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Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals

Immanuel Kant

Study Questions


Review Quiz

Kant argues that moral principles must be based on a priori concepts of reason, rather than circumstances, traditions, needs, desires, or other factors. Why is this the case? Do you agree with his analysis?

Kant argues that more principles must be valid for all rational beings in all circumstances. He further contends that actions are moral if and only if they are performed without ulterior motives, with no attention to consequences, and out of pure respect for morality. (Initially these propositions are based on general assumptions about morality, though in Chapter 3 Kant shows that they may be based on the concept of free will.) According to Kant, a priori concepts are the only possible basis for a formula that would meet these criteria. Any particular event or decision that we undergo will take place under particular circumstances; any tradition will depend on a particular history; any need or desire will depend on our particular personality. Only a priori concepts apply universally to all experiences of rational beings. Thus Kant concludes that the moral law must be derived a priori. Hegel and other philosophers have pointed out, however, that there are problems with this conclusion. In practice, moral decisions cannot be made a priori. They always take place within a particular society at a particular time, and moral intuitions must be based on social institutions and expectations. Without knowledge of the society in which we are living, we would not be able to tell whether our actions would help or hurt other people. (For more detail on this issue, see the Commentary on Chapter 1.)

Kant offers several formulations of the categorical imperative. What are they and how are they related?

Kant's first formulation of the categorical imperative is that we should act only on principles that we would want as universal laws. He writes that this formula could also be stated as a requirement that we act as though our action would make the principle of our action into a universal law of nature. Kant arrives at these formulations in seeking for some moral formula that could apply in all situations and circumstances. Only reason, he argues, can supply principles that are universally valid. When people act according to a principle that they would not want as a universal law, they contradict themselves, for they behave in a way that they would not want others to emulate. Self- contradiction is illogical, and so violates principles of reason. Kant's initial formulation of the categorical imperative provides a moral law based on this principle. From this initial formulation Kant derives his next formulation of the categorical imperative as a requirement that we never treat other people as mere means to our own ends. Kant argues that rational beings are "ends in themselves": they cannot view themselves as mere means to other purposes; rather, they always view themselves as the purpose of their actions. When we fail to respect the fact that other rational beings are ends in themselves just as we are, we advance principles that we would not want as universal laws, and we therefore contradict ourselves. Kant's final formulation of the categorical imperative follows easily from the earlier formulations. Kant's "kingdom of ends" is an ideal community in which all citizens are at once the authors and subjects of all laws. In this community, the only possible laws are laws that could apply to all rational beings. Thus the categorical imperative may be formulated as a requirement that we follow only those principles that could be laws in the kingdom of ends.

Kant argues that the concept of freedom is the basis for morality. Summarize his argument. Does Kant's understanding of freedom make sense to you?

Kant defines freedom as the ability to give yourself your own law. Whenever we obey the demands of physical needs, desires, or circumstances, or whenever we make a decision that considers the probable consequences of our action, we receive our motivation from something other than ourselves, and we are not free according to Kant's definition. Freedom, he argues, is possible only in a condition of "autonomy"--that is, of depending only on reason for our motives and principles. The categorical imperative is Kant's litmus test for determining whether our moral principles conform to reason. Thus, according to Kant, we are free only if we obey the categorical imperative. This account of freedom makes sense within Kant's system of concepts, but it seems to exclude certain possibilities. Kant argues that we are in a state of "heteronomy" (and therefore not free) whenever we follow some impulse that does not come from reason. Yet if we are genuinely free, then we should be able to choose options other than reason.

Do you agree with Kant's characterization of morality? Do you agree, for instance, that a moral action may be defined as an act undertaken for the sake of duty alone? Can you think of an alternative characterization that would be better than Kant's?

Kant repeatedly compares his analysis of morality with the views of ordinary people. He justifies his philosophy on the grounds that a clearer understanding of morals can strengthen our moral sense. What are the main similarities and differences between Kant's perspective and the perspective he attributes to ordinary people? Do you agree that engaging in moral philosophy in general or reading Kant's book in particular would help to strengthen the reader's moral sense?

Review Kant's distinction between "appearances" and "things in themselves." What implications does this distinction have for the concept of free will? What about other metaphysical concepts such as God and immortality?

What are the religious implications of Kant's argument in the Grounding? Would it be possible to agree with Kant and maintain a commitment to organized religion? If not, what advantages do organized religions have over Kant's perspective? What sort of religion would be consistent with Kant's analysis of morality?

One common criticism of Kant and other Enlightenment thinkers is that they assume that viewpoints are more homogeneous than they are. How might twenty- first-century awareness of diversity force us to change Kant's argument? Would his views make sense for a society with multiple cultures, religions, and value- systems?

Discuss Kant's "kingdom of ends." Do you agree that the "kingdom of ends" would be the model moral society? What features does this kingdom share with modern democratic societies?

Discuss Kant as a representative thinker of the Enlightenment. What qualities of his thought are typical of this intellectual period?

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by rogueraccoon, February 11, 2014

The last note on Darwin and evolution displays a common misconception about evolution, that is, the anthropomorphism of a process. Organs do not develop to help with survival, the organs that are best suited for survival survive. There is no purpose in an organ's origins.

Counter-Enlightment figure

by sotvictim, August 30, 2014

It is misleading to understand Kant as part of the Enlightenment tradition. While he was a contemporary of the Age of Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason (like J. Locke), he certainly was not in agreement with the Enlightenment movement. As his own Critiques show, he was not confident that reason, understood by others as the conceptualizing of our experiences and thereby understanding our world (what he calls "Pure Reason"), was the proper guide to our actions and to our societies. This is why he was so similar to Rousseau (another Counter-E... Read more

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