Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals
Overview
 
The Groundwork of the Metaphysic(s) of Morals , also known as Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals or Grounding of the Metaphysics of Morals, is Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher from Königsberg , researching, lecturing and writing on philosophy and anthropology at the end of the 18th Century Enlightenment....

's first contribution to moral philosophy. It argues for an a priori
A priori and a posteriori (philosophy)
The terms a priori and a posteriori are used in philosophy to distinguish two types of knowledge, justifications or arguments...

basis for morality
Morality
Morality is the differentiation among intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are good and bad . A moral code is a system of morality and a moral is any one practice or teaching within a moral code...

. Where the Critique of Pure Reason
Critique of Pure Reason
The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant, first published in 1781, second edition 1787, is considered one of the most influential works in the history of philosophy. Also referred to as Kant's "first critique," it was followed by the Critique of Practical Reason and the Critique of Judgement...

laid out Kant's metaphysical and epistemological ideas, this relatively short, primarily meta-ethical
Meta-ethics
In philosophy, meta-ethics is the branch of ethics that seeks to understand the nature of ethical properties, statements, attitudes, and judgments. Meta-ethics is one of the three branches of ethics generally recognized by philosophers, the others being normative ethics and applied ethics. Ethical...

, work was intended to outline and define the concepts and arguments shaping his future work The Metaphysics of Morals
Metaphysics of Morals
The Metaphysics of Morals is a major work of moral and political philosophy by Immanuel Kant. It was not as well known or as widely read as his earlier works, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals and the Critique of Practical Reason, but it experienced a renaissance in the English-speaking...

.
Encyclopedia
The Groundwork of the Metaphysic(s) of Morals , also known as Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals or Grounding of the Metaphysics of Morals, is Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher from Königsberg , researching, lecturing and writing on philosophy and anthropology at the end of the 18th Century Enlightenment....

's first contribution to moral philosophy. It argues for an a priori
A priori and a posteriori (philosophy)
The terms a priori and a posteriori are used in philosophy to distinguish two types of knowledge, justifications or arguments...

basis for morality
Morality
Morality is the differentiation among intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are good and bad . A moral code is a system of morality and a moral is any one practice or teaching within a moral code...

. Where the Critique of Pure Reason
Critique of Pure Reason
The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant, first published in 1781, second edition 1787, is considered one of the most influential works in the history of philosophy. Also referred to as Kant's "first critique," it was followed by the Critique of Practical Reason and the Critique of Judgement...

laid out Kant's metaphysical and epistemological ideas, this relatively short, primarily meta-ethical
Meta-ethics
In philosophy, meta-ethics is the branch of ethics that seeks to understand the nature of ethical properties, statements, attitudes, and judgments. Meta-ethics is one of the three branches of ethics generally recognized by philosophers, the others being normative ethics and applied ethics. Ethical...

, work was intended to outline and define the concepts and arguments shaping his future work The Metaphysics of Morals
Metaphysics of Morals
The Metaphysics of Morals is a major work of moral and political philosophy by Immanuel Kant. It was not as well known or as widely read as his earlier works, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals and the Critique of Practical Reason, but it experienced a renaissance in the English-speaking...

. However, the latter work is much less readable than the Groundwork.

The Groundwork is notable for its explanation of the categorical imperative
Categorical imperative
The Categorical Imperative is the central philosophical concept in the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant, as well as modern deontological ethics...

, which is the central concept of Kant’s moral philosophy.

The Groundwork is broken into a preface, followed by three sections. Kant's argument works from common reason up to the supreme unconditional law, in order to identify its existence. He then works backwards from there to prove the relevance and weight of the moral law. The third and final section of the book is famously obscure, and it is partly because of this that Kant later, in 1788, decided to publish the Critique of Practical Reason
Critique of Practical Reason
The Critique of Practical Reason is the second of Immanuel Kant's three critiques, first published in 1788. It follows on from his Critique of Pure Reason and deals with his moral philosophy....

.

The categorical imperative

The categorical imperative is the centerpiece of the Groundwork. Although it may seem superficially similar to the Golden Rule
Ethic of reciprocity
The Golden Rule or ethic of reciprocity is a maxim, ethical code, or moralitythat essentially states either of the following:* : One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself....

, it is in no way equivalent. The Golden Rule demands that one's actions conform to one's own standard, whereas Kant's moral imperative
Moral imperative
A moral imperative is a principle originating inside a person's mind that compels that person to act. It is a kind of categorical imperative, as defined by Immanuel Kant. Kant took the imperative to be a dictate of pure reason, in its practical aspect. Not following the moral law was seen to be...

 places the standard for moral good in reason (directly contradicting Hume, who claimed reason could not be a ground for moral choices). He states that people should always be treated with respect to their personhood and dignity, and always as ends in themselves: they can be treated as a means and an end at the same time, but never only as a means.

Consider the example of the liar. The Golden Rule allows that lying to others may be acceptable under some conditions, but the categorical imperative determines lying immoral without exception. This could be considered to be a flaw in the Golden Rule, one that is corrected by insisting, as Kant does, that actions must be universal to be moral and by insisting that morality cannot be merely a matter of preference or taste.

Kant expanded and elucidated these ideas further in some of his later works, primarily the Critique of Practical Reason
Critique of Practical Reason
The Critique of Practical Reason is the second of Immanuel Kant's three critiques, first published in 1788. It follows on from his Critique of Pure Reason and deals with his moral philosophy....

(1788
1788 in literature
-Events:*Ann Ward marries William Radcliffe, gaining the surname under which she will become known as a writer of Gothic novels.*Joseph Johnson and Thomas Christie found the Analytical Review.-New books:...

, informally referred to as his Second Critique), Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793
1793 in literature
-Events:*William Wordsworth tours Wales and western England, writing some of his best-known poems.-New books:*Charlotte Turner Smith**The Old Manor House**The Emigrants*Johann Heinrich Daniel Zschokke - Abällino, der grosse Bandit-New drama:...

) and the Metaphysics of Morals
Metaphysics of Morals
The Metaphysics of Morals is a major work of moral and political philosophy by Immanuel Kant. It was not as well known or as widely read as his earlier works, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals and the Critique of Practical Reason, but it experienced a renaissance in the English-speaking...

(1797
1797 in literature
-Events:* Walter Scott marries Charlotte Carpenter.* Jane Austen finishes a draft of Pride and Prejudice.-New books:*Hannah Webster Foster - The Coquette, or the History of Eliza Wharton *Friedrich Hölderlin - Hyperion, volume 1...

).

Maxims

In establishing the a priori rational basis for morality, Kant uses the notion of a maxim — a formulation of the subjective principle of volition
Volition
Volition may refer to:*Volition , the cognitive process by which an individual decides on and commits to a particular course of action...

 or, in other words, a rule followed in any intentional act. Actions that have moral worth are determined to fall into one of the five formulations of the categorical imperative. Each one describes the universal law of morality
  1. its subjective content is such that it treats the humanity
    Human nature
    Human nature refers to the distinguishing characteristics, including ways of thinking, feeling and acting, that humans tend to have naturally....

     in oneself or others solely as a vehicle towards one's ends; or
  2. the subjective content of the maxim is inconsistent with the will making one's rational autonomy
    Autonomy
    Autonomy is a concept found in moral, political and bioethical philosophy. Within these contexts, it is the capacity of a rational individual to make an informed, un-coerced decision...

     an object of respect.


It is important to note that, in Kant's Groundwork, he is concerned with explaining the purely formal (negative or limiting) aspects of his moral philosophy. Actions either have moral worth or they do not. At the time that he was writing, it was most important to establish what actions were morally unlawful — that is, what we ought not to do — before moving deeper into his theory.

Common sense of duty

Kant states that there is nothing "which can be regarded as good without qualification, except a good will." A good will is the moral compass that always seeks good: if an agent fails, it is not the fault of the good will but of the agent's ability to carry it out.

In the opening section, Kant explains what is commonly meant by moral obligations and duty. It is fairly common sense, he writes, not to consider moral an act done out of inclination for the self. A shopkeeper with honest prices does so foremost to be respected by his customers, not for the sake of honesty. He "deserves praise and encouragement, but not esteem." It is common knowledge that the people for whose good actions there is no reward are those who act most morally. Kant revises this in his declaration that they are the only people acting morally. We esteem a man who gives up his life because he gains nothing in doing so. "Duty is the necessity to act out of reverence for the [moral] law." Thus, to follow the moral law, the intrinsic sense of right and wrong, is our greatest obligation.

Four cases of ethical action

In the Groundwork, Kant outlines four possible cases in which a decision is carried out in respect of duty:
  • Case One involves actions that are contrary to duty (such as stealing);
  • Case Two involves actions that are dutiful but done only because of fear of penalty or sanction (such as paying taxes);
  • Case Three involves actions that accord with duty but which the agent is already inclined towards because it is pleasurable in some way (such as a labour of love); and
  • Case Four involves actions that accord with duty but are contrary to inclination (such as not committing suicide
    Suicide
    Suicide is the act of intentionally causing one's own death. Suicide is often committed out of despair or attributed to some underlying mental disorder, such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, alcoholism, or drug abuse...

    , despite being in unbearable distress)

Examples of moral conduct used in the Groundwork

In order to illustrate his philosophy, Kant uses four examples of what he considers immoral conduct throughout the Groundwork:
  1. One who is sick of life and contemplating suicide;
  2. One who wants to make a false promise so as to secure a loan that he does not intend to repay;
  3. One who does not wish to pursue a special talent that may benefit society; and
  4. One who is financially secure but does not donate to charity.

On the Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns

Published as a supplement to the Groundwork, On the Supposed Right to Lie because of Philanthropic Concerns examines again the example of lying. Let us determine if, according to Kant's contradiction test, this behaviour is immoral. If the behaviour leads to a contradiction (that is, if it is internally incoherent or cannot be willed by an agent), the behaviour is immoral. Lies only work in an overall environment of truthfulness. The liar still wants everyone else to tell the truth, since, if everyone were to lie, no one would believe anything that anyone said, and lies would no longer be effective. Thus, we cannot will that our subjective maxim of lying be universalised without self-contradiction: if everyone were to behave thus, such behaviour would not work. Therefore, in Kant's system, lying is immoral.

For further normative interpretation of these examples see categorical imperative

Kant's argument: autonomy and freedom

Why should we want to act morally? That is, why should we will in a rationally consistent manner? Why can one not make an exception of oneself and one's case? Kant's arguments stem from his concept of freedom. He argues that the very idea of morality, the limiting of oneself from engaging in certain behaviours because they are "immoral", is the highest expression of the concept of freedom.

Freedom here refers to liberty from the influence of external forces (external to reason). If an agent is influenced by want of an object or fame or revenge, or for any other reason, Kant believes that he is not free: he is beholden to these outside influences, which state Kant labels heteronomy.

To Kant, freedom also means adherence to the moral law, having one's will
Will (philosophy)
Will, in philosophical discussions, consonant with a common English usage, refers to a property of the mind, and an attribute of acts intentionally performed. Actions made according to a person's will are called "willing" or "voluntary" and sometimes pejoratively "willful"...

 determined not, as above, externally but by its own decision. The state of being free is the state of the will being autonomous, literally, in the state of "giving the law to oneself":

Autonomy of the will is the property that the will has of being a law to itself (independently of any property of the objects of volition)


This can be contrasted with:

If the will seeks the law that is to determine it anywhere but in the fitness of its maxims for its own legislation of universal laws, and if it thus goes outside of itself and seeks this law in the character of any of its objects, then heteronomy always results.


If one wishes to be autonomous, one must not be compelled to act by external influences but instead 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. Similarly, 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, not willing that something be both true and false simultaneously. Thus, if an agent engages in any behaviour that is not governed by rational thought (i.e., is being irrational), he is influenced by external forces and is beholden to them. Immorality, then, is simply and deeply irrational. To be unfree is to have abandoned one's rational faculties. If, by contrast, one's behaviour is governed by rational thought, and is thus not contradictory, it is permissible.

Not all forces external to the will are external to the person, however. Inclinations such as greed and anger can be part of a person but are still external to the will. This is a clear example in which Kant's view of freedom differs from the opposite view, of the freedom to do what one wants. When consumed by anger, people desire to do certain things but, once the haze has cleared, often realise that that desire was for something immoral and that they were driven by factors external to their will. Inclinations, then, sometimes enslave us. Kant's theory of freedom is one of the few that take this into account.

Kant and simple utilitarianism

Kant does not encourage acting in order to attain happiness
Happiness
Happiness is a mental state of well-being characterized by positive emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy. A variety of biological, psychological, religious, and philosophical approaches have striven to define happiness and identify its sources....

. Such actions "[...] 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.'" A rational agent will pursue happiness when on reflection the categorical imperative recommends happiness, but not as a foundational goal in itself.

Although happiness is not frowned upon, no action should be directed toward it. "[E]very rational being [...] exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means for arbitrary use." Rationality deserves what Kant calls an end, "a subjective ground of its self-determination.". It would seem that Kant advises us to ignore ourselves and consider only the situation of others. This is not true. Kant says that happiness should not be our goal, but he also says we should respect moral agents. We ourselves are moral agents with a capacity for happiness and it is our duty as rational agents to pursue happiness so long as it does not interfere with other duties. The sophisticated Utilitarian theories on the other hand do recommend what appears to be an entirely selfless moral agent.

This is all true, except...
Kant writes, "A man even has an indirect duty to seek happiness. The more he is troubled by the burdens of anxiety and need, the more he may be tempted to fail in his duty. Even apart from duty, everyone has the most fundamental urge to be happy, since the idea of happiness more or less sums up in our minds the satisfaction of all our desires, cares, and needs." Section 1, Chp 3, part 1b. Although Kant may claim utilitarianism is not sufficient, he also admits in this work at the end that his own foundations are lacking as well. The Empiricists assert that the words good and evil are nothing other than pleasure and pain (See Locke, Bentham, Hume, Spinoza, etc...), to assert negatively that Kant would encourage an action that would lead to a greater amount of pain would be absurd, as this would be going against nature itself. As the first rule of the categorical imperative was "1. Always act on a maxim which you can will to become a universal law of Nature", to seek pain (evil) rather than pleasure(good) would break this first rule.

Critical reaction

In his book On the Basis of Morality (1840
1840 in literature
The year 1840 in literature involved some significant new books.-Events:*Novelist Fritz Reuter is freed from the fortress of Dömitz after two years' imprisonment on a charge of high treason....

), Arthur Schopenhauer
Arthur Schopenhauer
Arthur Schopenhauer was a German philosopher known for his pessimism and philosophical clarity. At age 25, he published his doctoral dissertation, On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, which examined the four separate manifestations of reason in the phenomenal...

 presents a careful analysis of the Groundwork. His criticism
Schopenhauer's criticism of Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals
On the Basis of Morality is one of Arthur Schopenhauer's major works in ethics, in which he argues that morality stems from compassion. Schopenhauer begins with a criticism of Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, which Schopenhauer considered to be clearest explanation of Kantian...

 is an attempt to prove, among other things, that actions are not moral when they are performed solely from duty. Schopenhauer specifically targeted the Categorical Imperative, labelling it cold and egoistic. While he publicly called himself a Kantian, and made clear and bold criticisms of Hegelian philosophy, he was quick and unrelenting in his analysis of the inconsistencies throughout Kant's long body of work.

English Editions and Translations

  • 1934 Fundamental principles of the metaphysics of ethics, tr. Thomas Kingsmill Abbott
    Thomas Kingsmill Abbott
    Thomas Kingsmill Abbott was an Irish scholar and educator. He was born in Dublin and was educated at Trinity College. He took his degree in 1851 and was made a fellow of the college in 1854. He obtained an M.A. and a D...

     (1829–1913). London, New York [etc.]: Longmans, Green and co.
  • 1949 Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals, tr. Thomas Kingsmill Abbott (1829-1913); introduction by Marvin Fox. Indianapolis, NY: Bobbs-Merrill.
  • 2005 Fundamental principles of the metaphysics of ethics, tr. Thomas Kingsmill Abbott (1829-1913). Mineola, NY: Dover Publications. ISBN 0486443094 (pbk.)
  • 2005 Groundwork for the metaphysics of morals, tr. Thomas Kingsmill Abbott (1829-1913), edited with revisions by Lara Denis (1969-). Peterborough, Ont.; Orchard Park, NY: Broadview Press. ISBN 1551115395
    • 1938 The fundamental principles of the metaphysic of ethics., tr. Otto Manthey-Zorn (1879-). New York, London: D. Appleton-Century Company, Incorporated.
    • 1948 The moral law, tr, Herbert James Paton (1887–1969). London, New York: Hutchinson’s University Library.
  • 1967 The moral law; Kant’s Groundwork of the metaphysic of morals, tr. Herbert James Paton (1887-1969). New York, Barnes & Noble.
  • 1991 The moral law : Kant’s groundwork of the metaphysic of morals, tr. Herbert James Paton (1887-1969). London; New York: Routledge. ISBN 0415078431
    • 1959 Foundations of the metaphysics of morals, and What is enlightenment? translated, with an introduction by Lewis White Beck
      Lewis White Beck
      Lewis White Beck was an American philosopher and scholar of German philosophy. Beck was Burbank Professor of Intellectual and Moral Philosophy at the University of Rochester and served as the Philosophy Department chair there from 1949 to 1966...

       (1913–1997). New York: Liberal Arts Press.
  • 1969 Foundations of the metaphysics of morals, tr. Lewis White Beck (1913-1997), with critical essays edited by Robert Paul Wolff
    Robert Paul Wolff
    Robert Paul Wolff is a contemporary American political philosopher and professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Wolff has written widely on many topics in political philosophy such as Marxism, tolerance , political justification and democracy. Wolff is also well known for his work on...

    . Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.
  • 1990 Foundations of the metaphysics of morals and What is enlightenment (Second Edition, Revised), translated, with an introduction by Lewis White Beck (1913-1997). New York: Macmillan; London Collier Macmillan. ISBN 0023078251
    • 1970 Kant on the foundation of morality; a modern version of the Grundlegung, translated with commentary by Brendan E. A. Liddell. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0253331714 (pbk)
    • 1981 Grounding for the metaphysics of morals, tr. James Wesley Ellington (1927-). Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co. ISBN 0915145014, ISBN 0915145006 (pbk.)
  • 1983 Ethical philosophy : the complete texts of Grounding for the metaphysics of morals, and Metaphysical principles of virtue, part II of The metaphysics of morals, tr. James Wesley Ellington (1927-); introduction by Warner A. Wick. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co. ISBN 091514543X (pbk.), ISBN 0915145448 (hard)
  • 1993 Grounding for the metaphysics of morals; with, On a supposed right to lie because of philanthropic concerns (Third Edition), tr. James Wesley Ellington (1927-). Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co. ISBN 0872201678, ISBN 087220166X (pbk. : alk. paper)
  • 1994 Ethical philosophy : the complete texts of grounding for the metaphysics of morals and metaphysical principles of virtue, tr. James Wesley Ellington (1927-). Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub. ISBN 0872203212, ISBN 0872203204 (pbk.)
    • 1998 Groundwork of the metaphysics of morals, tr. Mary J. Gregor (1928–1994), with an introduction by Christine Korsgaard
      Christine Korsgaard
      Christine Marion Korsgaard is an American philosopher and academic whose main scholarly interests are in moral philosophy and its history; the relation of issues in moral philosophy to issues in metaphysics, the philosophy of mind, and the theory of personal identity; the theory of personal...

       (1952-). Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521622352 (hardcover), ISBN 0521626951 (pbk.)
    • 2002 Groundwork for the metaphysics of morals, tr. Arnulf Zweig, edited by Thomas E. Hill, Jr. and Arnulf Zweig. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 019875180X
    • 2002 Groundwork for the metaphysics of morals, tr. Allen W. Wood, with essays by J.B. Schneewind (1930-), et al. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300094868 (cloth : alk. paper), ISBN 0300094876 (paper)
    • 2005 Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals, tr. Jonathan F. Bennett (1930-).
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