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Kant Groundwork Of The Metaphysics Of Morals Summary

Sandra Watson
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Summary of Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals
Defines metaphysics as pure philosophy limited to “determinate objects of the
understanding.” There can be both a metaphysics of nature (of physics) and of morals
(ethics), the second of which can be broken down into the empirical (practical anthropology)
and the rational (morals). But for Kant, this division is not akin to the division of labor,
because pure reason will arrive at the proper conclusion regardless of the number of people
working on it. The goal of the groundwork is to work out a “pure moral philosophy” free of all
empirical grounding. What is ethical must be done for the sake of the law, not merely be the
same as the law because then it would be mere coincidence (it wouldn’t matter if I happen to
not lie — I have to not lie because I recognize the ethical demand on me). But the
groundwork is not meant to be his definitive statement on morals, since he has to write the
critique of practical reason first. Regardless, Kant will attempt to work from common rational
moral cognition to a supreme principle, and then to test that principle in the second and third
First Section: Transition from Common Rational Moral Cognition to Philosophical Moral
A good will is the only thing that can be good without limitation, since all other good things
are contingent on it. Some things might be conducive to good will (moderation, for example),
but could easily be used for evil. Good will is good not because of what it accomplishes, but
through the act of willing in itself.
Kant accepts the proposition a priori that whatever instrument is found in man, it must be the
most appropriate instrument for it. Thus, it cannot be that happiness is the highest attribute
since reason is not at all conducive for it (instinct would work much better). Nature would
have limited man’s reason from the realm of happiness and entrusted man’s happiness to
instinct alone. Instead, Kant points out that reason in the realm of happiness actually leads to
a lack of contentment, or a “hatred of reason.” However, reason is a practical faculty
(influence over the will), yet does not necessarily lead to happiness, its true use must be to
produce a “will good in itself”
Kant then turns to the concept of duty which “elevates” the good will. His test case is an
action which is in conformity to duty, since one which is in opposition to duty would be too
easy to distinguish the causation. For example, the preservation of ones life is a duty, but
people do this would of self interest, not because it is a duty. The maxim is only moral when
his self-inclination is removed (if he were suicidal, yet chose to keep living because of his
duty). Moreover, it is a moral act not when someone sympathetic takes inner gratification
from donating to the poor; instead, it is moral when someone who has absolutely no interest
in donating to the poor does so out of duty. Or, more famously, love thy neighbor and thy
enemy. This is Kant’s first proposition: an action has moral worth only if it is done out of duty.



Kant Groundwork Of The Metaphysics Of Morals Summary

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