Morality is necessarily related to goodness, but not to every kind of goodness. There are good steaks, good paintings, good engines, good deeds, and many other events and objects we judge good for this reason or that.1 Morality is directly concerned with good actions and good agents: it has at most an indirect connection with other goods. The production of a good dinner may, in certain circumstances, have a moral value. A talented chef employed at a high salary may be said to have a moral obligation to produce a good dinner. But morality is principally concerned with moral goodness: that is, with actions and motives which describe the just man of good character.
Three elements of every action situation are morally significant: (1) the source of the action, or that which initiates the activity, commonly called the will; (2) the result intended as the consequence of the action, such as saving a man’s life; and (3) the subjective reason for acting, called the motive, such as saving a man’s life in hope of a reward. Each of these factors can be judged good or bad. Even in the same situation our moral judgments may differ regarding the different factors. We may judge that saving a man’s life is a good result, while at the same time we may judge the motive bad, because it springs from greed.
But by what standard do we judge the will? In order to find the answer to this question, we must understand what a good will is. Since the concept of a good will is central to Kant’s moral philosophy, it will help to state Kant’s meaning briefly at the outset. A good will is one which chooses to act simply because it recognizes that an action is the right thing to do. That is, when an agent with a good will understands an action to be the right thing to do, this understanding alone serves as a sufficient motive for him to will that action.
We now have in very sketchy form the basis for Kant’s three propositions of moral value. He proposes a moral principle corresponding to each of the three factors in an action: the will, the result, and the motive. In Kant’s view, the good will is the primary (or ultimate) objective of morality, because the good will is the best guarantee for good agents and moral deeds. In addition, an agent will most likely perform a good deed if he acts from the best motive. But regarding the results, Kant asserts that they have no bearing on the goodness of the agent or the moral value of his action. Kant’s moral education was in the Stoic tradition, a tradition which emphasized the inherent goodness of an intended action without regard for its actual results and our basic obligation to perform such actions irrespective of our personal feelings in the matter. Kant relates the three factors to morality without arguing his case. For one thing, he apparently believed that his analysis was the obvious one. But even more importantly, these propositions themselves do not serve as the basis of his moral philosophy. He employs them as a starting point, as much as to say, “Let us begin with an examination of some basic ethical concepts.” He is searching for that principle which is the foundation for these propositions.
In prospect, the three propositions of moral value are these:
- The First Proposition: the essence of moral goodness is in the good will.
- Reason is the foundation for the good will.
- Acting from duty is the essential characteristic of the good will.
- The Second Proposition: to act solely from duty constitutes the moral motive of the good will.
- The Third Proposition: to act from the moral motive, from duty, is to act out of respect for moral law.
Nothing in the universe—in fact, nothing whatsoever—can we possibly conceive as absolutely good except a good will.
Morality must ultimately rest on something which we judge to have unqualified goodness or else morality has no foundation but expediency. For surely if we judge people, actions, and motives to be good, we appeal to some standard or other, and eventually our appeal must rest on a goodness which is itself the standard and which is not judged by anything else. This goodness must be the ultimate “good-in-itself.” But such a good need not be an absolute good. There are many things good in themselves, such as beauty, proportion, life, happiness—things we desire in and for themselves alone. But an unqualified, absolute good is something more: it is that which is sufficient by itself to make its possessor morally good, and is necessary for moral goodness. With it a person will be, and without it he will not be, a morally good person.
In order, then, for a moral system to be justified, it must be based on an unqualified good. In Kant’s view this unqualified good is the good will. One might think that the production of good deeds alone is sufficient justification for a moral system. However, an absolute dictator might force his subjects always to do from fear what they ought to do and we would hesitate to call their deeds morally good. Nor would we call his laws moral laws. No, the distinctive characteristic of a moral system is that, by an instructive process, it seeks to produce good deeds by an appeal to good character. A good character is the best guarantee of good deeds. If agents perform good deeds through fear alone, the good deeds may be omitted when the fear is removed. But if they do good deeds because they are good men, they will consistently do good deeds, no matter what the circumstances.2 The emphasis must be on goodness of character. And what is it that constitutes good character in a person? Kant’s answer is, the good will. By a good will Kant does not mean good fellowship, such as in the expression “good will ambassador.” Nor does he mean an outpouring of love as did the angels at Bethlehem who sang, “Good will toward men.” For Kant, and in the moral sense, a good will is that will which actively and consistently chooses to do the right thing, to perform the good deed; and it does so from the right motive.
To this extent it is surely true that the essential function of morality is the discovery and formation of the good will. But what of the claim that this good will is the only unqualified good? Could not love, or knowledge, be equally good without qualification? Would not a person who enjoyed doing good be more apt to do good deeds than would a person who did not enjoy it but acted merely from a sense of duty? Kant is well aware of the strength of his assertion and immediately gives reasons for his stand.
No doubt many things are good and desirable in certain respects. For example:
(a) Mental abilities (or whatever you wish to call them): intelligence, wit, wisdom;
(b) Emotional characteristics: courage, determination, perseverance;
(c) Blessings of fortune: power, wealth, honor;
(d) Essentials of happiness: health, the good life, contentment with one’s lot.
But without that expression of character, every one of these natural goods may also produce the worst evils. Unless the good will guides their influence in deliberating on and choosing the moral good, they will lead to pride and conceit. The unbiased spectator will find little pleasure in the presence of a person who has unfailing good luck but lacks a pure, good will. We might say that the good will is the necessary condition for one to be even worthy of happiness.
While the properties in the above list are certainly good, they are only good under certain conditions. As often happens, they may contribute to evil. An intelligent thief is worse than a stupid one; a cruel wit worse than a cruel boor; a courageous assassin more to be feared than a timid one, and even more dangerous is a resolute persevering, courageous, intelligent assassin. Such examples only confirm Kant’s belief that these characteristics are judged good only in conjunction with something else, namely, the good will. In its presence, they even assist the good will in producing good results. But combined with a bad will they produce actions which we judge to be worse precisely because of the presence of that particular characteristic.
Not even those characteristics which help the good will do its work can be called absolutely good in themselves. Their goodness is a reflection of the good will, and so is a limited, qualified goodness. A person who deliberates calmly, controlling his emotions and passions, seems to have all the essential elements of good character. These qualities were highly praised by ancient philosophers, yet they fall short of being absolutely good. Indeed, without a good will they may be extremely wicked. The calm villain is much more dangerous and hateful to us than the blustering one.
We can readily agree that an agent must have a good will in order to be morally good. But is the good will a sufficient condition? Could perhaps something else in addition to the agent’s good will be required for him to be a morally good person? This question emphasizes a basic distinction which is crucial in Kant’s theory: that between a good agent and a good action, between the person who acts and the deed he performs. What good an agent produces is independent of his moral character as such. Stolen money may buy care for orphans as well as money honestly earned.3
To say that an action is morally good, or morally right, is to speak ambiguously; it may mean that the agent did what he had a moral obligation to do, such as when a person saves a drowning man; or it may mean that the agent performed the action with the right motive, that is, because it was the moral thing to do. In the first sense an agent may do what is right but receive no moral credit for his deed, such as when he saves a life purely in the hope of a handsome reward. In the second sense, an agent would always receive moral credit for his deed; he acted because it was the right thing to do.
Kant’s position is that a person receives moral credit for his action only when he does it for the right reason. What is more important, Kant maintains, is that he receives the same moral credit whether or not he succeeds in performing the action.
The goodness of the good will does not consist in what it causes or produces, or in how well it achieves a given goal. Rather, its goodness consists solely in its own activity, that is, in the way that it wills. In its own right, it has an immeasurably greater value than any other inclination, more than all other inclinations combined. Even if, through bad luck or the stingy providence of a step-motherly nature, the good will were impotent in putting into effect its intentions, even when doing everything humanly possible, still the good will, all by itself (as distinguished from a mere wish), would sparkle like a jewel of intrinsic value. It makes no difference whether or not it be useful or productive. When the good will is in fact successful, this merely adds the setting to its luster, making the good will more attractive to the novice. But experts, who know better, do not judge the good will by success.
Kant’s position is simply this: the moral merit of an agent—or the goodness of his character—does not depend upon the achievement of the intended result. If the agent acts from a good will, then he acquires just as much moral credit for his action, whether he fails or succeeds. Kant is not immediately concerned with the production of beneficial results. He is trying to outline the essential characteristic of moral goodness in an agent. A person who acts with a good will acts because he believes that what he intends to do is the right and moral deed. So long as he tries, by “doing everything humanly possible,” to do the right thing, it matters not a bit whether he succeeds so far as his moral character is concerned. From the vantage point of morality, the results are secondary since morality is primarily concerned with establishing that special character which will produce beneficial results, given the appropriate conditions. But morality cannot take into account all the various unknowns of chance, the varieties of human ability, and (as Kant, the confirmed bachelor, put it) “the stingy providence of a step-motherly nature.” All that morality can do—and it is quite enough!—is to guarantee that the agent, given the necessary ability and circumstances, will try to do his best to do good. But considering that we generally do succeed in fulfilling our intentions and that the good will is the most reliable guarantee that a person will intend the right action, we can see clearly that the good will is the most reliable guarantee that good results will in fact be produced. Consequently the good will is both a necessary and a sufficient condition for moral goodness.
Without a good will, an agent cannot receive moral credit for his action; with a good will he receives moral credit regardless of the outcome of the action. But Kant must still discuss the other motives which (moral philosophers have claimed) always lead an agent to will what is good. What of love for our fellow men, as Hume suggests? Or the desire for happiness, as Aristotle argued? These are worthy motives which would seem to earn moral credit for anyone acting from them. How are these motives to be distinguished from the good will? In order to answer this question we should have a clear definition of the good will. Is it simply a desire to do the right thing? This is too vague: a person could desire to do the right thing merely to avoid trouble with the law. We would expect this basic question to be answered at once. But Kant detours.
How strange is this notion of a will having unconditional value all by itself, disregarding any question of its success. Could it be that in a moment of fanciful delusion we have unwisely jumped to the conclusion that Nature intended for reason to rule the will? Perhaps we ought to examine this commonsense belief more closely.
One question, Kant believes, must be discussed before we can investigate the nature of the good will. We might easily take for granted that reason is the deciding factor in many of our choices : we decide by “reasoning it out,” or we might “act on principle.” Whatever the process by which this happens, it does appear to us that at least on some occasions our decisions are based upon a rational analysis of the situation rather than upon our desires or impulses. That a good will does in fact rely on reason, we cannot deny; any action not purely impulsive relies on reason to some extent. But we need to prove that it is reason alone which is the proper foundation, or the proper guiding force, of the good will.
We may take for granted, as a principle of Nature regarding organic beings (those which have life), that every organ has an express purpose, and that no other organ can as well fulfill that purpose. If the goal of man, as a being endowed with reason and will, were his survival or his well-being, that is, his happiness, then Nature bungled the job in making reason the proper organ for achieving this goal. Instinct could do much better than reason in initiating the many actions man must perform to gain happiness, as well as establishing a general rule of conduct. And instinct could provide a greater chance of success.
If such a creature of instinct had the added blessing of reason, this faculty could only be used for contemplating man’s happy lot, admiring it, finding joy in it, and giving thanks to Nature for it. But reason would have no power to control desire; such a feeble and inept guide would never be allowed to meddle with Natures purposes. In short, Nature would take great pains to keep reason from any practical function and would never allow it the conceit to exercise its dim wit towards working out a way to achieve happiness. Nature would have set up both the end and the means to happiness and in Her wisdom would have put both into the faithful hands of instinct alone.
The first thing we notice in this argument is Kant’s axiomatic belief in the purposive plan of nature. He curiously abandons his critical approach in stating this axiom, for it is a proposition about the entire universe throughout time and Kant has argued4 that we cannot have knowledge of such matters. But this is secondary, since the axiom itself is certainly questionable. It may be true, but it is not so obviously true as Kant makes it out to be.5
The argument actually rests on two axioms, one of which is indirectly stated in the above paragraph: (1) reason is the proper ruler of the will; and (2) every natural faculty is appropriate for its function, and no other can perform this function as well, if at all. There is no point in quibbling about the first axiom, since to deny reason’s function as the appropriate guiding source of human activity (willing) is to eliminate all morality, as well as rational activity of any sort. The second axiom is generally true. The eye is the sole faculty of sight; the ear is the best organ of hearing.
If reason is the primary directing agency of those actions we must properly call human, and if every faculty is the best one for its purpose, then reason will best enable man to reach his true goal, whatever that goal may be. Reason, not instinct, is the primary faculty for achieving the true goal which nature has established for a “being endowed with reason and will.” But is this goal happiness? No, says Kant, for reason is not the best faculty for achieving happiness: instinct could do a much better job. Man’s goal must be that for which reason is the best guide. Consequently, happiness is not the goal of man. Furthermore, if happiness were man’s goal, and instinct man’s primary guide in action, instinct would never allow reason any practical function, but would relegate it to the role of an impotent observer.
We know, as a matter of fact, that the more a sophisticated reason tries to pursue the pleasures of life and happiness, the less it succeeds in attaining these goals. This fact causes many persons—those who are honest enough to admit it—to have a certain distrust of reason; they become misologists. This is especially true of those experienced in rational activity. They look at all the so-called advantages which reason offers—not only the acts of luxurious living, but even scientific knowledge (a luxury of the mind, so to speak)—and feel that all this is more trouble than it is worth, and a far cry from happiness. Eventually they come to envy, rather than despise, the common folks who act more from the influences of emotion and desire than from reason.
In short, reason cannot guarantee that we will get what we want or need—reason even increases our needs. Inborn instinct could do a far better job. But while it is one thing to minimize the value of the so-called advantages for happiness and contentment which reason offers, it is quite another to be surly and ungrateful to that Providence which guides the universe. We can indeed conceive of a purpose for which reason is most eminently suited, a supreme goal to which all merely private pursuits, even happiness, must give way.
Kant’s approach seems somewhat inconsistent. If a man seeks true happiness with full rational inquiry, he is far more likely to find it than one who seeks happiness by following his instincts for pleasure. The inconsistency lies in the supposition (for the sake of his argument) that a person who uses his reason to seek happiness will become more and more disillusioned, morose, and unhappy. But that just is not so. The trouble is Kant’s manner of speaking. When he speaks of “the pleasures of life and happiness,” we must remember that he is thinking of the refined epicure rather than of the Aristotelian “great-souled man,” who seeks happiness in rational activity.
The goal of reason, or man’s ultimate goal—which for Kant mean the same thing—must be something other than happiness. Kant speaks of the good will as absolutely essential “for one to be even worthy of happiness.” As we shall see, man’s goal must be one which he is able to achieve on his own merits. Since happiness cannot be guaranteed even in a lifetime, due no doubt to the quirks of that same step-motherly nature, then man must have some other goal which he can be sure of attaining on his own. Kant believes man’s goal is worthiness to be happy, a goal every man can achieve whatever the fortunes of his life, though of course not without some difficulty. And if worthiness of any kind depends on the worth of him who is worthy, what kind of worth constitutes the worthiness to be happy? Obviously, moral worth. The goal of reason, then, or the goal for a being with a rational nature, is moral worthiness. And the necessary and sufficient condition of moral worthiness is the good will. Thus the primary goal of (practical) reason must he to produce a good will.
Reason does have a practical function: it is meant to guide the will. So, in accordance with Nature’s plan to provide each organ with the power appropriate to its purpose, reason’s true function must be to produce a good will, a will good in itself, not merely good for something else. For such a goal, reason is absolutely necessary.
This is not to say that the good will is the only good, or the whole of goodness; but that the good will is the highest good, that which makes anything else good, even the desire for happiness. Consequently, it is quite fitting that Nature, in Her wise way, should promote reason in its quest of the absolute good, and thus make the search for happiness (at least in this life) secondary, often ignoring it completely. Reason, seeing that its supreme calling is to produce a good will, can find its real satisfaction in achieving a goal which reason has set for itself, even when this goal confounds the objectives of our other inclinations.
We must be careful not to make Kant an anti-hedonist, at least not to the extent to which he is often interpreted. In this paragraph Kant very clearly allows that happiness is a goal of life, but a qualified goal, one subject to the primary objective, the production of the good will. The demands of morality often countermand, “ignoring completely,” the demands of our natural propensities for the happiness of contentment. Nothing can take precedence over morality. Thus to achieve moral worthiness is the unconditional goal of life. Kant recognizes that many times the morally good deed is opposed by desire. A person need not make this a choice of good over evil, though often it turns out to be that. The good will is not the only good, nor the complete good; there are many other good things, many other good actions. But these other things and actions are conditionally good. The good will is the supreme good, the good that gives the other goods moral value, since the others must be sought with a good will, or else they bring no moral credit to the agent. In any conflict between the good will and any other good whatsoever, the good will must prevail.
What is the importance of this argument? Kant wishes to emphasize the role of reason; he is explicitly searching for the a priori grounds of morality. He therefore takes the very first opportunity to anchor firmly in our minds the basic dependence of the good will upon reason. Thus when he later examines the rational foundation of morality itself he need not interrupt the argument to prove that reason is the true foundation of moral action.
Thus we must analyze the idea of a will which has an independent, intrinsic goodness. Anyone with a good mind has that idea which points to an ultimate moral standard by which everything else is judged, so we need not teach this idea so much as make it clear and precise. This idea is duty, which includes in it the notion of a good will, yet a will which is faced with many subjective hindrances to its function. But these obstacles do not obscure or conceal the good will; on the contrary, they emphasize its luster all the more by contrast.
How does the concept of duty contain that of a good will? In this and the following passages, in fact throughout the rest of the Foundation, Kant relies heavily on the common notion of duty as the primary example of our common rational knowledge of moral concepts. So it is most important that we have a clear understanding of what Kant means by “duty".
We saw in Chapter 1 that the understanding provides pure a priori concepts to which sensations must conform if they are to be meaningful. We discussed the concept of substance, whereby two successive experiences are given a relationship by the understanding even though the raw sensations as such do not themselves reveal this relationship. In the same way, but in the practical rather than the speculative sphere of reason, there is the moral a priori concept of duty. To this we must now turn.
For Kant, who takes his departure from Hume, no factual situation is ever sufficient of itself to produce a duty, that is, to oblige an agent to perform a certain action. Although it often happens that we jump immediately from the awareness of the factual situation to a concluding “ought,”6 this is not by what the logician calls an immediate inference. The traditional explanation is that, in making such an inference, we are implicitly subsuming the factual situation under an obligation-rule which applies to situations of this kind. Our train of thought (though not always on a conscious level) might run something like this: “There is a man who is in great pain; (I ought to relieve pain whenever I can;) so I ought to relieve his pain.” Our obligation is derived from the “ought"-rule, which is enclosed in parentheses to indicate the possibility, or probability, of subconscious inclusion. The point is that nothing in the mere fact alone of a man’s being in pain obligates me to help him—unless I acknowledge the principle that I ought to relieve pain whenever I can. As Hume put it, what is the case cannot by itself imply what ought to be the case. Something else is needed: a ground of obligation.
But why cannot a factual situation by itself obligate someone? For Kant, the reason is that the notion of obligation contains the idea of moral necessity.7 When I have an obligation to do something, or when I have a duty to do it, or when I ought to do it—all meaning the same thing in a moral context—there is a moral necessity about the action in relation to me as agent. By moral necessity we mean that, in those situations in which there is no overriding counter-obligation, no excuse whatsoever can absolve me of the obligation, no appeal can relieve me from such a duty. Moreover, no other reason for acting is so final or so powerful.
Kant, a Prussian, refers to moral obligation by the term “duty” (Pflicht). We tend to view duty as a stern taskmaster, which cuts into our comfort and compels us to painful endeavor, self-privation, and inner strife. We might choose, in place of “duty,” some more contemporary expression, but this would require a major overhaul of the conceptual framework of the Foundation, and would dress Kant in a gown too anachronistic for recognition. As a compromise, we will continue to use “duty", remembering that by “a duty,” Kant means what we understand by “a moral obligation"; and by “duty", he means the essence of the moral “ought,” what we might uneuphoniously label “ought-ness” or “obligatoriness". In this way we may possibly lessen some of the harsh overtones of subservience while retaining the essential element of moral necessity; and it is the latter which Kant emphasizes.
Duty, or moral necessity, cannot be derived from mere experience. Any concept involving necessity is a priori, and consequently cannot depend upon experience. Yet a particular duty must involve some experience. How would we know what we ought to do if we had no experience of the obligating situation? But it is practical reason which assigns the necessity to one particular course of action and not to another. Thus the moral necessity of an action is based on reason, not on experience, and the conceptual form of this moral necessity, which we call duty, is a moral a priori concept (that is, an a priori concept of practical reason).
In an anlysis of duty, Kant says, we discover the good will, “yet a will which is faced with many subjective hindrances to its function.” Using a number of examples designed to show what it means to act from duty, Kant begins by explaining that the good will appears most clearly to be acting from duty, or for duty’s sake, when it chooses to do what reason says it ought to do in opposition to what the agent might feel like doing.
We can ignore all those actions which conflict with duty, no matter how useful they may be, since it is absurd to ask whether an action opposed to duty can be done for duty’s sake. Likewise, we can ignore those actions which, though in accord with duty, are done without any personal inclination towards them. We can easily tell whether such actions are done for duty’s sake, or from some other personal reason. But it is very difficult to decide whether an action which we ought to do, and which at the same time we feel an inner compulsion to do, is done for duty’s sake. Consider the following examples:
A merchant has the duty not to overcharge an unwary customer. Where competition is lively, he is wise to have a set price for everyone, so that a child may buy as cheaply as anyone else. Everyone receives honest service. But this is not enough for us to decide that he is honest for duty's sake, or that he acts solely from principles of honesty. Honesty for him is the best business policy. And it would be odd to imagine that his honesty stems from a real love for each of his customers. He is honest not for duty's sake nor because of an inner compulsion but rather for personal gain.
Actions are related to duty8 in one of three ways:
- They may conflict with duty and obviously do not involve a good will.
- They may be in accord with duty but are not performed for the right reason, i.e., from the moral motive:
- The motive may be some inner compulsion, such as love or a sense of honor; or,
- The motive may be a desire for the consequences.
- They may be done from duty, in recognition of the moral “ought.” Such an action Kant calls aus Pflicht (from duty, for the sake of duty). Such an action is both dutiful (pflichtmässig) and done from duty (aus Pflicht), whereas the actions which are dutiful but done from inclination are not done from duty.
Kant lumps all motives other than the purely moral motive of acting solely from duty into the generic class of inclinations or desires, which is to say, motives based upon self-interest. In this class we will find such extremes as, on the one hand, benevolence, philanthropy, and parental love; and selfish greed, the desire for sensual pleasure, and fear on the other. This is unfortunate, for it oversimplifies the problem. Some of these motivating factors are good, and we surely ought to strengthen them; others are bad and should be vigorously controlled, even though we may not be able to suppress them entirely.
However, Kant’s point itself is rather simple. We can perform a duty in one of two ways: either because it is our obligation (aus Pflicht), or: for some other reason. Whatever the other reason may be, Kant calls it an inclination, a desire, a selfish motive. He distinguishes between a direct inclination ("I like to give to charity") and a selfish purpose ("By giving to charity I will be popular"). But the distinction is not important to the moral motive. If a person acts from any reason other than recognition of his obligation, then for Kant he is not acting solely from duty. The storekeeper who serves all customers equally, without cheating, is an honest man; but if he is honest for purely prudential business reasons, we cannot call him a virtuous man.
Everyone has a duty to preserve his own life, over and above his positive inclination to do so. But even frequent careful precautions will have no moral value if they stem from natural inclination, since the maxim has no moral foundation. True, such a person preserves his life in accordance with his duty, but not for duty’s sake. Suppose, however, hardships and sorrowful despair rob a man of every possible reason for living, and suppose he is angry at Fate rather than sinking into despondent self-pity. If he still preserves his life, not because life is desirable (he may even wish he were dead ), but because such is his duty, then his maxim has a moral foundation.
By this example of the despondent man, Kant broadens his distinction between acting from duty and acting in accordance with duty. The distinctive element in this paragraph is the introduction of the term "maxim.” Kant defines a maxim as a subjective principle of action. Roughly speaking, a maxim is the personal rule or policy I follow when I act, for I never act without acting from some personal policy or other. As a principle or rule, a maxim is a general policy; it applies to some more or less extensive class of actions. Everything I do I can describe in some general way, even though frequently such descriptions are artificial. For instance, I am now engaged in an activity which belongs to the class “writing on paper with a pen.” Suppose that every time I wished to write, I withdrew to a quiet spot in order to concentrate. My maxim would be, “When I want to write, I will first retire to some secluded spot.” This principle would be one of my general rules of acting. It outlines a procedure for acting in a certain kind of situation, writing. The maxim describes the type of situation in which I act, and it may also contain my reason for acting. In Kant’s example of the duty to preserve one’s life, the maxim of the contented man would be something like, “As long as life is pleasant, I will do what I can to preserve it.” An alternative maxim might be, “When life becomes intolerable, I will commit suicide.” These are principles upon which the man acts, or will act, given the appropriate situation. They are his own (i.e., subjective) principles. He need not suggest that others do as he does. Such personal or subjective rules of acting, present in every human decision to act (though not necessarily on a level of conscious awareness), Kant calls maxims.
What maxim guides the man who hangs onto life even when he lacks any inclination to do so, solely because it is his duty? His maxim would be something like, “I must try to live as long as possible.” The moral foundation of this maxim is rooted in the good will. That is, the maxim owes its existence as a subjective rule to the good will, which acts for duty’s sake and not merely from inclination. Thus the man who clings to life because it is his duty is acting with a moral maxim. His maxim has moral value. The man who lives his life because it is pleasant acts from a good maxim, perhaps, but such a maxim lacks moral value.
We have a duty to be kind whenever the situation permits it. Many persons have so sympathetic a personality that they find real pleasure in making others happy, and without any motive of vanity or self-interest they find joy in the well-being they bring to others. Nevertheless such actions have no moral value, no matter how much they agree with duty, or how much good they produce. The very same actions could just as well proceed from a desire for honor. When such a motive causes a person to do those good deeds which luckily agree with duty, he acts honorably and deserves praise and reward. But not esteem. The maxim behind these actions lacks a moral foundation, since it is based upon some motive other than doing one’s duty.
Now suppose that this same humanitarian is dealt such distress that he loses all joy in helping others. He still has the means to help others in need, but their need seems insignificant beside his own. If, in spite of his lack of inclination, he pulls himself out of his numbing lethargy and assists others for duty’s sake alone—then, for the first time, his action has true moral value.
Or take the case of a man, otherwise a decent person, who is naturally unsympathetic, being unmoved by the suffering of others. Perhaps he is blessed with exceptional endurance and strength, and believes others should accept their lot as he does. (Such a fellow would hardly be the meanest man alive.) Can he find in himself a nobler motive for devoting himself to relieving the distress of others than one derived merely from a warm heart? Certainly he can, even though Nature failed to fill him with brotherly love. Indeed, only here do we find the true mettle of a man’s character. If he helps others for duty’s sake, despite his inclinations to the contrary, he exhibits character of the highest moral value.
The first section of this passage deserves special emphasis. There Kant explicitly states what many have claimed that he denies, namely, that an action may be good without having moral value. Surely, Kant says, many actions are good and are done from praiseworthy motives, such as love for one’s fellow man; yet such actions do not have moral value. They are not done from the moral motive, but from desire or some other human motive. When such actions are praiseworthy or honorable, then we surely have the right to praise or honor the agent; but we do not esteem him. Esteem is due the virtuous man, the man who acts from the moral motive, the man of moral character.
But a question can be raised here which Kant never clearly answered, and because he did not, he is taken to imply something which he could not have intended. This concerns the case of a man who acts in accordance with duty, is aware that it is his duty, but also has another motive. For example, there is the man who gives to charity because it is his duty but who also enjoys doing so from a motive of brotherly love. (Seldom are human motives simple and clear-cut.) Does Kant mean to say that this is not a good action? Decidedly not. Does he mean that the agent is not acting morally? By no means. What Kant wants to say is that in such cases we cannot tell whether the man would still have performed his duty if the inclination were missing. Maybe he would, maybe he wouldn't; there is no way we can judge. But Kant is not concerned to give us a standard for judging the actions of others, or even of our own—at least that is not his primary objective. He is making a distinction between the moral motive and other motives. Yet he is often taken to mean that unless an action be done solely from duty, it has no moral worth. This point deserves some further discussion.
Morality plays a crucial role in our lives, urging us to do good rather than evil; to practice virtue instead of vice; to love, not hate. To the extent that man willingly does good, practices virtue, and loves, and does so because it gives him pleasure, the less he stands in need of a moral law. But when he ought to do something for which he has no inclination, a moral command is needed. It is just at such a time, when a man has no inclination to do his duty and yet does it, that Kant says moral credit is gained. But whether this is the only occasion in which a man can receive moral credit is another matter.
In order to understand Kant’s point of view, let us consider a mother who finds delight in caring for her infant child. We can praise her for her attention to her child’s welfare. But one day the child suffers serious brain damage. The mother still loves her child and spends all her efforts in caring for it with little or no hope of any return of affection. Certainly the mother does her duty towards her child, who would deny it? But she does it out of love, not for duty’s sake. She gains our admiration, but not our esteem. For what would the mother do should she eventually lose her love for her child? If the child became only a tiresome burden, would she continue to do her duty or would she give over the child to someone else’s care—in effect abandoning her duty? (Let’s ignore the question of comparative care for the child.) We don't know what she would do, because the motive from which she acted was insufficient to guarantee performance. If we knew that she was acting from duty, we could more accurately predict what she would do. What answer then can we make to our question concerning the possibility of acquiring moral credit when the moral motive is joined with some non-moral motive? Our example shows a parent who achieves heroic stature in the face of trying adversity. But does her love-motive earn her any moral credit? Kant’s answer would begin with another question: will she continue to fulfill her obligation should her love-motive fail? Is her reason for acting subjective only, or does it also include some awareness of the objective necessity of the action itself? If she continues to care for her child, then she does so with a moral motive (since all other motives have failed), and in that case she surely receives moral credit. However, if she does not continue, she obviously receives no moral credit, since she fails to do her duty. Consequently the question—does a person achieve moral credit when the moral motive is is joined with a non-moral motive?—cannot be answered. The moral motive appears only when it is the sole motive. Thus Kant is justified in denying moral value to non-moral motives, and this in turn gives strong support to his first proposition that the good will is the necessary and sufficient condition for moral value.9
In making the distinction between merit and moral merit, we must guard against the tendency to confuse the difference in kinds of merit with a difference in degrees of goodness. The loving parent of a retarded child may do much more good and gain much more credit than one who gives money to charity purely from duty. To think otherwise is to miss Kant’s point. He is not comparing actions; he is comparing motives. An action done from duty in the face of contrary inclination gains more merit than the same action done from some other motive.
A man even has an indirect duty to seek happiness. The more he is troubled by the burdens of anxiety and need, the more he may be tempted to fail in his duty. Even apart from duty, everyone has the most fundamental urge to be happy, since the idea of happiness more or less sums up in our minds the satisfaction of all our desires, cares, and needs. But the specific paths which lead to happiness always seem to thwart some desire or other, and men have never found a meaningful definition of happiness which incorporates the satisfaction of all desires. Why then should we be surprised when one particular desire, promising a definite satisfaction at a definite time, outweighs a foggy idea? Thinking in this vein, a man with gout may decide to live as he pleases, choosing the certain pleasures of the present to the hazy, uncertain promise of a future happiness supposedly to be derived from good health. Yet here also, even if he lacked the general desire for happiness and if health were not a real factor in his deliberations, he would still have to seek his own happiness for the sake of duty. Only by obeying the law of duty will his search for happiness have true moral value.
The gloomy life is not necessarily the moral life. Kant’s insight into human nature is apparent when he observes that virtue is more easily achieved by the happy man than by the Gloomy Gus. For one thing, Gloomy Gus is too wrapped up in his own misery to think of much else. The more aids we have for acting in accordance with duty the better. Kant does not say, however, that these should be aids to acting from duty. A man usually acts from duty when these helpful inclinations are absent. Should we then try to avoid happiness? Would it not be better to be miserable so that we could always act purely from duty? Kant would be the first to insist that this is ridiculous.
No doubt this is the way we should interpret those passages in Holy Writ commanding us to love our neighbor, even our enemy. For no one can command us to feel a love for another. The law of love is independent of feeling and may even be opposed to feeling. It commands us to act, not to experience an emotion. As a practical law, it is grounded in the will and not in the heart, in principles of action and not in emotional impulses. Only the activity of love can be commanded.
The command to love one’s neighbor is not a command to feel something; it is a command to do, to act. When Jesus told the crowds, “Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you" (Matt. 5:44), he was not giving them two injunctions, but one stated in two ways. “Love,” Jesus said, “That is, do good.”10
Before we proceed to the second and third propositions of moral value, a brief summary of the discussion will draw together the threads of the argument. The first proposition is this: The good will is the only absolute good, the necessary and sufficient condition for any morally good action. The good will is also the goal of human existence, since it is the goal of reason, human nature’s guide. The function of the good will is to produce good character, and a good character actively and consistently produces good actions by acting from the moral motive, that is, from duty. A man may perform good deeds, but unless he does them from duty, he acquires no moral credit even though he earn other merit.
When we put all this together into one formula, we have a manageable statement of the first proposition of moral value. The first proposition of moral value is: the absolute good, and the ultimate foundation of morality, is the good will, which gains moral credit from acting in accordance with duty for the sake of duty itself.
The second proposition of moral value is: the moral value of an action done from duty is found in the maxim which guides the will and not in the desired results of the action. What matters is not success or failure in achieving the result, but solely the rule which guides the will in choosing to act, regardless of what the agent may be inclined to do. We have already decided that no desired results, however beneficial, can give absolute and moral value to our action.
The motive for acting determines the moral worth of an action. That is, if an agent acts for duty’s sake, rather than from inclination, then his action has moral value. There remains, however, the question of what constitutes the moral motive. We have already seen that the success or failure of the intended action adds nothing to the will’s goodness, although it obviously makes a great difference in the quantity of material goodness actually produced.
Many moral philosophers believe that it is equally important, if not more so, for an agent to seek the right things, and that an agent cannot earn moral credit if he intends to do something which will in fact produce harm. But Kant never suggests that this is an unimportant consideration, for to do so would be to ignore the basic function of morality. What Kant proposes is that the moral value of an intention is independent of the material goodness of what is willed. It makes no moral difference what is willed, so long as the agent wills it from the moral motive. This appears difficult only when we confuse the moral value of the will with the material goodness of the action. Surely it is better to produce good rather than evil; but is it better to produce good actions from bad motives, or bad actions from good motives? The answer depends on the standard used for “better.” If we want results, then good actions are better, no matter what the motive. If we want good character, then good motives are better, whatever the results. But in view of the general correspondence between motive and action, it is far better to have good motives, since they are the best guarantee of good results.
What then is the essence of the moral motive? What reason for acting gives an action moral value?
But if we cannot find moral value in the relation of the will to the desired result, where can we find it? Only in that rule which determines the will, without any regard for the results to be attained by acting. We can picture the will as standing at an intersection between its a priori formal rule and its a posteriori material rule: the one is rational, the other is empirical. Now the will must be guided by something; so when it chooses to act for the sake of duty, it must be guided solely by the formal rule of reason since every empirical rule of desire has been ignored.
The standard we seek is the rule11 which determines the will, that is, the rule of duty or obligation. Kant pictures the will at a crossroads between the rational motive of acting solely for duty’s sake and the empirical motive of acting from a desire for a particular result. In other words, whenever we will to act, we act either on a rational principle or from a desire of some kind. The will must will from some motive or other, so when it wills from the moral motive it determines itself by a rational rule, not merely by a desire for some object. This is true even in cases where the object of desire would be the same as the object of duty.
Briefly, then, the moral motive is an a priori determinant of the will and desire is an a posteriori determinant. By saying “determinant” of the will, or that the will is determined by reason, Kant does not suggest anything of a deterministic psychology.12 When he speaks of determinants, he means motives, those grounds upon which we do in fact decide to act. If we ask someone, “What made you do that?" we do not necessarily imply that the person was compelled. Most of the time we are asking for his motive, since to suggest that he was compelled to act is to deny that he acted with any motive at all.
Before discussing the third proposition of moral value, let us summarize briefly the points made so far:
- The good will is the necessary and sufficient condition for the moral worth of an action or agent.
- This moral worth does not depend on success or failure in producing a result.
- The moral worth does not depend on the goodness of the purpose for which the agent acts.
- The moral worth consists, rather, in acting from the moral motive, that is, according to a principle of reason.
Kant says that the third proposition follows from the two preceding propositions. The first and second propositions established the good will as the necessary and sufficient condition for the moral worth of an agent and defined the good will as that which performs its duty from the moral motive. The third proposition does not follow in the way a conclusion follows from its premisses, i.e., as a logical conclusion. Rather, the third proposition supplies the missing explanation: we do not yet know what it means to act from the moral motive, that is, to act from duty.
The third proposition, which follows from the first two, I would express as: Duty is an action which, out of respect for law, I acknowledge as necessary for me to perform. I can be drawn to some object, and see it as the result of some proposed action, but I cannot respect it; for it is merely an effect of the will, not the activity of willing. I may approve of my own inclinations and love those in others which serve my own purposes, but I cannot respect these inclinations. Only something which is related to my will as a foundation, not as a consequence, and which disregards or overcomes inclinations, can be an object of respect. In short, only law can command the will through respect.
The moral motive is the condition for acting with a good will. To act for duty’s sake is to act solely because one has an obligation. But the source of obligation or duty is law, for only under law does an action acquire that characteristic of necessity which elevates it to the status of a command of duty. Thus, to act from duty is to act in accordance with the law because the law commands unconditionally; in short, because it is the law.
When a person does something in accordance with the law (whether moral or civil law), he may do so from the fear of sanctions if he violates the law, or because he enjoys doing what the law prescribes, or because he desires the benefits of the law. For example, a man might drive within the speed limit because he fears being arrested, or because he enjoys driving slowly, or because he hopes to avoid an accident. In none of these cases does he act from respect for law. Only if he acts solely because the law so prescribes does he act from what Kant calls respect for law.
Respect14 is not an emotional experience, but an intellectual awareness and recognition of the unqualified value of that which we respect. We respect the law when we recognize that we ought to act solely because we have a rational awareness of the unconditional moral value of what the law commands. We value most things as means, but in respect for law we value the law for itself, not as the result of decision or argument, but just because it is the law.
Since in order to act from duty I must disregard the influence of my inclinations, and thus any object of desire, the sole remaining objective influence on my will is the practical law. The corresponding influence is my respect for the law, expressed by the maxim* that I ought to obey the law even when it frustrates my inclinations.
* A maxim is a subjective rule of acting. The objective rule, that is, the rule every one would accept as a subjective rule were reason to have full sway over desire, is the practical law.
Many kinds of motives can determine an agent’s choice to act according to duty. A person might enjoy what he does, desire the result, or act from fear, and so on. However, when an agent acts without compulsion but lacks any of the above motives, then he acts solely because the moral law commands him to act.
In the footnote Kant defines a maxim as “the subjective rule of acting.” He contrasts this to the objective rule, the law, and says that these two would always be the same were our desires always under the control of reason. Were we perfect, we would always want to do what we ought to do. As things are with us, however, it is not necessary that we want to do what we have an obligation to do. It suffices that we respect the law, that we recognize the law as having sufficient authority to determine our choice.
Let us further examine the difference between maxim and law. As we have seen, a maxim is the rule we follow when we act. Its form is something like this : When I am in this kind of situation, I will do such-and-such. We “know how to act” in a situation when we know what kind of situation it is and have some knowledge of the rules governing our conduct in such situations. This general rule is what Kant calls the subjective principle, the maxim, whenever it is acted upon. Sometimes the maxim contains the motive. For instance, the maxim, “When I am in a school zone I will drive slowly,” may contain the motive, “so that I will not be arrested for speeding.” Of course we seldom consciously express these rules; but we could, and would do so if we were trying to justify some particular action.
A law, on the other hand, makes no reference to motive, since the law is concerned only with the action, not with the reason for acting. The law cannot command us to act from a certain motive; it can only command us to act.15 Whether I avoid committing murder from fear of punishment or from respect for life, I have obeyed the law. But I do not act from a moral motive unless I obey the law because it is the law, that is, from respect for the validity of the command imposing obligation on me. Only when I conform my maxim to what the law commands, and do so out of respect for the law, then only does my maxim have moral value. If the motive is moral, so is the maxim.
Which is more fundamental, to have a maxim accord with the law, or to have a moral motive? For Kant the moral motive takes precedence.
Thus the moral value of an action does not come from any desired effect, nor from any rule of action motivated by such a desired effect. Any such effect, as for example my own well-being or even the happiness of others, could conceivably result from purely natural causes. But the supreme and absolute good requires a rational will. Consequently, the preeminent moral good must be found, not in some desired effect, but solely in a will which is determined by the idea of law. Whoever acts from the idea of law achieves this preeminent moral goodness by his very willing; he need not wait upon results.*
* Some may accuse me of hiding a vague feeling, which I call respect, instead of offering a clear definition of the word. Respect is a feeling, I admit, but not one aroused by some outside influence. Respect is essentially different from any feeling based on desire or fear, for it is self-induced from a rational concept. Whatever I recognize directly as a law binding me—that is, whenever I am aware of being subject to a law independently of external influences—I recognize with respect. Respect involves two elements: the immediate determination of the will and awareness of this determination. In this way respect can be called the effect of the law on the will, not the cause of the law. We might define respect as the awareness of a value which cancels out love of self.
Respect is something like desire or fear, but wholly independent of either. Only the law can be the object of respect, since law is the only thing we impose upon ourselves and yet recognize as commanding under necessity. Since it is law, we are subject to it no matter what we might desire, which shows how respect resembles fear. However, we do impose this law on ourselves; and in this way respect is like desire.
Any so-called respect for a person is, strictly speaking, only respect for what the person exemplifies (such as honesty). We see self-improvement as a duty, and so we tend to see a person who has improved himself as the basis of a law that we imitate him. This law is what we respect, not the person himself. All so-called moral interest is nothing else but respect for law.
We are looking for the ultimate basis of morality. However, we cannot expect to find it in results, since good results frequently proceed from obviously immoral motives and actions, even from nonhuman causes. And since the moral value of an action depends on the motive, we must look to the motive as the “preeminent” moral good. This motive is respect for law. It can be found only in a rational being, since nonrational beings have no conception of law and obviously cannot act from respect for it. Furthermore, any person who wills to act out of respect for law is a person with a moral motive. He thereby earns moral credit, whether or not he succeeds in his purpose and even when he is mistaken about what the law commands.
The expression, “feeling of respect,” is not misleading, since respect is like other feelings in certain aspects. Because it is grounded in the will, it is like desire; as respect for law it is like fear. However, respect is a product of reason, while desire may spring from emotion. We might agree that there is a kind of moral feeling, but it is essentially a different kind of feeling from that which we call self-righteousness. Surely there is a certain influence on the will when we recognize a moral law. Nothing else can affect us in just that way; no other feeling is just like that feeling.
We can see Kant struggling with a thorny psychological distinction here and finding the going rough. In his explanation he inadvertently includes matters which are premature, for example, self-legislation and respect for persons. Perhaps this footnote was added later to clarify a concept essential to his analysis of the force of moral law.
Lest one should think that Kant has already found the ultimate basis of morality in the moral motive, he should keep in mind that all these propositions of morality are derived from common rational knowledge. Kant has not yet analyzed the concept of law, which is all-important to an understanding of the moral motive. Nor has he yet discussed how the will is determined solely by the moral motive. But from his examination of common rational morality he has derived the following underlying principles:
- The sole unconditional moral good is the good will, the will which acts for duty’s sake rather than from desire.
- The moral value of an action lies solely in its motive, to act from duty.
- One acts for duty’s sake when he acts out of respect for law. Kant began with a common notion of moral goodness and found the source of this goodness in the moral motive. The remainder of Section I will give an analysis of this moral motive and its relation to law.