Immanuel Kant's Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals: Second Section and Third Section

Read the second section of Immanuel Kant's Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals (which many call his "Groundwork").

Kant states that five things are clear:

  1. The origin of moral concepts is entirely a priori based in reason.
  2. Moral concepts cannot be abstracted from empirical knowledge.
  3. The non-empirical, pure, nature of moral concepts dignify them as being supreme practical principles.
  4. This value of moral concepts as pure and thus good practical principles is reduced if any empirical knowledge is added in.
  5. One must derive for oneself and apply these moral concepts also from pure reason – unmixed with empirical knowledge.

Do these claims seem to be as clear and correct to you as they do to Kant? What is Kant referring to in his concept of the categorical imperative?

Kant gives a second version of the categorical imperative which he the practical imperative. Interpreters sometimes call it the imperative of dignity or imperative of human dignity. Can you describe this version of the categorical imperative?

Kant says these two versions of the categorical imperative ultimately say the same thing. Why do you think he believes this?

Unlike our study of hypothetical examples in this course, Kant believes that morality is not something we can derive from examples. He wants to find universal principles of morality that spring wholly from reason and not from experience. This is why he calls his system the metaphysics of morals. In the second section, Kant decries utilitarian moral theories and puts forward his own, absolutely binding moral principle: the categorical imperative.

In Kant's ethical theory, a categorical imperative is a universal command, a principle everyone should follow in any situation. If we choose command such as "always tell the truth" to represent a moral rule we all should follow, it has the status of a categorical imperative, and is therefore a duty. Kant's examples in this section are meant to show that we can only consider actions to be truly moral when they are motivated by the duty to follow this imperative.

What does Kant mean by autonomy and heteronomy? Kant gives a third version of the categorical imperative in this section. Here, Kant is concerned that our principles of morality must come from ourselves and from our own rationality. However, he thinks about our rationality in universal terms, not as our own individual persuasion or opinion. Rationality and rational morality is always an objective science for Kant.

In the third section of his Groundwork, Kant presents his view of what human freedom consists of, namely, following our rational principles rather than being guided by our appetite for pleasure and our desire to avoid pain. Because Kant bases freedom and morality on rationality, this means that to be free is to be moral. In other words, to be free is to be bound by our duty to ourselves.