What good is it to ground morality? It's a somewhat bad question. Philosophers like proving things. But, specifically, does it make me more moral if I can ground my moral values?

What generated the question is the idea of treating people like ends (not means). I have a very slight appreciation of what that means, but, really, it is just out of sight, and not really intuitive. Just a hunch that thinking this way or that, about someone, is more means based.

So does work with Kant just mean, e.g., that we can more reliably know what a person as an end means, and so we are more likely to be moral (in that sense)? Or is there some further moral value to it?

  • Not all systems of morality (or more generally ethics) are concerned with Kantian morals. For Kant rationality was a measure of morality, but it appears Kant did not consider universalization universal. I'd say he just provided a solid ground for justifying his moral beliefs (which he got from his childhood being raised in a highly religious setting).
    – rus9384
    Sep 3, 2018 at 12:03
  • I made an edit to hopefully clarify the question. You may roll this back or continue editing. You can see the versions by clicking on the "edited" link. Welcome! Sep 3, 2018 at 14:54

4 Answers 4


You seem to be thinking in terms of Kant's notion of grounding morality in a metaphysics of morals, so I'll answer in that context. Kant would not argue that grounding your morals makes an act have any more moral value. All that counts as to whether an act has moral value is whether it is done from duty or not. However, I do think Kant defends a kind of practical effect of the groundwork. As we go through life and continuously witness people engaging in selfish and immoral behaviors---indeed, witness ourselves doing so---we can become jaded about morality and come to hold that morality is a mere "phantasm of a human imagination overreaching itself through self-conceit" (4:407). Kant held that grounding morality in a metaphysics of morals could help guard against giving up on morality. If we have a metaphysics of morals, then we will see that morality consists in pure practical reason, i.e., morality is independent of experience. Thus the concept of moral duty holds strong even if there never was a single empirical example of a duty being carried out for its own sake:

"And here nothing can protect us from falling away entirely from our ideas of duty and preserve a well-founded respect for its law in our soul, except the clear conviction that, even if there never have been actions that have sprung from such pure sources, still, what is at issue here is not at all whether this or that does happen, but that reason by itself and independently of all appearances commands what ought to happen; and hence that actions of which the world so far has perhaps not yet given an example, and the feasibility of which might be very much doubted by someone who makes experience the foundation of everything, are still unrelentingly commanded by reason..." (4:407-408).

Quotations taken from the Gregor and Timmerman translation.


“But, specifically, does it make me more moral if I can ground my moral values?”

More and less implies there is a measurement system in place, and that you can compare your morality to that of the others following some universal set of metrics.

This is a tricky notion, because not everyone obides by the same moral system, and most don’t have a system to begin with. For most people, morality is a combination of beliefs and hunches about the right thing to do in any given situation, with often inconsistent and erratic outcomes. It’s impossible to compare my morality to yours or anyone else’s, unless we all agree on what is being measured.

And this brings us to your question on the benefits of grounding ones morality. If morality is so arbitrary and individualistic, what does one gain by grounding it?

Predictability and sociability. Grounding your moral values - following any prescription of moral behavior - eliminates the hard work of calculating what is moral or not and makes you a more predictable, sociable individual. If your notion of the right thing to do is same as my notion and his and hers notion, chances are we are going to be a happy bunch, as opposed to all of us having our own ideas of good.

So yes, grounding your morality does make you a more moral person, but only within a group that shares the same set of moral values.


"does it make me more moral if I can ground my moral values"

You have to decide if morals are subject to change or not.

If they are changeable, then grounding morals can be an effective method for changing the morality of your actions.

If morality is unchangeable, then you are only discovering what they are grounded in and it does not change the morality of specific actions. However, knowing what morality is based on would certainly enable you to make a more informed/accurate moral choice.

I think a root of your question is would be something like, "does information change behavior".

As a side note, what I find interesting is something you touched on when you said, "philosophers like proving things". WHY do we want to know?

  • I made an edit which you may roll back or continue editing. You can see the versions by clicking on the "edited" link above. If you have any references to people who would take a similar position to yours this would strengthen your answer and give the reader a place to go for more information. Sep 3, 2018 at 19:06

There are two distinct questions in your post:

  1. Why should we ground morals at all?
  2. How is morality linked to the idea of persons as ends in themselves?

I will try to answer both.

Part 1: Why "grounding" morals at all?

For Kant, a moral judgement is distinct since it is conceived as something that should not only be so for me, and not only because of very particular circumstances, but that one ought to do because it is the right thing to do (period!). This necessarily means that we need a common ground, a first principle of morality - one that is beyond the relatively arbitrary particularities of a given person or situation - so that we do not end up with several "moralities":

Everyone must admit that a law, if it is to hold morally, i.e. as the ground of an obligation, must carry with it absolute necessity; [...] that the ground of the obligation here must not be sought in the nature of the human being, or in the circumstances of the world in which he is placed, but a priori solely in concepts of pure reason, and that any other prescription that is founded on principles of mere experience - and even a prescription that is in some certain respect universal, in so far it relies in the least part on empirical grounds, perhaps just for a motivating ground - can indeed be called a practical rule, but never a moral law. (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Ak. 4:389)

One might be tempted to say that if this was his starting point, it is not surprising that he concluded the CI (or something similar) to be a necessary grounding of morality, i.e. that this is a bit circular since he presupposed something that had to lead to this.

But, as a matter of fact, that is (empirically) how we think about specifically moral things (as opposed to a narrow understanding of ethics as "living a happy - and not necessarily morally good - life"), see Jennifer C. Wright , Piper T. Grandjean & Cullen B. McWhite (2013) The meta-ethical grounding of our moral beliefs: Evidence for meta-ethical pluralism, Philosophical Psychology, 26:3, 336-361, DOI: 10.1080/09515089.2011.633751 (their empirical data shows the paradoxical outcome that while we are ethical pluralists, we are moral objectivists)

Therefore, this whole thing is not simply a philosophical apprentice piece to do some proving, but looking into (analysing) what it really means if we think of morality as something that is about "you ought to do that because it is the right thing to do" - which we still do.

Closing remark: Kant's real problem worthy of proof was not what I just wrote, but rather whether and how such a thing as morality (in the strict sense above) is possible in a causally determined world at all.

Step 2: How does "person is an end in itself" fit in there?

This part of your question has two aspects as well:

  1. What does the idea have to do with morality?
  2. How should knowing (this part of) Kant help us with being moral in everyday life?

Persons as ends in themselves and morality

This is what Kant explains in his derivation of the second formula in his Groundwork (4:427-29) at length. A summary could be made as follows:

The "worth" of an action is always measured in respect to an end: If the action is efficacious to reach an end - a means to reach it - it is in that respect "good". But as we think a moral good to be absolute (as seen above), a moral action and its end cannot be merely relative in their worth. He states:

[R]ational beings are called persons, because their nature already marks them out as ends in themselves, i.e. as something that may not be used merely as a means, and hence to that extent limits all choice (and is an object of respect). These are therefore not merely subjective ends, the existence of which, as the effect of our action, has a worth for us; but rather objective ends, i.e. entities whose existence in itself is an end, an end such that no other end can be put in its place, for which they would do service merely as means, because without it nothing whatsoever of absolute worth could be found; but if all worth were conditional, and hence contingent, then for reason no supreme practical principle could be found at all. (Ak. 4:428, bolded mine)

In other words: In their capacity to set ends, rational beings have to be respected as objective ends, and constitute an absolute worth (on page 4:435, he calls this worth dignity) that has to be part of every moral action. If there was no absolute worth, there could not be a "supreme practical principle", i.e. a principle of morality, at all.

Hence, the very idea of morality, together with an analysation of the structure of actions (ends, means, incentives, etc.) lead to the idea that those who act and set ends themselves should be part of our ends and actions as absolute limit of our freedom.

How does this help us to be moral?

Kant himself thought the formulation to actually be more intuitive than the original formulation:

The above three ways of representing the principle of morality are fundamentally only so many formulae of the selfsame law, one of Which of itself unites the other two Within it. However, there is yet a dissimilarity among them, Which is indeed subjectively rather than objectively practical, namely to bring an idea of reason closer to intuition (according to a certain analogy) and thereby to feeling. (4:436)

If you want to incorporate the idea of persons as ends in themselves into your everyday life, it may be helpful to really just keep in mind that it is a matter of respect for others as persons to consider their ability to make choices of their own in your every course of action. This is also how he applies the formula himself:

someone who has it in mind to make a lying promise to others will see at once that he wants to make use of another human being merely as a means, who does not at the same time contain in himself the end. For the one l want to use for my purposes by such a promise cannot possibly agree to my way of proceeding with him and thus himself contain the end of this action. This conflict with the principle of other human beings can be seen more distinctly if one introduces examples of attacks on the freedom and property of others. For then it is clear that the transgressor of the rights of human beings is disposed to make use of the person of others merely as a means, without taking into consideration that, as rational beings, they are always to be esteemed at the same time as ends, i.e. only as beings who must, of just the same action, also be able to contain in themselves the end. (4:429-30)

In other words: Not using others merely as means can be understood as meaning that they should be able to (RATIONALLY! - personal particularities and interests can be ignored) "agree" with you affecting their lives and choices the way your action would do, i.e. "contain the end" (and its necessary means) as persons (free, rational agents with the ability to set ends themselves).

I guess this is quite a good rule of thumb regarding moral behaviour.

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