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The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals has never not been famous. It was an immediate success. We have the ability to choose what is right and what is wrong. To understand how we have that ability and the implications of that ability is what the groundwork sets out.
Motivation
Motivation
Immanuel Kant, German Philosopher. Born in 1724. He was born in what is now a part of Russia. It was Königsberg at the time, and is now known as Kaliningrad. He was a gifted scholar at a young age, and grew up to become a successful and popular teacher.

He was famous in his day for being a bit obsessive about routine. Kant would take long walks everyday and he was so consistent in his walks that people could actually set their clocks by his walk. He was not very good in dealing with women and he never married. He would socialize, but he didn't seem to have any interest in long term relationships. He loved nothing more than sitting around and thinking. 

He was probably a relatively content academic. And then, early to mid 50s, he just came out with these massive works of philosophy called The Critiques. The first one, The Critique of Pure Reason is huge. Where did this come from? There was a growing intellectual movement of empiricism and skepticism, a charge lead by a man named David Hume. He argued that really we cannot know anything as human beings because we only know the world through our own senses, our own perceptions, which are by nature subjective and fallible. It was philosophically hard to explain why we could not trust our own reasoning. 

When Kant read the philosophy of David Hume he says it awakened him from his dogmatic slumber. And in some sense, I think what happened is that he had this fire lit under him and he saw this threat to philosophy and our concept of self. He then devoted the remainder of his life to setting out an alternative vision and philosophy for what he thought human reason and life was.
Categorical Imperative
Categorical Imperative

Kant begins by defining three areas of inquiry: logics, physics and ethics. Logic exists unto itself. To be logical, you don’t need to base your thinking on any experience; you only need to develop a coherent thought system. And then there is physics, the natural sciences, and ethics, the science of bringing about good. But on what was morality grounding in? What was the logic that undergirded the way we thought about goodness for instance?


Take, for example, health. Health may seem like it is unconditionally good, but good health can prolong the works of men who put their lives to terrible uses. Health isn’t itself good. Kant came to believe that the only thing unconditionally good is good will, which is willing and wanting good for other people. Kant recognizes that many times there is a disconnect between our choices and what happens in the world of sense. But he says that doesn’t detract from the goodness of your choice. Whatever you do must flow from a motivation that you would like to be universal in all the world. This is how Kant remains relevant today.


Kant gives us some kind of mechanism for understanding why that tension exists and why we can both praise the person and hold them responsible at the same time. It’s making the case that human beings aren’t just pinballs in the universe. I still come across the thought that we don’t have any free will; it’s just an illusion. Everything is just cause and effect within the universe. Kant does a great job of explaining why people think that way but then he takes that extra step and say but that can’t be it because when it’s time for you to decide are you going to lie to someone? You make a choice for yourself.


Kant would come to call the logical undergirding of moral thought the metaphysics of morals. It was sort of like physics there was a since and a logic to it.


Morality, if it were to be stable and trustworthy, must be based on an unchanging moral law as something he called, very famously, the categorical imperative. You are being metaphysically moral if you act in such a way that you wish everybody in the world acted that way all the time. Treating another person is not a means but is an end to himself. Even if society would be better off it’s still wrong to treat them just as instruments for making people happy.

Modern Morals
Modern Morals
Immanuel Kant was one of those guys who seemed truly suited to his calling. Immanuel Kant lived to be 80 years of age, which in his day was very old. He was publishing well into the final decade of his life. Northern and Western European philosophy was built upon the framework and the challenges that Kant identified. Kant’s work has been tremendously influential in modern philosophy. 

The whole philosophy of The Hunger Games is that you take one or two people and you sacrifice them for the greater good of all. The reason we find the idea of the The Hunger Games so repugnant is because we have this Kantian belief that you can’t do that to people. 

Today, perhaps more than in any age in human history, we need a groundwork in our morality or we will lose our way. We need Kantian fundamentals to understand why and how we believe what we do, why and how we define goodness in today’s chaos of knowledge.
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