Course Notes – Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals

by Daniel A. Kaufman

I’ve just finished two rounds of teaching Kant’s moral philosophy – once for my introductory level Ethics and Contemporary Issues course and again, for my upper-division Theories of Ethics course – so it seemed like a good time to give our favorite deontologist his time in Course Notes.  (Actually, my favorite deontologist is W.D. Ross, if you are inclined to count him as one, and as he will be coming up in Theories of Ethics later this semester, he will likely get to share the spotlight.)   Of course, there is no way to cover the entirety of a moral philosophy like this in such a short space, so I simply will provide a relatively brief sketch of the core elements of Kant’s account of moral obligation.

Teaching Kant is always difficult, not only because his writing is so opaque, but because his philosophy is systematic, and in an undergraduate context, it is rare, if ever, that the students to whom you are teaching a particular part of his philosophy are familiar with the rest of the system.  In some cases, one really cannot teach the particular part without some background in the larger system, which is why, when I teach Kant’ Critique of Aesthetic Judgment in my Aesthetics course, I start with a lecture on some key elements of the Critique of Pure Reason, but in the case of the ethics, I think it is possible to do Kant’s views on moral obligation justice, without first talking about phenomena or noumena (or the noumenal self ) and the like.  Instead one can present Kant as doing what essentially every moral theorist does (whether or not he or she realizes or is willing to admit it), which is offer a rational reconstruction of our pre-theoretical moral intuitions. Indeed, teaching the key elements of the Groundwork this way confers a distinct advantage in a course like Theories of Ethics, for when students then move on to Utilitarianism, they can see quite clearly that Mill’s theory differs so much from Kant’s precisely because it is an effort to make sense of a very different set of moral intuitions. Even more importantly – and I think, profoundly – they can begin to understand that part of the reason it is so hard to devise a fully satisfying moral theory, is because our pre-theoretical moral intuitions are inconsistent, which means that any theory can only hope to rationally reconstruct some of our moral intuitions, never all of them.

The first and most fundamental element of Kant’s moral philosophy lies in his view of the ultimate nature and scope of moral obligation.  For him, morality is ultimately a condition of rational personhood: it lies in the capacity to recognize that certain reasons for and against acting are binding.  Consequently, moral philosophy cannot be based on an anthropological understanding of human nature, as it does for both Aristotle and Mill  (though in very different ways) or, for that matter, on any empirical basis, but must be a part of an a priori investigation into the concept of practical rationality itself.

Everyone must admit that a law, if it is to be valid morally, i.e., as the ground of an obligation, has to carry absolute necessity with it; that the command ‘You ought not to lie’ is valid not merely for human beings, as though other rational beings did not have to heed it; and likewise all the genuinely moral laws; hence that the ground of obligation here is to be sought not in the nature of the human being or the circumstances of the world in which he is placed, but a priori solely in the concepts of pure reason… (p. 5)

What are the morally relevant dimensions of an action, according to Kant?  Consequentialists believe that whether or not an action has good or bad consequences is what is morally relevant about it, but Kant takes the opposite view.  Only our motives – what we will and for what reasons – have moral significance.  Now, on first glance this may seem highly counter-intuitive (though I would maintain that the consequentialist’s rejection of the moral relevance of motive is equally counterintuitive), but lying beneath it is, in fact, a very fundamental intuition that I would argue most of us share: namely, that it is only reasonable to morally praise or blame a person for that over which he or she actually has control.

If we think about the consequences of our actions – about what actually happens as a result of them – we can easily see that a good part of it is out of our control.  Suppose, for example, that I am walking along the beach and see a girl, out in the water, struggling to keep from drowning.  I believe that she deserves to live and that I have an obligation to try and save her, if I can, so I rush into the water and begin swimming as quickly as I can to reach her.

Consider the variables that come into play in determining whether or not I succeed and thus, what the actual consequences of my actions are.  Am I a good or mediocre or perhaps, even, a terrible swimmer?  Do I suffer from fear of the water?  Is the girl too far out to reach, regardless of how good of a swimmer I am?  Is the water too rough to swim in?  Is there a riptide?  All of these elements play a significant role in determining whether  or not my efforts succeed, and I have little to no control over any of them.  What I do have control over are my intentions, my motives, and my will.  And that’s all that Kant thinks I can and should be held morally responsible for.

It’s certainly not a crazy or counterintuitive thing to think.  And it makes Kant’s approach a lot more plausible than the consequentialist’s in certain cases.  Suppose, for example, that because of one or several of the variables just mentioned, I fail to save the girl and she drowns.  The consequentialist will have to twist himself into knots to explain the sense in which what I did was morally right.  Even worse, if we change the example to one in which I am motivated by avarice, greed, and lust – where I could care less about the girl’s well-being and hope to become a local celebrity by saving her and perhaps even sleep with her as well – and in which the weather conditions are ideal and I am an Olympic grade swimmer, such that I rescue the girl easily, it would seem that the consequentialist will be forced to say that the second action is morally superior to the first, to which I can imagine many would want to object.

Kant’s moral attention, therefore, is focused entirely on our motives – on why we choose to act or not act in a certain way – which brings us to Kant’s distinction between acting from and merely acting in conformity with duty, reflecting yet another basic intuition, namely, that one can do the right thing, but for the wrong reason(s).  Kant gives the example of a shopkeeper:

For there it is easy to distinguish whether the action in conformity with duty is done from duty or from a self-seeking aim. It is much harder to notice this difference where the action is in conformity with duty and the subject yet has besides this an immediate inclination to it. E.g., it is indeed in conformity with duty that the merchant should not overcharge his inexperienced customers, and where there is much commercial traffic, the prudent merchant also does not do this, but rather holds a firm general price for everyone, so that a child buys just as cheaply from him as anyone else. Thus one is honestly served; yet that is by no means sufficient for us to believe that the merchant has proceeded thus from duty and from principles of honesty; his advantage required it; but here it is not to be assumed that besides this, he was also supposed to have an immediate inclination toward the customers, so that out of love, as it were, he gave no one an advantage over another in his prices. Thus the action was done neither from duty nor from immediate inclination, but merely from a self-serving aim. (p. 13)

Now, we easily can think of cases where a person does what duty requires, but for what are clearly bad reasons.  The second version of my girl-in-trouble example, above, would be one of them, and I think we can all see why one might be reluctant to characterize such an act as morally right, even though it both conformed to duty and had a good result.  But Kant wants to go much farther than this and say that only those actions that are motivated by duty – where we act from duty – have moral worth, which means that not only was my nastily motivated act of lifesaving not morally right, but that the shopkeeper’s honest trade isn’t morally right either.

Should we really think of the shopkeeper this way?  Perhaps, he isn’t engaging in honest trade out of the purest of motives – i.e. from a principle of honesty – but rather, because he is afraid of the consequences of trading dishonestly, but so what?  Such a motive wouldn’t be bad, in the manner of my motives for saving the girl in the second version of my example, so why does Kant refuse to grant his action moral credit?  Indeed, one might observe that it is precisely this sort of thing that turns so many people off to Kant’s moral philosophy: it seems excessively exacting and rigid in its demands, beyond what would seem reasonable to expect of people.

I am not going to insist that it is wrong to feel this way about Kant, but only observe that there is something behind Kant’s strictness here that is in keeping with a basic intuition that we have: namely, that we are only appropriately morally praised or blamed for that which we do freely, under the guidance of our own will, and not under any other coercive influence or force.

Kant believes that when we act from the desire to attain a certain outcome (or avoid one), we are not acting under the impetus of our own will, but rather, under forces external to our will, deriving either from nature or acculturation or a combination of both.  It is only when we act on that which our own native reason identifies as a right reason for acting that we act truly freely, something that informs not just Kant’s moral philosophy, but his conception of enlightenment more generally.  As he put it in his famous essay, “What Is Enlightenment?”

Enlightenment is man’s leaving his self-caused immaturity. Immaturity is the incapacity to use one’s intelligence without the guidance of another. Such immaturity is self-caused if it is not caused by lack of intelligence, but by lack of determination and courage to use one’s intelligence without being guided by another.  Sapere Aude! [Dare to know!] Have the courage to use your own intelligence is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.

Through laziness and cowardice a large part of mankind, even after nature has freed them from alien guidance, gladly remain immature.†

Now, whether or not one accepts the idea that to act under the impetus of desires is to not act freely is a separate matter and certainly is something that one might contest.   The point, here, simply is that if one thinks that to act under the impetus of anything but reason is – as Kant does – to act unfreely, then one can see why  a person might be reluctant to identify actions as moral, which are performed under such conditions.

Because moral obligations always command us from duty, rather than from the desire to attain or avoid some outcome or other, Kant believes that moral imperatives never take a conditional or hypothetical form, but are always categorical in nature.  As he says in the Groundwork:

All imperatives command either hypothetically or categorically. The former represent the practical necessity of a possible action as a means to attain something else which one wills (or which it is possible that one might will). The categorical imperative would be that one which represented an action as objectively necessary for itself, without any reference to another end.

Because every practical law represents a possible action as good, and therefore as necessary for a subject practically determinable by reason, all imperatives are formulas of the determination of action, which is necessary in accordance with the principle of a will which is good in some way.  Now if the action were good merely as a means to something else, then the imperative is hypothetical; if it is represented as good in itself, hence necessary, as the principle of the will, in a will that in itself accords with reason, then it is categorical. (p. 31)

To diet and exercise is a practical necessity, if I want to lose weight.  Given that desire, then, I ought to diet and exercise.  But notice that if my desire changes – if what I want is to gain weight, for example – then the relevant imperative – the “ought” – also changes.  In that case, what I ought to do is cease all physical activity and begin guzzling milkshakes.

Clearly, moral imperatives are nothing like this.  They are not commands that  apply to us, relative to certain desires, since for Kant, to act morally is never to act from desire.  Rather, they are commands that apply to us insofar as we are rational beings and consequently, their application is universal in scope and unconditional in force.  I ought not to drink milkshakes if I want to lose weight, but no rational person ought to murder, lie, or steal, period.

In Kant’s way of thinking, when we act deliberately, we can always be said to act on some principle or other – what Kant calls a “maxim” – for we can always generalize upon the specific motive on which we are acting.  Suppose, for example, that I am in Barnes & Noble, gazing longingly at a brand new translation of Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, which, unfortunately, is being sold at a price much higher than I can afford.  I am trying to decide whether or not to steal the book (suppose that the irony of stealing a book on ethics is simply lost on me) and finally throw caution to the wind and shove it into my backpack.  Kant would say that I have acted on the following maxim:  Whenever I have insufficient money and want something nonetheless, I will steal it.

With this notion of a maxim or principle of action in mind, we can finally state Kant’s “supreme principle of morality,” what he calls The Categorical Imperative:

Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law. (p. 37)

In this one formula, we can see all the elements of Kant’s moral philosophy that we have discussed: (a) the exclusive focus on the motive of our action, via the principle or maxim on which we act; (b) the identification of the scope of moral obligation as being that of the universe of rational beings; and (c) the conception of the force of moral obligation being that of absolute or categorical, rather than practical or hypothetical necessity.  And from this formula, Kant believes, every particular moral obligation that binds us can be derived.


  1. Thanks Dan – Very clear presentation

    I have only been introduced to Kant’s ideas in bits and pieces often through critical readings of those who disagree with him. One example would be Mark Johnson. I am sure this is an inadequate way to grasp his ideas so I appreciate the more objective introduction you provide here. I may re-watch your diavlog with David.

    There are aspects of what you presented that feel contradictory to me however. If moral action requires one to act freely as rationality dictates as opposed to acting from the influence of desire or even socio-cultural influences then would not the necessary application of apriori maxims still constrain the freedom to apply reason to context. Where specifically do the universal maxims come from? Is there a finite list? If these maxims exist is apriori is it the work of each person to discover them though their own reasoning capacities or are they handed down (as I expect given that his ethics fall under deontology). If the latter that would seem a contradiction to act freely from ones own will.

    Excuse my ignorance with respect to Kant, I obviously need to explore his work some.


  2. After a slightly more careful reading ( including the link ), I see that Kant would allow us to reach our own maxims so long as they meet the condition of being universal laws. I am not sure I could ever act morally if that were the standard, but I think I may get his concept now. Thanks again.


  3. Seth: I should make it clear that I am not much of a Kantian myself. But when I teach philosophy, I take it as absolutely essential to present the work in its strongest form. It is virtually never the case that a major philosophical work has no merit — and that certainly is not the case with a work as influential as Kant’s Groundwork — and I think that it is important for students to understand that. And these Course Notes represent summaries of how I present various philosophical material to students.

    A maxim is simply a principle of action. It represents a generalization of some particular motive. The relevant moral question for Kant is this: Is the motive one that a rational person could will everyone should follow? He thinks that answer will always be the same, because of the universal character of reason.

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  4. Seth,

    It is absolutely the case that for Kant, if you act a certain way because that is the way you understood you should act from reading the GMM, you have not acted morally. The GMM is an articulation of what it is to act morally but to actually act morally you have excercise your own autonomy and pure reason.

    On maxims, its helpful to remember that the word has the same root as maximum. Think of them as limits that circumscribe the limits of your action. Lines you will go up to but not cross. I am at liberty to do anything but I can *not* lie and so on.

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  5. Yes, I thought this was nice and clear (I am comparing it to Parfit’s analysis in OWM, which has a similar quality, at least to me).

    A common criticism of Kant’s focus on motivation is that it merely reflects the heavenly-point-scoring Christian viewpoint (“Critique of Practical Reason …establishes his role as vindicator of the truth of Christianity”). It continues today in arguments about “real” altruism. I was just thinking that the “Problem of Evil” is one reason one might concentrate on motivation and free will. From the view of commonsense and of consequentalists, natural evils are pretty much as bad as intended or unintended human evils, but for a (Pietist-influenced) theist like Kant, maybe they have to be beside the point (Leibniz obviously). On a quick search I can find much on radical evil but nothing on natural evils.


  6. If a nation’s laws are put in place to discourage certain behaviors, what would Kant say about the intent and implications of lawmaking and enforcement? Would such “alien guidance” be viewed as enabling immorality?

    It seems like Kant did not really solve anything. If I really want that book from Barnes and Nobles because I think I could lessen human suffering with it and I just lost my job (I feel unjustly) and I honestly believe that I have been forced (by birth) into a rapacious, capitalist society and the book is overpriced etc.–anyone in my position would steal it. I guess Kant would stand by such situational justifications.


  7. ozarkpoppy,
    I find your comment curious, because the questions you raise are pretty clearly answered in Dan’s article. Laws are necessary because, without reflective reasoning out the maxims by which we *should* live, most people will tend to live according to self-serving maxims, rather like our hapless shop-keeper, which tend to allow us to ‘bend the rules’ in our own interests.

    In your take on the question of shoplifting, the problem is that you are confusing what should be done, perceptions of social context, and your desires – along with a personal sense of believing rightly in all these matters – such that the ability to determine precisely which maxim to follow gets clouded. If I understand Kant, situational justifications are not moral justifications at all, merely pragmatic explanations of behavior..

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  8. Thanks Dan & David for your follow-ups.

    While I am definitely not a Kantian I do think the process of identifying to the best of our ability the motivating forces behind our actions is vital if we want to act ethically. I also think earnestly asking ourselves the question: In the current context and given ‘a ‘kingdom of ends’, have I acted with a motivation that I reason others should follow’ is an excellent question to ask. I think however that the process tends to be reflective, not prior, to the specific actions, and that no fixed maxims can be followed ( such as not lying ) that would allow me to answer ‘yes’ to the question of ethical action in all contexts.


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  10. ejwinner,

    Hoping against experience that I am not being too obtuse, but I still see a disconnect between following ‘legislated laws’ and acting morally. If I refrain from committing an act because it is against ‘the law’, not because I have reasoned that committing the act is immoral, then haven’t I acted in a way that cannot be praised for its virtue? It seems to me that that was one of the main points of the reading—“…that we are only appropriately morally praised or blamed for that which we do freely, under the guidance of our own will, and not under any other coercive influence or force”. And, once again please forgive me if I am being obtuse, where does anything in the reading point toward the necessity of ‘legislated laws’? Granted he does say, “Through laziness and cowardice a large part of mankind, even after nature has freed them from alien guidance, gladly remain immature”; but just before that he is vehemently arguing for us to use our own courage to reason “without being guided by another”. Based solely on this reading I am forced to believe Kant must view ‘legislated laws’ as a crutch, their implication–fostering a laziness toward rationality by enabling a populace to live under false claims of virtue and therefore enabling immorality.

    Thanks for clarifying my confusion on the question of shoplifting.


  11. ozarkpoppy.,
    There are two reasons why I may be obeying the law. If I obey simply because I fear punishment, then there is no particular virtue in this, because this risks my violating the law if I think I can get away with it (and in the process act against others in the community). But I can reason that obedience to law is an obligation I have as a participant member of my community. That is a virtue, which assumes such an obligation is universal to all members of the community (or of any community).

    Kant was later criticized for the implications of such lines of thought, because they suggest that one can obey a bad law morally. There is much truth in such criticisms; but it should be pointed out that all ethical theories – even virtue ethics – run afoul of this problem at some point of practice. That’s why politics (which establishes law) cannot be, and law itself itself should not be, reducible to a moral theory.

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  12. I loved reading this account of how you proceed to go about teaching Kant. Needless to say Kant is one of my favorites. So important, integral, prone to misunderstanding and misreading and all the rest of it. It is rare that you get to read the inner workings of how a scholar or teacher goes about the practice of what they do. It brings into clearer focus so that you can the pass on that focus to your students. Your writing reminds me a little bit of Robert Pippin in that it is accessible without losing rigor.