On the Basis of Morality

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On the Basis of Morality (German: Ueber die Grundlage der Moral, 1840) is one of Arthur Schopenhauer's major works in ethics, in which he argues that morality stems from compassion. Schopenhauer begins with a criticism of Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, which Schopenhauer considered to be the clearest explanation of Kantian ethics.

Publication history

Arthur Schopenhauer wrote On the Basis of Morality as a response to a question posed by the Royal Danish Society of Scientific Studies in 1837 for an essay contest. The question was, "Are the source and foundation of morals to be looked for in an idea of morality lying immediately in consciousness (or conscience) and in the analysis of other fundamental moral concepts springing from that idea, or are they to be looked for in a different ground of knowledge?". Schopenhauer submitted the only entry to the contest in July 1839, but wasn't awarded the prize. On January 17, 1840, the society published a response to the essay, in which they refused to present him with the prize, claiming that he had misunderstood the question. Schopenhauer on the preface of the essay's publication went on to analyze the original question and preamble, later stating "I have proved incontrovertibly that the Royal Danish Society really did ask what it denies having asked; and on the contrary that it did not ask what it claims to have asked, and indeed could not even have asked it."

The Society's Judicium (Judgment) also read "Nor should it go unmentioned that several distinguished philosophers of recent times are mentioned in such an indecent fashion as to provoke just and grave offence". In response Schopenhauer, outraged, says that "These 'distinguished philosophers' are in fact — Fichte and Hegel!", following with a series of invectives and quoting Hegel, attempting to show with three different examples that Hegel "lacked even common human understanding".

On a copy of his Two Essays, on the title, Schopenhauer wrote that the judge of the essay in Copenhagen had been a Hegelian academic, author of a Hegelian theory of morals and later a bishop, making it very improbable that he would have been awarded a prize.[1]


On the Basis of Morality is divided into four sections. The first section is an introduction in which Schopenhauer provides his account of the question posed by the Royal Danish Society and his interpretation of the history of western ethics. In the second section, Schopenhauer embarks on a criticism of Kantian ethics, which he viewed as the orthodoxy in ethics. The third section of the work is Schopenhauer's positive construction of his own ethical theory. The final section of the work provides a brief description of the metaphysical foundations of ethics.

Morality's foundation

Religions have promised a reward after death if a person behaved well. Governmental laws are motives for good behavior because they promise earthly rewards and punishments. Kant's Categorical imperative claimed that a person's own behavior should be in accordance with a universal law. All of these, however, are ultimately founded on selfish egoism.[2] "If an action has as its motive an egoistic aim," wrote Schopenhauer, "it cannot have any moral worth."[3] Schopenhauer's doctrine was that morality is based on "the everyday phenomenon of compassion,…the immediate participation, independent of all ulterior considerations, primarily in the suffering of another, and thus in the prevention or elimination of it…. Only insofar as an action has sprung from compassion does it have moral value; and every action resulting from any other motives has none."[4] Compassion is not egoistic because the compassionate person does not feel different from the suffering person or animal that is seen. Even though the sufferer is experienced as an external being, "I nevertheless feel it with him, feel it as my own, and not within me, but in another person… But this presupposes that to a certain extent I have identified myself with the other man, and in consequence the barrier between the ego and the non–ego is for the moment abolished…."[5] Schopenhauer thus considered it to be true that "compassion, as the sole non–egoistic motive, is also the only genuinely moral one."[6] Metaphysically, his explanation of morality is based on his monistic doctrine that all things are essentially the same. Everything is a manifestation of what is commonly called will, that is, urge, desire, striving, force, or energy.

Kant's merit

Schopenhauer declared that the true basis of morality is compassion or sympathy.[7] The morality of an action can be judged in accordance with Kant's distinction of treating a person as an end not as a mere means. By drawing the distinction between egoism and unselfishness, Kant correctly described the criterion of morality. For Schopenhauer, this was the only merit of Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals.


  1. The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics, translated and edited by Christopher Janaway, The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Schopenhauer, 2009. In the introduction, p. xxxix
  2. If Kant's Categorical Imperative is universally valid, applying to all persons, then it also applies to the person who is acting in accordance with it. "It is perfectly clear from this explanation that that fundamental rule of Kant is not…a categorical imperative, but in fact a hypothetical one. For tacitly underlying it is the condition that the law to be laid down for my action, since I raise it to one that is universal, also becomes the law for my suffering…." On the Basis of Morality, § 7.
  3. On the Basis of Morality, § 16.
  4. On the Basis of Morality, § 16.
  5. On the Basis of Morality, § 18.
  6. On the Basis of Morality, § 19.
  7. Kant, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche on the morality of pity by D. E. Cartwright, Journal of the History of Ideas, 1984.


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