Notes on the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals


Ancient Greek Philosophy was divided into three sciences according to Kant:

· Physics
· Ethics
· Logic

At the time, there was no need to expand the division as they were perfectly suitable for the role of philosophy at the time. As we have gone forward in time however, there has been a need to expand the sciences. Kant argues that all rational cognition is either material of formal.

By material, Kant refers to a concern with the object in itself. By formal, Kant refers to a concern for our mental capacity, which allows us to understand and make sense of things. This Formal philosophy, Kant calls logic. Material Philosophy meanwhile, is further divided into two categories:

· Laws of Nature
· Laws of Freedom

The science (by which Kant means the discipline of knowledge) of the first set of laws is called Physics. The discipline of the second set of laws is called Ethics. Logic is not an empirical occurrence, but rather an a priori mechanism of the mind. This is contrasted to natural and moral philosophy, which must have empirical parts as they are disciplines relating to the world we perceive and live in. Natural laws express how things happen, while moral laws express how things ought to happen. When we mix the a posteriori and a prior disciplines, we get metaphysics. We hence, have two disciplines of metaphysics, namely:

· The metaphysics of nature
· The metaphysics of morals

In studying the metaphysics of morals, Kant wishes to abstract most of the empirical elements of it as possible so we can analyse the pure a priori functions which aid us in our moral lives. Kant argues that though morality in essence is based on the pure a priori functions of mind, it is sharpened by reference to experience and affects the empirical world in which we inhabit. A metaphysics of morals is needed then, in order to prevent the corruption of morals, which partly dabble in the empirical and impure world. Yet, Kant reiterates, that it can’t only be sought in the pure philosophy. The metaphysics of morals has to look into the ideas and principles of pure will and not the actions and considerations of human volitation generally speaking.

The good will and duty

The good will is basically our will to do good. It is not a means to an end, but rather an end in itself. It has nothing to do with usefulness or fruitfulness. To Kant’s dismay, people commonly let their natural inclinations get the better of them, and don’t allow reason to influence their behaviour.

Things like courage, resolution, etc. Might be seen as good in certain situations, but they can also be extremely bad in certain situations. Things like power, riches, health may lead to satisfaction and happiness, but these virtues could also lead to vices such as vanity, arrogance, etc. Similarly, things like moderation, mindfulness, self-control and calm reflection may be good for all sorts of purposes, but Kant argues that without the basic precepts of a good will they could become very evil.

When Kant speaks about Duty, he refers to our ability to do good in itself, even when we are surrounded by diversions and distractions which may hinder us from doing so. We can distinguish whenever actions are done from duty, or merely appear to be so while actually being derived from self-seeking purpose. People might live their lives in conformity with duty, but their actions are not done from duty. People who act from duty, are people who may not get pleasure from their actions but still do them anyway. To give Kant’s example, a bed ridden man who is dying and is suffering to the point where he can no longer enjoy life, but decides to keep on living anyhow.

Kant argues that the action from duty does not gain moral worth from the  either the purpose or consequence of the action. It is in the action itself which contains the essence of moral worth. It does not depend on a realization of the object of the action, but merely the principle of volition in accordance with which the action is done without regard for any object of the faculty of desire. Duty is the necessity of an action from respect for law. Representation of the law itself, can only happen in a rational being. The law is universalised, so all maxims must bear equal weight for everyone that follows them.

From folk morality to a metaphysics of morals

Though our actions may be done in conformity with duty, it is doubtful whether such actions are done from duty and therefore have moral worth. We might think we are preforming something for the sake of someone else, but we can be tricked as we often do not see the inner principles which guide our actions. Imitation for Kant, has no place in morality!

The concept of god has in itself, the idea of the highest possible good. Kant questions where we get this concept from? He answers this by claiming that it comes from the idea of moral perfection that is framed a priori by the innate mechanism of mind. A rational nature exists as an end in itself for Kant.

In order to track where duty arises from within the self, Kant wants to document the general rules of mind that make duty possible. Kant uses the term imperative, to refer to the formula of the command. This itself referring to the representation of an object insofar it is necessitating the will. Imperatives are expressed as oughts. Though we (through the innate mechanisms of our consciousness) determine for ourselves that following an imperative would be the right thing to do, the imperfection of the will causes us to stray from doing the right thing.

Imperatives are either hypothetical or categorical. If they are hypothetical, they are used as a means to another end. If they are categorical, then they are an end in themselves. All imperatives derive from a will in some sort of way. Hypothetical imperatives say they are good for either a possible or actual purpose. Categorical imperatives declare the action itself to be necessarily good, without reference to some other purpose. This imperative may be called the imperative of morality. In categorical imperatives, I know what they contain because the imperative contains a maxim, which conforms to firstly the action itself and secondly the overarching moral system. The universal imperative of duty then, is that we should act via the will on maxims so that they become universal law. The will of every rational being is a will giving the maxims they follow a universality. Others may not follow a persons maxims, but none the less, acts in accordance to universal law without seeing it. Therefore, there is still autonomy in our action. We might reject following maxims, yet also reject acting in a way which goes against them.