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In an important passage in Kant’s Groundwork, he says: “[W]e cannot do morality a worse service than by seeking to derive it from examples. Every example of it presented to me must first itself be judged by moral principles in order to see if it is fit to serve as an original example—that is, as a model: it can in no way supply the prime source for the concept of morality” (4: p. 408). This is an important methodological pronouncement, and it appears to commit Kant to what might be called a “top-down” procedure for constructing an ethical theory—or at least for defending substantive moral principles. A contrasting method we might call “bottom-up” would attribute to what are commonly called intuitions, especially those concerning concrete cases, a basic epistemological role in such a theoretical normative project. This paper undertakes, first, to clarify both kinds of procedure and to sketch a philosophical methodology that can do justice to certain merits of each procedure; second, to explore, drawing on a methodological analysis the paper will outline, Kant’s actual operative method in much of his ethical writing, particularly but not exclusively the Groundwork; and third, to appraise some aspects of Kant’s actual methods of theory-building as it is seen in his development of his ethical framework. The concluding reflections will show that Kant’s overall achievement in moral philosophy does not depend on certain of his metaphilosophical views. The paper will also indicate some directions of moral inquiry that may be promising for both Kantian and other approaches in moral philosophy.


Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry

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Journal Article

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