of volition

Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals

The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals or Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, 1785), Immanuel Kant's first contribution to moral philosophy, argues for an a priori basis for morality. Where the Critique of Pure Reason laid out Kant's metaphysical and epistemological ideas, this relatively short, primarily meta-ethical, work was intended to outline and define the concepts and arguments shaping his future work The Metaphysics of Morals. However, the latter work is much less read than the Groundwork.

The Groundwork is notable for its explanation of the categorical imperative, which is the central concept of Kant’s moral philosophy.

The Groundwork is broken into a preface, followed by three sections. Kant's argument works from common reason up to the supreme unconditional law, in order to identify its existence. He then works backwards from there to prove the relevance and weight of the moral law. The third and final section of the book is famously obscure, and it is partly because of this that Kant later, in 1788, decides to publish the Critique of Practical Reason.

The categorical imperative

The categorical imperative is the centerpiece of the Groundwork. Although it may seem superficially similar to the Golden Rule, it is in no way equivalent to it. The Golden Rule demands that one's actions conform to one's own standard, whereas Kant's moral imperative places the standard for moral good elsewhere. He states that people should always be treated with respect to their personhood and dignity. People must always be treated as ends in themselves and can be treated as a means to an end, but never only as a means.

Consider the example of the liar. The Golden Rule allows that lying to others may be acceptable under some situations, yet the categorical imperative determines lying immoral without exception. This could be considered to be a flaw in the Golden Rule; one corrected by insisting that actions must be universalizable to be moral, and by insisting that morality cannot be merely a matter of preference or taste.

Kant expanded and elucidated these ideas further in some of his later works, primarily the Critique of Practical Reason (1788) – informally referred to as his Second Critique, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793), and the Metaphysics of Morals (1797).


In establishing the a priori, rational basis for morality, Kant uses the notion of a maxim: a formulation of the subjective principle of volition, or in other words, a rule followed in any deliberately intentional act. Actions that have moral worth are determined to fall into one of the five formulations of the categorical imperative. Each one describes the universal law of morality somewhat differently, but they are merely intended to demonstrate different aspects of the one supreme and universal law.

However, a maxim has no moral worth if, (1) it cannot be universalized without contradicting its own end, (2) if the subjective content of the maxim is such that it treats the humanity in oneself or others as a vehicle towards one's end, or (3), if the subjective content of the maxim is inconsistent with the will making one's rational autonomy an object of respect.

It is important to note that in Kant's Groundwork, he is concerned with offering explanation about the purely formal (negative or limiting) aspects of his moral philosophy. Thus, actions either have moral worth, or they do not; at the time he was writing, it was most important to establish what actions were morally unlawful - that is, what we ought not to do - before moving deeper into his theory.

Common sense of duty

Kant states that there is nothing "...which can be regarded as good without qualification, except a good will. A good will is the moral compass that always seeks good; even if a person fails, it is not the fault of the good will but of his/her ability to carry it out.

In chapter one, Kant explains what is commonly meant by moral obligations and duty. It is fairly common sense, he says, that when an act is done out of inclination to yourself, it is not considered moral. For example, a shopkeeper with honest prices does so foremost to be respected by his customers, not for the sake of honesty. That person "deserves praise and encouragement, but not esteem." It is common knowledge that the people for whom there is no reward are acting the most morally. Kant expands this to say they are the only people acting morally. We esteem a person who gives up his life because he gains nothing. "Duty is the necessity to act out of reverence for the [moral] law." Following the moral law, the intrinsic sense of right and wrong, is the greatest obligation.

Four cases of ethical action

In the Groundwork, Kant outlined four possible cases where a decision is carried out in respect to duty.

  • Case 1 involves those actions which are contrary to duty (such as stealing)
  • Case 2 involves actions which are dutiful but only done because of fear of penalty or sanction (such as paying taxes)
  • Case 3 involves actions which accord with duty but which the person is already inclined towards as it is pleasurable in some way (such as a labour of love)
  • Case 4 involves actions which accord with duty but are contrary to inclination (such as not committing suicide, despite being in unbearable distress)

Examples of moral conduct used in the Groundwork

In order to illustrate his philosophy, Kant uses four examples of what he considers immoral conduct throughout the Groundwork:

  1. One who is sick of life and contemplating suicide
  2. One who wants to make a false promise so as to secure a loan that he does not intend to repay
  3. One who does not wish to pursue a special talent that benefits society
  4. One who is financially secure and does not donate to charity

On the Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns

Published as a supplement to the Groundwork, On the Supposed Right to Lie because of Philanthropic Concerns Kant examines again the example of lying. Let us determine if this behavior is immoral, according to Kant's contradiction test. If the behavior leads to a contradiction (is internally incoherent or cannot be willed by an agent) then the behavior is immoral. Lies only work in an overall environment of truthfulness. One still wants everyone else to tell the truth, since if everyone else were to lie then no one would believe anything anyone said, and lies would no longer be effective. Thus, we cannot will that our subjective maxim of lying be universalized without self-contradiction; if everyone were to do it then the behavior would not work. Thus, in this system lying is immoral.

For further normative interpretation of these examples see categorical imperative

Kant's argument: autonomy and freedom

Why should we want to act morally? That is, why should we will in a rationally consistent manner? Why can't I make an exception of my self and for my case? Kant's arguments stem from the concept of freedom. Kant argues that the very idea of morality, the limiting of yourself from engaging in certain behaviors because they are 'immoral', is the highest expression of the concept of freedom.

Freedom, at least, means freedom from being influenced by outside forces, influences external to a person and their mind. For example, if a person is influenced by want of an object, or fame or revenge, or for any other reason, then Kant would say that they are not free; they are beholden (enslaved) to these outside influences. The state of being beholden to these outside influences Kant labelled as heteronomy. But freedom, for Kant, also means adhering to the moral law -- having one's will determined not, as above, externally, but only by its own nature. The state of being free is the state of one's will being autonomy, literally, in the state of "giving the law to oneself."

"Autonomy of the will is the property that the will has of being a law to itself (independently of any property of the objects of volition)"

This can be contrasted with:

"If the will seeks the law that is to determine it anywhere but in the fitness of its maxims for its own legislation of universal laws, and if it thus goes outside of itself and seeks this law in the character of any of its objects, then heteronomy always results."

If one wishes to be autonomous then one must not be compelled to act by external influences but instead be governed by one's own mind and rational thoughts. One such logical principle is the law of non-contradiction. P and not P (P and ~P) cannot exist simultaneously. For example, the snow is either white or not white, it cannot be both white and not white at the same time.

To act rationally is to abide (at least) by the law of non-contradiction, here, not willing that something be both true and false simultaneously. Thus if a person engages in any behavior that is not governed by rational thought (i.e. is being irrational) then they are being influenced by external forces and are then beholden to these external forces (again like wants for objects, desires). Immorality, then, is simply and deeply irrational. Not being free is to have abandoned one's rational faculties. If, by contrast, the behavior is governed by rational thought, and thus not contradictory, then that behavior is permissible.

Not all external forces are external to the person, however. Inclinations such as greed or anger can be a part of a person, but are still external to the will. This is a clear example where Kant's view of freedom differs from the opposing view of the freedom to do what one wants. When consumed by anger, people want to do certain things. But once the haze clears up, they realize that they did something morally wrong (such as hurting another person). They were driven by factors external to their will. Inclinations, then, enslave us at times, and Kant's theory of freedom is one of the few that take this into account.

Kant and utilitarianism

Throughout his work, Kant does not encourage acting in order to attain happiness or any supreme state of pleasure. That action is also the source of all sorts of evil, so it cannot be both good and evil. "They can also be extremely bad and hurtful . . . power, wealth, honour, even health and that complete well-being and contentment with one’s state which goes by the name of ‘happiness.’" (p 61, emphasis his) The categorical imperative demands that we work for the universal good without any regard for our own happiness.

In the same way, our actions towards others should be irrelevant of our own happiness. "[E]very rational being, exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means for arbitrary use." By nature of being rational deserves what Kant calls an end, "a subjective ground of its self-determination.” In simple words, when we ignore ourselves and think of the good of another, we will treat them well.

Critical reaction

In his book On the Basis of Morality (1840), Arthur Schopenhauer presented a careful analysis of the Groundwork. Schopenhauer's criticism of Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals is an attempt to prove, among other things, that actions are not moral when they are performed solely from duty. Schopenhauer specifically targeted the Categorical Imperative, and labeled it cold and egoistic. While Schopenhauer publicly called himself a Kantian, and made clear and bold criticisms of Hegelian philosophy, he was quick and unrelenting in his analysis of Kant's inconsistencies throughout his long body of work.

English Editions and Translations

*1949 Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals, tr. Thomas Kingsmill Abbott (1829-1913); introduction by Marvin Fox. Indianapolis, NY: Bobbs-Merrill.
*2005 Fundamental principles of the metaphysics of ethics, tr. Thomas Kingsmill Abbott (1829-1913). Mineola, NY: Dover Publications. ISBN 0486443094 (pbk.)
*2005 Groundwork for the metaphysics of morals, tr. Thomas Kingsmill Abbott (1829-1913), edited with revisions by Lara Denis (1969-). Peterborough, Ont.; Orchard Park, NY: Broadview Press. ISBN 1551115395

  • 1938 The fundamental principles of the metaphysic of ethics., tr. Otto Manthey-Zorn (1879-). New York, London: D. Appleton-Century Company, Incorporated.
  • 1948 The moral law, tr, Herbert James Paton (1887-). London, New York: Hutchinson’s University Library.

*1967 The moral law; Kant’s Groundwork of the metaphysic of morals, tr. Herbert James Paton (1887-). New York, Barnes & Noble.
*1991 The moral law : Kant’s groundwork of the metaphysic of morals, tr. Herbert James Paton (1887-). London; New York: Routledge. ISBN 0415078431

  • 1959 Foundations of the metaphysics of morals, and What is enlightenment? translated, with an introduction by Lewis White Beck (1913-1997). New York: Liberal Arts Press.

*1969 Foundations of the metaphysics of morals, tr. Lewis White Beck (1913-1997), with critical essays edited by Robert Paul Wolff. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.
*1990 Foundations of the metaphysics of morals and What is enlightenment (Second Edition, Revised), translated, with an introduction by Lewis White Beck (1913-1997). New York: Macmillan; London Collier Macmillan. ISBN 0023078251

  • 1970 Kant on the foundation of morality; a modern version of the Grundlegung, translated with commentary by Brendan E. A. Liddell. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0253331714 (pbk)
  • 1981 Grounding for the metaphysics of morals, tr. James Wesley Ellington (1927-). Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co. ISBN 0915145014, ISBN 0915145006 (pbk.)

*1983 Ethical philosophy : the complete texts of Grounding for the metaphysics of morals, and Metaphysical principles of virtue, part II of The metaphysics of morals, tr. James Wesley Ellington (1927-); introduction by Warner A. Wick. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co. ISBN 091514543X (pbk.), ISBN 0915145448 (hard)
*1993 Grounding for the metaphysics of morals; with, On a supposed right to lie because of philanthropic concerns (Third Edition), tr. James Wesley Ellington (1927-). Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co. ISBN 0872201678, ISBN 087220166X (pbk. : alk. paper)
*1994 Ethical philosophy : the complete texts of grounding for the metaphysics of morals and metaphysical principles of virtue, tr. James Wesley Ellington (1927-). Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub. ISBN 0872203212, ISBN 0872203204 (pbk.)


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