Schopenhauer finds Kant’s idea that moral laws exist a priori and are knowable “independent of all inner and outer experience ‘resting simply on concepts of pure reason’” without any empirical basis. He pointed out that Kant rejected the very idea that morality might be bound up in consciousness and connected to natural feelings “peculiar to human nature, which would give morality an empirical grounding. Kant is very clear on this point. In the Foundation of the Metaphysics of Morals, he writes that moral law
must not be sought in man’s nature (the subjective) or in the circumstances of the world (tile objective)…here nothing whatever can be borrowed from knowledge relating to man, i.e., from anthropology...indeed we must not take it into our heads to try to derive the reality of our moral principle from the particular constitution of human nature.
What we are left with, argued Schopenhauer, is an ethics that exists a priori of human experience and which is “entirely abstract, wholly insubstantial, and likewise floating about entirely in air.”
So, if morality is not found in human nature but, rather, exists a priori and independent of human nature, what compels someone to be moral? Kant says one acts in a morally responsible way because of “[t]he feeling that it is incumbent on man to obey the moral law…from a sense of duty, not from voluntary inclination. Kant specifically dismisses feelings as a basis for morality.
Feelings of compassion and of tenderhearted sympathy would even be a nuisance to those thinking on the right lines, because they would throw into confusion their well-considered maxims and provoke the desire to be released from these, and to be subject only to legislative reason.
Schopenhauer finds Kant’s categorical imperative unpersuasive. Human beings simply don’t act in a disinterested, moral way, because of a duty to uphold an a priori moral code. Unless, that is, there is some reward or punishment attached. On a closer examination of Kant’s categorical imperative, Schopenhauer concluded that it sounded an awful lot like a theological ethics absent God’s presence. After all, the Abrahamic religions are based on God’s Ten Commandants, an a priori moral code handed down by God that exists independent of human nature but is expected to be obeyed because God wills it.
Schopenhauer argues that the moral code that accompanies theological consciousness is purely prescriptive. If human nature is “fallen,” as the Abrahaimic religions suggest, then there is no moral basis within an individual’s being that would predispose him to do the morally right thing. God’s commandments, therefore, are a prescriptive device telling human beings that this is the way they “ought” to behave if they are to be rewarded by God’s grace and not punished by his wrath. But if there is nothing in the biological nature of a human being that would predispose him to be morally good, then why would he choose to do so out of pure duty to some a priori existing moral code, as Kant suggest, especially when there is no reward for doing so or punishment for not.
What Schopenhauer is really saying here is that Kant is attempting to offer a moral defense for the Age of Reason using a prescriptive device borrowed from the Age of Faith. In the end, concludes Schopenhauer, Kant fails to show how reason alone, as an abstract idea, can be the basis of a moral ethic.
The question then becomes whether there is any other source within the human animal itself that might be the basis of morality. Can we describe some quality of human behavior that predisposes people to be moral so that we don’t run the risk of having to slip from what is to what ought to be famous is/ought gap? If we can’t find such a predisposition burrowed deep in the nature of human beings, then the only way to save morality is to journey back to an earlier theological consciousness and view morality as always prescriptive and never descriptive.
After deconstructing Kant’s categorical imperative, Schopenhauer offers a detailed description of moral behavior that he argues is embedded in the very sinew of human nature—with the qualification that it needs to be brought out and nurtured by society if it is to be fully realized. He argues that “compassion” is at the core of our human nature. Here’s how he describes the phenomenon. In feeling compassion for another,
I suffer directly with him, I feel his woe just as I ordinarily feel only my own; and, likewise, I directly desire his weal in the same way I otherwise desire my own…At every moment we remain clearly conscious that he is the sufferer, not we; and it is precisely in his person, not in ours, that we feel the suffering, to our grief and sorrow. We suffer with him and hence him; we feel his pain as his, and do not imagine that it is ours.
In this single statement Schopenhauer becomes the first person in history to clearly define the empathic process. All that is missing is the term itself.