Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals | Study Guide

Immanuel Kant

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Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals | Preface | Summary



Kant accepts the philosophical framework first presented by the ancient Greek philosophers: physics, ethics, and logic. Physics is the study of the natural world, ethics the study of human conduct, and logic the study of rules of thinking. He further divides logic into empirical (a posteriori) or purely rational (a priori). Empirical philosophy focuses study on the objects of experience, while purely rational philosophy focuses on those concepts that are independent of all experience. While moral actions are observable, as they occur in the empirical world, the task of a metaphysics of morals is to develop a pure moral philosophy, which necessarily has its foundation, a priori, in reason.


In his Critique of Pure Reason Kant argues that human knowledge requires both sense experience and the purely conceptual framework that orders it. Such an argument severely restricts knowledge to the empirical realm. Moreover, there is a gap between human knowledge and the way things actually are—things in themselves. After all, human knowledge is structured according to pure concepts of the understanding, such as causation. There is no way around that to get at the way the world really is. Consequently, reason cannot establish the certainty of speculative metaphysical claims, such as the existence of God, freedom, and immortality. However, it can posit regulative ideas, or postulates of "practical reason." For example, humans can act "as if" they are free.

This very small part of Kant's monumental work provides some insight into how he establishes the plan for Groundwork. Kant recognizes that human beings not only know, but also act, in ways that generate praise or blame. Moreover, although moral action can be explained in empirical terms—morality as a matter of achieving happiness or reflecting human sentiments, such as empathy—a "practical anthropology" does not reflect morality's essence as a universally binding law. Such a law cannot be derived from experience, which is inevitably particularized, and as such, fundamentally relative. That which inspires empathy in one person may well inspire disdain in another. Only reason can serve as the legislator of morality by grounding it in rational concepts like duty.

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