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 Three Propositions “The second proposition is this: an action from duty has its moral worth not in the purpose to be attained by it but in the maxim in accordance with which it is decided upon
. . . . 
“The third proposition, which is a consequence of the two preceding, I would express as follows: duty is the necessity of action from respect for law.”

Quoted above are the second and third propositions of an important argument Kant presented in the Groundwork’s first section (Kant 1997, 13/4:399-400). But, incredibly, he never listed the first proposition. At least he did not label any statement as the first proposition, though he may have assumed that something he wrote would be recognizable as such. Most interpreters today seem convinced that the first proposition is only implicit, and needs to be inferred from elements found within the text. But there is no general agreement on what the missing first proposition is, or even on what it may be about.

Was it something about duty and moral worth? Beck supplied the missing proposition in his translation as follows: “The first proposition of morality is that to have genuine moral worth an action must be done from duty” (Kant 1985, 15-16). It is plausible that this statement connects with the third proposition, which is about duty. Likewise a more recent proposal by Schönecker: “An action from duty is an action from respect for the moral law” (Schönecker 2012). Rawls expanded the general idea here to connect it also with the concept of good will: “A good will is a will the actions of which accord with duty, not from inclination but from duty (out of duty)” (Rawls 2000, 152). I think that by including the good will in a statement of the first proposition Rawls is heading in the right direction. But it really would be better to identify a statement that Kant actually wrote.

Was it something about the good will? The famous statement about the good will’s being the only thing good without limitation is the first sentence of the first section of the Groundwork. In the absence of any other indication, it may seem that the first sentence should be taken as the first proposition of the argument (Duncan 1957, 29; Auxter 1982, 130). But then, it is not so clear how the argument works if that is the first proposition. It is hard to see how the third proposition follows from both the opening statement about the good will and the second proposition. For that reason, I think that Kant’s first proposition—stated in the text, but unlabeled—is this:

A good will is not good because of what it effects or accomplishes, because of its fitness to attain some proposed end, but only because of its volition, that is, it is good in itself and, regarded for itself, is to be valued incomparably higher than all that could merely be brought about by it in favor of some inclination and indeed, if you will, of the sum of all inclinations. (Kant 1997, 8/4:394 emphasis added; cf. Sullivan 1989, 296)

This statement is the beginning of the third paragraph of Groundwork’s first section. It is a summary conclusion of the initial paragraphs explaining the goodness of the good will.

The interpretive argument. Here are the main reasons why I offer the preceding statement (the part in italics) as the actual first proposition of Kant’s argument:

  1. It is a statement found in the text.

  2. It is the lead sentence in a paragraph following the elaboration of a major thesis, and serves as a summary statement of that thesis. The same is true of the second proposition. Proposition one summarizes the leading discussion of the good will’s unlimited goodness; proposition two summarizes the analysis of good will in terms of the moral worth of acting from duty.

  3. The sentence structure is parallel to that of the second proposition. First proposition: the good will is not good because of its effect, but because of its volition, etc. Second proposition: an action from duty does not have its moral worth in its purpose, but in its maxim, etc.

  4. The argument of the three propositions taken together makes sense:

    1. The goodness of a good will depends not on what it effects or accomplishes but on the (objective) principle or law of its volition.

    2. The moral worth of an action from duty depends not on the purpose to be attained but on its (subjective) principle or maxim.

    3. Therefore, duty is the necessity of an action from (subjective) respect for (objective) law.

  5. Kant confirms the structure of the argument of the three propositions as just represented—in terms of the objective and the subjective—in a statement that conludes the paragraph introduced by the third proposition: “an action from duty is to put aside entirely the influence of inclination and with it every object of the will; hence there is left for the will nothing that could determine it except objectively the law and subjectively pure respect for this practical law. . .” (Kant 1997, 13-14/4:400).

The third proposition. A common interpretation of proposition three misconstrues the sense of its key term necessity. This is often taken to refer to logical necessity, and thus the proposition is glossed by some variation on: Necessarily, acting from duty is acting from respect for law (see Rawls 2000, 153; Aune 1979, 11; Rickless 2004, 566). Kant is here making a statement about the concept of duty, however; not about the concept of acting from duty. His use of “necessity” refers instead to practical necessity, which he sometimes also denotes with the term necessitation. Confirmation of this point can be found in Kant’s later complaint about what he understood as “all previous efforts that have ever been made to discover the principle of morality.” He said that in all previously proposed moral theories it had been assumed that some interest needs to be found to connect the principle of duty with human motivation; for otherwise we would have duties without any motive act on them. But by this method of thinking, he complained, “one never arrived at duty but instead at the necessity of action from a certain interest. This might be one’s own or another’s. But then the imperative had to turn out always conditional and could not be fit for a moral command” (Kant 1997, 41/4:433, emphasis added). His point here is that duty is not correctly defined as necessity of action from a certain interest, especially from an inclination for some object. As the third proposition states, duty is correctly defined instead as: necessity of action from respect for the law. The anti-consequentialist conclusion about the good will (proposition one), together with the anti-consequentialist conclusion of the analysis of moral worth in terms of acting from duty (proposition two), results finally in the anti-consequentialist definition of “duty” (proposition three).



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

Auxter, Thomas. (1982), Kant’s Moral Teleology (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press).

Duncan, A. R. C. (1957), Practical Reason and Morality (London: Thomas Nelson).

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

_____ (1985), Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Lewis White Beck, 2nd ed. (New York: Macmillan).

Rawls, John (2000), Lectures in the History of Moral Philosophy, ed. Barbara Herman (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

Rickless, Samuel C. (2004), “From the Good Will to the Formula of Universal Law,” Philosophy and Phenomeno-logical Research 68: 554-77.

Schönecker, Dieter (2012), “Once Again: What is the ‘First Proposition’ in Kant’s Groundwork? Some Refinements, a New Proposal, and a Reply to Henry Allison,” Kantian Review 17: 281-96.

Sullivan, Roger (1989), Immanuel Kant’s Moral Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).


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

Last modified: September 29, 2017

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