Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals Section 2-Part 1 Summary and Analysis | GradeSaver (2023)

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Kant acknowledges that it is difficult to distinguish examples of anyone acting from pure duty. In fact, this is why philosophers have ignored this aspect of human life, and ascribed all moral behavior to self-love. With any example, it’s impossible to definitively state that self-love didn’t sneak in as a motivator.

Kant concedes that most human actions are in accordance with duty. But it is still doubtful if true virtue is to be found in the world. But that doesn’t change the facts of moral judgment. Just because there are no completely sincere people in the world, doesn’t mean that sincerity isn’t morally worthy.

We also have to observe that moral judgments have to be true and universal for all rational beings, not just us in a particular situation, with absolute necessity. Thus, it is nearly impossible for any example to serve as truly moral. That doesn’t mean that morality isn’t thinkable, but rather that examples are a faulty methodological tool for a moral philosophy.

We only know what goodness is because we have an idea of it, and we can only be good insofar as we follow that idea. This idea is what a moral philosophy has to work out. It can’t simply be a collection of instructive examples, since these will necessarily be jumbled, without any ultimate coherence.

Thus, all moral concepts have their ground in reason. By adding empirical examples to them, one actually lessens their instructive importance. And what’s more, a moral philosophy, therefore, has to derive its notions of morality from man’s being a rational being as such. Otherwise, their effect will be mixed, and they’ll have no genuinely instructive value.

(Video) Summary of Kant's Groundwork Section 1

Everything in nature works according to the law. Only a rational being—one that can go beyond what is empirically present and posit universal laws—can act in accordance with laws. Only rational beings have wills, since will is simply practical reason—reason applied to practical situations.

That will is necessarily our own. We can't refer to some external power, like God, as justification. Divine will can’t be the basis for our own action; there’s no higher force that tells us to do things. (For example, we can't justify actions as moral by referring them to a "conscience" through which the voice of God speaks).

Now, how do we know that the will is choosing rationally? For reason to adequately determine the will, the will has to choose to do what reason determines as objectively necessary. The will must recognize this objective necessity as subjectively necessary—something that I must do, in a concrete, specific situation. When this does not happen, the will acts according to grounds that are subjective, and therefore contingent, and cannot be characterized as universal and therefore morally worthy. Necessity corresponds with morality.

Kant calls the representation (the appearance in the mind) of an objective principle an imperative. Imperatives are expressed by an ought—“I ought to do this”—rather than a thought like "it would be pleasant or advantageous to me to do this.” Our will isn’t always determined by an imperative. Sometimes we do things simply because they would be agreeable. But when the will is determined by an imperative, it is determined objectively—that is, we feel that our action would be valid for everyone.

Now, Kant goes on to explain how imperatives work, and the different kinds of imperatives. It's important to understand these distinctions to see how, exactly, the categorical imperative works, and what its scope is.

All imperatives are either hypothetical or categorical. Hypotheticals are a means of achieving something else that is willed. ("If I do X, Y will happen.") A categorical imperative is objectively necessary in itself. ("Y will happen.") Since the practical law is a way of considering actions as possible goods, a hypothetical is an action that is good as a means to something; but a categorical imperative is good in itself.

The hypothetical imperative can be a means to a possible or actual purpose. If it is directed towards a possible purpose, chosen by preference and attained by skill, it is problematic hypothetical. (For example: "if you want to get better at the piano, practice.") These imperatives make no judgments about the value of the end in question, only the fitness of the means to the end.

(Video) "Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals" by Immanuel Kant

An assertoric hypothetical imperative, on the other hand, is directed towards an end that everyone recognizes as good—happiness, the desire for which we recognize as universally human. Assertoric hypothetical imperatives make individual judgments about the best way to reach this end. (For example: "if you want to be happy, eat a bar of chocolate.")

In the case of the former, the objectivity is applied only to the means, but not to consideration of the end. In the latter, objectivity is applied to the end, but not the means. The first are rules of skill, the second are counsels of prudence.

The first case—problematic judgments—involve judgments of skill. Whoever wills the goal, also wills the best means to get there. The means are just deduced from the end in itself; they are for all intents one and the same. Getting good at the piano and practicing are, from the standpoint of the will, identical.

With assertoric hypotheticals, it’s more complicated, since we don’t know exactly what happiness is, and what it means to “will” it. These concepts have to be borrowed from experience. Happiness is an absolute state, but as a finite being, I can’t know exactly what it is; I can only will things I think might make me happy, without being sure that they will do so. Thus, they can’t be practically necessary, they can only be provisional suggestions. In principle, though, it is the same as an imperative of skill—the only difference being that here the end is possible, instead of actual.

But categorical imperatives are different from both of these. In contrast to hypothetical imperatives, they make no judgments about means and ends. They concern things that are goods in themselves. Only these judgments, Kant argues, are truly moral. The categorical imperative is not a kind of advice, but an objective judgment that a rational being applies to itself.

It’s the categorical imperative—morality—that Kant wants to get to the bottom of. Unlike the others, we know that we can’t get to it empirically, by means of examples. The worry, then, is that categoricals might secretly be hypotheticals—that we might be justifying them with judgments of skill or means that we smuggle in below the radar. “You shouldn’t deceive other people”—we assume that we are making a categorical judgment by avoiding reference to a specific situation, but we still can’t show that there isn’t secretly an incentive at work. (Like: “...Or else you’ll be exposed as a liar.")

Because we can’t rely on examples, the possibility of a priori moral judgments, i.e., categorical imperatives, will have to be grounded a priori as well, without reference to specific examples. For the same reason, there is in fact only one categorical imperative: to act in such a way that the maxim by which you act can be the basis for a universal law.

(Video) Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for Metaphysics of Morals | The Good Will | Philosophy Core Concepts

Kant goes on to consider four situations in which the categorical imperative might be applied. The first is suicide, in the case when of a person has become miserable. That cannot be a law, since it cannot be a law of nature for everyone to kill themselves. The second is someone who is destitute, who considers borrowing money but never paying it back. That can’t be the basis for a universal law, because then there would be no lending ever, and the person's action wouldn't be possible in the first place. The third is a person with a talent who is nonetheless comfortable. He has a duty to cultivate his talent, because if no one cultivated their talent, the human race would languish entirely. The fourth example, is a person who never borrows money, and therefore never lends it either. But that could not be the basis for a universal law, because a person who did that would forgo of ever getting assistance when he himself had need of it.

Thus, individuals are involved in a contradiction in each example. They accept the validity of the law, but they think that, in their specific case, it doesn’t apply. If they referred to the categorical imperative, they would see how they should change their ways.


The reader will likely have noticed that the second part of the Groundwork takes a noticeable jump in difficulty and complexity. Kant’s task now is to work out just how acting in accordance with the moral law works, given the arguments about the human mind that Kant worked out in the Critique of Pure Reason. Here, we get a more abstract philosophical argument, one that relies much more heavily on technical philosophical terminology.

Kant’s goal in the first half of the second part is to show that acting as though your action could be the basis for a universal law is the only possible basis for morality. Because morality is based on a universal law, we cannot argue from examples, for the obvious reason that examples only furnish individual cases—never a universal code of conduct. Therefore, we will have to be able to make this argument by examining the structure of our mind, and the role that our will plays in our determining our actions, and not by using common sense examples.

In this respect, Kant’s moral philosophy is an obvious corollary to questions about the mind that Kant explored in the Critique of Pure Reason. There, Kant’s question was how it was possible to know anything at all. He argued that objective knowledge was possible because, though every person has unique sensory impressions, our minds all combined these impressions in the same way to make objective statements. “This table is brown” is a subjective judgment, and when we make it, we allow for the possibility that someone (someone color blind, for example), might disagree. But when we say, “This table is brown because I just saw someone paint it that color,” we expect every other rationally thinking person to agree. Kant believes that this argument solves the question of how knowledge—and science—are possible, despite the fact that every person experiences the world differently.

The categorical imperative works in much the same way. Moral judgments, to be truly moral and not just expedient, have to be necessary; that is, they have to be as self-evidently and universally true as the statement that 2+2=4. Therefore, they make a much stronger claim than a statement like, “It was justified for me to steal a loaf of bread because I was hungry.” We can easily imagine that, from the perspective of the bakery owner, this statement does not hold water. Moral laws need to be true for everyone.

(Video) Kant's Ethics: Groundwork, Second Section: Laws and Imperatives

Kant adds another dimension to this in the consideration of means and ends, which will become more important in the second half of the chapter. All of our practical reasoning is a way of thinking that matches means to ends. We can think of judgments where the ultimate value of the goal is up for debate, but the means are universally acknowledged. (“If you want to get better at baseball, practice your swing every day.") We can also imagine judgments where the value of the goal is universal, but where the means are up for debate. (“If you want to be happy, eat a sandwich.”) The categorical imperative is the only one in which both the means and the ends are universally acknowledged.

But the larger function of the categorical imperative is to resolve Kant’s belief that the individual must be his own guide with his belief that thought and human life only have meaning because they take place in a community. The categorical imperative pulls us out of the contingency and inconstancy of our individual experience, and force us to imagine ourselves as belonging to a community of rational subjects. (We will learn more about that in the second half of this section.) But isn’t that what the church does? Or school? Or our parents? Implicit in the categorical imperative is that only the human mind is the legitimate moral authority, and that it saves itself from isolation and solipsism (the belief that all other people are just a figment of our imagination) by positing its actions as the basis for the universal law.

The main difficulty posed by the categorical imperative is, of course, how we choose to read the situations in which we apply it. If I were debating whether to steal bread to feed my family, I could reasonably argue that I was following the imperative to always do good for one’s loved ones, no matter the danger to myself. In having me arrested, the baker could also reasonably claim that he was following his imperative to fulfilling his potential by protecting his business, as well as the livelihoods of his employees, and further preserving the order of the law, similarly to the argument in the third and fourth examples that Kant gives. It is an unquestioned assumption in Kant that all rational people will come to the same conclusion if they think rationally.

But the most serious attack on the categorical imperative was launched by the late-nineteenth-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche rejects out of hand the notion that morality, or, for that matter, philosophy, must be universal. The goal of Nietzsche’s morals, or rather, his critique of them, is to show that the purpose of philosophy and thought is to emphasize one’s difference from others, not the universal similarities; indeed, to luxuriate in this difference. Thought and reality are multi-faceted and contradictory; a “universal morality” was just a symptom of the inability to embrace the hard truth that there is no truth, that good and evil are ultimately flexible constructs. This view has ultimately predominated in contemporary philosophy and critical theory, which reject the notion of a common human mind on which Kant’s morality is based.

(Video) Kant GMM Section 2


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1. Section II - Kant's Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, Part 1
(Donovan Irven)
2. Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, sec. 1 - Ethics and Moral Theory
(Gregory B. Sadler)
3. Kant's Ethics: Groundwork, Section 1: Duty
(Matthew Lampert)
4. Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, sec. 2-3 - Introduction to Philosophy
(Gregory B. Sadler)
5. Kant - Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals (Ch 2)
(Adam Rosenfeld)
6. Kant's Ethics: Groundwork, First Section, first sentence
(Matthew Lampert)


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