Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals by Immanuel Kant — A Summary of the First Section

Kant, Immanuel. (1785) 2002. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Edited and translated by Allen W. Wood. New Haven: Yale University Press.

This translation is faithful to the original. Translated, forgive the pun, that means it’s a difficult read geared towards the advanced, perhaps critical, reader. Translator’s note: “I have tried to reproduce the same murkiness and cumbersomeness in English that the German reader would encounter.” p. xiii.

If this is your first read, see Jonathan Bennett’s very accessible translation at earlymoderntexts. You will come back to more faithful translations later anyway. 🙂

As a minimum, bear in mind that the term “practical” has a not unrelated but crucially different meaning from how we would use it in day-to-day conversation. If you don’t follow, it is absolutely necessary that you read the first section of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Practical Reason.

Summary of the Preface

Transition from Common Rational Moral Cognition to Philosophical Moral Cognition

Only a good will is necessarily [absolutely/perfectly/without limitation or qualification] good. Talents of the mind like understanding and wit, qualities of temperament like courage and persistence and gifts of fortune like wealth and health are only contingently good for they may be used for evil and harm by a bad will. The same goes for even for qualities like moderation, self-control, and sober reflection which might at first appear to ‘constitute part of the inner worth of a person’.

The good will is good in itself. It does not derive its goodness from its efficacy or its effects but from its mere willing.

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 in so far as they are in our control): then it would shine like a jewel for itself, as something that has its full worth itself. Utility or fruitfulness can neither add to nor substract anything from this worth.

This appeals to our common reason but, all the same, there seems something very strange about the insistence on the ‘absolute worth of the mere will’. For if we accept as a principle that all beings are naturally and necessarily arranged purposively for a suitable and appropriate end, and if we further accept that a being that has reason and a will is arranged for securing happiness, it is apparent that nature has hit on ‘a very bad arrangement in appointing reason to accomplish the aim’: instead, happiness would be sought more precisely and accomplished more safely by instinct.

Nature would have taken over the choice not only of the ends but also of the means, and with wise provision entrusted both solely to instinct.

This is because we find that the more cultivated reason is, the further it frustrates the pursuit of happiness so much so that the people most cultivated in reason develop a hatred for reason and start envying rather than despising people closer to natural instinct.

Reason is a bad instrument for pursuing and accomplishing happiness, but since it has been imparted to us as a practical faculty holding sway over the will, its purpose must be something other than securing happiness. Its purpose — and we have accepted that every capacity is assigned to an appropriate end — must be to produce a will good in itself.

To develop the concept of the good will, we will examine the concept of duty. We will differentiate between actions performed from duty and actions performed for other reasons in order to determine the moral worth of actions. We shall ignore (a) actions that conflict with duty as well as (b) actions which do conform to duty but are performed with no immediate inclination, i.e., driven by another inclination, to secure a further good, for the attainment of which the action performed is necessary as a means. The question of duty does not arise in the former and in the latter, it is easy to see that the action was performed to secure a further good. The interesting cases are those in which (c) the action is performed from duty and is driven by an immediate inclination, i.e., the results of the action are what’s actually desired.

Consider a shopkeeper who does not overcharge any of his customers. This conforms to duty and his customers are honestly served. However, we cannot assume that it is only the good of the customers that he has in mind. Also, it is obvious that it is in his interest to maintain a consistent price so that his business can flourish in the long run. The point then is that his actions are not done solely from duty nor from what the actions might immediately result in [the good of the customers] but instead from a self-serving aim [the success of his business]. His actions thus have has no moral worth.

Consider this other case. Preservation of life is a duty and people not only conform to it but also have an immediate inclination towards it. Still, the preservation of life happens in conformity with but not from duty and thus has no moral worth. But when faced with hopelessness and insurmountable adversities, and having lost all taste and love for life, a person still preserves life from duty, there is moral worth.

Consider further, a sympathetic soul who, without vanity and without concern for utility, delights in helping others and spreading  joy. Such a soul is still short of achieving true moral worth however amiable and praiseworthy his actions are, they are still inclinations. Suppose now that the same soul is beset with such personal grief that he no longer has the emotional resources to feel sympathy for others’ distress. If he still continues to help others and spread joy no longer out of any inclination but from duty, his actions would now have 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, ... 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.

Securing happiness is itself a duty, even if only an indirect one, because the lack of happiness can undermine the performance of duties. But the precept of happiness often infringes upon other inclinations. Now, consider a diabetic who nevertheless chooses to continue to eat and enjoy what he likes [gives in to inclination] regardless of future consequences [without considering future happiness]. Still, this does not mean that the injunction to preserve his health from duty [and not out of concern for happiness, which he has rejected] does not apply to him. His conduct would have moral worth if only he follows this injunction.

Summing up, only those actions have genuine moral worth if they are done out of a singular commitment to duty. This is the first proposition.

Having established this proposition, the second proposition is that an action from duty derives its moral worth not from its aims nor even their actualisation but only from the principle on which it is performed. Put differently, its moral worth lies not in the material incentive [aim] realised a posteriori but in the in the formal principle of the will which is determined a priori.

The third proposition, adding the two together, is that duty is the necessity of an action from respect for the law. That’s to say: to act out of duty requires that that act be performed out of respect for the law. Neither the object of the action (because the object is merely the effect and not the principle of the will) nor the inclination driving the action (for the same reason, i.e., inclination is not the principle of the will) can get respect.

This means that any action from duty derives nothing from [i.e., “is supposed entirely to abstract from”] inclination and its effects. Given this, what moves [causes (but bear in mind that the word ‘cause’ has tremendous philosophical baggage)] the action is, objectively, the mere law  and, subjectively, pure respect for this law. From this follows the maxim (the subjective principle of the will) that that law must be complied with even if compliance infringes one’s inclinations.

The moral worth of the action thus lies not in the effect to be expected from this expected effect. For all these effects (agreeableness of one's condition, indeed even the furthering of the happiness of others) could be brought about through other causes, and for them the will of a rational beings is therefore not needed; but in it the highest and unconditioned good can nevertheless be encountered. Nothing other than the representation of the law in itself, which obviously occurs only in the rational being insofar as it, and not the hoped-for effect, is the determining ground of the will, therefore constitutes that so pre-eminent good which we call ‘moral’.

What kind of law could this be?  Since the will cannot obey the law out of inclinations, what leads it to obey the law is its universalisability. This law derives its force from the fact that it can be willed to be/made universal. In other words, it ought to be possible for me to will that the maxim guiding my action become a universal law.

[I]t is mere lawfulness in general (without grounding it on any law determining certain actions) that serves the will as its principle, and also must so serve it, if duty is not to be everywhere and empty delusion and a chimerical concept. 

Consider this. Should you make a promise with no intention of keeping it if you are in an extremely difficult situation? This might be prudent sometimes but often, doing so will have worrisome consequences for you later on. Perhaps, it’d be prudent then to adopt it as a universal maxim to always keep promises. But realise that this maxim of prudence is grounded in the fear of worrisome consequences.

Now to be truthful from duty is something entirely different from being truthful out of worry over disadvantageous consequences; in the first case, the concept of the action in itself already contains a law for me, whereas in the second I must look around elsewhere to see which effects might be bound up with it for me.

To return to the question, you should ask yourself if a maxim of making a promise you have no intention of keeping could be valid as a universal law. It becomes immediately clear that one could not will that the maxim to be a universal law for in that case, i.e., if everyone made promises they had no intention of keeping, promises would become pointless: “the maxim, as soon as it were made into a universal law, would destroy itself”. Now, one need have no special shrewedness in order to realise this; in effect, then, we need no special training to will a good will. One need only ask the question: “can you will also that your maxim should become a universal law?”

The necessity of my actions from pure respect  for the practical law is what constitutes duty, before which every other motive must give way because it is the condition of a will that is good in itself, whose worth surpasses everything.

Common human reason [common rational cognition], without having to think abstractly, we’ve discovered, is capable of comfortably navigating its way around questions of good, evil and duty. In fact, common reason’s faculty for practical judgment displays its  potency especially when all incentives from perceptions of sense [or, inclinations] are excluded. It gets to determining the worth of actions and, whats more, actually has a better hope of success than any philosopher who is often confused by a plethora of quite irrelevant considerations that the man of common reason refuses to consider. As such, it is more appropriate to start moral enquiry with common reason and bring in philosophy only to make the enquiry more comprehensive, consistent and convenient (for use).

Even wisdom — which consists more in deeds and omissions than in knowledge —  also needs science, not in order to learn from it but in order to provide entry and durability for its precepts.

Yet, even after having established these commands of duty as worthy of esteem, we naturally feel drawn to our inclinations and needs. “Now reason commands its precepts unremittingly, without promising anything to inclinations, thus snubbing and disrespecting, as it were, those impetuous claims, which at the same time seem so reasonable (and will not be done away with by any command).” From this arises a natural dialectic, a discord if you will, between the injunctions of reason and the assertions of inclination.

“Thus common human reason is impelled, … to go outside its sphere and to take a step into the field of practical philosophy, in order to receive information and distinct directions about the source of its principle and its correct determination in opposition to the maxims based on need and inclination, so that it may escape from its embarrassment concerning the claims of both sides and not run the risk of being deprived, through the ambiguity into which it easily falls, of all genuine ethical principles.”



Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals by Immanuel Kant — A Summary of the Preface

Kant, Immanuel. (1785) 2002. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Edited and translated by Allen W. Wood. New Haven: Yale University Press.

For a more accessible translation, see Jonathan Bennett’s translation at earlymoderntexts.

Ancient Greek philosophy was divided into three branches of knowledge: physics, ethics and logic. Kant explains the “necessary subdivisions” which is schematised below (see image).

Kant Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals

The realm of ethics is in part determined by our experiences — what Kant calls ‘practical anthropology’ — but it also has a rational part determined a priori through pure reason — this part is the ‘metaphysics of morals’. Practical reason/moral philosophy/ethics should be grounded on the rational part. Only those laws derived from it find universal application.

“Thus a metaphysics of morals is indispensably necessary not merely from a motive of speculation, in order to investigate the source of the practical principles lying a priori in our reason, but also because morals themselves remain subject to all sorts of corruption as long as that guiding thread and supreme norm of their correct judgment is lacking. For as to what is to be morally good, it is not enough that it conform to the moral law, but it must also happen for the sake of this law; otherwise, that conformity is only contingent and precarious, because the unmoral ground will now and then produce lawful actions but more often actions contrary to the law.”

Kant’s whole project is thus to develop a metaphysics of morals — which he does with the Critique of (Pure) Practical Reason, published in 1788, three years after the Groundwork. But before he does that, he wants to lay the foundation by establishing the supreme principle of morality. The Groundwork lays that, well, groundwork.