Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals | Study Guide

Immanuel Kant

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Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals | Quotes


The metaphysics of morals is to investigate the idea and the principles of a possible pure will.

Narrator, Preface

In the Groundwork Kant wishes to establish the plausibility of a nonempirical morality—a series of laws and codes.


The present groundwork is ... nothing more than the identification and corroboration of the supreme principle of morality.

Narrator, Preface

If reason alone can motivate moral action, then an analysis of moral action should establish the rational origin of morality, which is what Kant intends to prove.


A law, if it is to hold morally, i.e., as the ground of an obligation, must carry with it absolute necessity.

Narrator, Preface

A purely rational moral law admits no exceptions; it commands absolutely. Later, Kant will describe this as a categorical imperative.


It is impossible to think of anything ... that could be ... good without limitation, except a good will.

Narrator, Section 1

Everything except the good will is good only with some qualification or condition. That is, everything except the good will is good for some end or other. The good will alone is the only thing that is unconditionally good, or good in itself.


A good will is good not because of what it effects ... but ... just by its willing.

Narrator, Section 1

What makes the good will good is that the good is willed, not that it accomplishes anything good. One can say, for example, that exercise is good for improved strength, endurance, and health. It is good, in other words, because of its consequences. A good will, on the other hand, is not made good by any outcome but by the will itself.


[Reason's] true function must be to produce a will that is good.

Narrator, Section 1

Reason's purpose, ultimately, is to generate a good will. This is the consequence of an argument Kant advances: reason is not entirely competent to direct the will to achieve the satisfaction of our needs. It does not, for example, provide a template for achieving happiness. It must, therefore, have some other purpose. This purpose, Kant concludes, is the production of a good will.


Duty is the necessity of an action from respect for law.

Narrator, Section 1

The concept of duty is familiar to almost everyone. It is a common way of thinking about morality. Kant defines duty as the obligation to act for the sake of the law. The respect inspired by the law creates the commitment, the recognition, that one is bound by the law.


An action from duty is to separate off entirely the influence of inclination.

Narrator, Section 1

Kant thinks human beings are motivated either by reason or inclination. Because inclination cannot be universalized or controlled, it cannot be the source of our conception of duty. Instead, only reason can generate it. Once inclination—personal desire, feelings, and the like—is removed, only respect for reason is left to motivate the will.


The moral worth of the action does not lie in the effect that is expected from it.

Narrator, Section 1

Kant here rejects the consequentialist view of ethics, which holds that an action's rightness or wrongness is determined by its consequences. Instead, he claims that the consequences of an action are irrelevant to that action's moral worth.


Pure respect for the practical law is that which constitutes duty.

Narrator, Section 1

Moral motivation is devoid of any empirical element. In other words, to be morally motivated is to act solely from respect for the moral law without needing any sensory experience such as empathy or joy to accompany it. Such a moral motivation makes the will intrinsically good.


All imperatives command either hypothetically, or categorically.

Narrator, Section 2

Reason can provide two types of imperative: those that tell one what one must do to achieve a certain goal, and those that tell one what one must always or never do. The former are hypothetical imperatives, in which reason has a sort of instrumental value, in that it is used to determine what step or steps one must take to achieve the desired goal. The latter are categorical imperatives, in which reason's value is to command without exception—reason dictates what one must always do or not do under the relevant conditions.


Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.

Narrator, Section 2

This statement is Kant's famous "categorical imperative," in which he states that the only way we know a moral action is just is if it can always be applied in any context as just.


Act that you use humanity ... always ... as an end, never merely as a means.

Narrator, Section 2

Kant articulates the formula of humanity to reflect the dignity of persons. No one ought to be used merely as a means by another person because each person is an end in himself or herself—no person can be traded, effectively, for some perceived good, as, for example, one trades a material object for money.


Act according to the maxims of a member universally legislating for a merely possible kingdom of ends.

Narrator, Section 2

If each person is an end in himself or herself, collectively they constitute a moral community, or an ideal "kingdom of ends." Each person's maxim must contribute to, rather than detract from, that community. Kant recognizes that this "kingdom" is theoretical, but he believes morality is possible only if we behave in a practical fashion.


A will is a kind of causality of living beings ... and freedom [is the] property of such a causality.

Narrator, Section 3

If human beings are merely bodies, they are subject to the laws of nature. As such, they are not free. If, on the other hand, human beings are also rational, then they can be motivated by reason's demands. Metaphorically speaking, the will lies between reason (freedom) and inclination (natural causation). When motivated by reason, the will serves as its own cause.

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