Outline of Kant’s Ethics

This post covers, in an outline, the main ideas in his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Good for students in Phil. 101 and other interested readers who need a review.

Let’s get started with the outline of the main points.

I. Preface

A. Basis of obligation

1.. Not in inclination of man

2. Nor in circumstances in the world

B. Where?

1. A priori in the conception of pure reason

2. A priori means before experience (note the word prior).

C. Why?

1. Universality

2. There is Moral Law beyond mere experience

II. Good Will

A. It is good without qualification

B. Intelligence, qualities of temperament?

1. These can be good or bad

2. Only Good Will can make good use of them

C. Gifts of fortune, e.g. power, riches, honor, health?

1.. All these boil down to happiness (contrast Aristotle)

2. May lead to pride w/o Good Will to correct their influence

D. Moderation of the passions, calm, self-control?

1.. Coolness of thief still bad b/c he has no GW

E. Thus, Good Will is good in itself

1.. Not because of what it performs or effects (action and results)

2. But good regardless of results, like a jewel

3. By the way, Good Will is not mere wish, but full human power

III. Reason over Inclination (Instinct?)

A. Human has “physical constitution of an organized being”

B. If goal in life is . . .

1.. Conservatism (self-preservation), welfare, happiness . . .

2. Then reason and will are bad to carry out those inferior goals (contrast Aristotle)

3. Inclination (Instinct?) would be better suited

C. Does Reason apply itself to goal of happiness?

1.. Then failure to reach goal because “cultivated” reason may deny path to happiness

D. Thus, reason has nobler goal than happiness

1.. That is a criticism (misunderstanding) of Aristotle

E. Reason acts on will to be good itself, not as a means to an end or goal, i.e. happiness

1.. First, unconditional purpose: Good Will, good in itself, not out for a shallow reward

2. Second, conditional purpose: happiness

IV. First Proposition of Morality

A. Action must be done from duty if it is to have moral worth

B. Some exemptions from (true) duty

1.. Action that conforms to duty but done w/ selfish motives

2. Conforms to duty but agent has direct inclination to do it

a. For example, a seller should not overcharge inexperienced buyer—bad for business in long run; or motive is honesty, not duty

C. True duty in action

1. First example

Normal man preserving his life (no big deal)


A man in despair and holds death wish, but lives on anyway

“Then his maxim [personal policy or principle] has a moral worth” (that’s a big deal!)

2. Second Example

Man who is already inclined to “spread joy” around him (no big deal!)


Philanthropist’s mind is clouded by sorrow that extinguishes concern for others, but performs philanthropy in spite of distress . . .

“Then first has his action its genuine moral worth”

“Beneficent, not from inclination, but from duty”

That’s a big deal!

D. Inclination seeks happiness

1. But promote happiness from duty, not inclination—then his conduct acquires true moral worth, e.g. a “gouty” patient

E. Love your neighbor

1.. Love not from emotion and inclination

2. But out of the Will

V. Second Proposition of Morality

A. Action done from duty

1.. Derives moral worth not from purpose (or goal), but from maxim (personal policy) by which it is determined

B. Sequence: Motive (before you act) OR goal (after you act)

Motive → Goal

1.. Motive is more important.

C. Two Roads

1.. A priori (Reason)—this one for Kant

2. A posteriori (Experience)–not this one for Kant

VI. Third Proposition of Morality

A. Duty is necessity of acting from respect for law

B. Inclination may deny or disregard this respect

C. Moral Good

1. Consists in the “conception of law in itself, which certainly is only possible in a rational being”

2. Conception, not expected effect (desired results), must determine the will

VII. Categorical Imperative

A. What sort of law is this?

B. Law in general

1. Kant Speaks:

“Can you also will that your [personal] maxim should be a universal law?”

2. Impossible to be a universal legislation? Then reject it

3. Kant Speaks:

“Reason extorts from me immediate respect for such legislation” [universal law]

C. Example:

1. False or lying promise

2. Can you will that your [personal] maxim [to lie] be a universal law?

3. Person of reason and Good Will says no.

D. Inclination v. Reason

1.. Inclination shifts, shallow

2. Reason (a priori) is deep and pure

3. Kant Speaks:

Whence [from where] have we the conception of God as the supreme good? Simply from the idea of moral perfection, which reason frames a priori and connects inseparably with the notion of free will.

VIII. Rational Grounds of Categorical Imperative

A. Not hypothetical

1. Not from examples

2. Not from experience

B. Grounds is Categorical (for everyone)

1. Reason

2. Will is drawn to it

3. Valid across cultural borders (except maybe for “savages”)

IX. First Formulation of Categorical Imperative

A. Kant explains:

“Act only on that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become universal law”

B. Four Examples

1.. Man in despair: suicide? Can he will that to become universal law?

2. Man in financial straits: borrow deceitfully? Can he will that to become universal law?

3. Man with cultural benefit: stay home and “party down”? Can he will that to become universal law?

4. Rich man who sees others in need: ignore them? Can he will that to become universal law?

5. A person of reason and Good Will says no to those four situations

X. Second Formulation

A. Humanity as end [goal] in itself

1.. In the old time philosophers, “end” usually means goal or purpose, as in “end zone” in football. It’s the whole point of the game.

B. Kant Speaks:

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.

C. Rational–man is a rational being, so he is the end in itself, not a means (stepping stone) to a goal.

D. So a person, not a thing. Humans make up a kingdom of rational beings.

E. Treat person, not as a means (stepping stones)  to an end (goal), but as the end itself

To summarize, moral law can be followed only with one’s reason, not inclination (or instinct or natural impulses). One must do one’s duty from reason and Good Will, which only reason apart from experience can sort out.

A priori means before (note the word prior) your personal experience. You must use pure reason to discover universal law or the Categorical Imperative

See Hume’s Theory of Knowledge for more discussion on a priori.

ARTICLES IN OUTLINE SERIES (alphabetical order)

Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics

Clifford’s Ethics of Belief

Descartes’s Mind-Body Separation (Meditations I and II)

Hick’s Evil and God of Love

Hume’s Argument against Design

Hume’s Theory of Knowledge

James’s Will to Believe

Kant’s Ethics

Locke’s Theory of Knowledge

Mill’s Utilitarian Ethics

Nietzsche’s “Death of God”

Paley’s Watchmaker Design Argument

Plato’s View of Justice and the Soul

Plato the Soul Man

Rachels’s Moral Objectivism

Ryle’s Category Mistake

Sartre’s “Existentialism and Humanism”

Socrates’s “Apology”

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