Kant: Metaphysics of Morals

Gabrielle Johansson
2 min readNov 11, 2020

Type 1

Kant, in his work on the Metaphysics of Morals, distinguishes between two types of crimes: private which are those committed against individuals and public which are those committed against the commonwealth (140). Kant says that “the principle of punishment is a categorical imperative,” meaning that it should not be viewed in a utilitarian light which falters morally because it would accept the saying of “it is better for one man to die than for an entire population to perish” (141). There should be a categorical imperative in law that can universalize punishment. In addition, Kant seems to believe that the more utilitarian approach to punishment cheapens the value of justice. He says, “if justice goes, there is no longer any value in men’s living on the earth” (141).

Kant then proceeds to ask himself which principle could dictate the principle of punishment and therefore best serve the purposes of and uphold the virtue of justice. He says that the idea of retribution — stemming from an understanding of equality — should guide the motives of punishment. Kant says that “only the law of retribution … can specify definitely the quality and the quantity of punishment” (141). In a crudely simplistic sense, this is kind of like the philosophy of “an eye for an eye.” Kant says that in essence, to commit a crime against a neighbor is like committing a crime against oneself: “whatever undeserved evil you inflict upon another within the people, that you inflict upon yourself” (141). In other words, the crime committed against others is reflected by the punishment inflicted against the wrongdoer. In the case of murder and the death sentence, Kant says, “This fitting of punishment to the crime, which can occur only by a judge imposing the death sentence in accordance with the strict law of retribution, is shown by the fact that only by this is a sentence of death pronounced on every criminal in proportion to his inner wickedness” (142).

To answer the question of this week’s module: “What ends can we try to achieve by punishing those responsible for criminalized behavior?” Kant would answer that a retributive understanding of punishment would best fit the frame of his desired end of retributive justice. In other words, to Kant, retributivism is the best way to ensure the end of justice and answer this question.

Kant, Immanuel. The Metaphysics of Morals. 1991. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.