About the Groundwork

Section I

The Good Will
The End of Practical Reason
Duty and Moral Worth
The Three Propositions
The Feeling of Respect
Conformity to Universal Law
Maxims of Action
The Lying Promise
The Inquiring Murderer

Section II

Hypothetical Imperatives
The Categorical Imperative
The Suicide Example
Perfect and Imperfect Duties
The Contradictions
Moral Realism
The Formula of Humanity
Deontology and Ethical Ends
The Formula of Autonomy
Autonomy and Heteronomy
The Kingdom of Ends

Section III

Freedom of the Will
Free in a Practical Respect
The Hidden Circle
Two Standpoints
The Deduction
Failure of the Deduction


The Kingdom of Ends “if we abstract from the personal differences of rational beings as well as from the content of their private ends we shall be able
to think of a whole of all ends in
systematic connection...that is,
a kingdom of ends....”

The idea of an existing end, emphasized in the formula of humanity, suggests an existence in connection with something else: namely, means. Since here the idea of an existing end also imposes restrictions on others’ uses of means, it suggests a community of existing ends, “in systematic connection,” according to the above quotation (Kant 1997a, 41/4:433). The members of this community would themselves impose restrictions on uses of means, according to the formula of autonomy. So theirs is a regulated community: hence, in Kant’s term, a “realm” (Reich), or “kingdom”: a kingdom of ends.

The kingdom of ends formula. In Kant’s text, the formula of autonomy leads to the formula of the kingdom of ends. That is, the “principle of every human will as a will giving universal law through all its maxims” leads to another version of the categorical imperative saying that “every rational being must act as if he were by his maxims at all times a lawgiving member of the universal kingdom of ends” (Kant 1997a, 45/4:438). Somewhat curiously, Kant counts these two formulas as the same. He recognizes only three versions of the categorical imperative, and seems to treat the kingdom of ends formula as an alternative expression of the formula of autonomy. Partly because of the apparent differences between these two versions, commentators have found it helpful to identify more than three versions of the categorical imperative, sometimes as many as six (Aune 1979, 122). But this is not necessary. To see how the formula of autonomy and the formula of the kingdom of ends are the same, it helps to consider the relation between the formula of universal law, and the formula of the universal law of nature. In the latter pair, the second formula is an extension of the first, raising the prospect of a legislative system. “Nature” is a system of laws, which is universally consistent. When there may be competing or opposed causal forces in nature—and so an apparent inconsistency—the natural law of greater force determines the result: the strongest force prevails. The formula of autonomy says that I ought to act only on maxims that I can legislate as universally consistent laws. The formula of the kingdom of ends thus extends this first-person singular concern with universality to the first-person plural. It says that with our maxims we ought, together, to legislate universally for a realm we inhabit in common; and thus that we are to see ourselves as responsible for constructing the legal system of our realm, on the model of a legal system of nature. If in our realm we are to be allowed to pursue our private ends, then we are all responsible for managing the conflicts that can be expected to result, through self-restrictions. That is what it means to be autonomous: imposing a restrictive law upon oneself.

Justice as Fairness. In recent years, there is perhaps no better application of Kant’s thoughts on the kingdom of ends than what is found in Rawls’s theory of justice as fairness (Rawls 1971, 252). Kant’s description of the kingdom of ends, quoted above, considers its members in abstraction from their personal differences.

if we abstract from the personal differences of rational beings as well as from all content of their private ends we shall be able to think of a whole in systematic connection (Kant 1997a, 41/4:433)

Though each has his or her own interests, as a legislative member of the kingdom each is considered to favor legislation not in service of personal interests, but as coordinating everyone’s interests. The members are therefore expected both to acknowledge possession of private interests, and to transcend those differences in legislating for the kingdom. Rawls attempted to capture this very idea with his notion of the “veil of ignorance” (Rawls, 136-42). To oversimplify, his idea is that the correct rules of justice would be the rules wholly self-interested people would agree to live by, in common, when unaware of what their particular interests are. Knowing they have such interests, but not knowing what they are, gives them a perspective that would be shared by all members of a kingdom of ends. Their legislation of the rules of justice would be autonomous in the sense of independence from prior experience. It would also have to be universal, since each legislator under the veil of ignorance can have no interest but what would be conducive to the harmony of the commonwealth (Rawls, 257).

The idea of a kingdom of ends. Where did Kant come up with this idea of a “kingdom of ends”? He says in the first Critique that the difference between the kingdom of nature and the kingdom of ends is analogous to the difference between what Leibniz called the “realm of nature” and the “realm of grace” (Kant 1998, A812/B840). In classroom lectures, he would sometimes say that the idea comes also from St. Augustine (Kant 1997b, 246/29:629), who distinguished between the “earthly city” and the “city of God.” Despite his not having confirmed it anywhere, apparently, the terminology seems to come directly from the Swedish spiritualist, Emanuel Swedenborg, who had distinguished between a “kingdom of uses,” (means), and a kingdom of ends (Johnson 2009; Thorpe 2011). Kant had read most of Swedenborg’s works, and the Swede’s spiritual investigations are the subject of his early book Dreams of a Spirit-Seer (Kant 2003). Swedenborg believed in a two-tiered reality, spiritual and material, where spirits dwell in a world apart from the physical world (the “kingdom of uses”). Human beings are members of the spiritual realm (the “kingdom of ends”), but our consciousness of that realm, at least now, is too obscure for us to have any knowledge of it. Sensory input so beclouds our minds that the spirit world to which we also belong is imperceptible. Could we but clarify our consciousness—or free ourselves from sensory input—we would have access to a vast world of spirits, which includes all departed human beings. It would be possible to have conversations with Socrates. Swedenborg believed he had been given a clear consciousness, and insight into the spirit world. He was for this reason able to “commune” with the spirits, which explained his remarkable, clairvoyant powers. Kant had nothing but scorn for Swedenborg’s pretensions to know another world. But he did nevertheless concur with Swedenborg on the idea of what he called a purely “intelligible world.” He mentions this world more than once in the Groundwork.



Aune, Bruce (1979), Kant’s Theory of Morals (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press)

Johnson, Gregory (2009), “From Swedenborg’s Spirit World to Kant’s Kingdom of Ends,” Aries 9: 83-99.

Kant, Immanuel (1997a), Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Mary Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

_____ (1997b), Lectures on Ethics, trans. Peter Heath, ed. Peter Heath and J. B. Schneewind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

_____ (1998), Critique of Pure Reason, trans. and ed. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

_____ (2003), Dreams of a Spirit-Seer Elucidated by Dreams of Metaphysics, in Theoretical Philosophy 1755-70, trans. and ed. David Walford and Ralf Meerbote (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Rawls, John (1971), A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

Thorpe, Lucas (2011), “The Realm of Ends as a Community of Spirits: Kant and Swedenborg on the Kingdom of Heaven and the Cleansing of the Doors of Perception,” The Heythrop Journal 52: 52-75.


© Richard McCarty
Department of Philosophy & Religious Studies
East Carolina University

Last modified: September 25, 2014

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