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Project Topic: A Critical Appraisal of the Elements of Necessity and Universality in Kant’s Ethical Theory




The Socratic dictum: “An unexamined life is not worth living”, saw the emergence of a branch of philosophy which seeks to establish the supreme principle of morality. Thereafter, philosophers began to make propositions concerning this fundamental principle of morality. These postulations on the supreme principle of morality coagulated into what is generally known as ethical theories. Among the philosophers who intended to establish the supreme principle of morality in their philosophy was Immanuel Kant. In the preface to the Grounding for the metaphysics of morals, Kant wrote:  The present Grounding (Grundlegung) is, however, intended for nothing more than seeking out and establishing the supreme principle of morality.[1]

The main point which Kant wishes to make is that ‘the basis of obligation must not be sought in human nature or in the circumstances of the world in which he (man) is placed, but a priori simply in the concepts of pure reason’. He was really concerned with finding in reason itself the basis of the a priori element in the moral judgement, the element which makes possible the synthetic a priori propositions of morals. It means finding the ultimate source of the principles of moral law in reason considered in itself without reference to specifically human conditions. Kant obviously parts company with all moral philosophers who try to find the ultimate basis of the moral law in human nature as such or in any feature of human nature or in any factor in human life or society. In the Critique of Practical Reason, Kant refers to Montaigne as founding morality on education, to Epicurus as founding it on man’s physical feeling, to Mandeville as founding it on political constitution (legal system), to Hutcheson as founding it on man’s moral feelings. According to him, these “are all empirical and evidently incapable of furnishing the universal principle of morality; but (“perfection” and “the will of God”)[2] …are based on reason”[3]. Prior to Kant, Denis Diderot (1713-1784) was profoundly troubled by his inability to establish morality on a rational foundation. He, however, devoted years of effort to the establishment of morality on rational foundations; he never wrote on the subject: I have not even dared to write the first line; …. I do not feel equal to this sublime work; I have uselessly consecrated my whole life to it[4]

Indeed, it was in this spirit that Kant wrote his first critique and established the limits of knowledge “in order to make room for faith.”[5] It was in this spirit that Kant sought not to discover or invent morality, but to complete that “sublime work” which Diderot found beyond his powers – that is, “to seek and establish the supreme principle of morality,” and to ensure that the laws of practical reason have “access to the human mind and an influence on its maxims.”[6] Therefore, the central project of Kant in his moral philosophy is to solve the problem framed by Diderot: (a) Diderot was concerned to establish morality on a rational basis. (b) Diderot was concerned in philosophy making “more good men than sufficient or efficacious grace”. However, in a bid to come up with a precise statement of the principle or principles on which all our ordinary moral judgements are based, Kant argued that moral requirements are based on a standard of rationality he dubbed the “Categorical Imperative”. The categorical imperative, according to him, is the supreme or fundamental principle of morality and it is the law of an autonomous will. Like the synthetic a priori judgements, Kant claimed that the categorical imperative “contains the marks of necessity and universality”[7].


Having given a brief historical background and development of the problem, it is my onerous task in this project to expose to an extent, the elements of necessity and universality in Kant’s ethical theory as well as laying bare the criticisms that tend to dislodge them. Therefore, the four chapters of this essay are constructively designed to meet this end.


As a philosophical work, the relevance of the problem in philosophical discourse is that it toes the line of philosophers in every epoch and thus could be useful to the contemporary philosophy of our age. In conformity with the status quo, my project is just a continuation of what was triggered by the ancient philosophers. Philosophy, as a discipline began as an attempt to expose the major tenets of Homer and Hesiod so as to ascertain whether or not they measured up to their claims of providing answers to the origin of things in the world. After critical scrutiny, the Ionian philosophers found these claims[8] unsatisfactory and illogical. Thales was the first Ionian philosopher who set the ball rolling in this direction. He limited philosophy to an investigation on the fundamental principle of existence. However, Thales’ postulation[9] concerning this fundamental principle was rejected by his successors who nevertheless agreed on the principle task of philosophy as an inquiry into ‘what is’. Consequently, philosophers down the ages began to follow this method of critical appraisal. It is a method whereby the philosophers would expose the views of their predecessors so as to affirm and deny certain views in order to build on their own views. It is a method which Karl Popper, a philosopher of science called “conjectures and refutations”. To buttress my point concretely, Aristotle’s philosophy would be an instance. Aristotle developed his own views after being exposed to the views of Plato. Aristotle’s work was a critical appraisal of Plato’s views in the sense that he accepted some of Plato’s views, criticized some and then posited his own views as a response. On another instance, the medieval philosophers such as Augustine, Anselm, Avicenna, Averroes, Maimonides, Thomas Aquinas, built their views on the views of Plato and Aristotle. Likewise, my project is an attempt to shed light on Kant’s ethical theory so as to expose the elements of “necessity and universality” embedded in it. However, it is not geared towards building my own views. Rather, it is an evaluation of Kant’s ethical theory together with the criticisms of other philosophers. Its relevance is then to find justification for Kant’s views on ethics as a means of the evaluation of human actions. Therefore, the relevance of the problem in philosophical discourse can never be overemphasized because without the method of critical appraisal, philosophy as a discipline would not have developed to this extent.

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Project Topic: A Critical Appraisal of the Elements of Necessity and Universality in Kant’s Ethical Theory

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[1] Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the metaphysics of morals(3rd edition) translated by James W. Ellington,

Indianapolis/Cambridge, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1993, p.5

[2] The stoics founded morality on the idea of inner perfection. Christian Wolff founded it on the will of God

[3] Kant, Critique of Practical Reason,  Robert Maynard Hutchins (editor), Great Books of the Western

   World.( vol 42. Kant),  Chicago, Encyclopaedia Britannica,Inc, 1952, p.307.

[4] Denis Diderot, Oeuvres Completes (20 vols), Becker, Heavenly City, p. 8o. This incitation was quoted in

Foundations of ethics (vol.4), Leroy S. Rouner (ed), University of Notre Dame Press, Indiana. 1983.

[5] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, N. Kemp Smith (translator), London, Macmillan, 1929, P.29.

[6] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason and other writings in Moral Philosophy, trans. Lewis White

Beck, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1949, p.249.

[7]Kant quoted in Samuel Enoch Stumpf, Philosophy: History and problems (6th edition), New York,

McGraw-Hills Higher Education, 2003, p.287.

[8]  Homer describes the scene of Mount Olympus, where the gods pursued lives very similar to that of their

human counterparts on earth. This poetic view of the world also depicted ways in which the gods intruded

into people’s affairs. Hesiod removed from the gods all capriciousness and instead ascribed to them a

moral consistency. For Hesiod, the universe is a moral order, and from this idea it is a short step to say,

without any reference to the gods, that there is an impersonal force controlling the structure of the

universe and regulating its process of changes.

[9]Thales assumed that some single element, some “stuff”, a stuff which contained its own principle of

action or change, lay at the foundation of all physical reality. To him this One, or the stuff, is water.


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