The Metaphysics of Morals, Kant

Bryn Horner
4 min readNov 11, 2020

Kant begins on page 331 with the right to punish- also known as the right a ruler has against a subject to inflict pain upon someone because they committed a crime. Therefore, the head of state cannot be punished because they are responsible for the punishment. Kant separates crimes between private and public- private crimes in civil court and public crimes in criminal court. Private crimes are those that can be detected. Public crimes are those that “endanger the commonwealth and not just an individual person” (331). Kant continues to claim that in order to be punished, one must be punishable first.

Once someone is deemed punishable, a question follows: what is an acceptable punishment? Kant continues with the idea that “whatever undeserved evil you inflict upon another within the people, that you inflict upon yourself” (332). For example, if you steal from someone, you steal from yourself. This is because once you steal, you create a sense of insecurity in society. The result of this is that everyone in society does not feel secure about the safety of their preoperty. This is under the principle of retirbution. To punish the person who stole, their punishment must be decided by the court. This punishment, according to Kant, should be given in proportion to their “inner wickedness” (334). An example given is the death penalty. This can be given to those who commit murder or commit a crime against the state that can only be punishable by death. This continues into the idea of the death penalty. If two people commit a crime, and are allowed to choose their punishment of either convict labor or death, Kant describes that the man of honor will choose death. This is because they live for something more important than life. The scoundrel, however, would choose convict labor, assuming they would rather live a life of shame than not live one at all. The conflict here is that, since committing the same crime, you would assume an equal punishment. However, an equal punishment of death would ultimately be unfair. The man of honor would receive his desired punishment whereas the scoundrel would receive an undesirable punishment, therefore making his punishment worse. This works in the vise versa scenario as well. Kant concludes that in a case of two or more criminals, the best equal punishment is that of death.

Therefore, if every accomplice faces the death penalty- what happens when too many subjects are facing this sentence? There would be no subjects left. The result of this is a state of nature or the sovereign state to serve as a judge and provide an alternate punishment such as deportation.

In his writing, Kant refers to Marchese Beccarias idea of capital punishment being wrongful. This is because not everyone agrees to be involved in this. In order to invoke capital punishment, it would need to be in an original civil contract in which all citizens are aware that they will receive this punishment in return for committing a crime of murder. Kant offers a rebuttal to this stating that the criminal willed a punishable action, and therefore has willed an equal punishment.

Kant notes that there are two crimes deserving of death yet through legislation do not seem to be punishable by the death penalty. These offenses are a mother murdering her child and a murder of a fellow soldier in duel. In these two cases, society enters a state of nature. The child is outside the law of the state, and the soldier was aware that he was collaboratively exposing himself to death. In the categorical imperative of penal justice, if you kill, you should receive the death penalty. Legislatively, however, is “responsible for the discrepancy between the incentives of honor in the people (subjectively) and the measures that are (objectively) suitable for its purpose” (337).

Kant argues that the failure to punish is the greatest wrong of society. The only time in which punishment can be avoided is when the crime is done against the the ruler, the punisher. He, in return, can grant clemency to only crimes against him. The final question is: does punishment matter so long at it is effective in getting rid of crime? Or must we take humanity into account?

In my view, Kant makes interesting points. I agree that people are worthy of crime; however, not the death penalty. Although it may be controversial, the death penalty may be used against the most heinous of criminals. An interesting idea I thought of during this was, if most crimes had the punishment of the death penalty and all citizens were aware, would it eradicate crime? If we disregarded humanity and fairness, would we have a crime free society? Or would the crime just be a violation of justice? Let me know what you think!

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