Understanding Kant’s Duty-Based Ethics — by Faizan Akbar
January 15, 2022
Faizan Akbar presents a paper that also operates as an extensive book review of Immanuel Kant’s “Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals” (1785). After providing an apt introduction of the German philosopher, along with a summary of his other works, Akbar proceeds to effectively synthesize the main ideas and focal points found in Kant’s 60-page work. Secondly, Faizan also completes the task of reviewing such a seminal work of philosophical importance and contextualizes its greater relevance within the broader Western philosophical tradition.


Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was a German philosopher who is considered the father of modern liberal ethics1 and occupies a very important place in the canon of western philosophy. Kant wrote extensively, covering a wide range of areas like epistemology, ethics, metaphysics, and aesthetics. The Critique of Pure Reason (1781/1787), which was heavily influenced by the skepticism of David Hume—a Scottish Enlightenment philosopher—is considered as his magnum opus.

In this work, Kant attempted to show whether a priori knowledge—knowledge independent of empirical experience—was possible. He concluded his inquiry by arguing that synthetic-a priori judgements are possible— a method that lies at the heart of Kantian epistemology and exemplifies a third way between a dogmatic a priori/rationalist approach and a rigid a posteriori/empirical approach. Using this method, Kant later took up the question of morality. He endeavored to establish a robust foundation of moral philosophy that would exist a priori—independent of the world of experience.

He began this enterprise in his work Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), and later elucidated it in his other prominent works viz., Metaphysics of Morals (1797), and Critique of Practical Reason (1788).

Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), albeit an introductory work, holds an indispensable place in understanding the Kantian system of ethics. It’s in this work that Kant introduces his famous concept of Categorical Imperative.

In this article, I will attempt to draw a general outline of this book, highlighting its core arguments, and, towards the end, provide a critical assessment of the same.

Traversing the Text

The book Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, hereby Groundwork, consists of three sections and a preface. In the preface, Kant gives a basic introduction to his understanding of philosophy. He divides Philosophy into three parts:

i) Logic formal philosophy i.e. philosophy of form of general understanding and reason without any distinction of objects.

ii) Physics – a material philosophy, as opposed to formal, pertaining to the natural world of laws and its determinate objects.

iii) Ethics – falls in the category of material philosophy as it is concerned with human objects. However, Kant believes humans exist as autonomous objects in conditions of freedom, therefore, Ethics deals with laws of freedom.

Besides these three demarcations, he states that all philosophy has an empirical part and a pure part (independent of any experience). When the latterpure philosophydeals with pure forms of understanding, it is known as logic and when it deals with determinate objects, it is known as metaphysics.

Moreover, moral philosophy, if anchored to grounds of experience, is termed as anthropology by Kant as opposed to metaphysics of morals or pure moral philosophy which is independent of empirical human experience.

Hence, Kant situates his inquiry in a metaphysics of morals as he intends to develop a system of ethics that would be completely cleansed of everything that may be only empirical and that belongs to anthropology”.2 The grounds of morality (obligation), Kant argues, must be sought a priori simply in concepts of pure reason.3

In each section, Kant attempts to tackle a specific question, answering what would eventually substantiate his entire project.

In the first section, Kant sets out to deduce the principles that underlie our moral stances in daily life. He argues that the reason we value morally good actions is because they stem from a good will”. Kant writes that A good will is not good because of what it effects or accomplishes, because of its fitness to attain some proposed end, but only because of its volition, that is, it is good in itself and, regarded for itself4 Things like wit, judgements and other talents are no doubt considered to be desirable by humans, nonetheless, all such things inhere a potentiality of being instrumental for producing an evil action/outcome. Therefore, the only thing that guarantees a (morally) good action is a good will, and its value stems, not from what it can produce, but simply by virtue of it being chosen, or in Kantian parlance, willed.

Building on this, Kant argues that the actual purpose of reason, free from inclinations5, is therefore to produce a good will. In order to actualize this good will, Kant gives us the concept of duty, that, when actions stem from it, actualizes the former in the real world.  He further distinguishes between doing an action from duty and doing it in conformity with duty. For example, a sympathetic person may help someone because it makes him feel good i.e. it panders to his immediate inclination. This action would be in conformity with duty, however, it does not stem from duty precisely.

Furthermore, Kant propounds that duty is the necessity of an action from respect of law6 because one cannot respect an action that stems from an inclination for it is a mere effect of a prior cause, but only that action which is independently willed and thereby embodies a pure cause (will) without an influence of any prior causes.

Kant then formulates for the first time the most important element of his moral theory—the Categorical Imperative as the test of universalizability of action.  

It is presented as a maxim that states I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.7 If a person who makes a false promise is asked whether the maxim by which he acts while making a false promise should or can be universalized such that every person who makes a promise acts by such maxim, he will not be able to respond in an affirmative. The justification to this, according to Kant, is that such a maxim would undermine the very idea of ‘promise’ and consequently there would be no proper ‘promises’ at all. Therefore, to Kant, only those maxims can be universalised that are in line with reason—those which stand the test of non-contradiction.

In the second section of his work, Kant shifts from common cognition to a critique of practical reason to the point where duty and moral law can be deduced from it. Here, as opposed to pure or speculative reason, Kant uses the term practical reason meaning the general human capacity for resolving, through reflection, the question of what one is ought to do.8 Kant remarks that all objects in nature, including humans, follow laws. However, in our capacity of being rational, we follow our representation of laws.9 That is to say, we do not simply follow the moral law like inanimate objects follow natural law. Nonetheless, given our capacity to be rational can be compromised by our inclinations, therefore, the theory of practical law is enunciated in terms of imperatives—commands of reason— i.e. we ‘ought’ to do something, because we do not automatically always do what we are required to do.

This set of philosophical affirmations highlights a disconnect that exists between our subjective maxims/law and the objective/universal moral law. Kant further explains why it has to be a Categorical Imperative as opposed to a Hypothetical Imperative. Hypothetical Imperatives are conditional. For example, if I would not want to be arrested, I should not steal. Contrary to this, a Categorical Imperative tells us what we ought to do, not on any other condition, but simply because we will to do so. In simple terms, it is a command of reason with no strings attached. Furthermore, Kant further ruminates on the question of universalizability of this Categorical Imperative.

Kant then builds his—what Christine Korsgaard calls—the principle of humanity.10 He argues that all rational beings exist as ends in themselves, and by this virtue they are distinguished from things whose existence depends on other things in nature. To this end, he puts forth his second formulation of the Categorical Imperative, which states: act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.11 Therefore, it demands that all rational beings and their agency be respected as an end in itself. Till this point in the book, Kant has already explained that being rational means to be a self-legislating subject, who wills a maxim that can be extended as a universal law.  So, every human will has to be treated as a will giving universal law through all its maxims.12

Kant then highlights two different motivations that make an individual follow a law. If the individual follows the law because he endorses it, it would be autonomous—literally self-legislating. However, if he follows it due to any reason that lies outside of his will—i.e. state, some inclination, etc.—then his motivation would be heteronomous. This leads Kant to develop his idea of a kingdom of ends—an ideal community that is a systematic union of various rational beings through common laws.13 Moreover, the law of this union is the law of freedom, because in it individuals are free to will their own laws and these laws in turn treat all human beings as ends in themselves. However, Kant is yet to show that we indeed are autonomous, which lies at the foundation of his entire moral theory. Kant attempts to explicate this in the final section of the Groundwork.

In doing so, Kant attempts to show that we, humans, have free/autonomous wills that give rise to a universal moral law. This is not an analytic claim for the very concept of an autonomous free will does not tell us anything about a universal moral law. Therefore, this claim, Kant argues, has to be deduced synthetic a priori. Kant writes that for a statement to be synthetic a priori, its terms must be bound together by their connection with a third in which they are both to be found.14 In order to substantiate this claim, Kant establishes its first connection by arguing that free will is the causality of a rational being for if he/she/they were to be purely driven by his/her/their desires, then it wouldn’t be possible to ascribe freedom to them.

He makes a second claim by stating that this will as causality contains the idea of acting according to a law—every cause begets an effect. Since the will stems from reason, and reason in turn gives the will rational principles, therefore, Kant concludes that, a free will and a will under moral laws are one and the same”.15

Now, Kant only needs to show that we really have a free will, while admitting that freedom is a necessary presupposition for us to take any interest in morality. He points out that insofar as we are rational we act under the idea of freedom.16

Kant generates another argument to elucidate this point. He distinguishes between a world of sense (Kantian phenomena) and a world of understanding (Kantian noumena). He argues that insofar we are members of a world of sense, we are subject to its laws. However, insofar we are members of a world of understanding, we are rational, and therefore, we act under the idea of our freedom and produce a causality (will) that is independent of the world of sense. So, Kant argues, since the world of understanding contains the ground of the world of sense and so too of its laws.17 Therefore, in the world of understanding, we objectively act as the agents of the laws that apply to us subjectively in the world of sense. In that sense, freedom is a necessary presupposition.

An Assessment

In the preceding section, I have attempted to produce a comprehensive picture of the Kantian moral theory that is embodied in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Although it is a brief work consisting of around sixty odd pages, it is quite condensed in terms of the meaning entailed in each of its pages, or sentences.

I have tried to show the logical flow in its specific arguments that connect to construct the entire edifice of Kant’s metaphysics of morals. The argument flows from an idea of a good will, to its embodiment through duty, which itself is captured in an idea of a law that can be universalized. This law, as Kant points out in the preface of the book, is a law of freedom, that is, it stems from freedom—a free will—and it also regulates the freedom of all human beings in a community where everyone is treated as equal—as an end in itself. However, to Kant, a free will—an autonomous will—is synonymous to reason and rationality. Therefore, if a person is driven by irrational impulses, what Kant terms as “inclinations, then his will cannot be deemed to be free/autonomous in a pure sense, and it would only be a heteronomous will which cannot be a source of a moral law.

Thus, the entirety of Kantian ethics/morality sprouts from the idea of rationality and reason. This is a radical insight—capitalizing on what John Rawls later constructs his groundbreaking Theory of Justice.18 Kantian morality is not contingent upon mere intuitions of sympathy or empathy. Rather, it is reason alone that serves as the source of all unconditional demands regarding what one ought to do.19 Similarly, Rawls would later argue, along the same lines, that it is reason that should drive us to establish justice, and not a mere feeling of sympathy.

Furthermore, Kantian ethics do not agree with ethical intuitionism which holds that morality can be known intuitively, non-inferentially. However, for him, the practical reason is formal, which does not give us specific do’s and don’ts. Rather, it gives us a general framework that serves as a law determining the specific rules.20

Moreover, Kant’s predecessor David Hume and many other philosophers of his time held that moral philosophy was inherently instrumental, or in other words, it was essentially consequentialist. Nonetheless, Kant enunciated his theory as diametrically opposed to those conceptions of morality.21 Kant argues against the hypothetical principles that undergird the instrumental conceptions of morality, and in favor of a single supreme principle—a categorical imperative—which stems purely from duty, or which upholds duty. This is primarily the reason his theory is considered to be a deontological22 theory of morality by most thinkers. However, it must be mentioned here that some thinkers have insisted on a consequentialist reading of Kant.

For instance, J.S Mill, in his classic Utilitarianism (1863), argues that the universal law of Categorical Imperative can only be assessed by a test of the consequences of a universal adoption of that maxim.23 This makes his theory a consequentialist theory, albeit, articulated in a different way.

 Although it is practically not possible to always willin Kantian termsan action that is purely done from duty, it still marks out a standard that rational beings should aim at while formulating their moral convictions. In that sense, it is quite a robust principle. It has to be noted that Kant compares his system to that of Copernicus. As Copernicus had turned the universe inside out by propounding a heliocentric understanding of universe contrary to the thitherto commonly held notions of geocentrism, Kant also turned the system of ethics and epistemology inside out by placing humanity at the center of all legislation in terms of moral laws, and also in terms of projecting laws onto the natural word that seem to be out there viz., time and space.24 In this sense, Kant can be seen as a logical precursor to Existentialism, which emerged later in the 19th and 20th century in European Philosophy.25

Existentialists upheld, capitalizing on Kantian insights, that there is no inherent meaning in life and all meaning had to be actively created by humans as agents and then lived authentically26—something that clearly resonates with Kant. Although Kant seems to have intended to establish the first principles of morality a priori that would be true by definition and therefore universalizable, he encounters a problem which he himself brings up towards the end of the book.

According to Kant, freedom is the reason why we take interest in morality and the reason as to why morality should apply to us is our freedom itself. This gives rise to a circularity in his argument, revolving around freedom. So, in order to escape this circularity and establish moral law, freedom is an indispensable presupposition, however, the objective reality of which, Kant himself admits, is doubtful.27 Kant, therefore, attempts to substantiate his system by first differentiating, and later synthesizing, his concepts of world of sense and world of understanding which has been explained in the previous section. Nonetheless, this attempt does not seem to make up for this weakness in his argument and hence leaves genuine room for problematizing his moral theory.

Another problematic aspect of Kantian Moral Theory presented in this work, is that it gives rise to a contradictory dualism. On the one hand, it intends to establish an objective-universal system of morality, but on the other, allows humans to literally forge their own morality, with a hope—which is quite naive though—that humans would arrive at a common morality if they follow their capacity to indulge in pure reason. This aspect of Kantian Moral Theory has been criticized by many philosophers like Servais Théodore Pinckaers, Elizabeth Anscomb and Iris Murdoch, to name a few.28

As can be expected, Kantian Moral Theory has found many admirers that include John Rawls, Onora O’Neill, etc. At the same time, it has also been severely criticized by many theorists and philosophers, including the likes of G.W.F Hegel, Friedrich Schiller, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, and many Christian ethicists. The criticisms are out there and can be easily accessed. However, it must be mentioned here that years after the enunciation of Kantian Moral Theory, it continues to influence and shape the Western intellectual and moral traditions even in the present philosophical climate and times. Therefore, in my opinion, understanding Kantian ethics becomes almost indispensable for those who are interested in understanding the contemporary debates concerning morality and ethics.

Notes and References:

  1. H.  J.  Paton.  The Categorical Imperative: A Study in Kants Moral Philosophy. Pennsylvania University Pennsylvania Press; 1947.
  2. I.Kant.  Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.  Trans., Gregor. M., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1998. p-2.
  3. ibid. p-3.
  4. ibid. p-8.
  5. Kantian term for desires and impulses that are not rational.
  6. I.Kant.  Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.  Trans., Gregor.  M., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1998. p-13.
  7. Ibid. p-15.
  8. Wallace, R. Jay, “Practical Reason”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2020/entries/practical-reason/>.
  9. I.Kant.  Groundwork  of  the  Metaphysics of Morals.  Trans., Gregor.  M., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1998. p-24.
  10. C.  M.  Korsgaard.  “Introduction to Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals”.  In Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, M.  Gregore.  Ed. and Trans.  Cambridge University Press; 1998. xxi.
  11. I.Kant.  Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.  Trans., Gregor.  M., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1998. p-38.
  12. ibid. p-40.
  13. ibid. p-41.
  14. ibid. p-53.
  15. ibid. p-53.
  16. ibid. p-54.
  17. ibid. p-61.
  18. Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Massachusetts; Harvard University Press, 1971.
  19. Williams, Garrath, “Kant’s Account of Reason”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2018/entries/kant-reason/>.
  20. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopedia. “Practical reason”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 20 Apr. 2009, https://www.britannica.com/topic/practical-reason. Accessed 30 May 2021.
  21. Williams, Garrath, “Kant’s Account of Reason”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  22. Deontos (from Greek) means duty; deontology is an ethical theory which stresses on duty-based action regardless of the consequences it produces.
  23. Johnson, Robert and Adam Cureton, “Kant’s Moral Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2021/entries/kant-moral/>.
  24. C.  M.  Korsgaard.  “Introduction to Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals”.  In Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, M. Gregore.  Ed. and Trans. Cambridge University Press; 1998. vii.
  25. R. Fremstedal. “Kant and Existentialism: Inescapable Freedom and Self-Deception” in The Palgrave Handbook of German Idealism and Existentialism (Palgrave Handbooks in German Idealism). Basingstoke, UK: pp. 51-75 (2020).
  26. Lowrie, Walter (1969). Kierkegaard’s attack upon “Christendom”. Princeton. pp. 37–40.
  27. I.Kant.  Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.  Trans., Gregor.  M., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1998. p-60.
  28. See Modern Moral Philosophy (1958) by Elizabeth Anscombe; Morality: The Catholic View (2003) by Servais Théodore Pinckaers; The Sovereignty of Good (1970) by Iris Mudroch.
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About the Contributor

<a href="https://www.inversejournal.com/author/faizanakbar/" target="_self">Faizan Akbar</a>

Faizan Akbar

Faizan Akbar is pursuing a Master's in Political Science from Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi. His interests include Political Theory, Religion, and Philosophy.