The Moral Law Within







The Moral Law Within



Kant famously says: “Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind is drawn to them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” We can take this statement as an expression of moral realism or moral objectivism: Kant is comparing what he calls the moral law to the vast and undeniably real world of the stars and galaxies. If we take the laws that govern these objects to be equally objective, then he is comparing the moral law to the laws of physics with respect to their objectivity. Just as the natural world studied by astronomy is mind-independent, so the world of moral value is mind-independent. And the reason we are awestruck by both is that the realities in question have an objective grandeur to them—a scale and quality that commands admiration. We gaze in wonder at the moral law as we gaze in wonder at the starry heavens.

            But there is a difference between stars and values, according to Kant: stars are “above” me and values are “within” me. These are spatial or quasi-spatial terms: the stars are situated in objective space in a particular relation to human beings on earth, while the moral law is situated within human beings—somewhere on their “insides”. Where exactly, and in what sense of “within”? Not in the lungs or kidneys obviously, but somewhere in the mind—as an aspect of the self or soul, presumably. But now there seems to be a tension in Kant’s position, since locating the moral law in the mind looks like a form of subjectivism or anti-realism. Someone like Hume would be inclined to say that moral principles lie within—precisely because they are reflections of human psychology. They are, or are based on, desires or emotions—feelings of benevolence and the like. Thus they contrast with the starry heavens in respect of mind-independence or objective existence: their being is essentially a psychological being. But that is not what Kant intends to suggest; he seems to be saying that the moral law is both objective and an aspect of the self. Yet it is hard to see how these two claims can be reconciled: how is moral realism to be reconciled with what we can call the “internality thesis”? Shouldn’t Kant have phrased his morally realist sense of awe by describing the moral law as outside of me? If we are thinking of the moral law in a roughly Platonic way—the form of the Good is situated in the same place as other forms—then the mind must be directed outward when it encounters the moral law, not inward. Indeed, it would not be unnatural to speak of the moral law as, like the starry heavens, “above me”.

            It might be replied that Kant was speaking loosely and inaccurately when he located the moral law “within me”—he should have said “the moral law above me” or “the moral law beyond me” or “the moral law outside of me”. Yet no one flinches at his actual choice of words, even if they are convinced moral realists. The moral subjectivist will insist that there is a good reason for the lack of flinching: namely, morality is a subjective and internal matter, not a matter of transcendent Platonic forms, floating in value space like so many glittering celestial objects. The reason we find Kant’s locution so natural, he will say, is precisely that we implicitly reject the realist picture; so Kant is actually being pulled in two directions, his sound instincts clashing with his unsound theory. The question, then, is whether a moral realist can consistently maintain, with Kant, that the moral law is encountered “within”. And that question turns on quite what it means to describe the moral law in that way. Kant himself offers us no further guidance on the question, and it is not an easy question to answer. What notion of internality, if any, is available to a moral realist?

            One possible answer finds no prima facie paradox in a position that combines objectivity with internality: it is not that the moral law itself lies “within”, but that our recognition of it does. Kant misspoke: he should have said “the recognition of the moral law within me”. That is clearly an aspect of my mind, without it following that the moral law itself is an aspect of my mind. We just need to distinguish act from object, here as elsewhere. But in just that sense the starry heavens are within me, since my recognition of them is—our perceptions of them and our thoughts about them. Kant is not merely suggesting that both stars and values are objects of inner mental acts; he clearly supposes that the moral law itself is found within, not just our apprehension of it. And the question is what this means, and how it might be rendered consistent with moral realism.

            Another suggestion might be that Kant holds that all objects of human knowledge are “within”, because of his transcendental idealism. Thus it follows from his general philosophy that the moral law (the “phenomenal” moral law) resides within the mind. But in that sense the starry heavens are also within, since they too are phenomenal objects; only noumenal objects are genuinely “without”—but we know nothing of them. This suggestion fails to register the contrast that Kant is assuming: the stars are “above” and exterior, while the moral law is “within” and interior. He is not assuming that the stars, in addition to being above us, are also within us, in just the sense in which the moral law is said to be within us. The moral law is within us in a sense much stronger than the sense of “within” sanctioned by transcendental idealism.

            I think Kant is right to describe the moral law as within us, and I also accept a version of moral realism; so for me the conundrum is real, not just exegetical. Kant is here simply following a long tradition of reflection about morality, enshrined in religious thought. Let me simplify all this by saying that the tradition views the commandments of the moral law as the voice of God emanating from within us. We have something called a “conscience” and that faculty speaks to us in the form of an inner voice, which is the displaced voice of God. It is as if God has left a tape-recording of his commandments in the human soul. It is not that God speaks to us from the outside, as another human person would, because then the moral law would not be presented to us inwardly—God is as much outside and above us as the starry heavens. But there is, according to religious tradition, a kind of divine homunculus that inhabits our inner recesses—the “still, small voice of conscience”. Here we have a religious interpretation of a phenomenological datum—the sense we have that moral dictates issue from within. It feels as if morality somehow wells up inside us, not as if it is imposed by an external source. This sense is not consistent with many theories of the origin and nature of morality: that morality arises from parental authority (Freud), that it arises from “social conditioning” (behaviorist psychology and most twentieth century thought), that it is God speaking to us from on high through the anointed priesthood (many world religions). Instead, as Kant intimates, we encounter the moral law within our own given being: it somehow exists inside us—yet it objectively exists. The question is how to make sense of this. The idea of the inner moral voice seeks to do justice to the phenomenology of moral sensibility, by conceptualizing moral requirements as inner speech (perhaps speech uttered in grave and portentous tones). Think of the Ten Commandments resonating sonorously in your head—that is the sound made by the moral law within.

            But that story and its theological basis reek of myth and pseudo-explanation: we don’t always, or even often, hear such an inner voice, and even if we did why should we take it seriously? Still, I think it works to make concrete a very elusive concept, though admittedly it isn’t much of a theory. Can we do better? What about exploiting the idea that the moral law inherently provides reasons for action? The starry heavens do not motivate us to do anything, but moral norms do—they are intrinsically action-guiding. But then they must exist within us in the form of reasons we have for doing things. To recognize a moral principle (e.g. “You should keep your promises”) is to have a reason to act, to be motivated, to have a particular psychological propensity. So in encountering the moral law we encounter reasons for action, and reasons are “within” us, an aspect of the self. These are objective reasons, because the moral law is itself objective, but they are still reasons, and hence psychological entities. The sense in which the moral law is within us is therefore just that it prescribes reasons for action, and reasons exist within us—they are part of our psychology.

            That seems on the right track, but it is not satisfactory as it stands. First, are the moral reasons that the moral law prescribes really within us? If reasons are identified with facts, then reasons need not be psychological entities. Aren’t objective moral reasons, construed as moral facts, non-psychological things? If a reason to bring about X is that X is good (it is a fact that X is good), that reason is not subjective, granted moral objectivism. The reasons may be “external” reasons: they are simply moral facts. So appealing to the concept of a moral reason does not by itself yield an appropriately strong notion of internality. Second, is that what Kant means when he speaks of the moral law as within—merely that it is reason-providing? Doesn’t he mean something stronger, whatever exactly that is? But if so, we have not captured his intended meaning. Third, would we want to say the same thing about “the prudential law”, i.e. prescriptions for self-regarding good living? Do we marvel at the prudential law within us that instructs us to be moderate in our consumption of food, or to get a good night’s sleep, or to keep our mouth shut when we have nothing worthwhile to say? These prescriptions provide prudential reasons for action, and hence connect to our motivational psychology, but do we find ourselves speaking of “the prudential law within”? They just seem like useful rules of thumb we have picked up from experience, not self-evident normative principles that present themselves to us inwardly. We have no special reverence for such prudential rules and do not regard them as written into our inner being in the way Kant is claiming for the moral law.

            Can we gain any illumination by comparing our grasp of the moral law to other kinds of non-empirical knowledge? Kant contrasts morality with astronomy, but we can also contrast mathematics and logic with astronomy—and reverence for these subjects, and hence our capacity to grasp them, is traditional. What if Kant was more of a Platonist—could he plausibly speak of awe for the mathematical law we find within us? Certainly, mathematical reality is not where the starry heavens are—up in the sky—and so one place to put it is inside the mind. But that smacks unmistakably of mathematical subjectivism—it is precisely the kind of thing that someone committed to psychologism would say. It isn’t what would come naturally to a mathematical realist. And is it part of the folk phenomenology of mathematics? I don’t think so: we don’t warm to the idea that mathematics is within us, as we do with the case of morality. So there is no prima facie conflict to resolve between mathematical realism and a robust intuition of internality, such as find with moral realism. We don’t in the mathematical case find ourselves wanting to say that realism is true and so is internality.

            I think we see the beginnings of an answer to our puzzle by noting that we are essentially moral beings. Descartes argued that we are essentially thinking beings, plausibly enough; well, let us add that we are always thinking moral thoughts—thoughts about right and wrong, good and bad. I venture to suggest that we probably have more moral thoughts a day than thoughts of any other kind: we are always mulling over moral issues, making moral judgments, trying to solve moral problems. Morality features dominantly in our art and literature, in our politics, and in our ordinary conversation. Other animals are not similarly preoccupied, being blissfully free of moral concerns. And not only are we moral beings through and through; we are also conscious of being moral beings. We think of ourselves as moral beings. We may even take particular pride in our moral stature, and on occasion be ashamed of our moral shortcomings, which are exercises of moral self-consciousness. What we cannot do is ignore our moral status. We exist in a space of moral reasons. Our psychology is a moral psychology.

Here is where talk of the soul enters: the soul is conceived as the locus of our moral status—our moral core. We speak of a person as having a good soul or a bad soul, or sometimes no soul at all. The soul is, of course, within us, as within us as it gets. But it doesn’t yet follow that the moral law is within us—unless the moral law is itself within the soul. The soul might merely apprehend the moral law, while standing ontologically apart from it. What we need, evidently, is some way to bring the moral law into the soul, if we are to find it within us. How do we do that? My suggestion is this: the soul is formed by the moral law. That is, the soul is that part of us that is shaped and constituted by the moral law, to a greater or lesser degree. Let me give an analogy: the way material objects are shaped and constituted by the laws of nature. Natural laws are written into the inner nature of things, making them what they are. We cannot separate objects from the laws that govern them—the laws are “within” the objects, not distinct existences. By analogy, moral laws make souls what they are—specifically, their degree of goodness or virtue. When a person has a virtuous soul he or she instantiates the moral law—for example, the person is committed to keeping his or her promises. So if you examine your soul, you will find the moral law abiding there (to one degree or another): the very idea of the soul is just the idea of a repository of moral value—what gives us moral worth. It makes no sense to speak of looking into one’s soul and not finding one’s moral status inscribed there. We invented the idea of the soul in order to speak of our moral psychology. The moral law, like the laws of nature, is not confined to particular souls (or objects), but exists apart from them; yet it determines their identity in the sense that there is no conception of a soul that is morally neutral—the soul is by definition the bearer of one’s moral status. We have no conception of the soul that is not defined by reference to the moral law.

            Thus the soul is within us and the moral law is constitutive of the soul. Hence we are confronted, as self-conscious beings, with the moral law in our innermost self. In so far as we conscious of ourselves as beings with souls, we find the moral law within, because that’s what a soul is. The nature of the stars is constituted by the laws of physics and astronomy; the nature of the soul is constituted by moral laws (principles, rules, prescriptions). For example, the law that one should keep one’s promises governs the soul of a virtuous person. This, I think, is what Kant was driving at: we marvel at the moral law within because the moral law animates and determines the nature of the soul, and the soul is incontrovertibly within. It is not that the moral law is itself subjective or psychological; rather, it exists independently of us but enters into an aspect of human beings—the aspect we call the soul. Thus we reconcile the objectivity of the moral law with our ability to encounter it by looking inwards. By contrast, no part of our mind is constituted by the laws of astronomy or even by the laws of arithmetic. There is no analogue of the soul for these subjects. We simply know about these domains, without their fixing what we essentially are. To put it differently, we need to be externalists about the relationship between the soul and the moral law: the nature of the soul is beholden to the external existence of the moral law. The former incorporates the latter, since the soul is conceived by reference to the moral law (i.e. virtue and vice).

            There is, however, another aspect of our nature that is genuinely analogous to the soul and the moral law—the aspect we call “reason”. Consider logical laws—the prescriptive principles that define valid reasoning. These are inherent in thought, and there is no conception of thought independently of them. They are constitutive of thought, in the externalist sense. Yet they are also objective, not subjective. Not only are we logical beings; we are conscious of ourselves as logical beings—and we assess ourselves that way. Here objective norms enter into the nature of psychological capacities—thoughts are things that stand in logical relations—without their being psychological. Imagine Aristotle or Frege reflecting on the magnificence of logic and announcing that nothing creates so much awe in them as the starry heavens above and the logical law within. To my ear that sounds like perfectly acceptable English, and I conceptually resonate to it. We do encounter logical laws within ourselves, because logical laws are written into our thought processes internally. Reasoning is inherently subject to logical evaluation, to objective normative assessment; and we obey logical laws, at least most of the time. Thus there is no sense in the idea of a faculty of reason that is logically neutral—though we can conceive of a faculty of reason that is astronomically or even mathematically neutral. Reason and logic are analogous to the soul and morality: both involve inextricable relations between the psychological and the objectively normative. These relations ground our readiness to speak of logical laws and moral laws as “within”. They are incorporated into our inner landscape in the classic externalist style: parts of the objective world come to characterize our inner states.

            This, then, is how we can reconcile the internality thesis with moral realism—just the way we can reconcile logical realism with an internality thesis. The norms are not themselves internal or psychological—they transcend individual minds—but they enter into minds in constitutive ways, and can thus be detected there. This is really just another way of saying that we are essentially moral beings, as well as essentially logical beings. But we are not essentially starry beings or number beings—these are just external things that we have the capacity to think about. We can truly say that stars, numbers, logical rules, and moral values exist “outside” of us, since they are not mind-dependent; but we can say only of the last two that they also exist “within” us, since they fix an aspect of our psychological nature. A creature cannot be said to have a soul or a faculty of reason if it does not exemplify moral or logical norms; but soul and reason do not depend upon the existence of stars or numbers. The truths of history or geography are not found within, but the truths of morality and logic are, because soul and reason are inextricably bound up with those truths. Logical and moral truths are within us because we are essentially rational ethical beings, though we are not essentially astronomical or mathematical beings.

            I am conscious of myself as a rational and ethical being, subject to normative assessment. This means that I grasp various logical and ethical principles, and try to conform to them, succeeding to a greater or lesser degree. There is no sense in the idea that I might be aware of myself in these ways and have no understanding of logical or moral laws. Thus I encounter both types of law in acts of self-reflection, especially if (as Kant says) my reflection is frequent and intense; and so we may say that I encounter them within myself. The Kantian contrast with knowledge of the starry heavens above is therefore quite correct, and also not incompatible with a stoutly objectivist view of both logic and morality.


Colin McGinn

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