Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals | Study Guide

Immanuel Kant

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Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals | Context


Enlightenment Thinking

Kant lived and worked toward the end of one of the most intellectually productive periods in human history, and he became one of the towering figures of Enlightenment thought. The Enlightenment was both a cultural and an intellectual movement that ranged across Europe from roughly the 17th through the 18th centuries. Enlightenment thinkers were characterized by a confidence in reason rather than subservience to religious dogma. They made advancements and innovations in all areas of human inquiry. Among the leaders of the Enlightenment were the French thinkers René Descartes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Voltaire, and the British thinkers John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume.


Descartes, along with the German thinker Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, represents the rationalist thinkers who influenced Kant's approach to epistemology, the study of the origin, nature, and limits of knowledge. Both the rationalist and empiricist approaches to knowledge, Kant concluded, were flawed. Each tries, in its own way, to secure knowledge of a world independent of the mind.

Both Descartes and Leibniz held that knowledge is fundamentally rational in nature, with no crossover into sense experience. This presumably allowed them to construct metaphysical arguments, for example, for the existence of God. The problem Kant saw here was that claims rooted in knowledge alone without experience cannot be corroborated, while Descartes holds that the certainty of his own existence as a thinking being, combined with the guarantee both that God exists and would not deceive him about the correctness of his judgments, allows him to infer the reality of a world outside his ideas.


The British empiricists—Locke, Berkeley, and Hume—on the other hand, held that all knowledge is derived from sense experience. Berkeley and Hume presented Kant with two major epistemological issues, related to the study of the limits and validity of knowledge, to address. Berkeley argued that objects are nothing other than collections of sensations. He reasoned that because perception involves having an idea, an idea is a collection of sensations, and sensations are how one knows objects, it follows that what knowers perceive are only ideas. Thus, an object is the idea one has of it. By eliminating an idea as a sort of mediator between perceiver and object, which Locke had done, Berkeley eliminates skepticism about whether a knower's idea really corresponds to, or represents, its object. A Granny Smith apple just is the collection of sensations one has: this roundness, this smoothness, this greenness, this crunchiness, this tartness, etc. There is no perception of an object independently of these sensations. Berkeley's idealism presented Kant with a problem, namely that there is no world apart from one's ideas of it. During the Enlightenment, this idea seemed untenable. During the postmodern era, however, it has resurfaced in a profound redefinition of humanity's relationship to language, truth, and reality.

Hume also presented Kant with a major problem to solve. Hume, like his fellow empiricists, held that knowledge is derived exclusively from sensation—what he called "impressions." However, what follows from this drives a skeptical wedge between knower and claims of knowledge about how the world works. More specifically, Hume argued that, if all knowledge is traced back to initial impressions but a knower has an idea that can't be traced back, then that idea cannot be epistemologically justified. Hume identified the idea of causation as the paradigmatic case. Whenever one connects two objects or events as causally related, one is not rationally justified in claiming to know these events to be so related. This justification cannot be made either by way of deductive reasoning (supporting or refuting a conclusion with data) or by way of inductive reasoning (drawing conclusions based on data). That's because the idea of causation cannot be traced back to an initial (sense) impression. The best that can be done is to recognize a kind of internal impression—a psychological propensity or habit—to associate objects and events in this way. In other words, causal connections are assumed to be, or expected to be, part of the fabric of experience because they are continuously experienced together. Indeed, this assumption is just part of how experiential reasoning works: the idea of causation makes it possible, for example, for one to make predictions or to draw an inference to the past. Here again, a major gap between knower and known appears.

Kant's Critical Philosophy

Kant's own contributions to Enlightenment thought, and the major problems posed by exclusively rationalist or empiricist approaches to epistemology, include his masterwork, Critique of Pure Reason (1781). In it Kant set out what he himself described as his own Copernican revolution. Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) proposed a heliocentric theory of the cosmos: instead of the sun revolving around the earth, Copernicus argued that the earth revolves around the sun. Such a shift in thinking is what Kant had in mind, only he applied it to epistemology. He argued for the view that objects conform to human knowledge, rather than the other way around, namely that knowledge conforms to objects. In other words he set out a complicated system of knowledge, whereby the architecture of the human mind shapes the experience of objects. His claim is bold and seems extravagant today, although he was certainly an influential and in some ways revolutionary philosopher.

Such structuring accounts for how and why humans experience the world as they do. For example, humans experience the world in terms of causes and effects, a result of human thought processes, not the natural order. Kant's argument also restricted the domain of knowledge to experience. That meant excluding anything that could not be an object of experience—things like God. Gone, then, in Kant's view, were metaphysical arguments for the existence of God. One of the questions that resulted from this theory is how to account for existing ideas about morality. What is the nature of morality, for example, if it is not divinely authored? How can one feel bound by moral duty, if that duty is not, ultimately a duty to God?

Influences on Kant's Moral Theory

Kant spent decades teaching ethics courses, using textbooks written by German philosopher Alexander Baumgarten. In these texts are ideas that found their way into Kant's own thinking about morality, such as moral duties to oneself and others, including developing one's own intellectual capacities and treating others benevolently. More specifically, Baumgarten presents duties to believe in, and pray to, God. This general conception of duties was not new in 18th-century moral theorizing, so it is not surprising that it should have found its way into Kant's thinking. In the 1600s, for example, German philosopher Samuel von Pufendorf approached morality in these terms.

In addition, German philosopher Christian Wolff influenced Kant with his argument that human reason reveals that people have a duty to perfect themselves. This duty exists as a natural law. Unlike some other contemporaneous thinkers, such as Pufendorf, who held that God created morality, Wolff held that morality exists independently of divinity. In addition, he believed that morality derives its authority from human reason. This idea was not new—in his dialogue with Euthyphro, for example, Greek philosopher Plato proposed the idea that morality has intrinsic worth and, as such, is independent of divinity. But Wolff's moral theory includes precepts for the duty to perfect oneself. These include the cultivation of one's mind and the strengthening of one's body. One improves others by helping them, rather than harming them.

Kant's moral theory aims to explain how the results of his epistemological project integrate with a deontological view, a theory of duty. In addition, this deontology does not rely on a divine command theory of morality. Instead, Kant holds that moral duty is ultimately a rational feature of humanity and, as such, is a form of self-legislation.

Deontology and Consequentialism

Like the aforementioned contemporaries, Kant's moral theory is also duty based: it is a deontological ethical theory. As such, it stands in stark contrast to consequentialist moral theories, which hold that an action's moral worth is determined by its consequences. Perhaps the best known consequentialist theory is utilitarianism, a version of hedonism.


Hedonism has been promoted in various forms since the ancient Greeks. Epicurus, founder of a hedonistic theory known as Epicureanism, promoted the idea that a happy life is a pleasurable life. A pleasurable life, in turn, is one free of both physical pain and psychological disturbances, the latter of which is a particularly insidious form of pain. A pain-free life is achieved by moderation. A person following this theory does not, for example, drink or eat too much, because these activities lead to both short- and long-term pains.

Utilitarianism's founding proponent, English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, endorsed the view that the root of morality is happiness. Happiness, defined as pleasure, is the only inherently good thing: Any action that produces pleasure is good. In his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), Bentham developed a hedonic calculus—a measuring tool to determine the quantity of pleasure derived by a certain action. For an action whose result involves only the agent's pleasure, the intensity, duration, certainty or uncertainty, and proximity or remoteness of the pleasure determine the value of the action. These criteria, along with the action's ability to produce more such pleasure, the purity of the pleasure, and the number of people affected by the action, are the instruments by which one can measure actions that affect others.

In addition, when considering an action's value in terms of how it will affect multiple people, the agent must consider whether the pleasure produced by the action will itself yield more pleasure: whether there is any admixture of pain in the action's consequence, or subsequent to it, and whether the action will produce pleasure for those concerned.

The aim of producing pleasure must also be balanced, Bentham holds, against potential pains. For example, an action that produces a short-term pleasure, followed by long-term pain, is not as good as one that produces a long-term pleasure followed by a short-term pain. Of course, in Bentham's view, the avoidance of pain altogether is best.

John Stuart Mill and Utilitarianism

Bentham's successor, John Stuart Mill, agrees that producing the greatest amount of pleasure—which he calls happiness—for the greatest number of people concerned is the fundamental moral principle. However, he parts ways from Bentham by introducing a qualitative distinction between pleasures. He identifies so-called higher pleasures generally with intellectual pursuits and lower pleasures with things like bodily satisfactions. In his Utilitarianism (1863), Mill asserts, "It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides."

Mill's point is that human happiness is tied to intellectual capacities. A pig can't be more satisfied than it is when it rolls around in mud and does other things that pigs do. A fool, on the other hand, can do more than the human equivalent of rolling around in mud. Consequently, a fool will not be as happy as Socrates because the latter spends his time developing his intellect—in his case, by philosophizing. Moreover, the difference between Socrates and the fool is that the fool hasn't experienced the intellectual pleasures and so has no idea of how enjoyable they are. Socrates, on the other hand, has experienced both the intellectual and the baser pleasures—in Plato's Symposium, for example Socrates has joined a drinking party but does not get drunk. Consequently, he's in a better position to judge which type of pleasure is best.

Utilitarianism's general principles were outlined both before and roughly contemporary with Kant's formulation of his theory of deontology. While he does not refer to the philosophy by name, he refutes the notions of both pleasure and consequences as measures of morality, insisting that the only "pure" measure of morality is in the law, which he defines as one's obligation to duty.

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