(Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (German: Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten; 1785; also known as the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, Grounding of the Metaphysics of Morals and the Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals), by Immanuel Kant – Original title page.)
Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals (original title: Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten) is a work of moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant published in 1785.
The ancient Greek philosophy was divided into three sciences: Physics, Ethics and Logic. We distinguish between material knowledge, related to an object: Physics for the laws of Nature; Ethics for the laws of freedom; and formal knowledge, related to understanding and reasoning: Logic, which is thus free from any empirical component. If one tries to abstract oneself from the empirical with regard to physics, one ends up with a metaphysics of nature; for Ethics to a Metaphysics of Mores (Empirical Ethics can be designated as a practical anthropology).
To describe this way a pure moral Philosophy, we obviously base ourselves on the common idea of duty and moral laws. The principle of obligation must not be sought here in the nature of man, nor in the circumstances in which he is placed in this world, but a priori in the only concepts of pure reason. The pure will possible must take precedence over any motive or object of the action.
These Foundations are nothing but the search for the supreme principle of morality.
Shift from the common rational knowledge of morality to philosophical knowledge
Kant states the principle that “There is nothing that can without restraint be held for good, if not only a good Will.“ The result of temperament, qualities, luck, or the necessities of action, can become extremely bad or fatal if it is not governed by good will. Only the human will can be absolutely good. Even if the Good Will does not reach its goal, it remains good in itself.
If the finality of nature is the preservation of being, its well-being, its happiness, instinct, will be a better performer than the reason for achieving it. Reason does not make happy, sometimes is a night to happiness. It has value only because it produces a good will.
Thus we introduce the concept of DUTY. An action according to the duty may be fortuitous, or by immediate inclination, by interested intention, by conformity, or in a natural way. A trader is honest not by duty but because it is his interest. To preserve one’s life is a duty, but has no moral price since it is the instinct that drives it first. To assure one’s happiness is a duty, but especially an inclination. Duty is implemented in the passages of Scripture where it is ordered to love one’s neighbor, even one’s enemy: it is not love inclination but a practical and non-pathological love that resides in the will. So is an action that is done by duty.
The value of the action can only lie in the principle of the will.
Duty is the need to perform an action out of respect for the law.
And this law can be stated thus: “Act in such a way that you may also want the maxim of your action to become a universal law.”
Thus, if one thinks of getting out of a constraint by a promise that one will not be able to hold, or by a lie, it is simple to note that the maxim of this action cannot in any case be universal: promises always disappointed would be worthless.
With this maxim, there is no need for any science or philosophy to judge what is good.
Shift from popular moral philosophy to the metaphysics of morals.
How to recognize, in an action, that it is performed only by the duty? Secret mobiles, excess of presumption, absolute necessity, are powerful engines of human actions and make us doubt that some real virtue is actually encountered in the world among rational beings. Even the saint of the gospel must first be compared to our ideal of moral perfection before being recognized as such.
Where so many philosophers have tried to link aspects of morality to all aspects of human knowledge (anthropology, theology, physics, hyperphysics or occult science), Kant sees it a priori, without anything empirical, pure and without mix.
Everything in nature acts according to laws. Only a reasonable being has the power to act according to the representation of the laws, that is to say according to principles; in other words, he has a will. Will is nothing but practical reason. It submits to constraints and imperatives. All the imperatives order either hypothetically (practical necessity of a possible action, with a view to another purpose: possible, in this case, it is a problematic practical principle; or effective, in this case, it is a practical assertoric principle ), or categorically (objectively necessary in itself: apodictic practical principle). Education has the purpose of opening to the child any future, it is a problematic hypothetical imperative. Happiness is an end for everyone, it is a hypothetical assertorical imperative. Finally an imperative immediately commands a certain conduct, and concerns the form and principle of action. This imperative is categorical. This imperative can be called the imperative of morality.
Thus technical (art-related), pragmatic (welfare-related) and moral (related to free conduct in general and good morals) were classified. The end requires that the appropriate means be implemented. Ability, prudence, are simple to implement. But what imperative to use to achieve happiness? It is not an ideal of reason but of imagination!
The categorical imperative is unique and is stated as follows: Act only according to the maxim by which you can want at the same time that it becomes a universal law.
Let us apply this maxim to some duties, to ourselves and to other men. Regarding situations where suicide might seem desirable to a suffering man; where a false promise would get us out of business; where a talent that we have helped humanity but would cause us great fatigue; where we could help a person in need. If we violated these duties, it would not be in any case to make this failure universal. It would be a freedom that we would take for ourselves, momentarily inclination would prevail over reason. We recognize the categorical imperative in these examples.
Thus duty is a concept that has meaning, and contains real legislation for our actions, in the form of categorical imperatives. It remains to show that such an imperative really exists, and that there is a practical law which absolutely commands by itself, all being reasonable, a priori.
The will is aimed at an end, using means. The subjective principle of desire is the motive, the objective principle of wanting the motive. But I say: every rational being exists as an end in itself. It responds to the principle of autonomy.
We introduce the concept of the reign of ends, where the reasonable being, guided by the freedom of the will, is in fact legislator, whether he is a member or a leader.
In the realm of ends everything has its price or its dignity. What has a price (market price or sentiment price) can be replaced by something else and equivalent; on the other hand, what is above all price has dignity. Morality alone gives dignity to being, itself recognizes the dignity of the law, which is called respect. Every maxim has a form, a matter, and a complete determination.
Morality is the relationship of actions to the autonomy of the will.
The autonomy of the will as the supreme principle of morality
The principle of autonomy is: always to choose in such a way that the maxims of our choice are at the same time conceived, in the same will, as universal laws.
The heteronomy of the will as source of all the false principles of morality
Heteronomy occurs when it is not the will that gives itself the law, but the object of the action that gives it to it,
Division of all the principles of morality that can be drawn from the fundamental concept of heteronomy already admitted
Human reason, out of the use of criticism, has tried to explain the will, either by empirical means (search for happiness); either by rational means (existence of perfection, either IN man, or external: divine will). Kant does not accept these attempts, which would put on the same plane vice and virtue, and remove the sublime character of morality.
Shift from the metaphysics of mores to the critique of pure practical reason
The concept of freedom is the key to explain the autonomy of the will
Will is the causality of reasonable beings, called freedom when it acts independently of external causes that determine it, and natural necessity when it follows from it.
From this negative definition of liberty it follows that a free will and a will subject to moral laws are one and the same.
Freedom must be assumed as the property of the will of all reasonable beings
Reason must consider himself the author of his principles, independently of foreign influences; it must also, as a practical reason or the will of a reasonable being, consider itself free.
From the interest that attaches to the ideas of morality
To be worthy of a personal property – happiness, autonomy, freedom … – is a progress. But it is the respect of moral laws that makes us free – paradox. The moral law obliges.
We know the objects in the way they affect us, in our feeling, we will say phenomena; without ever perceiving anything in itself. We live in a sensitive world, variable according to each spectator, coming from an intelligible, invariable world. Man himself does not know himself, he is not created, he knows his phenomenal manifestation in the sensible world. But he feels that there is behind it a foundation, which is the intelligible world, to which he reaches by reason.
As a rational being and therefore belonging to the intelligible world, man can never think the causality of his will other than under the idea of liberty.
How is a categorical imperative possible?
Reasonable being must therefore consider the laws of the intelligible world as imperatives, and actions conform to this principle as duties. Categorical imperatives are possible because the idea of freedom makes us part of an intelligible world.
From the extreme limit of any practical philosophy
Supposing that the will of an intelligence is free, it necessarily results in its autonomy, which alone determines it. It is not only possible to suppose the freedom of the will, it is necessary to admit it practically, in all voluntary actions. How pure reason can be practical, we can not prove it.
We doubtless do not understand the unconditional practical necessity of the moral imperative, but we understand at least its incomprehensibility, and that is all that can reasonably be required of a philosophy that strives to achieve in the principles to the limits of human reason.