The Importance of Good Will in The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals by Immanuel Kant

Categories: Immanuel KantMoral

Problem and Statement

Kant was probably the philosopher who helped the argument from morality for the existence of God get to its strongest and most influential state. In Immanuel Kant’s paper The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals Kant attempts to show that the only thing good is a good will; and no matter how good one person may be there is something that is better until you have the perfect being (i.e. God) who is the source of good.

C.S. Lewis and Ashton help further the argument by pointing out the arguments against the moral argument for the existence of God and try to disprove these counterarguments while expanding the realms of the for arguments. However, other philosophers such as J.L. Mackie bring up strong arguments against the moral argument to attempt to persuade people away; however I believe that these arguments are to narrow and flawed to be applied. This paper will attempt to further these philosophers’ ideas and address some of the appeals that have been made against this argument.

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Appeals and Counterarguments

In J.L. Mackie’s book Ethics: Inventing Right or wrong, he tries to give a definition of good on page 50. He settles that the definition of good is something that is able to meet the requirements but not necessarily fills the requirements. However, this definition is unsatisfying because while it is a good definition when using it for a physical object, such as a hunting knife, it is strong; but to use it as a definition for what is good in the sense of morals seems to be a bit of a stretch.

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What does it mean to be a good person? What requirements do you need to be a good or moral person? Mackie was too focused on a specific word and found a definition that works in some cases and applied it to all. The English language has many words that have a definition that can only be applied to some cases but not others. A better definition for the good that Mackie was trying to define would be something that is holy (a religious definition) or helpful to mankind as a whole (a worldly or secular definition).

Now if you take the secular definition, then one may argue that helping one person would not help out mankind as a whole; however that one person you helped out may help out another which helps out another and creates a long chain of people helping each other out improving mankind as a whole) or if the chain ends at the one person you helped then no one is affected but that one person (meaning the net results would be a positive result on mankind, even though it may be small). C.S. Lewis also points out on page 6 of his book Mere Christianity that people who deny that objectives are moral can often be found using it as a basis for certain claims; especially when they do not get what they want or expect they will claim “That is not fair” or by claiming that someone is evil because of an action that they have performed (such as Hitler killing millions of people). However, Lewis points out that if morals were truly subjective then people would not have an underlying basis of what is “fair” or “evil” because other people would not see it their way since there is no moral law or code. He also mentions on page 9 that often people will talk of “moral advancement” in societies.

How can a society have a moral advancement if morals are subjective? Ashton also agrees with Lewis on page 172 of his book The big argument: Does God exist?: Twenty-four scholars explore how science, archaeology, and philosophy haven’t disproved Godby claiming that by supposing moral relativism (or that morality was subjective) was true, then we have to accept that Nazi Germany killing six million Jews and Jeffrey Dahmer (who murdered, raped, and dismembered eighteen young men) did nothing wrong because it would be a simple case of difference in moral beliefs. What we may believe is right is not what they believe is right so we should not force them to follow our moral beliefs. He also notes that abolishing slavery is not a moral advancement for our country and people like Martin Luther King Jr. should not be labelled as moral reformers if moral subjectivity was correct.

On page 60 of the same book by J.L. Mackie, he attempts to say that no two scenarios can be exactly the same and therefore trying to universalize moral code is useless. While I agree that no two scenarios can never be exactly the same, I do not agree that makes universalizing moral codes is useless or impossible. If you look at math or science, there are many cases where there a rule or formula that can be used. However, they often have scenarios where they are not exactly the same, and in many cases are radically different. If Mackie’s assumption of if two things cannot be exactly the same then you cannot universalize a law, then how is it that formulas are being used in math or science and how is it that statements of science are being applied to multiple different scenarios. Even in the justice system two cases can never be exactly the same but they held to the same law. Just because two things cannot be exactly the same thing does not mean that there is some underlying similarity that can be universalized. He then claims that this could create unfairness in society because you could chose a minority (such as black or Jew) and say because of that difference the moral code is applied differently.

But this is just simple human manipulation to get what they want and difference in belief or race should never be a reason to change the moral code.Universalizing moral code does not create unfairness or discrimination in society; hatred and intolerance creates this discrimination and if universalizing codes was not around then people would find another tool to use. He then states “What is right for me is right for you” on page 78 as a way to quickly summarize his argument. However this statement is self centered because he puts the focus on the individual and many things that people deem wrong are often focused on an individual (such as thievery to help oneself at the cost of another). As Ashton points out on page 172 of his book The big argument: Does God exist?: Twenty-four scholars explore how science, archaeology, and philosophy haven’t disproved God, just because two people disagree about a moral law does not mean it is a personal choice; it is possible for one person’s view of morality to be false.

Rather morals are objective or subjective, the question remains where these morals come from. J.L. Mackie on page 90 claims that some moral codes have developed from idea of “I will scratch your back if you scratch mine” for a grounds of barter. If you uphold your end of the bargain then others should uphold theirs and if they do not then they should not be bartered with and not given what they need. Craig and Moreland in their book The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology on page 393 claim that biologist E.O. Wilson and philosopher Michael Ruse propose that human experience of morality is simply a by-product of natural selection, which was later termed as evolutionary naturalism. This claim says human experience of moral obligations was the result of evolutionary pressures and therefore entail only in the human mind and are passed down through the gene pool and people who exercise more popular morals will be more likely to pass their morals.

However, Ashton points out on page 170 while this might explain how morality is passed, it does explain why nor does it give a basis for what morals would be accepted. The only claim is that these traits may help increase our capacity to survive.Lewisfurther points out on page 9 of Mere Christianity that morality cannot be simply “herd” instincts because often instincts and morals will conflict and people will often choose the moral decision because it is “the right thing to do”. Lewis also points out that if morals were taught then different cultures would have different morals; while there is some truth all cultures seem to have the same core morals (i.e. cowardice and backstabbing are wrong). On page 26 Lewis points out that if evolutionary naturalism is true, then morals cannot be objective because the morals that would be passed through the gene pool would be the genes that people at that time prefer. However, as Lewis noted on page 6, if people truly accepted this as they said they did, then why would they bring up statements like “That is not fair”? Lewis offers a form of divine command theory on page 30 which states that God and goodness are the same and treated goodness as an essential part of reality, thus showing that God exists.

On page 175, Ashton points out that theists have another stumbling block with the moral from morality for the existence of God; and that is that even if morality objectivity exists then how can it depend on God? The Euthyphro dilemma asks “Is it good because God commands it or does God command it because it is good?” As Ashton explains, this forces a theist to accept that either morality is entirely arbitrary because if God says murder and adultery are good then they would be good; meaning that good or evil is dependent on the arbitrary will of God. If one denies this, then it appears that they have to accept morality is independent of God. However, if we take the focus off of God’s arbitrary will and place it on God’s fixed nature, then we can see that one does not have to accept either of these two conclusions and rather can conclude that something is good because it reflects God’s necessarily good nature. This joins the nature of God with the existence of morality to properly show that morality is rooted in God and the fixed nature of God is good.

Supporting Arguments

The oldest argument found laying out the ground works for the argument from morality for the existence of God is from Aquinas. In Summa Theologica (page 1265–1274) mentions that in Aquinas’ fourth book of “Five Ways” he claims that there are gradients or levels of qualities such as good or noble. This means one who is good or noble would most likely have someone who is more good or nobler; all the way up to a being who is purely good or purely noble. Aquinas claims that this being who is perfectly good or perfectly noble is God.Philosophers have adapted this layout as an argument claiming that since only a perfect being can be at the top of the top level of a quality, then that being must have invented that quality and passed it down into creation.

On the first page of Immanuel Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals Kant claim as good, such as money or intelligence, can be used for evil. Money can be worshipped and used as a way of manipulation and intelligence can be used to persecute others and even create weapons to end a mass quantity of lives at once. These qualities are not good, because they have good aspects, nor are they evil, because they have bad aspects, but rather the will that uses these qualities determine if they will be evil or good. Meaning it is not a matter of what you possess, but rather how you use it and why you use it. Kant also mentions that it is accepted that doing something good to get something out of it is generally accepted as not good but doing something good for the sake of doing something good is accepted as good. Meaning it is not just how you use the quality, but why you use a quality can determine if it is good or not.

On the next few pages Kant makes a few very important clarifications, the first being that no one can derive any moral law from any specific event. This is because specific events depend on specific circumstances and a moral code may not rely on specific circumstances but more general ones. According to Martin in his book Atheism: A Philosophical Justification(212-214), John Locke also made a similar argument stating that rules cannot be established from conscience because differences in people’s consciences would lead to contradictions (however, he used this to believe that moral codes could not be universalized instead of one being right and the other possibly being wrong). This suggests that God is not based on experience but rather the on the idea of moral perfection; meaning that God (and therefore religion) is not just feelings or emotions but rather working towards perfection or improving oneself. This idea seems to be supported by Christianity (and other religions) which would help make theologies more coherent with Scripture.

The second being that, as Kant claims, there are four common notions of duty that all humans have. He believes that these are that people have a duty not to commit suicide so they may continue existing, people only borrow money if they intend to pay it back or people would never loan money, to cultivate one’s talents so they may benefit from their capacities, and assisting others in need because if not then no one would find assistance. However, since there are many instances where a person fails to uphold at least one of these duties then that suggests that humans must possess the ability to have the option to uphold these duties or to contradict a duty; meaning that any rational being must possess a free will. With this premise, Kant explains how rational beings have the unique capacity to cause events through free will and that in order for a will to be free it must be a will that will give itself its own law, thus a will is free only when it follows moral laws. However, as Kant points out, since morality is a matter for all rational beings and not just humans, morality cannot be based on the concept of free will unless it is established that all rational beings have a free will. So if all rational beings have a free will, then they must follow a moral law that can only from a God that is based on moral perfection (and not experience as shown above); therefore God probably exists.

Psychological Standpoint

In psychology one of the hypothesis that many books will bring up is that when babies are born, they are born as a blank slate. This would mean that there is no moral code and morals are simply taught. However, as C.S. Lewis pointed out that everyone seems to have a since of what is fair and many cultures seem to have the same core morals. This raises the question that if babies are born as a blank slate that is completely impressionable and malleable, then how is it that most, if not all, of the cultures have the same core values. One may hypothesize that the first few humans developed morals and then taught their descendants. However, in history we see many examples of morals changing, and often radically, so history suggests that if this was true then most cultures would not have the same core morals because they would have still adapted. This leaves two options: either that they are passed genetically rather through herd instincts/survival or that a creator has placed them as part of us.


J.L. Mackie attempts to display morality as a subjective issue by expressing the confusion in the definition of good, however, I believe he has given an incorrect definition that deals with a different issue than the one he brings up. He then attempts to bring up issues that would be caused if morality was objective but has to narrow of a focus and not seeing the other answers to his objections. After him E.O. Wilson and Michael Ruse attempt to explain morality simply as a herd instinct while C.S. Lewis shows that a herd instinct explanation is flawed and even people who seem to agree with this conclusion seem to not stand by it when something that they deem as “unfair” happens. While Kant breaks down the issues of morality and free will by concluding that the only good thing is a good will and a will is only free if it gives itself moral laws (and thus only free if it is following moral laws) and that the only place these laws can come from is a God who is based on moral perfection instead of experience. Finally, Ashton joins in to express that many objections to objective morality are flawed and do not successfully know moral objectivity. He also shows that morality is rooted in God’s nature and simply a reflection of his fixed and necessary nature.


  1. Craig, William Lane; Moreland, 393(2011). The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology.John Wiley & Sons. A collection of essays that are trying to explore the nature and existence of God through human reason and evidence from the natural world. Provides deep analysis of natural theology’s main arguments. Contained information about evolution naturalism and scientists who have developed a hypothesis against moral universalisation.
  2. Aquinas, St. Thomas, pg 1265-1274 (1948). Summa Theologica, New York: Benziger Brothers. Describes the relationship between God and man and attempts to explain how man’s reconciliation with Divine is made possible through Christ. Used for the context since Aquinas is believed to be the oldest argument that supports moral universalisation.
  3. Ashton, J., pg 165-177 (2006). The big argument: Does God exist?: Twenty-four scholars explore how science, archaeology, and philosophy haven’t disproved God. Green Forest, AR: Master Books. Ashton takes twenty-four scholars and philosophers to participate in several arguments to try and prove God’s existence. He includes arguments for God’s existence and gives extra evidence and he provides counter-arguments and responses to them.
  4. Kant, 1-14(2013). Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Lanham: Start Publishing LLC. This paper written by Kant attempted to set up his work in the metaphysics of Morals. He divided the paper into three sections and each section he will use, after establishing it as a premise, to further delve into the argument. He starts off with defining what is truly good and points out a few examples of what is truly moral. Used as the main source and outline some of Kant’s arguments.
  5. Lewis, C., & Norris, 3-30 (1980). Mere Christianity. New York, NY: HarperCollins An explanation and defence for the beliefs common to all Christian denominations. Divided into three sections, the first being “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the meaning of the Universe”, the second being “What Christians Believe”, and the third being “Christian Behaviour”. Used for to counter some of the counter arguments made against.
  6. Kant Martin, Michael pg 212-214(1992). Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Temple University Press Contains justifications for being an atheist and claims it is a rational position while a theistic position is not. Delves into counter-arguments and starts off by casting doubt about God’s existence and then tries to convince the reader that no God actually exists. Used because made several counter arguments that provide extra information.
  7. Mackie, J. 50-120(1977). Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, Penguin. Mackie starts off by defining what is good. He then uses the definition to raise question about how universalizing morals is not possible. It then is brought up that situations are always different and what is right for one is not right for another and by universalizing morals code than unfairness in society is created. The main source for against the moral universalisation.
  8. Mackie, 105(1982). The Miracle of Theism. Oxford: Clarendon. A collection of arguments for and against theism. Mackie presents several arguments for theism and then provides his own personal beliefs and counter-arguments to try and persuade the reader away from these arguments. Used for a few comments to further support being against moral universalisation.

Cite this page

The Importance of Good Will in The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals by Immanuel Kant. (2021, Sep 12). Retrieved from

The Importance of Good Will in The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals by Immanuel Kant

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