Moral Law: Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals
eBook - ePub

Moral Law: Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals

Immanuel Kant

Share book
109 pages
ePUB (mobile friendly)
Available on iOS & Android
eBook - ePub

Moral Law: Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals

Immanuel Kant

Book details
Book preview
Table of contents

About This Book

First published in 2012. Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals is one of the small books which are truly great: it has exercised on human thought an influence almost ludicrously disproportionate to its size. In moral philosophy it ranks with the 'Republic' of Plato and the 'Ethics' of Aristotle; and perhaps— partly no doubt through the spread of Christian ideals and through the long experience of the human race during the last two thousand years—it shows in some respects a deeper insight even than these. Its main topic—the supreme principle of morality—is of the utmost importance to all who are not indifferent to the struggle of good against evil. Written, as it was, towards the end of the eighteenth century, it is couched in terms other than those that would be used today; but its message was never more needed than it is at present, when a somewhat arid empiricism is the prevailing fashion in philosophy.

Frequently asked questions
How do I cancel my subscription?
Simply head over to the account section in settings and click on “Cancel Subscription” - it’s as simple as that. After you cancel, your membership will stay active for the remainder of the time you’ve paid for. Learn more here.
Can/how do I download books?
At the moment all of our mobile-responsive ePub books are available to download via the app. Most of our PDFs are also available to download and we're working on making the final remaining ones downloadable now. Learn more here.
What is the difference between the pricing plans?
Both plans give you full access to the library and all of Perlego’s features. The only differences are the price and subscription period: With the annual plan you’ll save around 30% compared to 12 months on the monthly plan.
What is Perlego?
We are an online textbook subscription service, where you can get access to an entire online library for less than the price of a single book per month. With over 1 million books across 1000+ topics, we’ve got you covered! Learn more here.
Do you support text-to-speech?
Look out for the read-aloud symbol on your next book to see if you can listen to it. The read-aloud tool reads text aloud for you, highlighting the text as it is being read. You can pause it, speed it up and slow it down. Learn more here.
Is Moral Law: Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals an online PDF/ePUB?
Yes, you can access Moral Law: Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals by Immanuel Kant in PDF and/or ePUB format, as well as other popular books in Philosophy & Philosophy History & Theory. We have over one million books available in our catalogue for you to explore.




Pages 1–3—The good will

The only thing that is good without qualification or restriction is a good will. That is to say, a good will alone is good in all circumstances and in that sense is an absolute or unconditioned good. We may also describe it as the only thing that is good in itself, good independently of its relation to other things.
This does not mean that a good will is the only good. On the contrary, there are plenty of things which are good in many respects. These, however, are not good in all circumstances, and they may all be thoroughly bad when they are used by a bad will. They are therefore only conditioned goods—that is, good under certain conditions, not good absolutely or in themselves.

Pages 3–4—The good will and its results

The goodness of a good will is not derived from the goodness of the results which it produces. The conditioned goodness of its product cannot be the source of the unconditioned goodness which belongs to a good will alone. Besides, a good will continues to have its own unique goodness even where, by some misfortune, it is unable to produce the results at which it aims.
There is nothing in this to suggest that for Kant a good will does not aim at producing results. He holds, on the contrary, that a good will, and indeed any kind of will, must aim at producing results.

Pages 4–8—The function of reason

Ordinary moral consciousness supports the view that a good will alone is an unconditioned good. Indeed, this is the presupposition (or condition) of all our ordinary moral judgements. Nevertheless the claim may seem to be fantastic, and we must seek further corroboration by considering the function of reason in action.
In order to do this we have to presuppose that in organic life every organ has a purpose or function to which it is well adapted. This applies also to mental life; and in human beings reason is, as it were, the organ which controls action, just as instinct is the organ which controls action in animals. If the function of reason in action were merely to attain happiness, this is a purpose for which instinct would have been a very much better guide. Hence if we assume that reason, like other organs, must be well adapted to its purpose, its purpose cannot be merely to produce a will which is good as a means to happiness, but rather to produce a will which is good in itself.
Such a purposive (or teleological) view of nature is not readily accepted today. We need only note that Kant does hold this belief (though by no means in a simple form) and that it is very much more fundamental to his ethics than is commonly supposed. In particular we should note that reason in action has for him two main functions, the first of which has to be subordinated to the second. The first function is to secure the individual’s own happiness (a conditioned good), while the second is to manifest a will good in itself (an unconditioned good).

Page 8—The good will and duty

Under human conditions, where we have to struggle against unruly impulses and desires, a good will is manifested in acting for the sake of duty. Hence if we are to understand human goodness, we must examine the concept of duty. Human goodness is most conspicuous in struggling against the obstacles placed in its way by unruly impulses, but it must not be thought that goodness as such consists in overcoming obstacles. On the contrary, a perfectly good will would have no obstacles to overcome, and the concept of duty (which involves the overcoming of obstacles) would not apply to such a perfect will.

Pages 8–13—The motive of duty

A human action is morally good, not because it is done from immediate inclinationstill less because it is done from self-interestbut because it is done for the sake of duty. This is Kant’s first proposition about duty, though he does not state it in this general form.
An action—even if it accords with duty and is in that sense right—is not commonly regarded as morally good if it is done solely out of self-interest. We may, however, be inclined to attribute moral goodness to right actions done solely from some immediate inclination—for example, from a direct impulse of sympathy or generosity. In order to test this we must isolate our motives: we must consider first an action done solely out of inclination and not out of duty, and then an action done solely out of duty and not out of inclination. If we do this, then, we shall find—to take the case most favourable to immediate inclination—that an action done solely out of natural sympathy may be right and praiseworthy, but that nevertheless it has no distinctively moral worth. The same kind of action done solely out of duty does have distinctively moral worth. The goodness shown in helping others is all the more conspicuous if a man does this for the sake of duty at a time when he is fully occupied with his own troubles and when he is not impelled to do so by his natural inclinations.
Kant’s doctrine would be absurd if it meant that the presence of a natural inclination to good actions (or even of a feeling of satisfaction in doing them) detracted from their moral worth. The ambiguity of his language lends some colour to this interpretation, which is almost universally accepted. Thus he says that a man shows moral worth if he does good, not from inclination, but from duty. But we must remember that he is here contrasting two motives taken in isolation in order to find out which of them is the source of moral worth. He would have avoided the ambiguity if he had said that a man shows moral worth, not in doing good from inclination, but in doing it for the sake of duty. It is the motive of duty, not the motive of inclination, that gives moral worth to an action.
Whether these two kinds of motive can be present in the same moral action and whether one can support the other is a question which is not even raised in this passage nor is it discussed at all in the Groundwork. Kant’s assumption on this subject is that if an action is to be morally good, the motive of duty, while it may be present at the same time as other motives, must by itself be sufficient to determine the action. Furthermore, he never wavers in the belief that generous inclinations are a help in doing good actions, that for this reason it is a duty to cultivate them, and that without them a great moral adornment would be absent from the world.
It should also be observed that, so far from decrying happiness, Kant holds that we have at least an indirect duty to seek our own happiness.

Pages 13–14—The formal principle of duty

Kant’s second proposition is this: An action done from duty has its moral worth, not from the results it attains or seeks to attain, but from a formal principle or maxim—the principle of doing one’s duty whatever that may be.
This re-states the first proposition in a more technical way. We have already seen that a good will cannot derive its unconditioned goodness from the conditioned goodness of the results at which it aims, and this is true also of the morally good actions in which a good will acting for the sake of duty is manifested. What we have to do now is to state our doctrine in terms of what Kant calls ‘maxims’.
A maxim is a principle upon which we act. It is a purely personal principle— not a copy-book maxim—and it may be good or it may be bad. Kant calls it a ‘subjective’ principle, meaning by this a principle on which a rational agent (or subject of action) does act—a principle manifested in actions which are in fact performed. An ‘objective’ principle, on the other hand, is one on which every rational agent would necessarily act if reason had full control over his actions, and therefore one on which he ought to act if he is so irrational as to be tempted to act otherwise. Only when we act on objective principles do they become also subjective, but they continue to be objective whether we act on them or not.
We need not formulate in words the maxim of our action, but if we know what we are doing and will our action as an action of a particular kind, then our action has a maxim or subjective principle. A maxim is thus always some sort of general principle under which we will a particular action. Thus if I decide to commit suicide in order to avoid unhappiness, I may be said to act on the principle or maxim ‘I will kill myself whenever life offers more pain than pleasure’.
All such maxims are material maxims: they generalise a particular action with its particular motive and its intended result. Since the moral goodness of an action cannot be derived from its intended results, it manifestly cannot be derived from a material maxim of this kind.
The maxim which gives moral worth to actions is the maxim or principle of doing one’s duty whatever one’s duty may be. Such a maxim is empty of any particular matter: it is not a maxim of satisfying particular desires or attaining particular results. In Kant’s language it is a formal maxim. To act for the sake of duty is to act on a formal maxim ‘irrespective of all objects of the faculty of desire’. A good man adopts or rejects the material maxim of any proposed action according as it harmonises or conflicts with the controlling and formal maxim of doing his duty for its own sake. Only such ‘dutiful’ actions can be morally good.

Pages 14–17—Reverence for the law

A third proposition is alleged to follow from the first two. It is this: Duty is the necessity to act out of reverence for the law.
This proposition cannot be derived from the first two unless we can read into them a good deal more than has been explicitly stated: both ‘reverence’ and ‘the law’ appear to be terms which we have not met in the premises. Furthermore the proposition itself is not altogether clear. Perhaps it would be better to say that to act on the maxim of doing one’s duty for its own sake is to act out of reverence for the law.
It is not altogether easy to follow Kant’s argument. He appears to hold that if the maxim of a morally good action is a formal maxim (not a material maxim of satisfying one’s desires), it must be a maxim of acting reasonably—that is, of acting on a law valid for all rational beings as such independently of their particular desires. Because of our human frailty such a law must appear to us as a law of duty, a law which commands or compels obedience. Such a law, considered as imposed upon us, must excite a feeling analogous to fear. Considered, on the other hand, as self-imposed (since it is imposed by our own rational nature), it must excite a feeling analogous to inclination or attraction. This complex feeling is reverence (or respect)—a unique feeling which is due, not to any stimulus of the senses, but to the thought that my will is subordinated to such a universal law independently of any influence of sense. So far as the motive of a good action is to be found in feeling, we must say that a morally good action is one which is done out of reverence for the law, and that this is what gives it its unique and unconditioned value.

Pages 17–20—The categorical imperative

It may seem to be a very strange kind of law which the good man is supposed to reverence and obey. It is a law which does not depend on our desire for particular consequences and does not in itself even prescribe any particular actions: all it imposes on us is law-abidingness for its own sake—‘the conformity of actions to universal law as such’. To many this conception must seem empty, if not revolting, and we have certainly passed from ordinary moral judgements to the very highest pitch of philosophical abstraction—to the form common to all genuine morality, whatever its matter may be. Yet is not Kant merely saying the minimum that can and must be said about morality? A man is morally good, not as seeking to satisfy his own desires or to attain his own happiness (though he may do both these things), but as seeking to obey a law valid for all men and to follow an objective standard not determined by his own desires.
Because of the obstacles due to our impulses and desires, this law appears to us as a law that we ought to obey for its own sake, and so as what Kant calls a categorical imperative. We are here given the first statement of the categorical imperative (though in a negative form): ‘I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law’. This is the first formulation of the supreme principle of morality—the ultimate condition of all particular moral laws and all ordinary moral judgements. From this all moral laws must be ‘derived’—in the sense that it is ‘original’, while they are ‘derivative’ or dependent. Yet, as the formula itself shows, there is no question of deducing particular moral laws from the empty form of law as such. On the contrary, what we have to do is to examine the material maxims of our contemplated actions and to accept or reject them according as they can or cannot be willed as universal laws—that is, as laws valid for all men, and not as special privileges of our own.
From the example Kant gives in applying this method to the contemplated action of telling a lie it is obvious that he believed the application of his principle to be easier than it in fact is. Nevertheless he has stated the supreme condition of moral actions, and his sharp distinction between moral action and merely prudential or impulsive action is fundamentally sound.

Pages 20–22—Ordinary practical reason

The ordinary good man does not formulate this moral principle in abstraction, but he does use this principle in making particular moral judgements. Indeed in practical affairs (though not in speculation) ordinary human reason is almost a better guide than philosophy. Might it not then be advisable to leave moral questions to the ordinary man and to regard moral philosophy as the occupation (or the game) of the philosophical specialist?

Pages 22–24—The need for philosophy

The ordinary man needs philosophy because the claims of pleasure tempt him to become a self-deceiver and to argue sophistically against what appear to be the harsh demands of morality. This gives rise to what Kant calls a natural dialectic —a tendency to indulge in plausible arguments which contradict one another, and in this way to undermine the claims of duty. This may be disastrous to morality in practice, so disastrous that in the end ordinary human reason is impelled to seek for some solution of its difficulties. This solution is to be found only in philosophy, and in particular in a critique of practical reason, which will trace our moral principle to its source in reason itself.


Pages 25–30—The use of examples

Although we have extracted the supreme principle of morality from ordinary moral judgements, this does not mean that we have arrived at it by generalising from examples of morally good actions given to us in experience. Such an empirical method would be characteristic of a ‘popular’ philosophy, which depends on examples and illustrations. In actual fact we can never be sure that there are any examples of ‘dutiful’ actions (actions whose determining motive is that of duty). What we are discussing is not what men in fact do, but what they ought to do.
Even if we had experience of dutiful actions, this would not be enough for our purposes. What we have to show is that there is a moral law valid for all rational beings as such and for all men in virtue of their rationality—a law which rational beings as such ought to follow if they are tempted to do otherwise. This could never be established by any experience of actual human behaviour.
Furthermore, examples of morally good action can never be a substitute for moral principles nor can they supply a ground on which moral principles can be based. It is only if we already possess moral principles that we can judge an action to be an example of moral goodness.
Morality is not a matter of blind imitation, and the most that examples can do is to encourage us to do our duty: they can show that right action is possible, and they can bring it more vividly before our minds.

Pages 30–34—Popular philosophy

Popular philosophy, instead of separating sharply the a priori and empirical parts of ethics, offers us a disgusting hotch-potch in which a priori and empirical elements are hopelessly intermingled. Moral principles are confused with principles of self-interest, and this has the effect of weakening the claims of morality in a misguided effort to strengthen them.

Pages 34–36—Review of conclusions

Moral principles must be grasped entirely a priori. To mix them up with empirical considerations of self-interest and the like is not merely a confusion of thought but an obstacle in the way of moral progress. Hence before we attempt to apply moral principles we must endeavour to formulate them precisely in a pure metaphysic of morals from which empirical considerations are excluded.

Pages 36–39—Imperatives in general

We must now try to explain what is meant by words like ‘good’ and ‘ought’, and in particular what is meant by an ‘imperative’. There are different kinds of imperative, but we have to deal first with imperatives in general (or what is common to all kinds of imperative): we are not concerned merely with the moral imperative (though we may have this particularly in mind). This is a source of difficulty on a first reading, especially as the word ‘good’ has different senses when used in connection with different kinds of imperative.
We begin with the conception of a rational agent. A rational agent is one who has the power to act in accordance with his idea of...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Moral Law: Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals
APA 6 Citation
Kant, I. (2013). Moral Law: Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2013)
Chicago Citation
Kant, Immanuel. (2013) 2013. Moral Law: Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Kant, I. (2013) Moral Law: Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Kant, Immanuel. Moral Law: Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.