Study Guide

Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals

by Immanuel Kant

Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals is a preliminary sketch of the fundamental metaphysical laws governing moral experience. These laws are metaphysical in that they can be discerned a priori—that is, by the exercise of pure reason and without reference to psychology. Kant’s goal is to set forth the supreme principle of morality. The attempt is organized into three sections. In the first section, he argues that only a will may be good in any unqualified sense. For Kant, a good will is one that acts not only in accordance with duty but also from a sense of duty. The standard of a morally good action, then, is that it is performed simply because it is right. This conception of duty (as the condition of a will that is good in itself) leads Kant to formulate the principle that governs the good will. He calls this principle the categorical imperative: Act only according to that maxim that you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law. In section 2, Kant offers a closer analysis of the nature of the categorical imperative and of derivative (and thus, he thinks, equivalent) formulations of it. Finally, he defends the autonomy or freedom of the will in section 3.