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


Maxims of Action “A maxim is the subjective principle of volition; the objective principle (i.e., that which would serve also subjectively as the practical principle for all rational beings if
reason had complete control over
the faculty of desire) is
the practical law.

The first footnote included in the Groundwork is a brief definition of the concept of a “maxim” as a subjective principle, which is to be distinguished from a “law,” as an objective principle (Kant 1997a, 14n/4:400n). The term “maxim” was not new to Kant’s audience. What needed clarification was the distinction between a maxim as subjective and a law as objective. Where does the term “maxim” come from, and how did Kant expect it to be understood?

The practical syllogism. Start with the recognition that some object would be good to bring about; then add the recognition that some action would be effective in bringing it about. It will follow as a conclusion that the action is good to do. This line of reasoning has been known since ancient times as the “practical syllogism.” It can be used as a format for explaining action in the following way: when someone has done some action, an explanation why she did it can be found by determining what she intended to accomplish, and by assuming that she thought it would be (in some sense) good. Or, the practical syllogism structure can be used to motivate action: convince someone that something would be good to bring about; convince him also that by a certain action he can bring it about; and he will then want to do it. The most influential philosopher of Kant’s youth, whose books he undoubtedly studied as a student, was Christian Freiherr von Wolff (1679-1754). Wolff formalized the practical syllogism as follows: (1) x is good; (2) doing y would result in x; therefore, (3) doing y is good. Wolff assumed that the action y would result directly from the agent’s reaching the conclusion in (3). He also referred to the major premise of the practical syllogism (x is good) as the “maxim” (Wolff 1976, §§190, 193, 400).

Ends and actions. The idea of an end is the idea of something seen as good to bring about by action. Wolff’s conception of a maxim is of a statement expressing that something, x, is an end, or of someone’s having it as her end. Actions are means to ends, and often, adopting a policy of action is a means to an end. Suppose: (i) the good end is health; and (ii) the policy of action that is a means to health is regular exercise. The format of the practical syllogism leads to the conclusion that (iii) regular exercise is good. That conclusion is also a maxim. It is a maxim of action, unlike statement (i), which is a maxim of ends. Statement (iii) can also be more specific, depending on the conditions of the agent. For example: (iii*) exercising every day when I finish work is good. When this statement is considered to be someone’s maxim, there is no reason to include the predicate is good. Calling it someone’s maxim implies that she thinks that policy is good. Thus, it can be said that “exercising every day after work” is a statement of her maxim of action; and the reason it is her maxim of action is because of her maxim of ends: “health is good.” This leads to a statement of a maxim of action in standard Kantian form: “To exercise every day after work, in order to be healthy.” Or, “I’ll exercise daily after work for my health.” The form of statement that Kant typically has in mind when referring to a maxim includes always a statement of action policy, sometimes conditioned by some restricting circumstance(s), and sometimes also indicating the end for which the policy is adopted. A full maxim statement has these three components: action, condition, end or purpose.

Maxim generality. The preceding example is a highly general maxim; it does not indicate any particular exercise, such as biking, rowing, calisthenics, or whatever. Depending on the conditions expressed in the general maxim policy, any number of more particular maxims about how to exercise can be derived from it. No matter how specific the statement of the action, its maxim will retain some degree of generality, or else it is not a maxim—a subjective principle. Some commentators have insisted, to the contrary, that a maxim can only be a highly general principle, and that all more specific principles based on it are intentions. The thought is that, often, when the maxim is taken to be very specific, Kant’s test for the rightness of actions will fail; but not if the maxim remains very general (O’Neill 1989, 84, 129; Kitcher 2003, 219-21). I do not think Kant regarded maxims as only the most general principles of action. Here is an example he provided which shows, I think, that maxims of action can be both general and more specific, and that more specific maxims follow from general maxims, and from facts about actions and circumstances:

I have, for example, made it may maxim to increase my wealth by any safe means. Now I have a deposit in my hands, the owner of which has died and left no record of it.... I therefore apply the maxim to the present case and ask whether it could indeed take the form of a law, and consequently whether I could through my maxim at the same time give such a law as this: that everyone may deny a deposit which no one can prove has been made. I at once become aware that such a principle, as a law, would annihilate itself since it would bring it about that there would be no deposits at all.  (Kant 1997b, 25/5:27)

I am not convinced that Kant is correct about the conclusion he draws here. But the case does illustrate a general maxim of action (to increase my wealth by any safe means) and a more specific maxim that follows from it in the circumstances (to deny deposits, when they cannot be proved, in order to increase my wealth). The more specific maxim is tested in this example, and is said to fail the test for right actions.

Maxim subjectivity. A maxim is a principle of action, or volition, that depends on the agent’s desires and understanding of his or her circumstances. That is why it is called “subjective.” The desires can be corrupted, and the understanding can be faulty. An objective principle of action, on the other hand, would be law. Objects in nature act (change) according to laws. If reason had complete control over human beings’ actions then they would not operate according to maxims, but according to laws (see Kant 1997b, 68/5:79). The test he offered for the rightness of actions effectively directs us to consider whether our maxims could be laws. It asks, could objects in a system of nature operate by the maxim upon which you intend to act, as a law? There cannot be contradictory laws in nature, of course; nor can there be sets of laws, for different types of objects, that are inconsistent. In this way nature provides a model for morality. (See Kant 1997b, 58-62/5:67-71.)



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

_____, (1997b) Critique of Practical Reason, trans. Mary Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

Kitcher, Patricia (2003), “What is a Maxim?” Philosophical Topics 31: 215-43.

O’Neill, Onora (1989), Constructions of Reason, Explorations in Kant’s Practical Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Wolff, Christian (1976), Vernünfftige Gedancken von der Menschen Thun und Lassen, zu Beförderung Ihrer Glückseeligkeit (Frankfurt 1733; facsimile, Hildesheim: Georg Olms).


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

Last modified: April 25, 2015

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