A review of Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, by Immanuel Kant, edited and translated by Allen W. Wood
Kant's groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals is the work by which his moral theory is most generally known; it is also perhaps the most frequently addressed historical text in contemporary moral philosophy. Those seeking a readable, readily available, and reliably literal translation of Kant's brief but influential work cannot do better than this new edition. Allen Wood's translation is exemplary in its fidelity to the nuances of Kant's language, down to the typographical emphases that English editions often ignore. Wood's translation bears favorable comparison with the excellent recent version, translated by Mary J. Gregor, edited by Wood, and published by Cambridge University Press (Kant's Practical Philosophy, 1996). Wood's own reasons for publishing a new translation are two-fold: a desire to be even more faithful to the text than Gregor, and the availability of a new edition of the German text (published by Bernd Kraft and Dieter Schönecker in Felix Meiner Verlag's Philosophische Bibliothek) that notes some interpretively significant differences between the two earliest versions of Kant's work. In keeping with Wood's goal of bringing English readers as close as possible to the richness (and ambiguity) of the original, footnoted cross-references to Kant's other works, and a useful glossary of German terms, are also provided. In short, this is the translation I would want my own students to have in hand in tackling a work that is more often talked about than read with care.
While the translation should appeal to a very broad readership, the accompanying essays are focused on a much narrower audience, despite the professed desire of the series to evaluate seminal texts for a "variety of perspectives." The three substantive essays (an introductory essay by Schneewind is useful, but brief) display "variety" in a rather limited sense. Each represents a competing strain in the approach to Kant studies now dominant in most American departments of philosophy. Whether "constructivist" (Marcia Baron), "consequentialist" (Shelly Kagan), or historicist/progressive (Wood), each shares the view that Kant's claims as writ are unacceptable on their face, due either to metaphysical commitments on Kant's part (e.g., to moral freedom radically conceived) currently deemed dubious, or to Kant's failure to conform to reigning liberal opinion on matters such as sexuality, the death penalty, etc. Bristling with intelligence and care, each interpretive essay is a model of its kind, with an argument worth reckoning with. Still, none presses Kant's arguments as far as they might be pressed if one were to accept the possibility at the outset—against certain dominant moral and philosophic views—that Kant might be right, or at least closer to the truth than first appears from a contemporary vantage point. Additionally, the volume might have benefited by the inclusion of an essay or two that would expose student-readers to a broader range of philosophically and morally informed opinion. This overall orthodoxy of approach conflicts with Wood's laudable, and for the most part successful, effort to bring English speaking readers as fully as possible into the orbit of Kant's thinking.