Kant's Metaphysics of Morals: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:04 Immanuel Kant
  • 1:09 Summary of the Text
  • 4:47 Putting It All Together
  • 5:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Sipper

Dr. Sipper holds a PhD in Education, a Master's of Education, and a Bachelor's in English. Most of his experience is in adult and post secondary education.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) established a metaphysics of morals based on the idea that rationality drives morality. His categorical imperative is still seen by many philosophers as a philosophically sound measure of discussing and establishing moral decisions.

Immanuel Kant

Have you ever wondered why we consider some things as good (moral) and some as bad (immoral)? Is it merely instinct that drives morality or is it something more? The philosopher Immanuel Kant asked these same questions.

Immanuel Kant is still revered as one of the premier philosophers of the ages. His logical work on rationality and its relationship to moral imperatives has been referenced by philosophers for hundreds of years and still maintains a loyal following today.

Kant was interested in establishing a metaphysics of morality that could be used independently from natural views of morality that implied human beings were merely slaves to instinct. The idea stemmed from a rational view of humanity and its ability to determine moral good and evil based solely on that rationality.

Kant suggested a standard he called a categorical imperative (CI) based upon this rationality asserting that rational thought would inevitably lead to moral action.

In this lesson, we will examine a summary of Kant's Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals and analyze some of the key components of this framework.

Summary of Text

Kant's work began in the groundwork he set in the aptly titled Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. His logically planned out vision helped to launch a philosophical journey that set the stage for a new way of considering the moral construct.

We'll go through each section one at a time and then we'll take a closer look at the overall analysis of Kant's positions in the work.


The groundwork is divided into three sections and begins with an explanation and development of the idea of working from simply and rationally considering morality, and then using this rational foundation to build the rest of his argument.

Section One

Kant begins with the idea that one must first establish a basic understanding of how to think morally. He calls this common rational moral cognition. From there, Kant works from this established common understanding to one that is philosophical in nature, which he calls philosophical moral cognition. This is a way of looking at moral action based on three propositions:

  1. Something is moral only if it is done out of duty.
  2. Good moral action is based on the principle and not the aim or object of the action.
  3. Moral actions must be done because of one's respect for the law.

Section Two

In the second section, Kant takes the foundation laid in Section One and expounds upon it. He works using these principles to move away from the idea that humans are slaves to instinct and toward the idea that there is a logical, metaphysical (outside of or above the merely physical reality) morality that can be discovered through reason and rationality.

Kant's first criticism of the popular moral beliefs of his time is that it fails in the face of those who reject empirical morality, or a morality based on repeatable observation. He also states that basing a moral framework on a particular system, religious or otherwise, simply gets in the way of pure reason because you would have to prove why one system is superior to another.

After showing the weaknesses of popular morality, Kant goes on to set up his argument for the metaphysics of morality. He begins with the assertion that moral decisions must be made solely based on reason because any moral decision based on anything other than reason (a preference or out of fear of punishment, for example) would not be made for objectively moral reasons.

This leads to Kant's establishment of the categorical imperative (CI). This is the area of Kant's metaphysics of morals where duty plays a large role. Kant uses maxims, or general truths or principles, to guide his thoughts concerning duty-bound moral decision-making. He defines the CI as an act in accordance with that maxim that can at the same time make itself into a universal law. Thus, one must, under this line of reasoning, make decisions from a standpoint of pure objectivity and duty because it would be immoral to do otherwise, overturning the maxim itself.

Section Three

In the final section, Kant first attempts to draw together the lines of reasoning by discussing the harmony or freedom and morality. He makes the point that acting morally is the same as freedom of action.

Next, Kant establishes the understanding that a person who acts freely because she is constrained to live in a reality of freedom is actually free to act morally because she occupies that very reality. This is an attempt to remove a supposed contradiction of freedom.

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