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‌Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals

Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?1

Definition of Key Terms

General Philosophical Terms relevant to Discussing Kantian ethics

Ethics. The rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular class of human actions or a particular group or culture. It is therefore social and external.

Morality. Principles or habits with respect to right or wrong conduct. While morals also prescribe dos and don’ts, morality is ultimately a personal compass of right and wrong. Compared to ethics, it morality is individual and internal and concerns what we believe in something being right or wrong. Morality therefore attempts to transcend cultural norms.

Despite this strict terminological distinctions between ethics and morality, it is common for these terms to be mixed in one way or another. Also considering the fact that the origin of these terms imply the complete opposite of how they were just defined. For example, the Greek word ‘ethos’ means ‘character’, while the word ‘morality’ is derived based on the latin word ‘mos’ meaning ’custom’.

Consequentialist ethics. The morality or immorality of an action is determined by the outcome of that action; the question asked in this case is the following: “Was the result of the action ethically valid?”

Deontological ethics ( from Greek deon, “obligation, duty”). According to this form of ethics endorsed by Kant (although he does not refer to it as such), given that an action is considered ethically valid, it is valid because it is conducted in accordance with morally sound reasoning, not because of its consequences. The question asked in this case would instead be: “Was the morally sound reasoning that was conducting an action ethically valid?

Crucial terms for Kant’s ‌Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals


Reason. The faculty that allows us to select our actions on the basis of principles, and that allows us to act from a sense of duty.

The moral law. The law that is given to us by pure reason, and is inherent in all rational beings. It is to act only on maxims that we will becoming universal laws, meaning, a maxim must be applicable to all rational beings and conducted by all rational beings. What we might want to achieve out of our self-interest—has to be irrelevant.

Reason. The faculty that allows us to select our actions on the basis of principles, and that allows us to act from a sense of duty in relation to the moral law we establish through our faculty of reason.

Duty. Only when we act from a sense of duty can give our actions moral worth. When we act in this way, we act out of respect for the law, and not because we want to achieve certain results.

The will. The faculty that we exercise when we act. Only rational beings have a will. The will is autonomous when it chooses on the basis of reason, without any influence from external inclinations.

A good will. One that always acts in accordance with the moral law.

Maxim. A moral principle in accordance to which one choses to conduct their will.

Imperatives. Hypothetical imperatives tell us how to act if we want to achieve specified results. The categorical imperative tells us how to act unconditionally in accordance to the good will, regardless of our immediate goals and circumstances.

The categorical imperative. This is the command of morality. There are three ways to formulate it.

  1. Only act on a maxim that you can will should become a universal law.
  2. Treat all rational beings as ends in themselves.
  3. Always regard yourself as a legislator for a kingdom of ends. Only acting from a sense of duty can give our actions moral worth. When we act in this way, we act out of respect for the law, and not because we want to achieve certain results.

The will. The faculty that we exercise when we act. All rational beings have a will, which for Kant, is ultimately free because it can decide to act or not to act according to the good will because. The will is autonomous when it chooses it moral law on the basis of reason, without reference to external inclinations. Otherwise it becomes contingent on these external inclinations and is no longer a will, let alone free.

A good will. One that always acts in accordance with the moral law.

Imperatives. Hypothetical imperatives tell us how to act if we want to achieve specified results. The categorical imperative tells us how to act at all times, regardless of our goals or circumstances.

The categorical imperative. This is the command of morality. There are three ways to formulate it.

  1. Only act on a maxim that you can will should become a universal law.
  2. Treat all rational beings as ends in themselves.
  3. Always regard yourself as a legislator for a kingdom of ends.

Perfect duties. Duties not to act in certain ways because it would be impossible to universalize acting in those ways.

Imperfect duties. Duties not to act in certain ways because you could not rationally will that acting in those ways be universal.

Dignity. The intrinsic worth of something which has no substitute. Only people and morality have dignity. Other things are merely things, they have substitutes, and they have prices.

Freedom. The will is free when it is not determined by external causes, but only by the law. We must suppose that rational beings as they are in themselves are free, even though we find that as they appear to us, they are subject to the laws of nature.

Other relevant terms relevant to Kant’s philosophy

Analytic/Synthetic distinction. Also referred to as a priori / a posteriori distinction elaborated in his later work, Critique of Pure Reason (1787).

Analytic proposition (or a priori proposition). Knowledge/judgments that are independent of any particular experience. These are based upon reason alone, independently of all sensory experience, and therefore apply with strict universality.

Synthetic proposition (or a posteriori proposition). Knowledge derived from experience. These on the other hand, must be grounded upon experience and are consequently limited and uncertain in their application to specific cases. For Kant, synthetic judgments can be genuinely informative but require justification by reference to some outside principle.

There are some further distinctions that are not that crucial for the purposes of the Groundwork2:

Analytic Synthetic
a priori Logical. ‘Triangles have three sides’ Transcendental. ’2+2=4’, statements that are ‘synthesized’ from analytic a priori propositons in order to derived a further truth (in this case 4 as a product of adding 2 to 2).
a posteriori Hypothetical. Not really relevant because they are just mere hypothesis and there can never any need to appeal to experience in support of a purely explicative assertion. Empirical. 2 chairs plus 2 chairs = 4 chairs. These are derived based on empirical observation. This therefore makes them somewhat linked to synthetic a priori propositons. Other examples however, don’t necessarily have to be linked, such as the fact that we learn from experience that the sky is blue, rather than yellow, because we see that the sky and blueness are joined.

Kant’s Preface

Kant himself compared his system to that of Copernicus, which explained the ordering of the heavens by turning them inside out, that is, by removing the earth - the human world - from the center, and making it revolve around the sun instead. Kant’s own revolution also turns the world inside out, but in a very different way, for it places humanity back in the center. For Kant argued that the rational order which the metaphysician looks for in the world is neither something that we discover through experience, nor something that our reason assures us must be there. Instead, it is something which we human beings impose upon the world, in part through the construction of our knowledge, but also, in a different way, through our actions.3

Ancient philosophy, three sciences: 1. Physics 2. Ethics 3. Logic

Laws are either of nature or of freedom; Physics is the ‘doctrine of nature’ and ethics is the doctrine of morals.

Natural philosophy. Laws of nature according to which everything happens.

Moral philosophy. Law of the will. What ought to happen.

Philosophy happens on an empirical ground because ideas come about based on the existence.

Section 1: From Common Rational Cognition to Philosophical Moral Cognition


Kant begins with a big statement by claiming that no conception of good cannot be understood—even outside the universe— without the notion of good will5. This is why he talks about notions like temperament, character, moderation in affects and passions, self-control, sober reflection, inclinations—which have been the predominant basis of defining the good in ancient philosophy and much of ethical philosophy preceding Kant—but these can easily “become extremely evil and harmful”. This is because these terms and conceptions don’t have a basis grounded in good will. In this sense, good will becomes something like a universal truth that our faculty of reason is capable of deriving, just like 2+2=4. Kant wants to find the equivalent of 2+2=4 in morality but which is not entirely reduced to this strict formula, which this mathematical example might imply, because otherwise, that will undermine human freedom.6 In this sense, Kant wants to start from our ordinary ways of thinking about morality and the good in order to analyze them and discover the principle behind them, rather than asserting and proving something from the get go. Hence the title of the section: “From Common Rational Cognition to Philosophical Moral Cognition”

A good will is not good because of what it effects or accomplishes, because of its fitness to attain some proposed end, but only because of its volition, that is, it is good in itself and, regarded for itself, is to be valued incomparably higher than all that could merely be brought about by it in favor of some inclination and indeed, if you will, of the sum of all inclinations (4:394, emphasis my own).

The good cannot be defined throughout effects and ends, but only through its willing. Here Kant also brings up the consequences of trying to derive morality based on nature, inclination, desire and practicality; when one does so, nature takes over effects and ends and therefore does not leave anything for moral principles, which can only be derived through the faculty of reason. Basing ethics and morality on ends and means would be, according to philosophical terminology, be referred to as consequentialist ethics; whereas Kant’s referred to as a proponent of deontological ethics.

  • It is crucial for a rational individual to ought having influence over their will through the faculty of their reason. Reason must therefore be termed by solely by the faculty of reason.
  • This will must serve not as a means for other purposes, but as something good in itself.
  • What gives a morally good action its special value is the motivation behind it, the principle on the basis of which it is chosen or, in Kantian terms, willed (4:396).

The concept of duty (4:397).

  • For Kant, when a person does their duty, even while not wanting to, we know that the thought of duty alone has been sufficient to produce the intended action. As long as they were acting in accordance to duty.
  • There is a distinction between duty that is done from duty and duty that is done from immediate inclination.
  • An example of immediate inclination would be when an individual is acting in accordance to good will because of social pressure to perform his/her duty for example, but this does no mean they were willing to act from duty.
  • Preserving ones’s own life is indeed a duty, but on its own, this duty has no maxim and no inner worth; therefore, such people seek to preserve their life in conformity with duty but not from duty (4:398). Such duty is sensible, but it has “no moral content”.
  • Unhappy person contemplating suicide (4:398). If however a person preserves their life not from inclination, but from duty while while deeming it worthless, unhappy and miserable; then the posed maxim according to which the person preserves their life out of duty “has moral content”.

‌Merchant example. The merchant refrains from overcharging gullible customers, because this gives him a good reputation which helps his business (4:397).

  • The merchant is acting not from duty, not even from immediate inclination (nobody is forcing him or pressuring him to act out duty), but rather , he merely acts “from a self-serving aim” (because he ultimately does it to increase the reputation of his business).
  • Thus, the merchant is acting merely out of empirical circumstances and inclinations, rather than from duty derived from moral reasoning.

Even those who find “find an inner satisfaction in spreading joy around them and can take delight” in such activity, and however amiable this activity may be, it “nevertheless has no true moral worth” (4:398). Rather, it is an action the compels people to conform to something that is on the same level as honor, or simply, what is deemed merely as common-sense knowledge. Just like in the case of the merchant, such people will be acting in accordance to their personal self-interest and not duty.

Question: What are examples of people who enjoy being altruistic, but in actuality act according to their self-interest can we see today?

Human beings are naturally predisposed towards achieving happiness (4:399). But it is important to distinguish happiness that motivates and determines one’s will, from happiness that is achieved through morality and authentic moral worth. Since humans always encounter circumstances were there are many unsatisfied needs, this can give rise to “a great temptation to the violation of duties”. It therefore becomes important for Kant to achieve happiness not from inclination, but from duty. For only such conduct towards happiness can have “authentic moral worth”.

  • On Love. Love towards one’s neighbor as the passages in scripture profess, cannot be commanded. In order to achieve such kind of love, it must be commanded through the will and guided through “the principles of action” and not through “melting sympathy”. For the love of the “melting sympathy” kind cannot be commanded by will and is rather contingent on inclination.

Question: What implication does this have on the notion of love and must all forms of love conform to this definition of love? How does this reflect Kant’s biography? (funny comic of Kant relevant to the topic)

First Proposition (4:395-9). An action has moral worth only if it is done from duty.

Second Proposition (4:400). “An action from duty has its moral worth not in the purpose to be attained (means, ends, etc.) by it but in the maxim in accordance with which it is decided upon”. Even when that means going against one’s own inclinations and motivations.

Third Proposition (4:400). Duty is the necessity of an action from respect for the law. If an action is merely an effect, it cannot be an activity of the will. Therefore, there is no maxim guiding since it is merely an effect.

A maxim must be universal, that is, it must be willed in a manner that would make it morally good if it were accepted and followed by everyone. Here, we already see Kant formulating a preliminary definition of what will later be referred to as the first principle of the categorical imperative:

I ought never conduct myself except so that it could also will that my maxim become a universal law (4:402, emphasis in original).

When deciding whether one’s derived maxim is sufficient to become a universal law, Kant urges one to ask:

Can you also will that your maxim become a universal law? If not, then it is to be repudiated, and that not because of a disadvantage to you or even to others forthcoming from it but because it cannot fit as a principle into a possible giving of universal law.” (4:403, emphasis my own)

Reference to Socrates (4:404). In Plato’sApology, Socrates justifies his own death while being prosecuted by the court for “corrupting the youth”. He justifies it by stating that life not worth living unless it is a good life.

Kant ends the section by offering a method of critique applicable towards moral laws (4:405). For it is important to act according to willed duties rather than inclinations, but it is also important to “doubt their validity…where possible” and leave room for speculation. For Kant, this examination is dialectical, for only so can we be confident that our duties conform with the notion of the moral good. And lastly, it is important to apply these duties practically, rather than leaving them rest as mere hypothesis and theories. Kant ultimately calls for a “complete critique of our reason”, only so can we ensure that our duties and maxims conform with the good will.

[E]very rational being, exists as an end in himself and not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will…Beings whose existence depends not on our will but on nature have, nevertheless, if they are not rational beings, only a relative value as means and are therefore called things. On the other hand, rational beings are called persons inasmuch as their nature already marks them out as ends in themselves. (Kant [1785] 1998: [Ak 4: 428])

Section 3: Transition from to the Metaphysics of Morals to the Critique of Practical Reason

  1. Borrowed from Richard Baron, “Summary of Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals”, 2 October 2016. (link) ↩︎

  2. This is a rather reductive definition since it equates analytic propositions/judgments with a priori propositions/judgments and analytic propositions/judgments with a posteriori propositions/judgments, but for the Groundwork, this pedantic distinction is not yet necessary.
    In Critique of Pure Reason (1787) Kant makes further distinctions:
    Analytic a posteriori judgments. Cannot arise, since there is never any need to appeal to experience in support of a purely explicative assertion.
    Synthetic a posteriori judgments Relatively uncontroversial matters of fact we come to know by means of our sensory experience (though Wolff had tried to derive even these from the principle of contradiction).
    Analytic a priori judgments. This with which everyone agrees, include all merely logical truths and straightforward matters of definition; they are necessarily true.
    Synthetic a priori judgments. Are the most crucial Kants discovery since only they could provide new information that is necessarily true. Other philosophers like Leibniz and Hume did not distinguish this from other cases. (read more) ↩︎

  3. Kant, trans. Mary Gregor; “Introduction”, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. vii. ↩︎

  4. An alternative less confusing title would be: “Moving from common-sense knowledge to philosophical knowledge about morality”. What Kant means by “common-sense knowledge…about morality” is the traditional forms of morality that compel individuals to act out of inclination, respect, honor, etc. What Kant seeks to provide in Section 1 is a “philosophical knowledge about morality”, which is a morality grounded on duty. As Kant’s first proposition goes, “An action has moral worth only if it is done from duty”, and not inclination. ↩︎

  5. The phrasing of this important quote in the Yale version of the text is rather failing. Here is a better one:

    It is impossible to think of anything at all in the world, or indeed even beyond it, that could be considered good without limitation except a good will. ↩︎

  6. This is precisely Fyodor Dostoevsky’s worry expressed in his Notes from the Underground where the underground man argues:
    1. Free will means man gets to do whatever he wants.
    2. The laws of nature say that 2+2 always has to equal 4.
    3. He wants 2+2 to equal 5.
    4. The laws of nature are therefore a ‘stone wall’ standing in the way of his free will.
    (Although Dostoevsky does not see that deduced mathematical truths are not ‘laws of nature’, they are rather what Kant would call synthetic truths, not analytic truths. Had Dostoevsky considered and distinguished this further, he would’ve realized that just because 2+2 always has to equal 4, that does not mean there is no room for freedom). ↩︎

  1. Robert Frost, Reluctance