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The Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals
by Immanuel Kant
The original, squashed down to read in about 25 minutes

(Königsburg, 1785)

Kant was born in Königsburg, Prussia, and stayed there all his life. His 'Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals' tries to find the underlying principle which defines actions as good or bad, and ends up with a Categorical Rule (you must act such that you expect everyone to act the same way) and a Practical one (we must treat others only as ends, not merely as means.) They may not be perfect, but they remain one of the basic sets of standard by which 'good' and 'bad' are frequently officially judged.
Abridged: GH

Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals

Ancient Greek philosophy was divided into physics, ethics, and logic. The only improvement that can be made is to add the principle on which it is based.


Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good without qualification, except a good will. Intelligence, wit, judgement, courage, resolution, perseverance, power, riches, honour, even health, are undoubtedly good; but these gifts may also become extremely bad and mischievous if the will which makes use of them is bad. It is the coolness of a villain which not only makes him far more dangerous, but also more abominable in our eyes.

A good will is good not because of what it performs or effects, but simply by virtue of the volition; that is, it is good in itself. Even if, through the disfavor of fortune, or the niggardly provision of a step-motherly nature, good will should yet achieve nothing, then, still, like a jewel, it would shine by its own light. Its usefulness or fruitfulness can neither add nor take away anything from this value.

To be beneficent is a duty; and there are many minds so sympathetically constituted that they find a pleasure in spreading joy around them and take delight in the satisfaction of others so far as it is their own work. But I maintain that in such a case, however amiable it may be, has no true moral worth. It is in this manner, undoubtedly, that we are to understand those passages of Scripture in which we are commanded to love our neighbour.

A second proposition is: That an action done from duty derives its moral worth, not from the purpose which is to be attained by it, but from the maxim by which it is determined.

The third proposition, which is a consequence of the preceding, I would express thus: Duty is the necessity of acting from respect for the law.

But what sort of law can that be, that this will may be called good absolutely and without qualification? There remains nothing but the universal conformity of its actions to law in general, which alone is to serve the will as a principle, ie., I am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.

For example: May I, when in distress, make a promise with the intention not to keep it? The shortest way, and an unerring one, to answer this question, is to ask, "Should I be able to say to myself, "Every one may make a deceitful promise when he finds himself in a difficulty from which he cannot otherwise extricate himself?"" Then I presently become aware that while I can will the lie, I can by no means will that lying should be a universal law. For with such a law there would be no promises at all, since such would pay me back in my own coin. Hence my maxim, as soon as it should be made a universal law, would necessarily destroy itself.


If we have hitherto drawn our notion of duty from the common use of our practical reason, it is by no means to be inferred that it as a concept of experience.

Even the Holy One of the Gospels must first be compared with our ideal of moral perfection before we can recognise Him as such; and so He says of Himself, "Why call ye Me (whom you see) good; none is good (the model of good) but God only (whom ye do not see)?" But whence have we the conception of God as the supreme good?

But in order to advance in natural steps in this study, we must follow and clearly describe the practical faculty of reason, from the general rules of its determination to the point where the notion of duty springs from it.

Everything in nature works according to laws. Rational beings alone have the faculty of acting according to the conception of laws, that is according to principles, ie., have a will. Since the deduction of actions from principles requires reason, the will is nothing but practical reason.

There is but one categorical imperative, namely, this: Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law. Since the universality of the law according to which effects are produced constitutes what is properly called nature in the most general sense (as to form), the imperative of duty may be expressed thus: Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature.

We will now enumerate a few duties, adopting the usual division of them into duties to ourselves and to others, and into perfect and imperfect duties.

1. A man reduced to despair by a series of misfortunes feels wearied of life, and asks himself whether it would not be contrary to his duty to take his own life. We see at once that a system of nature in which it should be a law to destroy life would contradict itself and, therefore, could not exist; hence that maxim cannot possibly exist as a universal law of nature.

2. Another finds himself forced by necessity to borrow money. He knows that he will not be able to repay it, but sees also that nothing will be lent to him unless he promises so. But supposing it to be a universal law that everyone when he thinks himself in a difficulty should be able to promise whatever he pleases, the promise itself would become impossible, since no one would consider that anything was promised to him, but would ridicule all such statements as vain pretences.

3. A third finds in himself a talent which, with the help of some culture, might make him useful. But he prefers to indulge in pleasure rather than to take pains in improving his happy natural capacities. He sees that a system of nature could indeed subsist with such a universal law where men (like the South Sea islanders) devote their lives to idleness, amusement, and propagation of their species; but he cannot possibly will that this should be a universal law of nature. For, as a rational being, he necessarily wills that his faculties be developed, since they serve him and have been given him, for all sorts of possible purposes.

4. A fourth, who is in prosperity, while he sees that others have to contend with great wretchedness, thinks: "What concern is it of mine? But it is impossible to will that such a principle should have the universal validity of a law of nature, for many cases might occur in which one would have need of the love and sympathy of others.

The question then is this: "Is it a necessary law for all rational beings that they should always judge of their actions by maxims of which they can themselves will that they should serve as universal laws?" But in order to discover this connexion we must, however reluctantly, take a step into a domain of metaphysic, namely, the metaphysic of morals. Here we are concerned with the relation of the will to itself so far as it is determined by reason alone.

The will is conceived as a faculty of determining oneself to action in accordance with the conception of certain laws.

Now I say: man, and generally any rational being, exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will, but in all his actions, whether they concern himself or other rational beings, must be always regarded at the same time as an end.

Man necessarily conceives his own existence as being so. But every other rational being regards its existence similarly. Accordingly the practical imperative will be as follows: So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as means only.

We will now inquire whether this can be practically carried out. To abide by the previous examples:

Firstly, he who contemplates suicide should ask himself whether his action can be consistent with the idea of humanity as an end in itself. If he destroys himself in order to escape from painful circumstances, he uses a person merely as a mean to maintain a tolerable condition up to the end of life.

Secondly, as regards duties of strict obligation towards others: He who is thinking of making a lying promise to others will see at once that he would be using another man merely as a means, without the latter containing at the same time the end in himself.

Thirdly, as regards contingent (meritorious) duties to oneself: It is not enough that the action does not violate humanity in our own person as an end in itself, it must also harmonize with it.

Fourthly, as regards meritorious duties towards others: The ends of any subject which is an end in himself ought as far as possible to be my ends also, if that conception is to have its full effect with me.

Thus all maxims are rejected which are inconsistent with the will being itself universal legislator, and Thus the principle that every human will is a will which in all its maxims gives universal laws, would be very well adapted to be the categorical imperative because the idea of universal legislation is not based on any particular interest, and therefore it alone can be unconditional.

Looking back now on all previous attempts to discover the principle of morality, we need not wonder why they all failed. It was not seen that the laws to which man is subject are only those of his own giving, though at the same time they are universal.

The conception of the will of every rational being as one which must consider itself as giving in all the maxims of its will universal laws leads to a very fruitful conception, namely that of a Kingdom of Ends.

In the Kingdom of Ends everything has either value or dignity. Whatever has a value can be replaced by something else which is equivalent; whatever, on the other hand, is above all value, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has a dignity.


Autonomy of the will is that property of it by which it is a law to itself (independently of any property of the objects of volition). The principle of autonomy then is: "Always so to choose that the same volition shall comprehend the maxims of our choice as a universal law." We cannot prove that this practical rule is an imperative by a mere analysis of the conceptions which occur in it, since it is a synthetical proposition. But that the principle of autonomy is the sole principle of morals can be readily shown by mere analysis of the conceptions of morality. For we find that its principle must be a categorical imperative and that what this commands is neither more nor less than this very autonomy.


If the will seeks the law which is to determine it anywhere else than in the fitness of its maxims to be universal laws of its own creation, it goes out of itself and seeks this law in the character of any of its objects, there always results heteronomy. The will in that case does not give itself the law, but it is given by the object through its relation to the will. This relation, whether it rests on inclination or on conceptions of reason, only admits of hypothetical imperatives: "I ought to do something because I wish for something else." On the contrary, the moral, and therefore categorical, imperative says: "I ought to do so and so, even though I should not wish for anything else."



The will is a kind of causality belonging to living beings in so far as they are rational, and freedom would be this property of such causality that it can be efficient, independently of foreign causes determining it. The preceding definition of freedom is negative and therefore unfruitful for the discovery of its essence, but it leads to a positive conception.

Since the conception of causality involves that of laws, what else then can freedom of the will be but autonomy, that is, the property of the will to be a law to itself? But the proposition: "The will is in every action a law to itself," only expresses the principle: "To act on no other maxim than that which can also have as an object itself as a universal law." Now this is precisely the formula of the categorical imperative and is the principle of morality, so that a free will and a will subject to moral laws are one and the same.

However, that is a synthetic proposition, and such synthetic propositions are only possible in this way: that the two cognitions are connected together by a third in which they are both to be found. We cannot now at once show what this third is. Some further preparation is required.


It is not enough to predicate freedom of our own will, if we have not grounds for predicating the same of all rational beings. Now I affirm that we must attribute to every rational being which has a will that it has also the idea of freedom and acts entirely under this idea.

It must be freely admitted that there is a sort of circle here from which it seems impossible to escape. In the order of efficient causes we assume ourselves free, in order that in the order of ends we may conceive ourselves as subject to moral laws: and we afterwards conceive ourselves as subject to these laws, because we have attributed to ourselves freedom of will.

One resource remains to us, namely, to inquire whether we do not occupy different points of view when by means of freedom we think ourselves as causes efficient a priori, and when we form our conception of ourselves from our actions as effects which we see before our eyes.

We can only attain to the knowledge of appearances, never to that of things in themselves. As soon as this distinction has once been made then it follows that we must admit and assume behind the appearance something else that is not an appearance, namely, the things in themselves. This must furnish a distinction, however crude, between a world of sense and the world of understanding.

Now man really finds in himself a faculty by which he distinguishes himself from everything else, even from himself as affected by objects, and that is reason. Hence he has two points of view from which he can regard himself, and recognise laws of the exercise of his faculties: first, so far as he belongs to the world of sense, he finds himself subject to laws of nature (heteronomy); secondly, as belonging to the intelligible world, under laws which, being independent of nature, have their foundation not in experience but in reason alone.

As a rational being, and consequently belonging to the intelligible world, man can never conceive the causality of his own will otherwise than on condition of the idea of freedom.

Now the suspicion is removed that there was a latent circle involved in our reasoning from freedom to autonomy. For now we see that, when we conceive ourselves as free, we transfer ourselves into the world of understanding as members of it and recognise the autonomy of the will with its consequence, morality; whereas, if we conceive ourselves as under obligation, we consider ourselves as belonging to the world of sense and at the same time to the world of understanding.


Every rational being reckons himself, as intelligence, as belonging to the world of understanding, and also conscious of himself as a part of the world of sense in which his actions are displayed.

And thus what makes categorical imperatives possible is this, that the idea of freedom makes me a member of an intelligible world, in which all my actions would always conform to the autonomy of the will; but as I at the same time intuite myself as a member of the world of sense, they ought so to conform. It is this categorical "ought" which implies a synthetic a priori proposition, inasmuch as besides my will, as affected by sensible desires, there is added the further idea of the same will but as belonging to the world of the understanding. In this way synthetic a priori propositions become possible, on which all knowledge of physical nature rests.

The practical use of common human reason confirms this reasoning. There is no one, not even the most consummate villain, provided only that be is otherwise accustomed to the use of reason, who, when we set before him examples of honesty of purpose, of steadfastness in following good maxims, of sympathy and general benevolence, does not wish that he might also possess these qualities. Only on account of his inclinations and impulses he cannot attain this in himself, but at the same time he wishes to be free from such inclinations. What he morally "ought" is then what he necessarily "would," as a member of the world of the understanding, and is conceived by him as an "ought" only inasmuch as he likewise considers himself as a member of the world of sense.


All men attribute to themselves freedom of will. Hence come all judgements upon actions as being such as ought to have been done, although they have not been done. However, this freedom is not a conception of experience, nor can it be so, since it still remains, even though experience shows the contrary.

There arises from this a dialectic of reason, since the freedom attributed to the will appears to contradict the necessity of nature. Philosophy must then assume that no real contradiction will be found between freedom and physical necessity.

Nevertheless, even though we should never be able to comprehend how freedom is possible, we must at least remove this apparent contradiction in a convincing manner.

The question then, "How a categorical imperative is possible," can be answered to this extent, that we can assign the only hypothesis on which it is possible, namely, the idea of freedom; but how this hypothesis itself is possible can never be discerned by any human reason. To explain how pure reason can be of itself practical is beyond the power of human reason, and all the labour and pains of seeking an explanation of it are lost.

Here now is the extreme limit of all moral inquiry, and it is of great importance to determine it in order that reason may not impotently flap its wings without being able to move in the empty space of transcendent concepts. For the rest, the idea of a pure world of understanding to which we as rational beings belong (while also being members of the sensible world), remains a useful and legitimate idea to produce in us a lively interest in the moral law.


It is no fault in our deduction of the supreme principle of morality, but an objection to human reason in general, that it cannot enable us to conceive the absolute necessity of an unconditional practical law (such as the categorical imperative). And thus while we do not comprehend the practical unconditional necessity of the moral imperative, we yet comprehend its incomprehensibility, and this is all that can be fairly demanded of a philosophy which strives to carry its principles up to the very limit of human reason.

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