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Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals

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The Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals (Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, 1785) is a work by Immanuel Kant meant to establish the fundamental rational and a priori basis for morality.

Explanation Edit

From this work, one could go on to establish what is morally permissible and what is morally obligatory. Kant's substantive moral positions can be found in other works (e.g. the Metaphysics of Morals).

The Categorical Imperative Edit

The above non-contradiction test is also called the Categorical Imperative test, and is the centerpiece of the Groundwork. This, although superficially similar to the Golden Rule, is not equivalent to it: there are certain ways people can or cannot be treated, no matter how you feel about it. Even if you loathe yourself and think others can (or should) treat you badly, you are not, then, justified in treating others badly. Another example: if I don't mind being lied to, then the Golden Rule implies that lying to others is acceptable. The Categorical Imperative shows this cannot be; there is a deep flaw in the Golden Rule, one corrected by insisting that actions must be universalizable to be moral, by insisting that morality is not merely a matter of preference or taste.

Kant further expanded these ideas in later works, including the Second Critique (aka the Critique of Practical Reason, 1788), the Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793), and the Metaphysic of Morals, (1797).


In establishing the a priori, rational basis for morality, Kant uses the notion of a maxim. A maxim is a succinct formulation of a fundamental principle, general truth, or rule of conduct. Morally permissible behavior is then determined by the universalisation of that maxim - what if everyone were to behave the same way, given these circumstances, according to this maxim? If everyone could act according to the maxim, without moral contradiction, and without exception in any case, then the behavior is morally permissible. However, if everyone behaved in this fashion and a contradiction occurs, that is the behavior is not self consistent, then the behavior is immoral.

To put the point another way: if one's subjective maxim cannot be universalized as a moral law (cf. a law of nature, one that we have no choice but to follow), then it is impermissible.

Examples, From the Abstract to the Concrete Edit

Kant uses the same four examples throughout the Groundwork: 1) that of someone sick of life, contemplating suicide, 2) that of someone wanting to tell a lying promise so as to secure a loan (one he does not intend to repay), 3) that of someone inclined to waste some special talent she has, and 4) that one might be devoid of altruistic feeling. Moreover, in 'On A Supposed Right to Lie because of Philanthropic Concerns,' we get an example that argues for an absolute prohibition against lying -- even if it is likely to lead to another's death. We may adapt and modify some of his examples below.

Lying Edit

Is lying immoral? Let us determine if this behavior is immoral, according to Kant's contradiction test: If the behavior leads to a contradiction (is internally incoherent or cannot be willed by an agent) then the behavior is immoral.

Lies only work in an overall environment of truthfulness. One still wants everyone else to tell the truth, since if everyone else were to lie then no one would believe anything anyone said, and lies would no longer be effective. Thus, we cannot will that our subjective maxim of lying be universalized without self-contradiction; if everyone were to do it then the behavior would not work. Thus, in this system lying is immoral. Good intentions must be practiced to pursue a general end of happiness.

Proof of the Moral LawEdit

To follow Enlightenment style, Kant must begin by proving that morality exists. He does quickly, simply stating, “That there must be such a philosophy is already obvious from the common Idea of duty and from the laws of morality.” [1] In other words, a universal moral law must exist because we universally imagine a universal moral law to exist; we would not all agree it exists if there were not a moral law within us that we are observing.

Common Sense of DutyEdit

Kant explains that nothing "can be taken as good without qualification, except a good will." [2] A good will is the moral compass that always seeks good; even if a person fails, it is not the fault of the good will but of her ability to carry it out.

In chapter one, Kant explains what is commonly meant by moral obligations and duty. It is fairly common sense, he says, that when an act is done out of inclination to yourself, it is not considered moral. For example, a shopkeeper with honest prices does so foremost to be respected by his customers, not for the sake of honesty. That person "deserves praise and encouragement, but not esteem." [3] It is common knowledge that the people for whom there is no reward are acting the most morally. Kant expands this to say they are the only people acting morally. We esteem a person who gives up his life because she gains nothing. "Duty is the necessity to act out of reverence for the [moral] law." [4] Following the moral law, the intrinsic sense of right and wrong, is the greatest obligation.

Common sense also has told us the value of the Golden Rule, to treat others as we wish to be treated. It is desirable to evaluate our actions in light of those whom we are affecting.

Kant's Argument: Autonomy and Freedom Edit

Why should we want to act morally, that is, why should we will in a rationally consistent manner? Why can't I make an exception of my self and for my case? Kant's arguments stem from the concept of freedom. Kant argues that the very idea of morality, the limiting of yourself from engaging in certain behaviors because they are 'immoral', is the highest expression of the concept of freedom.

The only thing good without qualification is the good will; a good will is free and autonomous.

Freedom, at least, means freedom from being influenced by outside forces, influences external to a person and their mind. For example, if a person is influenced by want of an object, or fame or revenge, or for any other reason, then Kant would say that they are not free; they are beholden (enslaved) to these outside influences. The state of being beholden to these outside influences Kant labelled as heteronomy. But freedom, for Kant, also means adhering to the moral law -- having one's will determined not, as above, externally, but only by its own nature. The state of being free is the state of one's will being autonomous, literally, in the state of "giving the law to oneself.

This is contrasted with:

Heteronomy is the state of being beholden to external influences.

If one wishes to be autonomous then one must not be compelled to act by external influences but instead be governed by one's own mind and rational thoughts. One such logical principle is the law of non-contradiction. P and not P (P and ~P) cannot exist simultaneously. For example, the snow is either white or not white, it cannot be both white and not white at the same time.

To act rationally is to abide (at least) by the law of non-contradiction, here, not willing that something be both true and false simultaneously.

Thus if a person engages in any behavior that is not governed by rational thought (i.e. is being irrational) then they are being influenced by external forces and are then beholden to these external forces (again like wants for objects, desires). Immorality, then, is simply and deeply irrationality! Not being free is to have abandoned one's rational faculties. If, by contrast, the behavior is governed by rational thought, and thus not contradictory, then that behavior is permissible.

Not all external forces are external to the person, however. Inclinations such as greed or anger can be a part of a person, but are still external to the will. This is a clear example where Kant's view of freedom differs from the opposing view of the freedom to do what one wants. When consumed by anger, people want to do certain things. But once the haze clears up, they realize that they did something morally wrong (such as hurting another person). They were driven by factors external to their will. Inclinations, then, enslave us at times, and Kant's theory of freedom is one of the few that take this into account.

Ends Not MeansEdit

Throughout his work Kant does not encourage acting in to attain happiness or any supreme state of pleasure. That action is also the source of all sorts of evil, so it cannot be both good and evil. "They can also be extremely bad and hurtful . . . power, wealth, honour, even health and that complete well-being and contentment with one’s state which goes by the name of ‘happiness.’" (p 61, emphasis his) The categorical imperative demands that we work for the universal good without any regard for our own happiness.

In the same way, our actions towards others should be irrelevant of our own happiness. "[E]very rational being, exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means for arbitrary use." [5] By nature of being rational deserves what Kant calls an end, "a subjective ground of its self-determination.” [6] In simple words, when we ignore ourselves and think of the good of another, we will treat them well.

Critical ReactionEdit

In his book On the Basis of Morality, Schopenhauer presented a careful analysis of Kant's book. Schopenhauer's criticism of Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals is an attempt to prove, among other things, that actions are not moral when they are performed solely from duty.


  1. Kant, Immanuel. The Moral Law. Translated and edited by H. J. Paton. London: Hutchinson & Co. Ltd., 1964. p57
  2. Kant, Immanuel. The Moral Law. Translated and edited by H. J. Paton. London: Hutchinson & Co. Ltd., 1964. p61
  3. Kant, Immanuel. The Moral Law. Translated and edited by H. J. Paton. London: Hutchinson & Co. Ltd., 1964. p66
  4. Kant, Immanuel. The Moral Law. Translated and edited by H. J. Paton. London: Hutchinson & Co. Ltd., 1964. p68
  5. Kant, Immanuel. The Moral Law. Translated and edited by H. J. Paton. London: Hutchinson & Co. Ltd., 1964. p95
  6. Kant, Immanuel. The Moral Law. Translated and edited by H. J. Paton. London: Hutchinson & Co. Ltd., 1964. p95

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