Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals | Study Guide

Immanuel Kant

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Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals | Section 1 : Transition from Common Rational to Philosophic Moral Cognition | Summary



Our ordinary ways of thinking about morality, Kant believes, reflect a commitment to a universal moral law. Upon examination of the good will, which is the only thing in the universe that is unconditionally good, Kant finds a will motivated to act from a respect for duty, regardless of competing interests. Duty, in turn, is "the necessity of action from respect for the law." The moral law is that one must act only on a maxim that can become a universal law.

Kant presents important topics and concepts in this chapter. For the purpose of analysis they have been broken out by subhead.

The Good Will

The investigation into "the supreme principle of morality" begins in an analysis of what Kant calls "common cognition"—how people generally think about morality. He begins with an account of the good will, which is unconditionally good. All other things that can be said to be good are only conditionally good. This means that, under certain conditions, these same things could be bad. For example, "talents of the mind," such as intellect, can become good or bad, depending on how they are used. Similarly, "gifts of fortune," such as health or wealth, can become negative. Neither is unconditionally good; each requires a good will.

Moreover, a good will is a requirement of one's worthiness of happiness. Rather than equating morality with happiness, morality is entirely independent of it. Indeed, being moral may not guarantee one is or becomes happy, but it surely is a condition for one's being deserving of it.

Because the good will is good without qualification, it is good in itself—intrinsically or inherently good. In order to be good, a good will doesn't have to do anything except will the good. Thus, the consequences of the action undertaken by a good will have no effect on the goodness of the will. Actions are right, therefore, not for their results but for the motive that initiated the action. "Like a jewel, [such a will] would still shine by itself," even if it is unable to bring about the state of affairs at which its action aims.


People recognize morality as a duty. Because human beings are not exclusively rational, morality presents itself as a command. People are often inclined to do what satisfies this or that urge or desire, so morality has to appear as a command, rather than a matter of course. In other words, if people were perfectly rational, they would simply do what is right—there would not be any counter-motivation. Consequently, the good will is the will that acts according to the dictate of duty, and for the sake of duty.

To will is to follow an internal command—one says to oneself, "Do this." An act of will is contrasted with an action done from inclination. Inclinations are essentially selfish motives. Acts of will are motivated rationally. To be motivated to act from a good will is to be motivated to do one's duty, rather than to follow inclination. Indeed, the less one wants to perform one's duty, the more clearly visible is the moral worth of the action. Someone whose acts are in accordance with duty, or whose inclinations (self-interests) are in line with duty, is not as morally praiseworthy as the one who has acted solely from duty.

Motivation to Act

Kant lays out four cases that clarify the concept of duty by isolating motives for acting:

  1. An action that is contrary to duty, though still useful for some purpose,
  2. An action that conforms to duty but is performed in order to satisfy a self-serving interest,
  3. An action that conforms to duty but is performed in order to satisfy an immediate inclination, and
  4. An action performed for the sake of duty and against the inclination to do otherwise.

Kant offers examples of Cases 2, 3, and 4.

Case 2: Suppose a shopkeeper does not overcharge any customer. Suppose further that this action conforms to duty, that is, the action is in accordance with duty. Now suppose the shopkeeper's motivation is to preserve his reputation in the community—he does not want to become known as someone who cheats customers when he can, because such a reputation will damage his business. His motivation is, then, self-serving.

Case 3: The same shopkeeper does not overcharge his customers because he is immediately inclined this way. In other words he cares about his customers—he loves them—and does not want to show preference to one customer over another by charging different prices. His motivation is the immediate inclination associated with his sentiment.

Case 4: A person wants to die but does not commit suicide. Most people's inclinations are to preserve their lives, but in this case the person wants to die. Indeed, all inclination is pushing this person toward suicide, but the act is not carried out. This person "wishes for death, and yet preserves his life, without loving it, not from inclination, or fear, but from duty."

The Form of Morality

One who acts from duty is acting from a formal principle (a generalized maxim) rather than self-interest. This principle must be abstract (purely rational) in order to guide one under any possible set of circumstance, and must have the force of a law—that is, the binding power of a command. This law commands as follows: "I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law."

Kant defines a maxim as "the subjective principle of willing." Each person develops a personal rule or policy that guides and explains action. "Why did you do X?" is answered by a maxim. According to Kant, a maxim that is properly moral is one that can be universalized. He offers an example of what universalizing a maxim involves. Suppose one considers making a "lying promise," that is, a promise that one does not intend to keep. One is capable of lying, but should one adopt lying as one's personal rule for acting? In other words does one say, "I will lie when it suits my purposes," and make it a habitual practice?

One may think it prudent not to lie, because doing so could create more problems later on. One cannot, of course, foresee the future. Alternatively one may think lying does not conform to duty, because one cannot will that everyone lie when it suits their purposes without also committing oneself to a world in which no one can be taken at their word—that is the maxim, universalized. A world in which people do not keep their promises defeats the purpose of wanting to lie in the first place. It is, as a practical matter, contradictory. Lying also contradicts the concept of promise keeping. Insofar as the liar wishes to be an exception to the rule that everyone keeps their promises, the liar wants to preserve both lying and not lying.


People generally think that some actions are morally good and others are morally bad. Kant wants to analyze these actions to show what makes them morally good or bad. In other words, by analyzing the concept of a moral action, Kant thinks he can uncover the fundamental meaning of morality.

The Moral Person

Kant begins the first section of Groundwork by locating morality not in the act but in the will to perform the act. A moral person is one who attempts to do "the good" purely for its own sake. The consequences of the attempt are irrelevant to its value. No other human characteristic has this feature. In fact, as Kant points out, those features with which or into which one is born—intelligence or wealth, for example—cannot be good without a good will and are, therefore, not unconditionally good.

Unlike those thinkers who state that being happy and causing happiness in others makes a person moral, Kant asserts the opposite: being a good person makes one deserving of happiness. However, we have no guarantee that being moral will make us happy; it only makes us deserving of happiness. This explains both the discomfort felt at seeing a terrible person happy and a good person unhappy. Happiness, then, is not unconditionally good, either.

It is important to bear in mind that Kant does not equate willing the good with mere wishing. The will is not an intention or a desire. The will is the "summoning of all means that are within our control." So, for example, if one sees a child drowning in a pool of water, and it is one's duty to attempt to save that child, one marshals all the available means to do so. If one is, say, unable to swim, one can still call for help or try to find a tool with which to grab the child. Simply hoping for a good outcome or praying for the child's safety are insufficient on moral grounds.

Because the good will is the only unconditionally good thing in the universe, this is what Kant must analyze as he attempts to identify the ultimate moral principle. First, Kant distinguishes those actions that conform to duty as being either "done from duty or from a self-serving purpose." In other words there are actions that appear moral because they look as if one has done one's duty—and one may in fact have done one's duty—and then there are those actions that are moral because they are truly done from one's duty.

Kant's Two Examples

Kant provides examples to clarify what it means to be motivated from duty, rather than from self-interest or immediate inclination: the shopkeeper and the suicidal man. The shopkeeper can be motivated by self-interest, as when he does not overcharge his customers because he wants to preserve his reputation. He can be motivated by feeling, as when he does not overcharge his customers because he cares about them. In neither case does the shopkeeper act from duty—his motive in each case is not respect for duty. Instead, his actions accord with duty; they do not spring from it. In other words the shopkeeper has done the right thing but not for the right reason.

The suicidal man is the one whose action not only accords with duty—he does the right thing by not killing himself—but is also undertaken for the sake of duty. In this case the man's motivation for not killing himself is duty. Acting from duty, rather than merely in accordance with it, is, Kant thinks, the only way one can be sure that one has acted rightly. After all, inclinations ebb and flow. One may be inclined to do what is right one day but not the next. It may serve one's purpose to do what is right one year but not the next. Consequently, neither immediate inclination—that is, how one feels at any moment—nor self-interest—that is, consideration of long-term consequence—has the requisite stability. To be universally moral, one must reason outside of personal interests and circumstances.

Moreover, moral motivation can't be accidental. In other words it can't be by chance that one feels the right way or has the right interest. Moral motivation must be equally accessible and equally controllable. Kant thinks it must be possible for anyone to be motivated to be moral; it must be possible that anyone can achieve moral worth. One cannot control one's inclinations. Consequently, if morality is rooted in one's disposition by nature or upbringing, morality becomes a matter of chance.

On the other hand, one's rational capacity puts being moral under one's control. A person can recognize what is reasonable to do and do it precisely because it is reasonable. When they recognize their duty, they recognize what reason requires. There may indeed be competing motivations, which can lead one away from duty, but this does not prevent a person from recognizing the rational obligation. Being motivated by duty is, then, what bestows moral worth on the agent.

Kant's analysis of the good will finds that "ordinary moral consciousness" implies a commitment to a universal moral law, which in Section 2 he will identify as the categorical imperative. Given what he has so far articulated, it is worth bearing in mind that Kant does not think he has proven that one can always know that one has acted from duty. Instead, he has shown what acting from duty means. So, in practice, one cannot be certain that one's motivation to act was duty or inclination.

People may not, in fact, be free in the way required by moral motivation. A dog or a cat, for example, acts from inclination. Humans have inclinations as well, but they also have the rational capacity to recognize duty. Kant attempts to show that, even if humans are not free (in which case there would be no such thing as moral worth), only the good will, as well as the moral principle that underlies it, meets the requirements reflected in the concept of duty.

For Kant, this is an important distinction, because he does not presume to know whether humans are free. Instead, he chooses to act as though we are, in a philosophical method he describes as practical reasoning. This aspect of his philosophy keeps Kant's work relevant into the 21st century, even as biological scientists continue to discover more about the ways our genes, hormones, and brains determine our behavior. "Biological determinism" may suggest a reason why we act the way we do, but humans still go through the motions of reasoning through our choices. Therefore, Kant might argue, we should employ his categorical imperatives as we do so.

Consider again how often circumstances present themselves as choices for acting. Suppose one witnesses a traffic accident in which a pedestrian has been hit by a car. It seems clear that at least two choices present themselves: drive on, or stop to help. It also seems clear, according to Kant, that one of those choices presents itself as obligatory: one says to oneself, "I could do this, but I ought to do that." Instead, the thought that one ought to stop to render aid reflects not only the belief that, in Kant's view, there is one right thing to do but also the assumption that one can do it, or do otherwise.

Making the Bridge to Section 2

A final insight on duty will aid a transition to Section 2. Toward the end of Section 1, Kant articulates duty in terms of universalizing maxims. When one explains why one has done something one thinks is moral, one appeals to what one takes to be good. One can explain why one eats fruits and vegetables in terms of conditions for a healthy lifestyle, by which one means one thinks it's good to be healthy. One's maxim is essentially a generalized but subjective statement of one's policy about acting. It is generalized across instances but is subjective in that it accounts for the person's understanding of the person's circumstances. So, for example, the general maxim that one should do things that improve one's health cuts across ways in which one can promote one's health—eating certain foods, exercising, and so forth—and allows for one to implement the maxim according to one's circumstances, such as what foods are available and when one can exercise.

The reader should notice that Kant here is moving in the direction of a more technical vocabulary for concepts introduced and analyzed in Section 1. First, he discusses duty as respect for the moral law. Second, he articulates the moral law in terms of the requirement "never to proceed except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law." The action is motivated by a respect for a principle that could apply equally to all people at all times. This test determines whether the principle is sound. Kant describes this principle as the "categorical imperative."

Kant focuses on one way a personal rule or policy is morally acceptable. Suppose a person thinks it's acceptable to make a lying promise whenever it seems necessary—the person needs some money, for example, but has no way to pay it back and so lies to a lender by promising to repay the loan. That person's maxim is something like this: "When I need money, I will lie to a lender." Upon reflection, that person should recognize that a lying promise is conceptually contradictory or self-defeating. In other words one cannot will that everyone lie when it suits them, because in a world where this occurs, no one would trust anyone enough to lend them money in the first place. The one who makes the lying promise to repay money cannot, then, use this as a rule for acting.

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