3 - Acting from duty: inclination, reason and moral worth  pp. 45-62

By Jens Timmermann

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Section I of Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals is meant to lead us from our everyday conception of morality to the supreme principle of all moral action, officially christened the ‘categorical imperative’ some twenty Academy pages further into the treatise. It is quite striking that in this first section Kant dispenses with the notorious technical language that pervades not just other parts of the Groundwork but also most of the remaining philosophical writings of the critical period. The mere fact that Groundwork I is comparatively accessible does not, of course, make it straightforward or uncontroversial. Kant's readers are faced with, amongst other things, four unconvincing paragraphs on the natural purpose of practical reason (G IV 394–6), a crucial change of topic from good volition to acting from duty (G IV 397), an unstated ‘first proposition’ about moral value that has baffled generations of interpreters (presumably G IV 397–9), and a contentious shift from an allegedly unproblematic principle of practical universalizability to a substantive moral command (G IV 402).

Moreover, the first section features the most famous examples of what critics have dubbed Kant's ‘motivational rigorism’: the thesis that actions are morally good only on condition that they are motivated by a sense of duty, rather than inclination. The first case – the example of the ‘shopkeeper’ (G IV 397) – concerns a higher-order inclination that leads to action in conformity with duty.