Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals | Study Guide

Immanuel Kant

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Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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Immanuel Kant's Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals is a major work of moral philosophy and an essential text of the continental philosophical tradition. Published in 1785, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals was Kant's first venture into philosophical ethics. Kant formulates one of his most well-known philosophical ideas: the categorical imperative. The categorical imperative offers a guide for moral conduct, claiming that any ethical decision a person makes should still be viable if it were turned into a "universal principle," or a moral law everyone followed. Kant's view of human morality, therefore, relies heavily on the notion of duty—the concept that people have an obligation to act in accordance with moral principles and to act unethically is to violate this inherent human responsibility. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals is often regarded as Kant's most important philosophical treatise, and it is used to introduce ethical thought in philosophy classes around the world.

1. One of Kant's treatises helped inspire the creation of the United Nations.

Kant's philosophical legacy lives on in the form of the world's international governing institution. The United Nations as we know it was predated by the League of Nations—a collective of countries formed in 1920 in response to the catastrophic violence of World War I. Kant first advocated the idea of a body of international governance and regulation, claiming it would prevent economic and territorial disputes between sovereign nations from escalating into war. He proposed this idea in his 1795 essay "Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch" more than a century before the League of Nations was founded. President Woodrow Wilson relied on this text heavily while crafting his vision for the League of Nations. Although the League of Nations failed to become what Wilson envisioned—ironically because the United States itself failed to join—the formation of the United Nations in 1945 finally saw Wilson's visions, and Kant's, realized.

2. A discussion of Kant's philosophy ended in a gunfight in 2013.

Philosophical debates are often thought of as dry and full of lofty questions that only lead to more questions, but they are rarely violent. This wasn't the case during a 2013 argument between friends in Rostov, Russia. Allegedly the two men were waiting in line to buy beer when their discussion of Kant's philosophical works led to intense disagreement—and a gunfight. One of the men was shot, but luckily the weapon only contained rubber bullets. The Russian philosopher Anna Alexandrova joked the incident represented "two beloved Russian habits: deep conversations over alcohol, and using intellectual and spiritual pretexts for violence."

3. Critics have found section 3 of Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals to be notoriously obscure.

One particular section of Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals—section 3, titled "Transition from Metaphysics of Morals to the Critique of Pure Practical Reason"—has befuddle philosophers. The reason for this confusion seems to be that Kant was working on two "projects" simultaneously in the chapter: the analysis of the categorical imperative (which he began in section 2) and the synthesis of his prior arguments in accord with proof that human beings have free will and rational agency. Sometimes Kant seems to blur the lines between the analytic and synthetic aspects of his arguments in the sections, leading to a text that philosopher Paul Guyer describes as "obscure and vexing."

4. A notorious Nazi leader invoked Kant's categorical imperative during his trial for war crimes.

Adolf Eichmann was a leader during Nazi Germany's campaigns in World War II and a principal organizer of the Holocaust. Eichmann was put on trial for war crimes in 1961, and he turned to Kant's philosophy to justify his decisions during the war. Eichmann's defense rested on Kant's notion of the categorical imperative, as he claimed his actions were borne from "duty"—a concept Kant relies on heavily. When questioned in court about the relation between his war crimes, including the organization of the Holocaust, and the concept of categorical imperative, Eichmann responded:

I meant by this that the principle of my volition and the principle of my life must be such that it could at any time be raised to be the principle of general legislation, as Kant more or less puts it in his categorical imperative.

However, famous political theorist Hannah Arendt noted his defense held no value in Kantian terms, writing:

This was outrageous, on the face of it, and also incomprehensible, since Kant's moral philosophy is so closely bound up with man's faculty of judgment, which rules out blind obedience.

5. Pope Francis used Kant's work to condemn consumerism.

Pope Francis has relied on Kant's notion of the categorical imperative to address the global problem of overconsumption of resources. The pope believed a worldwide system of distribution and consumption in which a minority consumes a great percentage of food and goods is inherently immoral because it defies Kant's notion of universalization—in other words, the present levels of consumption wouldn't be sustainable if they were extended to everyone universally. The pope described his view on the matter in relation to growing populations around the world, claiming:

To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has a right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption.

6. Kant's moral thought is often taught in elementary schools—as the "golden rule."

Despite its philosophical complexity, a highly "watered down" version of Kant's categorical imperative often works its way into elementary school curriculums. The "golden rule"—treat others the way you wish to be treated—is, in a way, a very simple form of Kant's principle of universalization stated by the categorical imperative. However, some scholars have noted there are actually very notable differences between the golden rule and the categorical imperative, and they proved it using thought experiments. The most commonly cited differentiating factor between the two is known as the "masochist example," which posits "with the Golden rule a masochist or a sadist would be justified in causing or receiving pain. This is not what the Kantian Principle would support."

7. Some of Kant's philosophical ideas are notably homophobic.

While Kant's Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals was a groundbreaking treatise of moral philosophy, contemporary scholars have noted some of his philosophical ideas presented in other works attempt to justify homophobic thought. In his Lectures on Ethics Kant posited that homosexuality was "contrary" to humanity's implicit goal of reproduction and continuation as a species. Critics have found Kant's description of homosexuality as "degrading" to the individual to be particularly harmful and offensive, as he writes homosexuality is:

contrary to the ends of humanity; for the end of humanity in respect of sexuality is to preserve the species without debasing the person, but in this instance the species is not preserved ... but the person is set aside, the self degraded below the level of animals, and humanity is dishonored.

8. When Kant's body was exhumed, his forehead became a subject of fascination.

Beyond his philosophical prowess, Kant became renowned posthumously for one particular thing: his giant forehead. Kant's body was exhumed from its grave years after his death to be transferred to a new burial spot in Russia, and doctors saw this as an opportunity to measure his notably broad forehead. It was found that Kant's skull was larger than average German males—a fact doctors at the time incorrectly attributed to his high level of intelligence. The philosopher's skull size had no actual medical correlation to his intellect, and it wasn't considered a deformity—just a notably larger-than-usual head. Kant's forehead is noticeable in paintings from the 18th century, in which it seems to take up a sizable percentage of the canvas.

9. During his life Kant never traveled far beyond his hometown.

Although Kant's philosophical thought would spread around the world, the philosopher never traveled far. Kant was born in the city of Königsberg in East Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia), and he reportedly barely left his hometown. There are no records of Kant traveling farther than 60 miles outside Königsberg. Despite being one of the most famous continental European philosophers, Kant never saw any of the great cities whose citizens and governments were influenced by his work.

10. Kant once received a very stern reprimand from the king of Prussia.

Kant was once threatened by a very powerful enemy—the king of his native Prussia. King Friedrich Wilhelm II was a devoutly spiritual man and took offense to Kant "denigrating Christianity"—namely his advocacy of philosophical reason applied to religious thought. The king ordered Kant to cease all public talks and lectures on the topic of Christianity, threatening "unpleasant measures" if the philosopher refused to comply. Kant replied to the monarch that he would obey this command but also noted he hadn't specifically evaluated Christianity in his texts on spiritual reason. After the death of Friedrich Wilhelm II, Kant resumed writing and speaking on religious matters.

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