Overview of the Themes in the Groundwork

1. Autonomy and Morality

In earlier texts, Kant had suggested the following argument based on three premises: 1) freedom of choice and action is our most fundamental value; 2) but freedom is only preserved across actions that are exercised according to a law of self-consistency, i.e. acts are compatible with others; and 3) satisfaction of particular desires of oneself or others constitutes the greatest happiness that is compatible with the greatest virtue. These three premises are reflected in the Groundwork by three formulations of the categorical imperative: 1) freedom is our ultimate value = treat humanity as an end not as a means; 2) acting on maxims that could be universal laws = freedom is preserved only if it is exercised with self-consistency; 3) the formal consistency of free acts realised in the pursuit of particular ends = conception of the realm of ends as ‘a whole of all ends (of rational beings as ends in themselves as well as of the particular ends that each may set for himself)’ (4:433).

Kant rejects the psychological explanation of the premise that autonomy has absolute value as the foundation for morality in the Groundwork. Further, he rejects the notion of duty towards God, offering instead a catalogue of ‘our real duties with our duties toward ourselves, the fulfilment of which he regarded as the necessary condition of fulfilling our duties toward others (12). This is central to his claim that the immediate good can be found only in freedom; hence nothing has an absolute worth but persons, and this consists in the goodness of their free power of choice. Animals, for example, have the ability to act in accordance with choice, but this choice is not free, as it is conditioned by basic sensory drives. Freedom is simultaneously ‘the highest degree of life…that property which is a necessary condition that underlies all perfections’, and ‘the most terrible thing there can be’. Kant claims that, if freedom is not restricted i.e. bound by objective rules, ‘the the greatest wild disorder results, for it is uncertain whether humans would not use their powers to destroy themselves, others, and all of nature’. The universal law that is the condition of the restriction of freedom is thus: ‘conduct yourself so that in all actions regularity prevails’. In essence, one must act in a way that is consistent with future freedom and the freedom of others affected by one’s actions.

Autonomy is the ‘condition in which human beings both individually and collectively can preserve and promote their freedom of choice and action to the greatest extent possible’ (11). Indeed, Kant writes that human reason itself commands us to achieve ‘autonomy’, the ‘quality of the will be means of which it is a law to itself (independently of any quality of the object of willing),’ and that autonomy is equivalent to morality (G, 4:440). Nonetheless, reason does not give human nature dignity for ‘only freedom alone makes it that we are ends in ourselves’. In other words, Kant does not value human beings simply because of their rationality:

His claim here is that our unconditional value lies in our capacity for freedom, but that reason has an instrumental value because it is by its means that we can figure out how to use our freedom self-consistently, that is, to make each use of our freedom compatible with its preservation and promotion in ourselves and others. (15)

The dignity of human nature lies in freedom, since ‘through it alone we can become worthy of any good’, and the actualisation of freedom through our actions and deeds is fundamental to our worthiness as human beings.

2. Autonomy and Rules

Sticking with the notion of rule-bound freedom, Kant claims that we must act in accordance with rules in order to preserve our freedom because ‘the only alternative is to be pushed around by our mere impulses’ (16) like base animals. Moreover, impulses are wont to come into conflict with either other impulses of our own or those of other individuals, ‘which would leave either ourselves or others unfree to act as they might wish to on other occasions’ (16). Therefore, it is only by using our reason to provide rules for our actions that we can free ourselves from acting on impulse, thereby preserving rather than undermining our freedom.

Nevertheless, the demand of morality is not to renounce all particular impulses. Kant states that all right action is a maximum of the free power of choice when it is taken reciprocally. Impulses are permissible if oriented toward achieving the maximal freedom for ourselves and others; in other words, we recognise that actions are reciprocal in that they affect other people and so we choose the ‘right’ action as the one which maximises the freedom of ourselves and others. Thus, the demand of morality is not to renounce all particular impulses, ‘but rather to pursue the satisfaction only of those that are consistent with the maximal intra- and interpersonal exercise of freedom (17). It is permissible to pursue happiness but only under certain conditions.

3. The Value of Autonomy

In order to avoid an infinite regress of values, there must be something of unconditioned value that is the basis for the freedom of the human will – is it the will itself as the end for which those things are the means, for ‘what can be considered merely as a means has value as a means only when it is used’ (18). Not everything can have merely instrumental value; there has to be something unconditioned underpinning everything else. Nevertheless, Kant appeals to the unconditioned value of the human will as an explanation of the instrumental value of other things because he believes the human will to be an independent fact that is an end in itself. But he has not solved the infinite regress, as the ‘fact’ of the unconditioned value of the human will itself needs to be explained. Kant himself states in the Critique of Pure Reason, the first cause or unconditioned cannot be confirmed by experience; it is only a ‘regulative’ ideal to guide our further inquiry (18).

Saying that freedom has unconditioned value points to the feeling that there is something dignified in ‘subjecting our impulses to the rule of reason in order to preserve our freedom’ in contrast to being dominated by our own impulses. The unconditioned value of freedom therefore formalises this feeling, even if it does not explain it (21).

Quotes from Paul Guyer, Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals


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