It's not clear to me why rational beings are objective ends. It certainly seems possible that every rational being could hold itself as an end, but it is by no means the case necessary that they do that.

I am trying to figure out how this all works by contradistinction with that which cannot be objectively valuable. There's this funky little passage right before the Principle of Humanity in Groundwork section 2 (bolding mine):

Things that are preferred have only conditional value, for if the preferences (and the needs arising from them) didn’t exist, their object would be worthless. That wouldn’t count against the 'objects' in question if the desires on which they depend did themselves have unconditional value, but they don’t! If the preferences themselves, as the sources of needs, did have absolute value, one would want to have them; but that is so far from the case that every rational being must wish he were altogether free of them. So the value of any objects to be obtained through our actions is always conditional. Beings whose existence depends not on our will but on nature, if they are not rational beings, have only relative value as means, and are therefore called 'things' [Sachen]; whereas rational beings are called 'persons', because their nature already marks them out as ends in themselves (i.e. as not to be used merely as means)—which makes such a being an object of respect, and something that sets limits to what anyone can choose to do. Such beings are not merely subjective ends whose existence as a result of our action has value for us, but are objective ends, i.e. things [Dinge] whose existence is an end in itself.

As I understand it, objective or absolute value means universal value. And surely there are preferences that could be held by all people, even if they in fact happen not to be.

Why then is the existence of the absolute value of preferences so far from the case that every rational being must wish he were altogether free of them? And what is he talking about, with wishing to be free of them?

2 Answers 2


Part 1: Why can Neigungen not be universal?

I think this comes down to lost in translation.

I refer to the CUP translation of the German-English edition by Timmermann and McGregor, quoting the important part, because it is much closer to the original style and meaning (4:428):

All objects of inclinations have a conditional worth only; for if the inclinations, and the needs founded on them, did not exist, their object would be without worth. But the inclinations themselves, as sources of need, are so far from having an absolute worth - so as to make one wish for them as such - that to be entirely free from them must rather be the universal wish of every rational being. Therefore the worth of any object to be acquired by our action is always conditional.

Now to begin with, my impression is that if we use inclinations [Neigungen] rather than mere preferences, it becomes clearer why it is hard to imagine them as necessary and general, i.e. lawful. It is quite clear that normally, people prefer not to suffer from unbearable pain. It is hard to think of this as an inclination, though.

In my understanding as native speaker and based on how he uses Neigung in the book, it means an intentional, actual longing for an object. That means that aquiring a certain object or state is the determining end of the action. I am not sure whether inclination is understood in the same way by a native speaker of English, but I think that is how it should be understood here.

Now, a universal inclination would mean that there is an object - i.e. a determined thing in the realm of experience - every single action of every single rational being would necessarily include as its end. And as absurd this is generally, for Kant it is even more absurd due to the fact that he very well allows for other rational beings to perceive the world completely different, i.e. they may not even understand our objects as objective or at all, as they represent things differently (he is agnostic towards this possibility, though):

If one adds that, unless one wants to refuse the concept of morality all truth and reference to some possible object, one cannot deny that its law is so extensive in its significance that it must hold not merely for human beings but for all rational beings as such, not merely under contingent conditions and with exceptions, but with absolute necessity; then it is clear that no experience can give occasion to infer even just the possibility of such apodictic laws. For by what right can we bring what is perhaps valid only under the contingent conditions of humanity into unlimited respect, as a universal prescription for every rational nature, and how shall laws of the determination of our will be taken as laws of the determination of the will of a rational being as such and, only as such, for our will as well, if they were merely empirical, and did not originate completely a priori from pure but practical reason? (4:408)

He later explains this differently, i.e. that it is relative because I do only want the action because I want to achieve something different from the action. This means that the action itself does not have absolute worth:

Whether the object determines the will by means of inclination, as with the principle of one's own happiness, or by means of reason directed to objects of our possible willing as such, in the case of the principle of perfection, the will never determines itself immediately, by the representation of the action, but only by an incentive that the anticipated effect of the action has on the will: I ought to do something because I want something else, and here yet another law must be made the foundation in my subject, according to which I necessarily will this something else, and this law in turn re- quires an imperative to limit this maxim. (4:444)

The trick with the Categorical Imperative is that it represents an objective end qua being rational, i.e. every rational being does have this end necessarily in every action. That is why it is universal. And the whole Groundwork, but especially the third section, basically tries to justify this claim.

Part 2: Why do we want to get rid of them, then?

The short answer is: Because we want to be moral and the very concept of what it means to judge morally means that we want it to be universal, i.e. that every rational being has to agree if they think it through.

This is indeed one of the stronger arguments of Kant and the basis of his whole analysis of moral judgements: We indeed, when judgeing morally, do not think of it as a subjective or relative judgement. We think that this is right. We feel that this is how it should be, even though we may err, and that every being in its right mind should agree. The Groundwork merely looks for the conditions under which this kind of judgement would indeed work without incoherences.

The long answer is veeeery long and takes about 20% of the Groundwork, all arguments considered. But the basic idea is that it is respect [Achtung] that makes us feel being of a higher order and transcending the shackles of our ordninary worldliness. Thinking about morality, we realise that we can try to be part of this higher order of absolute value by being rational, and therefore we long for being part of it and being up to what constitutes our dignity, even if we may never achieve it:

Also, these actions [of moral worth, i.e. determined by the Categorical Imperative] need no recommendation from any subjective proclivity or taste to look upon them with immediate favour and delight, from any immediate propensity or feeling for them; they represent the will that performs them as the object of an immediate respect, for which nothing but reason is required to impose them upon the will, not to coax them out of it, which latter would be a contradiction in the case of duties anyway. This estimation thus lets us recognize the worth of such a way of thinking as dignity, and puts it infinitely above any price, with which it cannot be balanced or compared at all without, as it were, violating its sanctity. (4:435)

  • That certainly is a clearer translation, and I wonder if I would have asked this question at all, should I have had my usual book at hand. Unfortunately it also emphasizes virmaior et al's critique of rationality. Eek!
    – Canyon
    Mar 24, 2017 at 15:59
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    Worked it over to be more clear about the second aspect of your question and added quotes...regarding the critique you should have a look at the Religion, 6:23 fn., where he answers to Schiller (famous first critique of his rationalism) that positive feelings are indeed helpful and do not oppose morality, they merely should not determine the action. Furthermore, everything else would lead to a hatred against the law, as it would deny us any joy in life.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Mar 24, 2017 at 16:46
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    Great answer. This clears up the majority of my problems.
    – Canyon
    Mar 24, 2017 at 16:52

It's taking me a bit of concentration to parse your question.

First, you are correct that for Kant the objective and the universal form a set (I'm a bit wary to suggest they are identical).

Second, I think you're misunderstanding Kant's idea of universal when you write:

As I understand it, objective or absolute value means universal value. And surely there are preferences that could be held by all people, even if they in fact happen not to be.

Specifically, Kant's understanding of universal is such that even if everyone had a common preference, it would not be by virtue of that universal. Let's suggest for instance that everyone likes Hawaiian pizza.

To understand why, we merely need to add a few more terms that Kant generally pairs: rational, a priori to universal and objective. For Kant, the universal is rational and objective. Thus, it is knowable a priori, and it does not hinge on a posteriori fact about our world. Consequently, even if it were the case that everyone likes Hawaiian pizza, it would not be the case that this is a universal desire for Kant. Instead, it would be something that is general. (See General vs Universal )

If we clear this up, we are now in a position to look at your question itself. Specifically, we must address why Kant thinks rational beings want to be free of preferences.

Unfortunately, here we need to take a brief detour and mention that I am not going to walk through all of the literature on this. That literature generally falls into two categories.

Some critics of Kant (starting at least with Hegel in Natural Law, Phenomenology of Spirit, and Philosophy of Right and continuing onto the present) generally believe Kant means rational agents should have no desires and thus find it deeply problematic and contrary to the way humans qua animals operate.

Defenders of Kant (in general, but not all) such as Christine Korsgaard, Marcia Baron, Allen Wood, and others, don't place much emphasis on this passage and present a much gentler Kant. In general, these interpretations use areas where Kant seems more sympathetic to incorporating desires and where he seems say the opposite of this passage.

Rae Langton in "Duty and Desolation" proposes something in between that mentions both views.

Skipping all of the literature, I'm going to present a consistent interpretation here but one that is critical.

Kant thinks that we need to be free of desire because the purpose of a rational being is to act rationally -- where rationally means to always determine the maxim of one's actions in accordance with objective universal a priori reason.

On this reading, preference is the enemy of rationality, because preference is never universal (see above) and is never guided by our rational nature (instead it comes from our limited and fallen state as animals -- see Kant's Religion within the Bounds of Reason Alone). Elsewhere, Kant explains that this is no problem for things like angels or God because they lack contingent desires (and in the case of God limited nature).

  • So if something were to be universally valuable, it would not in fact be a mere preference, right?
    – Canyon
    Mar 24, 2017 at 4:23
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    For Kant, if it has universal value, this has nothing to do with preference (mere or not). (Though I must add that Kant might think that rational beings have objective preference [objektiv Gefühl] for what is universally valuable).
    – virmaior
    Mar 24, 2017 at 4:34
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    Isn't the only "objectives Gefühl" respect [Achtung]? I do not get how this could be a preference in the ordinary sense, other than that it is thought as of incomparable higher value than any other feeling, linked to the sublime, i.e. in the sense that it is preferable as being of higher value. But when it becomes a preference, it is action out of interest, i.e. not morally anymore.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Mar 24, 2017 at 17:11
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    I don't think it could be, but some of the contemporary Kantians seem to think it opens the door to much more than I do.
    – virmaior
    Mar 24, 2017 at 21:03

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