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The Metaphysics of Morals.

The thesis that every translation is an interpretation, fraught with an unavoidable indeterminancy, is never more obvious than when a translator is faced with some sinuous, systematically rich term in the original language that, from context to context, cannot, salva significatione, be translated with the same word in the destination language. Such is the case in Kant's use of the key term Recht in his Die Metaphysik der Sitten. Like the Latin jus, Recht may stand for a law or a right. In addition, Kant employs the word Gesetz in the sense of a law or principle and there is also a significant use of the term Rechtgesetz. The matter is further complicated by the fact that while Kant clearly distinguishes between natural and positive "law" and corresponding "rights" (pp. 62-3), it is not always clear from the context which sense of Recht he has in mind.

Gregor masterfully meets these challenges by consistently translating Recht as "Right" where she understands it to stand for a law or system of laws and principles. For example, in the opening paragraph of the introduction to the Doctrine of Right, every instance of Gesetz is translated as "law," while the Lehre des positiven Rechts and the naturliche Rechtslehre are translated respectively as "the doctrine of positive Right" and "the doctrine of natural Right." By contrast, Gregor quite appropriately translates das angeborene Recht as "the innate right"; so too God is said to have no duties but only "rights" (Rechte). There are passages, to be sure, where a decision to translate Recht as "Right" instead of a "right" or vice versa can be questioned. Precisely by informing readers of this strategy, however, Gregor facilitates a more critical reading of Kant's text and more fruitful discussion about its significance.

A new, complete translation of Kant's The Metaphysics of Morals has been sorely needed for years (the Hastie translation of the first part, reprinted in 1952 and 1974, dates from 1887; the Ladd edition is almost thirty years old). More than meeting this need, Gregor's conscientious translation deserves superlatives for its accuracy, clarity, and consistency, and for being such a good read while still capturing the inimitable style of Kant's German. The translation also lists the corresponding pages of the standard Academy edition by Natorp (volume 6) in the margins. The translation would have been enhanced by a glossary; in both the introduction and the helpful notes Gregor might have given her readers more indication of the major influences on Kant's doctrines of right and virtue. Yet these are quibbles. Legal scholars on both sides of the Atlantic as well as students of Kant's ethical and political thought will be helped immeasurably by Gregor's achievement.

Gregor's Introduction should not be overlooked. Focusing on a central difficulty in Kant's moral theory, namely, the meaning of autonomy or "the relation of the will to itself," Gregor provides readers with an admirably succinct account of the moral doctrine articulated in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) and the Critique of Practical Reason (1788) in order to clarify what was left to be accomplished in The Metaphysics of Morals (1797). She also suggests that the precise makeup of the Metaphysics of Morals, though envisioned by Kant, was far from evident to him when he composed the Groundwork.

Gregor argues quite plausibly that for Kant the notion of obligation inherent in the concept of moral law involves a distinction between a moral agent's will and his capacity for free choice. Much more clearly than in his earlier moral writings, The Metaphysics of Morals develops the latter notion; indeed, "the act of free choice in general" is deemed the highest concept in the metaphysics of morals (p. 46n). Whereas the Groundwork aims to show that the moral law cannot be derived from ends based upon inclination, it also clearly indicates that this law is to be applied to such ends or, more exactly, "maxims of choice." The articulation of this application of the moral law or the idea of a pure will (Wille as pure practical reason) to the capacity of choice (Willkur) generates the metaphysics of morals. "Applied to the capacity for choice with respect to its objects," Gregor writes, "the will gives rise to laws enabling us to put different kinds of objects to use--that is, determining what rights we have or can acquire--and laws prescribing what ends we ought to set for ourselves--that is, what virtues or moral dispositions we ought to acquire" (p. 7). Both parts of The Metaphysics of Morals are thus devoted to articulating the way in which the application of the moral law to the capacity of choice secures the freedom to exercise that capacity: the "outer" freedom from compulsions by others (rights) and the "inner" freedom from one's inclinations (virtues).

As Gregor rightly emphasizes in her Introduction, an adequate interpretation of Kant's moral philosophy can ill afford to neglect The Metaphysics of Morals, his final, most mature reflection on ethics and the systematic outcome of his critique of practical reason. Kant, who was no newcomer to legal theory (see the work of Busch cited in Gregor's bibliography), develops a distinctive system of rights on the foundations of his moral philosophy. He grounds positive law in Natural Right, limiting the former to actions capable of affecting others, and he explains both the moral authority to use of coercion and the necessity of a civil condition. His account of Private Right justifies the use of the concept of possession as a prelude to the elaboration of property rights, contract rights, and domestic rights.

This effort to articulate the moral foundation of law is also evident throughout Kant's account of Public Right. Establishing universal and lasting peace constitutes "the entire final end of the doctrine of Right within the limits of reason alone," Kant claims, since peace is "the only condition in which what is mine and what is yours are secured under laws for a multitude of men living in proximity to one another, and therefore under a constitution." Yet this condition cannot be derived from experience, "but must, rather, be derived a priori by reason from the ideal of a rightful association of men under public laws as such" (p. 161). Jaspers may have exaggerated when he claimed that Kant's philosophy is essentially political, but the first part of The Metaphysics of Morals indicates just how intimate Kant conceived the relations between the moral and the political order to be.

In the second part of The Metaphysics of Morals, Kant turns from the political implications of his moral philosophy to its implications for questions of character. The Doctrine of Virtue is concerned not with single actions capable of being mandated by external law, but with dispositions to live up to obligations "even without regard for possible external lawgiving" (p. 211). Virtue is defined as "the moral strength of a man's will in fulfilling his duty, a moral constraint through his own lawgiving reason, insofar as this constitutes itself an authority executing the law" (p. 206). The specifics of the doctrine turn once again on the categorical imperative. "Kant's procedure is to begin with ends that we would adopt merely on the basis of inclination and submit our maxims of pursuing such ends to the test of whether they could qualify for a giving of universal law" (p. 23).

Kant's metaphysics of morals is beset with formidable difficulties, some noted by Gregor in her introduction. As in the case of the other half of the Kantian system (the metaphysics of nature), the transition from the transcendental philosophy to its corresponding metaphysics, given the empirical assumption essential to the latter, is highly problematic. For example, one need not have socialist proclivities to wonder about the justification of property in terms of the categorical imperative. Questions also remain about the connection between rights and virtues. Yet these difficulties, while couched in Kant's own ethical deliberations, are not peculiar to them. Thanks to Gregor's excellent translation of The Metaphysics of Morals, it is now possible for English readers to appreciate just how Kant wrestled with these issues.
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Author:Dahlstrom, Daniel
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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