what are called contractual duties: you have signed the contract so you are obliged to carry out its commands whether they are moral or not. But you can’t have moral duties or obligations in this sense because there is no enforcer and no contract: morality isn’t an agent with the power to force compliance via the mechanism of self-interest. To suppose otherwise is to commit a category mistake. But what other sense is there? Is it that “duty” and “obligation” are ambiguous, sometimes meaning compliance to an authority and sometimes not? No, we have just got used to thinking of morality in terms of theology, where God is conveniently deemed morally perfect. Then what God commands and what is right never come apart: but that doesn’t imply that we can analyze right and wrong in terms of the concepts of duty and obligation. God may issue infallible imperatives, but the nature of our moral reasons is not analyzable in terms of conformity with these imperatives. But there is no other notion of an imperative; morality itself cannot issue imperatives, save perhaps metaphorically. It may be as if morality commands you to do this and not do that, but it cannot literally do any such thing. So it is a category mistake to suggest that moral rightness is conformity with a categorical imperative (a contradictory concept if Schopenhauer is right). When I say of an action that it is right I am not saying that it is obedient to a categorical imperative (or a hypothetical imperative): that is to import into morality an alien conceptual structure. This is Schopenhauer’s opening criticism of Kant, and he would appear to have a solid point. But the point extends far beyond the details of Kant’s system; it applies to the entire apparatus of duty, obligation, requirement, prescription, law, edict, and directive. Action does indeed follow from morality, but not because morality somehow commands or demands it—morality is not the kind of thing that can do such things. Proper conduct might be entailed by the Good, to put it Plato’s way, but not because the Good (an impersonal being) issues imperatives. After all, imperatives are speech acts, and moral values don’t speak. Neither do they oblige in any ordinary sense (“I was obliged by my hosts to take my shoes off before entering”), so how can they impose obligations?[2]

            How does this point apply to “ought”? Schopenhauer says: “What ought to be done is therefore necessarily conditioned by punishment and reward; consequently, to use Kant’s language, it is essentially and inevitably hypothetical, and never, as he maintains, categorical. If we think away these conditions, the conception of obligation becomes devoid of sense; hence absolute obligation is most certainly a contradictio in adjecto.” (16) Here we may find ourselves losing sympathy for Schopenhauer’s position: surely we can say that we ought to do what is right! But is the connection between right and ought really that tight? In my imaginary possible world the inhabitants might find themselves ruefully reporting, “I know it’s wrong to tell the truth in this case, but I guess I ought to do it anyway or there will be hell to pay from you-know-who”.  And how can “right” mean “ought” in view of the following fact: you can explain why you ought to do something by saying that it is right but not by saying that you ought to do it? Why ought I to give money to charity? Because it is morally right to do so—but not because I ought to (that just repeats the explanandum). There may well be a correlation between right and ought, but we shouldn’t try to analyze the former by the latter. And there is certainly a use of “ought” that is purely egoistic, as in “I ought to take my umbrella with me today”. Then too there is the legal use of “ought”: “I ought not to drive above the speed limit” etc. So it is not clear that ought is the right concept to use in giving the basis of morality; maybe Schopenhauer is right that it belongs to the old theological conception of ethics. At best it has been extended into morality and thereby acquired a moral connotation, but the root notion is non-moral—like obligation, duty, etc. Our language of morals may (must?) reflect our metaphysics of morals, and that may be tainted (soaked) in theological conceptions of right and wrong. Perhaps we do better to stick with the unadorned “right” and “wrong”, “good” and “bad”, “virtuous” and “evil”.[3] The utilitarian may dispense with the notion of ought in the metaphysics of morals, saying simply that it is right to maximize happiness and wrong to cause needless suffering—what we ought to do is none of his concern. At any rate, a foundational use of “ought” needs to persuade us that we are not buying into thinly disguised theological ideas. Certainly we must reckon with forms of words like, “You ought to do such and such or else”.[4]

            How does deontology look if we take Schopenhauer’s strictures to heart? It is commonly formulated using the notions of duty and obligation, but it need not be so formulated. We can say simply, “Lying is wrong, stealing is wrong, murder is wrong, generosity is good, justice is right, equality is desirable”—we need not resort to the imperative mode of moral expression. We need not speak of “prima facie duties” but of “prima facie rights and wrongs”. So deontological ethics would not perish with Kant’s Judeo-Christian imperatival picture of moral discourse (as in the Decalogue). As Schopenhauer observes, Kant just assumed this apparatus at the beginning without much in the way of motivation or questioning; but we are not compelled to follow him. Perhaps this is one of those cases in which ordinary speech is so saturated with questionable metaphysical theory that what it is natural for us to say is false to the underlying realities. We find it hard to get away from the commander-and-enforcer model of morality given (apparently) rigorous shape by Kant. Morality does not consist of super-imperatives but of indicative statements of rightness and wrongness, good and evil, etc. Plato didn’t have much use for this dictatorial apparatus and Eastern religions are not wedded to it either; it is very much a feature of Western Christianized morality founded in Judaic law. It goes along with personified pictures of the world, and with (idolatrous?) religious art, thus failing to do justice to the impersonal abstract nature of morality. Things are just good or bad; no one has to issue shrill imperatives exhorting us to do this or that or face the consequences (e.g. God’s displeasure). From this point of view, the categorical imperative is irrelevant and nonsensical, certainly not the basis of morality. Morality is inherently non-legislative.

[1] Notice how the phrases “morally permissible”, “morally forbidden”, and “morally compulsory” tacitly introduce the notion of an agent; but morality itself can’t permit or forbid or compel—only agents can do these things. An odd kind of animism pervades such moral language.

[2] We speak of being “morally obliged” and “legally obliged”, but these must be completely different senses of the term “obliged”: the latter implies legal sanction imposed by humanly created laws, but the former implies no such thing. Why do we speak in this misleading way? Perhaps we mean by “morally obliged” something like “will be criticized morally for not doing such and such”, or perhaps we are speaking metaphorically. It seems clear that we are borrowing the legal notion of obligation and applying it to the moral case—quite misleadingly. Morality has no obliging power, unlike the police force and law courts. 

[3] It would be strange (false) to say that God himself has moral duties or obligations or ought to do such and such, yet what he does is clearly right and good. So God doesn’t fit Kant’s theory of the right and good: God isn’t subject to any moral imperative, hypothetical or categorical. When then must we be? Kant’s theologically based theory of morality fails to apply to God!

[4] The prudential “ought” has nothing to do with morality and clearly means “ought given one’s long-term interests”. The same might be said of the putative moral “ought”, which therefore doesn’t really belong with morality. Or are we to say that “ought” is radically ambiguous?

4 replies
  1. Joseph K.
    Joseph K. says:

    Interesting essay. Parfit makes the point that Schopenhauer and Nietzsche were misled into taking this view of the concept ought and Kant’s categorical imperative by the fact that the German word for ‘ought’, namely ‘sollen’, is ambiguous between expressing a command and expressing a normative statement, in contrast to English, where there are distinct words for expressing a command (‘must’) and expressing a normative statement (‘should’, ‘ought’). Not sure how plausible this is.

    What do you think about analyzing the concept ought in terms of reasons? Parfit proposes that statements like ‘John ought to x’, where x is a phrase expressing some action, should be thought equivalent to ‘John has a reason to x’.

    Think you might find interesting this quote from the anarchist thinker Rudolf Rocker, who had a significant influence on Chomsky, and whose major work Nationalism and Culture received praise from both Russell and Einstein.

    “What does Kant mean when he reduces his famous moral law to the formula: ‘Act so that the maxims of thy will could at all times serve as principles for general legislation’? Is not this to reduce man’s ethical feeling to the pitiful concept of the law of a government? Coming from a man who was firmly convinced that man was inherently evil, this is not surprising. Only a man with this conviction could make the assertion:

    ‘Man is an animal which, when living among others of its kind, needs a master. For he surely abuses his freedom in the presence of his equals, and although as a reasonable being he desires a law, his beastly selfish nature leads him to exempt himself whenever he can. Hence he needs a master who will break his individual will and compel him to obey a generally accepted rule whereby everyone can be free.’

    This is in fact but another form of the ancient and terrible dogma of original sin with its unavoidable conclusion. It is just this which prejudices all freer spirits against Kant. Thus Goethe wrote to Herder: ‘After using a full generation for the cleansing of his philosophic mantle of various foul prejudices, Kant has only defiled it again with the stain of innate evil, in order that Christians, too, may be persuaded to kiss its hem.'”

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      I don’t think it’s very plausible. You can use “ought” in non-moral contexts, as in “You ought to watch your step, buddy” said to threaten someone, and you can also use “must” in moral contexts, as in “You must not steal”. We can use “ought” to describe reasons because reasons are inherently normative. I like the quote about Kant and evil.

  2. Dimitrios Mavridopoulos
    Dimitrios Mavridopoulos says:

    Greetings Dr. Colin Mcginn,

    a long-time admirer of your books here. Have you ever written on the topic of the Lebenswelt, or on the distinction that Sellars proposed between the Scientific and the Manifest Image. As a layman, (a mathematician by training) I’ve found the topic very interesting. Also I’ve wanted to ask you if you share- the late- Roger’s Scruton’s concern, about the effect reductionist/scientistic accounts of human activity and society, have on the way we conceive of ourselves, and therefore on the way we behave.

    Thank you for your time,


    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      Yes, I wrote about the manifest and scientific image in The Subjective View (1983). I am generally opposed to reductionist accounts of human and animal minds, as many philosophers are, though I am less clear about any ill effects on how people behave (except in relation to animals).


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