Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals

Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals

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by Immanuel Kant

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Immanuel Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals ranks alongside Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics as one of the most profound and influential works in moral philosophy ever written. In Kant's own words its aim is to search for and establish the supreme principle of morality, the categorical imperative. The centerpiece of the Groundwork is…  See more details below


Immanuel Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals ranks alongside Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics as one of the most profound and influential works in moral philosophy ever written. In Kant's own words its aim is to search for and establish the supreme principle of morality, the categorical imperative. The centerpiece of the Groundwork is Kant's most famous proposition, the Categorical Imperative. While this is often equated with the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you), the Categorical Imperative argues for a more universal set of moral action - for example, if one does not mind being lied to, then lying does not become a problem, according to the Golden Rule, but for Kant, this would be unacceptable as it is a violation of the rational principles of what morals are. Kant proceeds to look at issues of law, duty, free will and the good will, and autonomy of action. Kant argues strongly for the need for philosophy to guard against whim, taste and personal desire from becoming normative agents in the way we construct the moral universe. He argue for objective principles to govern the will, and categorizes these as either hypothetical or categorical. Kant also discusses the formulation of universal law and the way in which rational agents should formulate and view this kind of law.

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Chapter One


Pages I-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 products 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 anunconditioned 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 to-day. 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 inclination—still less because it is done from self-interest—but 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.

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What People are saying about this

"An unprecedented number of English translations of the Grundlegung are now available...Professor Paton's treatment is the most satisfactory....Paton combines the most readable English style with an unequaled capacity of allowoing Kan'ts characteristic distinctions to show through the veil of an alien language."
Philosophical Review
"Clearly the finest single-volume introduction to Kant's ethics available in English."

Meet the Author

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was an 18th-century German philosopher from the Prussian city of Konigsberg. Kant was the last influential philosopher of modern Europe in the classic sequence of the theory of knowledge during the Enlightenment beginning with thinkers John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume. Kant created a new perspective in philosophy which had widespread influences on philosophy continuing through to the 21st century. He published important works on epistemology, as well as works relevant to religion, law, and history. One of his most prominent works is the Critique of Pure Reason, an investigation into the limitations and structure of reason itself. It encompasses an attack on traditional metaphysics and epistemology, and highlights Kant's own contribution to these areas. The other main works of his maturity are the Critique of Practical Reason, which concentrates on ethics, and the Critique of Judgment, which investigates aesthetics and teleology. Kant's thought was very influential in Germany during his lifetime, moving philosophy beyond the debate between the rationalists and empiricists. The philosophers Fichte, Schelling, Hegel and Schopenhauer each saw themselves as correcting and expanding the Kantian system, thus bringing about various forms of German idealism. Kant continues to be a major influence on philosophy, influencing both analytic and continental philosophy.

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