Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals discusses and analyses moral rules and principles of ethics and moral judgment. Ideas and concepts discussed in this work became a ground of deontological ethics and philosophy. Professional duties are owed to and by all members of the professional community. As Kant states, each rational person should be treated as an end and not as a means to an end. By virtue of their admission to the professionals have the right to expect treatment as unique talents and have assumed the duty to treat other professionals in a like manner. Kant believes that in itself there is nothing good except goodwill, and only when a person acts from duty do the person’s actions have moral worth. Kant gives special attention to the autonomy of reason and the moral law. He also believes that every rational creature has inherent worth; therefore, a rational person will always act to treat himself and other individuals as ends in himself.
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Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals underlines that autonomy acts as the link between the analysis of morality and the moral will and free will. Autonomy is that property whereby the will is a law to itself. Kant writes that all other things in nature are subject to laws of the kind which are usually called causal. To say that anything in nature is subject to law is a way of saying that the behavior of that thing can be described in scientific laws or generalizations which are based on observation. The will is not haphazard or capricious and for that reason cannot be described using scientific laws. When the will is subject to moral law and acts out of respect for that law, then a different kind of principle is at work. Kant states that the motive of the truly moral will is not open to observation. Kant shows that our idea of morality implies the existence or possibility of such a rational motive. When Kant introduces the idea of freedom, he describes it negatively as property such that it can be efficient independent of causes determining it. Freedom as property then will belong only to something which can be a law to itself.
Kant states that the moral demands of a situation may coincide with what a person should like to do, but frequently they do not. Personal desires are part of the situation and may have to be taken into account in determining what the moral demands of the situation are. Once a person knows what the situation demands of him morally, he cannot alter the situation. It is because a moral situation makes demands upon people in this way that the conception of a moral law has grown up the primary concept of legal rules. Applied to modern business practice, these laws underline professional people should respect one another as persons–as peers in the community. These are lofty goals, but surely they do not change because of the gender of the community member. The demands of the moral law, however, differ in one very important respect from the demands of the system of legal rules which obtains in any community. Kant writes:
“the will of an intelligence is free, its autonomy, as the essential formal condition of its determination, is a necessary consequence. Moreover, this freedom of will is not merely quite possible as a hypothesis (not involving any contradiction to the principle of physical necessity in the connexion of the phenomena of the sensible world) as speculative philosophy can show: but further, a rational being who is conscious of causality through reason” (Kant).
If morality is possible, then a person has dignity which places him above other creatures. If the reason is practical, then there will emerge a picture of man rather different from that which a merely speculative reason could paint. Practical reason introduces a range unknown to speculative reason. The practical reasons are subject to limitations, and Kant felt it essential to prefix to it a critical examination of the powers of practical reason. Kant reminds that in order “to prove that morality is no mere creation of the brain” (Kant) people must show that the use of practical reason is possible; that is, they must show that practical reason of itself can provide a motive to action.
When people find themselves in a situation in which some legal rule is relevant, then both the rule and the sanctions are derived from some authoritative source. The action of the person is determined by some power other than himself. In a moral situation, there is nothing that corresponds to the external influence of the rule and its sanction. The moral person is called upon to discover what his duty is for himself, and then to do it because it is his duty. This does not mean that the person can arbitrarily invent or create his duties. Kant underlines that the objective demands of the situation by an examination and testing of that situation. In seeking to determine what his duty is, he may remind himself of moral rules which may have primary importance and indicate the general direction in which his duty is likely to lie.
Kant states that it is unlikely that it will be his duty to break a promise, but in some situations, a more urgent moral claim may appear which will necessitate the breaking of a promise. It is one of the functions of ethics to elicit, discuss and evaluate these moral rules which claim to indicate duty he would have entered into this kind of discussion. “Reason would overstep all its bounds if it undertook to explain how pure reason can be practical, which would be exactly the same problem as to explain how freedom is possible” (Kant). If a person asks why he ought to do it, then the only answer that can be given which will not destroy the moral rules of the situation is that he ought to do it because he ought to. An appeal to any other motive brings about an action that conforms to moral law.
The legal system of any community is described as a body of rules which are regarded as binding on members of that community. The existence of a body of rules for conduct implies that restrictions are imposed on the freedom of action which would otherwise be enjoyed by those upon whom the rules are binding. The legal rules of a community are supported by sanctions which represent an attempt to coerce the members of the community towards behavior that is in conformity with the law. The moral law involves the imposition of restrictions on the person’s freedom of action.
If people think of lying as something forbidden by the moral law, then the demands of that law have not been fulfilled unless people refrain from lying because it is contrary to the moral law. If people refrain from lying merely because they suppose that it would not benefit them, then although it might be claimed that people have satisfied the requirements of a legal rule. To fulfill the moral law action must be done out of respect for the law. The difference between action in conformity with a legal rule and action in conformity with the moral law lies precisely in the reference to the motive. As Kant expresses this idea: “when the question is of moral worth, it is not with the actions which we see that we are concerned, but with those inward principles of them that we do not see” (Kant).
The fact that all the cases exemplify the conflict between duty and interest might suggest that Kant is trying to show by the application of his principle that all actions which spring from self-interest are inconsistent with duty or wrong. Kant underlines:
“the mere dignity of man as a rational creature, without any other end or advantage to be attained thereby, in other words, respect for a mere idea, should yet serve as an inflexible precept of the will, and that it is precisely in this independence of the maxim on all such springs of action that its sublimity consists; and it is this that makes every rational subject worthy to be a legislative member in the kingdom of ends; for otherwise he would have to be conceived only as subject to the physical law of his wants” (Kant).
Intentionally injuring others is wrong because a rational person would never intentionally injure himself. Kant’s ethics implies the moral obligation to act from respect for rights and recognition of responsibility. Actions which are done from the motive of duty are morally good, and in Kant’s view are the only actions which are morally good. Kant’s belief that only the motive of duty confers moral worth on actions has upset many of his readers, but largely because it has been confused with the quite different statement that only an action done from duty is right. He then announces his intention of developing the idea of a will that is unconditionally good and of using the idea of duty to do so. Furthermore, he asserts that when we are discussing moral goodness, we are concerned with motives, the inward aspect of actions.
Bylaws of nature he meant what is sometimes referred to as ‘scientific laws’ which are general statements descriptive of what happens in nature, and by laws of freedom, he meant moral laws which are statements prescribing modes of conduct. It is not possible to speak intelligibly of ‘obedience’ to a law of nature. Changes in nature occur with some degree of regularity and may then be described in terms of a scientific law. These changes may then be said to occur “according to the laws of nature” (Kant). The things or entities which are involved in the changes which occur in nature are not thought to have any awareness of the way in which their behavior accords with the laws. It is perhaps unfortunate that the term ‘law’ should have been extended from its social and legal context to this scientific use, but it has been so extended and we must face the task of disentangling some of the confusions which have resulted. Kant speaks of seeking in actions to achieve some end.
In sum, Kant underlines that autonomy of the will is involved in morality. Thus, “a free will and a will subject to moral laws are one and the same”. In claiming to be subject to moral law people are by that fact claiming release from the laws. When people do an action which they ought to do because we ought to do it, their actions cannot be adequately ‘explained’ by the laws. When a person is faced with an action which he ought to do, when he stands under an obligation, then he is in the position of an observer. In terms of practical reason, people must adopt the standpoint of the doer in every situation. Kant wants to portray that in making a practical application of his principle was to show that if the will is to be morally good, then in its acts of volition all interest is changed.
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Kant, I. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott. 1996. Web.