Ethics anthology 2: Kant – groundwork for the metaphysics of morals


Extract 2: Immanuel Kant, ‘Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals’ (1785)

Nature works according to laws. A rational being is that which has the ability to ‘act in accordance with the representation of laws’. Reason allows the figuring out of actions from those laws. “The will is nothing other than practical reason”. What is practically necessary is good. The will has the ability to figure that out independent of personal emotions or desires if it is controlled by reason, otherwise what it figures out will be contaminated by subjective desires. In that contaminated case, what the will recognizes as necessary is actually subjectively contingent because the nature of that will is disobedient and ‘not thoroughly good’.

The representation of an objective principle of the kind which relates to what a rational will should do is a ‘command’, the formula for which is called an imperative.

The imperative expressed by the word ‘ought’ shows that the will has the ability to be determined by the objective law or subjective desire. The word ‘ought’ shows that one should do something, but admits that nonetheless one might not.

Practical good is when the will is determined by reason not subjective things. Reason provides ‘grounds that are valid for every rational being’. The ‘agreeable’ is the opposite – when the will is influenced by subjective causes of a particular person, rather than ‘principle of reason, which is valid for everyone’.

A divine will requires no ‘ought’ imperatives since it is ‘already necessarily in harmony with the law’. Imperatives are only valid for wills which have the imperfection of subjectivity e.g humans.

‘All imperatives command either hypothetically or categorically’. Hypothetically commanded imperatives establish the requirement of a certain action as a means to achieve an end which one wills. So if you want X, then you ought do Y. However categorically commanded imperatives are necessary ‘for itself’ due to the objective moral law ‘without reference to another end’. So just ‘You ought do Y’.

The categorical imperative of morality is not based on the nature of the action nor with its consequence, but ‘with the form and the principle from which it results’ – from the rational process by which the imperative is figured out.

A categorical imperative must therefore be investigated a priori, since neither the a posteriori nature of the action in reality nor its consequences in reality are relevant as to whether it is categorical.

The categorical imperative is a practical law whereas hypothetical imperatives are ‘principles of the will’ but not laws since laws are necessary yet hypothetical imperatives are contingent on the condition that a rational being desire a certain end.

The categorical imperative is “Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law”.

The universal imperative of duty: “So act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature”.

“every rational being exists as an end in itself, not merely as means to the discretionary use of this or that will”. If you act towards something based on your personal inclinations then you are effectively assigning it only conditional worth since its worth to you would not exist without that inclination without which you would not be doing the action.

Therefore, to act towards a rational being based on your inclinations is to treat it as having conditional worth. However, rational beings are not things which only have a worth relative to a rational being, they are persons – their nature is to be ends in themselves. They are not subjective ends which have a worth ‘for us’ but rather ‘objective ends … an end such that no other end can be set in place of it, to which it should to service merely as means’

Kant remarks that if rational beings were a mere means then ‘nothing at all of absolute worth would be encountered anywhere’.

“Rational nature exists as end in itself” Every rational being subjectively experiences themselves as being an end in themselves “on the same rational ground as is valid for me”.

“Act so that you use humanity, as much in your own person as in the person of every other, always at the same time as end and never merely as means”