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


Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals
of the
of Morals

Immanuel  Kant

Riga (Latvia),
Published by Johann  Friedrich  Hartknoch

Kant’s Groundwork continues to be translated into English, and English-language commentaries continue to roll steadily off the presses. That’s somewhat astounding, considering that this little book was published in German years ago, by a man who, they say, could not read English.

Kant was born in Königsberg, East Prussia, in 1724. He died there in 1804. He never married; and it is said that he never left his home town; or if he did, he did not travel far, often, or for very long. He was educated as a philosopher in the German tradition of Gottfried Leibniz and Christian Wolff; but he eventually broke away. He famously credited the Scottish skeptic, David Hume, for waking him from “dogmatic slumbers.” His contributions to philosophy were fresh, and bold, even if he inescapably carried some of the baggage of his early education. As a young philosopher he lectured privately to support himself, for too many years. His break finally came, in 1770, when he was appointed professor of logic and metaphysics at the local university: Königliche Albertus-Universität (or, “the Albertina”—Albert was the first King of Purssia). After a “decade of silence” Kant came out with his monumental Critique of Pure Reason, in 1781. There is not much to be found in the way of ethics in that Critique, although it does provide a novel solution to the problem of freedom of the will. Kant’s first work dedicated solely to ethics was the Groundwork (1785). It would be followed by two more books on ethics: Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and The Metaphysics of Morals (1797).

Kaliningrad Oblast
Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University
Administration Building (2009)

Kant’s Königsberg is today called Kaliningrad. It is in a satellite district of Russia, the Russian word for which is “oblast.” Kaliningrad Oblast is located on the Baltic Sea north of Poland, and separated from the mother land by Lithuania and Latvia.

The former Royal University of Königsberg (the Albertina) now bears the name: Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University. It is the only university named for a modern philosopher.

Baltic Federal University named for Immanuel Kant

This website is yet another commentary on the Groundwork. But it does not aim to comment on everything in the text. The primary focus will be on the main arguments and theses, which are often disputed. The idea for this came to me recently while refereeing a new commentary prior to publication, for a major press. The author seemed to want to comment on every line of the Groundwork, at least at the beginning. I recommended instead that he streamline the whole book, stressing only the more controversial arguments. But I see from the published book that my recommendation was ignored. So, still thinking it was a good idea, I determined to do it myself.

As a teacher of ethics I am sometimes dismayed at the misconceptions about Kantian ethics conveyed to students in introductory textbooks. Writing for students at this level needs to be simplified, of course. But it should also be accurate. I don’t know how many times I’ve read how Kant said that in order to do our duty we must act with a good will. I don’t know how many times I’ve read that principles of Kantian duty permit no exceptions—even though there is a whole class of duties (imperfect) that are defined as admitting exceptions. One of the most effective ways to cultivate philosophical understanding in beginning students is to present a theory and then list the major criticisms that have arisen since it was popularized. It helps students to understand the criticisms, also, if the theory is caracitured at the start. But the problem is that some of those students grow up to be philosophy teachers, and have difficulty shaking off the collection of errors first presented to them. These teachers then pass along their distorted conceptions of the theory, and then on it goes, for generations.

This commentary is pitched for somewhat advanced students of ethics, who might someday be writers of introductory textbooks. Its goal, as with almost any commentary, is to present an informative and sympathetic portrayal of its object-text that is, above all, easier to understand. Fortunately that last part is not so difficult, considering how hard it can be for comtemporary readers to understand Kant’s writing.

Next: About the Groundwork




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

Last modified: January 4, 2018

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