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Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785)

H. J. Paton: “In spite of its horrifying title Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals is one of the small books which are truly great: it has exercised on human thought an influence almost ludicrously disproportionate to its size.”

Morality is a priori

For Kant, universality and necessity are the hallmarks of the a priori. Morality commands universally (all rational beings, not just all humans) and necessarily (no exceptions, regardless of circumstance). Therefore, ....

A second reason (not given by Kant) for regarding moral knowledge as independent of experience: the logical gulf between descriptive and prescriptive statements, aka Hume's “is/ought” problem. Since it is impossible to deduce how we ought to behave from observations of our actual behavior, our knowledge of moral principles could not have arisen from experience. Hence, it must come, a priori, from reason alone.

The Good Will

Kant on why a good will is the only thing that is good without qualification. Take anything (other than a good will) that we normally regard as good. In every case, we can imagine that, when not accompanied by a good will, these things would make the world worse rather than better. Therefore, none of these things is good without qualification. (529)

What does Kant mean by will? What does Kant mean good will?

To will something is NOT the same as merely wishing it or desiring it or having an inclination towards it. To will is to choose or decide upon a course of action. Kant assumes that the faculty of will is rational. Thus, when we will something, we always follow a maxim, a subjective principle of action. And it is impossible to will a contradiction or anything that we know to be impossible. A good will is a morally good will, that is, a morally good decision to act on a maxim. Such as act of willing is good, Kant thinks, only if it is done (solely?) for the sake of doing what one recognizes to be one’s moral duty.

The Good Will and Its Results

“Even if, by some special disfavour of destiny or by the niggardly [miserly] endowment of stepmotherly nature, this will is entirely lacking in power to carry out its intentions… even then it would still shine like a jewel for its own sake as something which has its full value in itself.” (530)

The Good Will and Duty: The Motive of Duty

“The First Proposition of Morality”: in order to have moral worth, an action must be done from duty, not merely in accordance with duty.

1. Actions that violate duty

2. Actions that accord with duty, but for which we have no immediate inclination; but we do them anyway because of some other inclination (such as self-interest or love of fame). E.g., the prudent merchant.

Obviously, neither 1 nor 2 is done from duty.

3. Actions that accord with duty and that we have an immediate inclination to perform. E.g., preserving one’s life when life is enjoyable; not committing adultery because one finds one’s spouse to be “the most desirable creature in the whole world” (Kant’s own example)

4. Actions that accord with duty and are contrary to all our inclinations. E.g., the person who desperately yearns for death but refrains from suicide on principle; the misanthrope who helps others purely from a sense of duty.

Obviously, 4 are cases of acting from duty. But what about examples of case 3? Many of Kant’s critics accuse him of being a moral fanatic because, they allege, Kant denies that any cases of 3 have moral worth. If this were so, very few actions indeed (only those of case 4) would have moral worth. For the genuinely saintly persons, none of their actions would have moral worth.

I suggest that Kant does not have to be so extreme. He can acknowledge the possibility of acting from duty in cases where duty and inclination coincide if we apply the following, counterfactual test: Would the person have done the action that coincides with duty even if he or she had had no inclination to perform it? In other words, is the person’s sense of moral duty strong enough to lead them to act as he should, regardless of his desires and inclinations?

Another point. Is Kant claiming that our moral duty, first and foremost, is not to perform actions of type X but to perform actions of type X out of a sense that doing X is our moral duty? W. D. Ross criticized Kant because (a) it presupposes that we already have a moral duty to do X simpliciter; (b) it seems to conflict with Kant’s own insistence that motives (desires, inclinations) cannot be commanded.

The Categorical Imperative

Kant’s classification of imperatives (532-33): imperatives are either hypothetical (if you desire X, then do Y) or categorical (do Y!)

When hypothetical imperatives take happiness as their goal, Kant calls them assertoric (because there is no question about the satisfaction of the “if” part: all rational creatures desire to be happy).

Moral imperatives are categorical (with a small “c”).



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