The Moral Law
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The Moral Law

Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals

Immanuel Kant, H. J. Paton

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eBook - ePub

The Moral Law

Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals

Immanuel Kant, H. J. Paton

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Few books have had as great an impact on intellectual history as Kant's The Moral Law. In its short compass one of the greatest minds in the history of philosophy attempts to identify the fundamental principle 'morality' that governs human action. Supported by a clear introduction and detailed summary of the argument, this is not only an essential

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Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals
[The Different Branches of Philosophy]
Ancient Greek philosophy was divided into three sciences: physics, ethics, and logic. This division fits the nature of the subject perfectly, and there is no need to improve on it—except perhaps by adding the principle on which it is based. By so doing we may be able on the one hand to guarantee its completeness and on the other to determine correctly its necessary subdivisions.
All rational knowledge is either material and concerned with some object, or formal and concerned solely with the form of understanding and reason themselves—with the universal rules of thinking as such without regard to differences in its objects. Formal philosophy is called logic; while material philosophy, ii which has to do with determinate objects and with the laws to which they are subject, is in turn divided into two, since the laws in question are laws either of nature or of freedom. The science of the first is called physics, that of the second ethics. The former is also called natural philosophy, the latter moral philosophy.
Logic can have no empirical part1—that is, no part in which the universal and necessary laws of thinking are based on grounds taken from experience. Otherwise it would not be logic—that is, it would not be a canon for understanding and reason, valid for all thinking and capable of demonstration. As against this, both natural and moral philosophy can each have an empirical part, since the former has to formulate its laws for nature as an object of experience, and the latter for the will of man so far as affected by nature—the first set of laws being those in accordance with which everything happens, the second being those in accordance with which everything ought to happen, although they also take into account the conditions under which what ought to happen very often does not happen.
All philosophy so far as it rests on the basis of experience can be called empirical philosophy. If it sets forth its doctrines as depending entirely on a priori principles, it can be called pure philosophy. The latter when wholly formal is called logic; but if it is confined to determinate objects of the understanding, it is then called metaphysics.
In this way there arises the Idea of a two-fold metaphysic—a metaphysic of nature and a metaphysic of morals. Thus physics will have its empirical part, but it will also have a rational one; and likewise ethics—although here the empirical part might be called specifically practical anthropology, while the rational part might properly be called morals.
[The Need for Pure Ethics]
All industries, arts, and crafts have gained by the division of labour—that is to say, one man no longer does everything, but each confines himself to a particular task, differing markedly from others in its technique, so that he may be able to perform it with the highest perfection and with greater ease. Where tasks are not so distinguished and divided, where every man is a jack of all trades, there industry is still sunk in utter barbarism. In itself it might well be a subject not unworthy of examination, if we asked whether pure philosophy in all its parts does not demand its own special craftsman. Would it not be better for the whole of this learned industry if those accustomed to purvey, in accordance with the public taste, a mixture of the empirical and the rational in various proportions unknown even to themselves—the self-styled ‘creative thinkers’ as opposed to the ‘hair-splitters’ who attend to the purely rational part—were to be warned against carrying on at once two jobs very different in their technique, each perhaps requiring a special talent and the combination of both in one person producing mere bunglers? Here, however, I confine myself to asking whether the nature of science does not always require that the empirical part should be scrupulously separated from the rational one, and that (empirical) physics proper should be prefaced by a metaphysic of nature, while practical anthropology should be prefaced by a metaphysic of morals—each metaphysic having to be scrupulously cleansed of everything empirical if we are to know how much pure reason can accomplish in both cases and from what sources it can by itself draw its own a priori teaching. I leave it an open question whether the latter business2 is to be conducted by all moralists (whose name is legion) or only by those who feel a vocation for the subject.
Since my aim here is directed strictly to moral philosophy, I limit my proposed question to this point only—Do we not think it a matter of the utmost necessity to work out for once a pure moral philosophy completely cleansed of everything that can only be empirical and appropriate to anthropology?3 That there must be such a philosophy is already obvious from the common Idea4 of duty and from the laws of morality. Every one must admit that a law has to carry with it absolute necessity if it is to be valid morally—valid, that is, as a ground of obligation; that the command ‘Thou shalt not lie’ could not hold merely for men, other rational beings having no obligation to abide by it—and similarly with all other genuine moral laws; that here consequently the ground of obligation must be looked for, not in the nature of man nor in the circumstances of the world in which he is placed, but solely a priori in the concepts of pure reason; and that every other precept based on principles of mere experience—and even a precept that may in a certain sense be considered universal, so far as it rests in its slightest part, perhaps only in its motive, on empirical grounds5—can indeed be called a practical rule, but never a moral law.
Thus in practical knowledge as a whole, not only are moral laws, together with their principles, essentially different from all the rest in which there is some empirical element, but the whole of moral philosophy is based on the part of it that is pure. When applied to man it does not borrow in the slightest from acquaintance with him (in anthropology), but gives him laws a priori as a rational being.6 These laws admittedly require in addition a power of judgement sharpened by experience, partly in order to distinguish the cases to which they apply, partly to procure for them admittance to the will of man and influence over practice; for man, affected as he is by so many inclinations,7 is capable of the Idea of a pure practical reason, but he has not so easily the power to realise the Idea in concreto in his conduct of life.
A metaphysic of morals is thus indispensably necessary, not merely in order to investigate, from motives of speculation, the source of practical principles which are present a priori in our reason, but because morals themselves remain exposed to corruption of all sorts as long as this guiding thread is lacking, this ultimate norm for correct moral judgement. For if any action is to be morally good, it is not enough that it should conform to the moral law—it must also be done for the sake of the moral law: where this is not so, the conformity is only too contingent and precarious, since the non-moral ground at work will now and then produce actions which accord with the law, but very often actions which transgress it. Now the moral law in its purity and genuineness (and in the field of action it is precisely this that matters most) is to be looked for nowhere else than in a pure philosophy. Hence pure philosophy (that is, metaphysics8) must come first, and without it there can be no moral philosophy at all. Indeed a philosophy which mixes up these pure principles with empirical ones does not deserve the name of philosophy (since philosophy is distinguished from ordinary rational knowledge precisely because it sets forth in a separate science what the latter apprehends only as confused with other things). Still less does it deserve the name of moral philosophy, since by this very confusion it undermines even the purity of morals themselves and acts against its own proper purpose.
[The Philosophy of Willing as Such]
It must not be imagined that in the propaedeutics prefixed to his moral philosophy by the celebrated Wolff—that is, in the ‘Universal Practical Philosophy’,9 as he called it—we already have what is here demanded and consequently do not need to break entirely new ground. Precisely because it was supposed to be a universal practical philosophy, it has taken into consideration, not a special kind of will—not such a will as is completely determined by a priori principles apart from any empirical motives and so can be called a pure will—but willing as such, together with all activities and conditions belonging to it in this general sense. Because of this it differs from a metaphysic of morals in the same way as general logic differs from transcendental philosophy, the first of which sets forth the activities and rules of thinking as such, while the second expounds the special activities and rules of pure thinking—that is, of the thinking whereby objects are known completely a priori;10 for a metaphysic of morals has to investigate the Idea and principles of a possible pure will, and not the activities and conditions of human willing as such, which are drawn for the most part from psychology. The fact that in this ‘universal practical philosophy’ there is also talk (though quite unjustifiably) about moral laws and duty is no objection to what I say. For the authors of this science remain true to their Idea of it on this point as well: they do not distinguish motives which, as such, are conceived completely a priori by reason alone and are genuinely moral, from empirical motives which understanding raises to general concepts by the mere comparison of experiences. On the contrary, without taking into account differences in their origin they consider motives only as regards their relative strength or weakness (looking upon all of them as homogeneous) and construct on this basis their concept of obligation. This concept is anything but moral; but its character is only such as is to be expected from a philosophy which never decides, as regards the source of all practical concepts, whether they arise only a posteriori or arise a priori as well.
[The Aim of the Groundwork]
Intending, as I do, to publish some day a metaphysic of morals, I issue this Groundwork in advance. For such a metaphysic there is strictly no other foundation than a critique of pure practical reason, just as for metaphysics11 there is no other foundation than the critique of pure speculative reason which I have already published. Yet, on the one hand, there is not the same extreme necessity for the former critique as for the latter, since human reason can, in matters of morality, be easily brought to a high degree of accuracy and precision even in the most ordinary intelligence, whereas in its theoretical, but pure, activity it is, on the contrary, out and out dialectical;12 and, on the other hand, a critique of practical reason, if it is to be complete, requires, on my view, that we should be able at the same time to show the unity of practical and theoretical reason in a common principle, since in the end there can only be one and the same reason, which must be differentiated solely in its application. Here, however, I found myself as yet unable to bring my work to such completeness without introducing considerations of quite another sort and so confusing the reader. This is why, instead of calling it a ‘Critique of Pure Practical Reason’, I have adopted the title ‘Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals’.
But, in the third place, since a metaphysic of morals, in spite of its horrifying title, can be in a high degree popular and suited to the ordinary intelligence, I think it useful to issue separately this preparatory work on its foundations so that later I need not insert the subtleties inevitable in these matters into doctrines more easy to understand.
The sole aim of the present Groundwork is to seek out and establish the supreme principle of morality. This by itself is a business which by its very purpose constitutes a whole and has to be separated off from every other enquiry. The application of the principle to the whole system would no doubt throw much light on my answers to this central question, so important and yet hitherto so far from being satisfactorily discussed; and the adequacy it manifests throughout would afford it strong confirmation. All the same, I had to forego this advantage, which in any case would be more flattering to myself than helpful to others, since the convenience of a principle in use and its seeming adequacy afford no completely safe proof of its correctness. They rather awaken a certain bias against examining and weighing it in all strictness for itself without any regard to its consequences.
[The Method of the Groundwork]
The method I have adopted in this book is, I believe, one which will work best if we proceed analytically from common knowledge to the formulation of its supreme principle and then back again synthetically from an examination of this principle and its origins to the common knowledge in which we find its application. Hence the division turns out to be as follows:
  1. Chapter 1: Passage from ordinary rational knowledge of morality to philosophical.
  2. Chapter 2: Passage from popular moral philosophy to a metaphysic of morals.
  3. Chapter 3: Final step from a metaphysic of morals to a critique of pure practical reason.
Passage from Ordinary Rational Knowledge of Morality to Philosophical
[The Good Will]
It is impossible to conceive anything at all in the world, or even out of it, which can be taken as good without qualification, except a good will. Intelligence, wit, judgement, and any other talents of the mind we may care to name, or courage, resolution, and constancy of purpose, as qualities of temperament, are without doubt good and desirable in many respects; but they can also be extremely bad and hurtful when the will is not good which has to make use of these gifts of nature, and which for this reason has the term ‘character’ applied to its peculiar quality. It is exactly the same with gifts of fortune. Power, wealth, honour, even health and that complete well-being and contentment with one’s state which goes by the name of ‘happiness’, produce boldness, and as a consequence often over-boldness as well, unless a good will is present by which their influence on the mind—and so too the whole principle of action—may be corrected and adjusted to universal ends; not to mention that a rational and impartial spectator can never feel approval in contemplating the uninterrupted prosperity of a being graced by no touch of a pure and good will, and that consequently a good will seems to constitute the indispensable condition of our very worthiness to be happy.
Some qualities are even helpful to this good will itself and can make its task very much easier.1 They have none the less no inner unconditioned worth, but rather presuppose a good will which sets a limit to the esteem in which they are rightly held2 and does not permit us to regard them as absolutely good. Moderation in affections and passions,3 self-control, and sober reflexion are not only good in many respects: they may even seem to constitute part of the inner worth of a person. Yet they are far from being properly described as good without qualification (however unconditionally they have been commended by the ancients). For without the principles of a good will they may become exceedingly bad; and the ...


  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Title Page
  4. Copyright
  5. Contents
  6. Translator’s Preface
  7. Commentary and Analysis of the Argument
  8. Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals
  9. Notes
  10. Index
Estilos de citas para The Moral Law

APA 6 Citation

Kant, I. (2015). The Moral Law (2nd ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2015)

Chicago Citation

Kant, Immanuel. (2015) 2015. The Moral Law. 2nd ed. Taylor and Francis.

Harvard Citation

Kant, I. (2015) The Moral Law. 2nd edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Kant, Immanuel. The Moral Law. 2nd ed. Taylor and Francis, 2015. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.