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Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals

Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals

by Immanuel Kant, Allen W. Wood, J. B. Schneewind

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Immanuel Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals is one of the most important texts in the history of ethics. In it Kant searches for the supreme principle of morality and argues for a conception of the moral life that has made this work a continuing source of controversy and an object of reinterpretation for over two centuries.



Immanuel Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals is one of the most important texts in the history of ethics. In it Kant searches for the supreme principle of morality and argues for a conception of the moral life that has made this work a continuing source of controversy and an object of reinterpretation for over two centuries.

This new edition of Kant’s work provides a fresh translation that is uniquely faithful to the German original and more fully annotated than any previous translation. There are also four essays by well-known scholars that discuss Kant’s views and the philosophical issues raised by the Groundwork. J.B. Schneewind defends the continuing interest in Kantian ethics by examining its historical relation both to the ethical thought that preceded it and to its influence on the ethical theories that came after it; Marcia Baron sheds light on Kant’s famous views about moral motivation; and Shelly Kagan and Allen W. Wood advocate contrasting interpretations of Kantian ethics and its practical implications.

Editorial Reviews

Paul Guyer University of Pennsylvania
"Lara Denis's subtle updating of Thomas Abbott's classical translation of Kant's Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals may be the best for both students and general readers. Her clear and concise introduction highlights Kant's central claims and arguments while pointing the reader to the best of contemporary Kant scholarship. Her judicious selection of materials from Kant's other major works in moral and political philosophy—touching upon Kant's theory of the highest good, his conception of the possibility of evil as part and parcel of the possibility of freedom, his humane conception of virtue and the virtues, and much more—provide even the first-time reader with precisely the context that is necessary in order to avoid misunderstanding the Groundwork. As an added bonus, Denis includes key responses to Kant from Fichte, Schiller, and Hegel as well as Henry Sidgwick's 1888 critique of 'The Kantian Conception of Free Will,' perhaps the single most important article on Kant's ethics ever written. All in all, this volume is a brilliant introduction to one of the greatest works in the history of Western philosophy."
Lucy Allais University of Sussex
"This is an outstanding new edition of Kant's Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Two main features make it an invaluable introduction to Kant's moral philosophy. The first is the appendices, which include carefully selected excerpts from Kant's other works in moral philosophy and classic criticisms of Kant's ideas by his contemporaries and other philosophers. The second exemplary feature of this edition is Lara Denis's concise, careful, accessible yet rigourous introduction. This edition aims to remove barriers to understanding and appreciating Kant's Groundwork; if I had to choose an ideal edition to set for courses on Kant, it would certainly be this one."
From the Publisher

"Those seeking a readable, readily available, and reliably literal translation of Kant’s brief but influential work cannot do better than this new edition. Allen Wood’s translation is exemplary in its fidelity to the nuances of Kant’s language, down to the typographical emphases that English editions often ignore. . . . This is the translation I would want my own students to have in hand in tackling a work that is more often talked about than read with care. The translation should appeal to a very broad readership."—Susan Shell, Claremont Review of Books

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Yale University Press
Publication date:
Rethinking the Western Tradition
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Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2002 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-09486-8

Chapter One

First Section

Transition from common rational moral cognition to philosophical moral cognition

There is nothing it is possible to think of anywhere in the world, or indeed anything at all outside it, that can be held to be good without limitation, excepting only a good will. Understanding, wit, the power of judgment, and like talents of the mind, whatever they might be called, or courage, resoluteness, persistence in an intention, as qualities of temperament, are without doubt in some respects good and to be wished for; but they can also become extremely evil and harmful, if the will that is to make use of these gifts of nature, and whose peculiar constitution is therefore called character, is not good. It is the same with gifts of fortune. Power, wealth, honor, even health and that entire well-being and contentment with one's condition, under the name of happiness, make for courage and thereby often also for arrogance, where there is not a good will to correct their influence on the mind, and thereby on the entire principle of action, and make them universally purposive; not to mention that a rational impartial spectator can never take satisfaction even in the sight of the uninterrupted welfare of a being, if it is adorned with no trait of a pure and good will; and so the good will appears to constitute the indispensable condition even of the worthiness to be happy.

Some qualities are even conducive to this good will itself and can make its work much easier, but still have despite this no inner unconditioned worth, yet always presuppose a good will, which limits the esteem that one otherwise rightly has for them, and does not permit them to be held absolutely good. Moderation in affects and passions, self-control, and sober reflection not only are good for many aims, but seem even to constitute a part of the inner worth of a person; yet they lack much in order to be declared good without limitation (however unconditionally they were praised by the ancients). For without the principles of a good will they can become extremely evil, and the cold-bloodedness of a villain makes him not only far more dangerous but also immediately more abominable in our eyes than he would have been held without it.

The good will is good not through what it effects or accomplishes, not through its efficacy for attaining any intended end, but only through its willing, i.e., good in itself, and considered for itself, without comparison, it is to be estimated far higher than anything that could be brought about by it in favor of any inclination, or indeed, if you prefer, of the sum of all inclinations. Even if through the peculiar disfavor of fate, or through the meager endowment of a stepmotherly nature, this will were entirely lacking in the resources to carry out its aim, if with its greatest effort nothing of it were accomplished, and only the good will were left over (to be sure, not a mere wish, but as the summoning up of all the means insofar as they are in our control): then it would shine like a jewel for itself, as something that has its full worth in itself. Utility or fruitlessness can neither add to nor subtract anything from this worth. It would be only the setting, as it were, to make it easier to handle in common traffic, or to draw the attention of those who are still not sufficiently connoisseurs, but not to recommend it to connoisseurs and determine its worth.

There is, however, something so strange in this idea of the absolute worth of the mere will, without making any allowance for utility in its estimation, that despite all the agreement with it even of common reason, there must nevertheless arise a suspicion that perhaps it is covertly grounded merely on a high-flown fantasy, and that nature might have been falsely understood in the aim it had in assigning reason to govern our will. Hence we will put this idea to the test from this point of view.

In the natural predispositions of an organized being, i.e., a being arranged purposively for life, we assume as a principle that no instrument is to be encountered in it for any end except that which is the most suitable to and appropriate for it. Now if, in a being that has reason and a will, its preservation, its welfare - in a word, its happiness - were the real end of nature, then nature would have hit on a very bad arrangement in appointing reason in this creature to accomplish the aim. For all the actions it has to execute toward this aim, and the entire rule of its conduct, would be prescribed to it much more precisely through instinct, and that end could be obtained far more safely through it than could ever happen through reason; and if, over and above this, reason were imparted to the favored creature, it would have served it only to make it consider the happy predisposition of its nature, to admire it, to rejoice in it, and to make it grateful to the beneficent cause of it, but not to subject its faculty of desire to that weak and deceptive guidance, and meddle in the aim of nature; in a word, nature would have prevented reason from breaking out into practical use and from having the presumption, with its weak insight, to think out for itself the project of happiness and the means of attaining it; nature would have taken over the choice not only of the ends but also of the means, and with wise provision would have entrusted both solely to instinct.

In fact we also find that the more a cultivated reason gives itself over to the aim of enjoying life and happiness, the further the human being falls short of true contentment; from this arises in many, and indeed in those most practiced in the cultivated use of reason, if only they are sincere enough to admit it, a certain degree of misology, i.e., hatred of reason; for after reckoning all the advantages they draw, I do not say from the invention of all the arts of common luxury, but even from the sciences (which also seem to them in the end to be a luxury of the understanding), they nevertheless find that they have in fact only brought more hardship down on their shoulders than they have gained in happiness, and on this account in the end they sooner envy than despise human beings of the more common stamp, who are closer to the guidance of mere natural instinct and do not permit their reason much influence over their deeds and omissions. And we must admit this much, that the judgment of those who very much moderate the boastful high praise of the advantages that reason is supposed to supply us in regard to happiness and contentment with life, or who even reduce it below zero, is by no means morose or ungrateful toward the kindness of the world's government; but rather these judgments are covertly grounded on the idea of another aim for their existence, possessing much greater dignity, for which, and not for their happiness, reason has been given its wholly authentic vocation, and to which, therefore, as a supreme condition, the private aims of the human being must for the most part defer.

For since reason is not sufficiently effective in guiding the will safely in regard to its objects and the satisfaction of all our needs (which it in part itself multiplies), and an implanted natural instinct would have guided us much more certainly to this end, yet since reason nevertheless has been imparted to us as a practical faculty, i.e., as one that ought to have influence on the will, its true vocation must therefore be not to produce volition as a means to some other aim, but rather to produce a will good in itself, for which reason was absolutely necessary, since everywhere else nature goes to work purposively in distributing its predispositions. This will may therefore not be the single and entire good, but it must be the highest good, and the condition for all the rest, even for every demand for happiness, in which case it can be united with the wisdom of nature, when one perceives that the culture of reason, which is required for the former, limits in many ways the attainment of the second aim, which is always conditioned, namely of happiness, at least in this life, and can even diminish it to less than nothing without nature's proceeding unpurposively in this; for reason, which recognizes its highest practical vocation in the grounding of a good will, is capable in attaining this aim only of a contentment after its own kind, namely from the fulfillment of an end that again only reason determines, even if this should also be bound up with some infringement of the ends of inclination.

But now in order to develop the concept of a good will, to be esteemed in itself and without any further aim, just as it dwells already in the naturally healthy understanding, which does not need to be taught but rather only to be enlightened, this concept always standing over the estimation of the entire worth of our actions and constituting the condition for everything else: we will put before ourselves the concept of duty, which contains that of a good will, though under certain subjective limitations and hindrances, which, however, far from concealing it and making it unrecognizable, rather elevate it by contrast and let it shine forth all the more brightly.

I pass over all actions that are already recognized as contrary to duty, even though they might be useful for this or that aim; for with them the question cannot arise at all whether they might be done from duty, since they even conflict with it. I also set aside the actions which are actually in conformity with duty, for which, however, human beings have immediately no inclination, but nevertheless perform them because they are driven to it through another inclination. For there it is easy to distinguish whether the action in conformity with duty is done from duty or from a self-seeking aim. It is much harder to notice this difference where the action is in conformity with duty and the subject yet has besides this an immediate inclination to it. E.g., it is indeed in conformity with duty that the merchant should not overcharge his inexperienced customers, and where there is much commercial traffic, the prudent merchant also does not do this, but rather holds a firm general price for everyone, so that a child buys just as cheaply from him as anyone else. Thus one is honestly served; yet that is by no means sufficient for us to believe that the merchant has proceeded thus from duty and from principles of honesty; his advantage required it; but here it is not to be assumed that besides this, he was also supposed to have an immediate inclination toward the customers, so that out of love, as it were, he gave no one an advantage over another in his prices. Thus the action was done neither from duty nor from immediate inclination, but merely from a self-serving aim.

By contrast, to preserve one's life is a duty, and besides this everyone has an immediate inclination to it. But the often anxious care that the greatest part of humankind takes for its sake still has no inner worth, and its maxim has no moral content. They protect their life, to be sure, in conformity with duty, but not from duty. If, by contrast, adversities and hopeless grief have entirely taken away the taste for life, if the unhappy one, strong of soul, more indignant than pusillanimous or dejected over his fate, wishes for death and yet preserves his life without loving it, not from inclination or fear, but from duty: then his maxim has a moral content.

To be beneficent where one can is a duty, and besides this there are some souls so sympathetically attuned that, even without any other motive of vanity or utility to self, take an inner gratification in spreading joy around them, and can take delight in the contentment of others insofar as it is their own work. But I assert that in such a case the action, however it may conform to duty and however amiable it is, nevertheless has no true moral worth, but is on the same footing as other inclinations, e.g., the inclination to honor, which, when it fortunately encounters something that in fact serves the common good and is in conformity with duty, and is thus worthy of honor, deserves praise and encouragement, but not esteem; for the maxim lacks moral content, namely of doing such actions not from inclination but from duty. Thus suppose the mind of that same friend of humanity were clouded over with his own grief, extinguishing all his sympathetic participation in the fate of others; he still has the resources to be beneficent to those suffering distress, but the distress of others does not touch him because he is sufficiently busy with his own; and now, where no inclination any longer stimulates him to it, he tears himself out of this deadly insensibility and does the action without any inclination, solely from duty; only then does it for the first time have its authentic moral worth. Even more: if nature had put little sympathy at all in the heart of this or that person, if he (an honest man, to be sure) were by temperament cold and indifferent toward the sufferings of others, perhaps because he himself is provided with particular gifts of patience and strength to endure his own, and also presupposes or even demands the same of others; if nature has not really formed such a man into a friend of humanity (although he would not in truth be its worst product), nevertheless would he not find a source within himself to give himself a far higher worth than that which a good-natured temperament might have? By all means! Just here begins the worth of character, which is moral and the highest without any comparison, namely that he is beneficent not from inclination but from duty.

To secure one's own happiness is a duty (at least indirectly), for the lack of contentment with one's condition, in a crowd of many sorrows and amid unsatisfied needs, can easily become a great temptation to the violation of duties. But even without looking at duty, all human beings always have of themselves the most powerful and inward inclination to happiness, because precisely in this idea all inclinations are united in a sum. Yet the precept of happiness is for the most part so constituted that it greatly infringes on some inclinations and yet the human being cannot make any determinate and secure concept of the sum of satisfaction of them all, under the name of 'happiness'; hence it is not to be wondered at that a single inclination, which is determinate in regard to what it promises and the time in which its satisfaction can be obtained, can outweigh a wavering idea; and the human being, e.g.,


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Meet the Author

Allen Wood is Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor at Stanford University.

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