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In his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Immanuel Kant portrays the supreme moral principle as an unconditional imperative that applies to all of us because we freely choose to impose upon ourselves a law of pure practical reason. Morality is revealed to be a matter of autonomy. Today, this approach to ethical theory is as perplexing, controversial and inspiring as it was in 1785, when the Groundwork was first published. The essays in this volume, by international Kant scholars and moral philosophers, discuss Kant's philosophical development and his rejection of earlier moral theories, the role of happiness and inclination in the Groundwork, Kant's moral metaphysics and theory of value, and his attempt to justify the categorical imperative as a principle of freedom. They reflect the approach of several schools of interpretation and illustrate the lively diversity of Kantian ethics today.


'This collection of essays is diverse and engaging. The essays are of wide theoretical interest and deftly address issues of interpretation along with broader normative issues arising from Kant's Groundwork. Striking a nice balance of interpretive and normative concerns, each essay draws on a wide variety of sources, including not only Kant, but also his sympathetic commentators and his detractors. Those in either camp are well-advised to give these essays their attention.'

Source: Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

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  • 1 - Ethics and anthropology in the development of Kant's moral philosophy
    pp 7-28
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    This chapter investigates what the contents of Immanuel Kant's anthropology lectures between 1772 and 1785 show about the origins of concepts of the Groundwork, hoping to illuminate certain issues of the development of his moral philosophy between, i.e., the period that roughly lasted from the publication of the Inaugural Dissertation (1770) to the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785). These issues concern the closely related concepts of 'moral sense', 'moral character', 'maxim' and 'the good will'. One of the thinkers who not only endorsed idle desires, but actually encouraged them, was Johann Fürchtegott Gellert (1715-69). An important issue that Kant raised in 1775-76 is how the concepts that characterize the Denkungsart or the moral will could ever become motives for us, because in and of themselves they cannot be motivating factors or Triebfedern. The customs and virtues introduce his truly ethical concerns, which have to do with moral principles.
  • 2 - Happiness in the Groundwork
    pp 29-44
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    Immanuel Kant begins the Groundwork by putting happiness in its place. Kant first introduces happiness in the Groundwork as 'that complete wellbeing and satisfaction with one's condition' (G IV 393), and a little later links it with 'enjoyment of life' (G IV 396). Kant never explicitly explains what he takes satisfaction to be, but he does introduce a second conception of happiness, on which he concentrates in the rest of the Groundwork. The good will is unconditionally valuable, esteemed beyond all comparison, according to Kant. According to Kant's conception of happiness, complete happiness is the satisfaction of all of the desires. According to Kant, action is based on maxims, subjective principles that the agent wills. Prudential reasons generate a kind of hypothetical imperative, since they are requirements that depend on the setting an end for themselves.
  • 3 - Acting from duty: inclination, reason and moral worth
    pp 45-62
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    In Groundwork I, Immanuel Kant wants to disclose the nature of duty, and ultimately its law. That is the reason why the celebrated case of the prudent merchant is 'set aside' (G IV 397). The requirement that the maxim of the moral agent produce right actions non-contingently and independently of his motivational state may yet seem to allow for the possibility that dutiful action must be done for duty's sake if and only if there is no concurrent inclination that is sufficiently strong to motivate the dutiful deed. Kant is systematically developing the theme of the incorruptible, sturdy and self-reliant nature of morality grounded solely in practical reason, as opposed to the fickle and unpredictable support actions that accord with duty may hope to receive from inclination. Kant's dualistic conception of human volition has important philosophical consequences. Ultimately, Kantian ethics concerns the quality of an agent's moral character.
  • 4 - Making the law visible: the role of examples in Kant's ethics
    pp 63-81
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    On Immanuel Kant's view, autonomy or self-legislation, that is, the capacity of rational beings to act in accordance with principles that they themselves create, is the supreme principle of morality (G IV 440) as well as the ground of the dignity of human nature and of every rational nature (G IV 436). Given Kant's specific and limited aim in the Groundwork, it is easy to see why he devotes so little discussion to the role of examples in ethics. In his Lectures on Pedagogy, the major theme of which is moral education, Kant also refers several times to the importance of examples in discussing ethics with children. The author shows that on Kant's view examples perform necessary and important functions throughout the moral life of all human beings, they are essential not only for children but for adults as well.
  • 5 - The moral law as causal law
    pp 82-101
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    This chapter focuses on a preliminary step to connect the two claims, the step that connects rational agency to conformity to universally valid laws. It discusses the rationale behind thinking that conformity to universally valid laws is a requirement of rationality. Many readers assume that for Immanuel Kant, a rational agent must conform to universally valid laws because rational agency is rational. The chapter explains the role that conformity to universally valid causal laws plays in Kant's project of seeking out and justifying the supreme principle of morality. It also discusses some burdens this leaves for Kantians who favour the first formulation of the categorical imperative as a criterion or test of right action. The chapter concludes by claiming, admittedly without much argument, that while reason does not provide the universalization requirement in the categorical imperative, it does provide a spontaneity requirement.
  • 6 - Dignity and the formula of humanity
    pp 102-118
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    This chapter gives a reading of the formula of humanity and dignity that can do without a value as a foundation. It shifts the burden of proof to the defenders of the standard reading. The chapter argues that the absolute worth of a morally good will is neither a property all human beings possess, nor is it the reason why one should respect others. The chapter presents the alternative reading of the derivation and justification of the formula of humanity. It argues that ends-in-themselves are the ground of the categorical imperative in virtue of freedom, a conclusion that anticipates Immanuel Kant's justification of the imperative in the third section of the Groundwork. The chapter address Kant's conception of human dignity in Groundwork IV 434-6. Kant uses 'dignity' to express the elevated position morality has in terms of worth.
  • 7 - Kant's kingdom of ends: metaphysical, not political
    pp 119-139
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    Much recent writing on Immanuel Kant's 'kingdom of ends' gives it a semi-political interpretation, representing it as the normative ideal of a democratic order of mutually legislating citizens of equal moral standing. This chapter provides remarks on Kant's substantive practical metaphysics. It makes a case for a metaphysical interpretation of the kingdom of ends formulation (FKE) as part of Kant's analysis of the categorical imperative in Groundwork II. The will's power to act in accordance with the representation of laws applies in relation to hypothetical imperatives as well as to categorical imperatives. The chapter gives an idea of a spontaneous ethical order with the constructed, more limited endeavour of Kant's Rechtsstaat, suggesting that we have good reason not to confuse a juridical order with an ethical one. The coercive character of political morality is a corollary of its interpersonal nature.
  • 8 - Kant against the ‘spurious principles of morality’
    pp 140-158
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    Immanuel Kant's criticisms of the spurious principles of morality are best understood as parts of a sole survivor argument. Criticisms of mistaken views can be part of an argument to support a philosopher's own position. Henry Sidgwick is credited with having shaped a widely held view of the main difference between ancient and modern ethics. In the Groundwork Kant argues that a formal moral law is the basic law of morality. In the Groundwork (G IV 442-3) Kant divides heteronomous principles in two ways. One division is between empirically-based principles and rationally-based principles. The other division is between principles based on something internal to us and principles based on something external to us. Kant concentrates on principles about perfection, and begins by objecting to the ontological conception of it. Kant's basic argument against empirical views rests on the argument that moral principles must hold universally, for all rational beings.
  • 9 - Autonomy and impartiality: Groundwork III
    pp 159-175
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    This chapter concentrates on the first step in Immanuel Kant's argument as it is found in Groundwork III. The step itself can be broken down into two. The first sub-step takes us from acting from a reason to autonomy. The second takes us from autonomy to the categorical imperative. That the categorical imperative incorporates a requirement of impartiality is clearest in the formulation of humanity, which is for many people its most resonant and inspiring version. Impartiality requires not just the universality of reasons but also the existence of agent-neutral reasons. Autonomy itself entails the existence of categorical, not merely hypothetical, imperatives. It is the crucial thing an instrumental conception of rationality omits. The instrumentalist conception of practical reason is agent-relative, and is ruled out by the 'open-question' requirements of autonomy. An intuitionist would say that it amounts to asserting as self-evident an axiom of impartiality.
  • 10 - Problems with freedom: Kant's argument in Groundwork III and its subsequent emendations
    pp 176-202
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    Immanuel Kant's argument in Section III of Groundwork is a metaphysical argument that the moral law is the causal law of the noumenal self immediately raises several objections, three of which are discussed in this chapter. Kant addresses these three questions in his works on the foundations of morality subsequent to the Groundwork, that is, the Critique of Practical Reason and Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason. Kant addresses the first two of these questions in the Critique, but he did not address third question there nor modify his position in any way that would resolve the third question. He addresses the third question only in the Religion, although not so much by retracting the argument that gives rise to it, as by skirting it. The chapter describes Kant's explanation of how his theory of freedom is to be reconciled with his thoroughly deterministic theory of experience.
  • 11 - Freedom and reason in Groundwork III
    pp 203-223
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    This chapter explains a reading of Groundwork III that stresses the validation of reason rather than choice in the will. A standard approach to Groundwork III is to view Kant as attempting to provide an argument for the validity of the moral law for human beings by invoking a theoretical argument borrowed from the Critique of Pure Reason about the nature of reality. It presents a validation of reason interpretation, that centres on the role of reason as legislator of the moral law rather than on any choice in the will. The central claim of this interpretation is that in Groundwork III Kant invokes the transcendental freedom not of the whole person but only of the faculty of reason as a way of explaining the freedom of the will. The chapter explains what the alleged circle is by stepping even further back to Kant's invocation of the idea of freedom.
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