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Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals | Study Guide

Immanuel Kant

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Immanuel Kant

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At a Glance

In his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals Kant sets out to identify and exhibit "the supreme principle of morality" that underlies the common conception of moral obligation, or duty. Kant holds that moral actions are those undertaken solely from respect for the moral law, the rational standard that is the supreme moral principle expressed in the categorical imperative. Since its publication in 1785, Kant's Groundwork has been a point of departure for moral theorizing, serving as the primary deontological—or duty-bound—approach to ethics, alongside Greek philosopher Aristotle's virtue ethics and English philosopher John Stuart Mill's utilitarian ethics.

Perspective and Narrator

Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals is narrated in the first person present tense by Kant. Occasionally he addresses his audience as "we" and "us."

About the Title

In this work Kant prepares the foundational thinking for his later work The Metaphysics of Morals (1797). As such, it is a preliminary work. A metaphysics of morals provides, according to Kant, "a system of a priori cognition from concepts alone," by which he means that moral principles are determined exclusively by reason, not experience. "A priori cognition" means "prior to" or "independent of" experience. Once Groundwork identifies the "supreme principle of morality" that is the foundation of moral conduct, Metaphysics can establish the moral principles, or maxims, that derive from it.


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