On Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals
This is the assertion with which the section begins; it is a point which is explained at some length (Kant, 393–394). Kant gives little in the way of argument for this proposition. He thus apparently takes it to be part of our “ordinary rational knowledge of morality”. Kant regards this section as an analysis of our common rational beliefs about morality (Kant, 406) so perhaps he thinks that this first proposition is one which would be accepted by any rational being when he is presented with it.
There are two questions which naturally arise concerning this proposition: (a) what is a “good will”? and (b) what is “absolute worth”? (a) We can give no very definite answer to the first question, for the concept of ‘good will”’ is simply a concept which is to be analyzed, and as a pre-analytical concept it is bound to be vague and indefinite. In a sense the whole of Chapter I is devoted to arriving at an answer to this question.
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We could say of this pre-analytic concept, however, that a good will is that in virtue of his possession of which one may be said to be a morally good person. (b) “Absolute worth” may be regarded as a worth outweighing any worth which is not absolute. Thus Kant is claiming that the worth of a good will is greater than the worth of any other kind of thing. Now since it will turn out that a good will is a moral will, and is the locus of moral value in persons, we could also express proposition that “A good will only has absolute worth” as a statement about moral value.
The concept of rational agency that Kant proposes to analyze is the concept of “the capacity to act in accordance with a representation of laws” or the concept of a will that acts “in accordance with principles (Kant, 412). A will can act in accordance with a principle that says that in order to achieve some particular end some particular means must be used. Second, a will can act in accordance with a more general principle that tells it that some particular action would be a means to happiness rather than to some more particular end.
Here happiness is thought of as a general end, consisting in the satisfaction of all of our particular ends over our lifetimes rather than just the satisfaction of some particular end at some particular time. A prescription for happiness, or a “counsel of prudence” (Kant, 416), can certainly present itself to us as an imperative, because what we know is best for our happiness in the long run may well conflict with what we want in the short run.
But it is still, in Kant’s view, a hypothetical imperative, not because the desire for happiness is a merely natural end that we all do seem to have but might not necessarily have—rather, Kant says that this end “can be proposed surely and a priori in the case of every human being” (Kant, 415)—but apparently because it is a vague object of desire, that is, we do not really always know what will bring us happiness in the long run, but can at best form conjectures or hypotheses that this or that will satisfy us in the long run (Kant, 417–18).
A human action is morally good if and only if it is done from duty (Kant, 397–399). Central to Chapter I of the Groundwork are “three propositions” concerning morality which Kant presents and explains. Let us regard this proposition as Kant’s “first proposition”. The proposition states the conclusion of a rather lengthy discussion running from pages 397 to 399 in Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals.
It seems that Kant thought that this proposition followed from proposition the precept of “a good will only has absolute worth”, though the way in which it follows is not obvious. The two important aspects of the transition from the one proposition to the other are the following: (a) the shift from the value of a good will, to the value of actions which are expressions of that will. For the purposes of the present argument Kant could analyze either the notion of a good will or the notion of a morally good action and get the same results. b) The introduction of the concept of duty, as a concept central to the analysis of acts expressive of a good will in human beings. Kant introduces the concept of duty as follows: We will therefore take up the concept of duty, which includes that of a good will, exposed, however, to certain subjective limitations and obstacles. (Kant, 397) That is, wherever we have dutiful action, there we have an action which is an expression of a good will, though the converse is not true.
The concept of duty is applicable when, as with human beings, the dictates of a good will are or may be resisted by the agent’s feelings and desires. We may note, however, that proposition the given proposition does follow from the precept of goodwill’s absolute worthiness only if we are given an analysis of action from duty adequate to show that such actions and only such actions are expressive of a good will.
In any case, Kant holds that the goal of happiness, whether our own or that of others, cannot immediately and directly give rise to any absolutely necessary and unconditional principles of action for a rational agent, although he will later argue that, once we have adopted the fundamental principle of morality that he has already identified in Section I and is about to reintroduce into the present analysis as the categorical imperative, that principle itself can make the happiness of others and even the happiness of all including ourselves into a mandatory or necessary end of morality.
Finally, Kant argues that if it is to be possible for a rational agent to act in accordance with our conception of morality, there must be a categorical rather than hypothetical imperative, an imperative that represents “an action as objectively necessary of itself, without reference to another end” on which its validity would be contingent (Kant, 414), Such an imperative would have to “do not with the matter of the action and what is to result from it, but with the form and the principle from which the action itself follows” (Kant, 416).
Because the very idea of the categorical status or universal and necessary validity of such a principle of the will excludes the possibility that its adoption can depend upon the adoption of any particular, arbitrary end, When I think of a categorical imperative, I know at once what it contains. For, since the imperative contains, beyond the law, only the necessity that the maxim be in conformity with this law, while the law contains no condition to which it would be limited, nothing is left with which the maxim of action is to conform but the universality of a law as such….
There is, therefore, only a single categorical imperative and it is this: act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law. (Kant, 420–21) The question about how the categorical imperative is to be applied is vexed by the fact that Kant offers several different formulations of it. Immediately following the initial formulation, he claims that “Since the universality of law in accordance with which effects take place constitutes what is properly called nature in the most general sense, … he universal imperative of duty can also go as follows: act as if the maxim of your action were to become by your will a universal law of nature” (Kant, 421). Some interpreters have thought that the reference to nature in this reformulation introduces a fundamental new consideration into Kant’s thought, a view that, in spite of what Kant says in deriving the categorical imperative, the morality of actions cannot be tested by formal considerations alone, but requires references to nature’s purposes for us.
An understanding of Kantian ethics can be roughly started with the presumption that if we are to strictly follow the assertion that the very goal of the lives of men is the attainment of happiness in general, then every individual will most likely be inclined to seek personal gratification as well as pleasure in the very desire for happiness. Nevertheless, the attainment of happiness is not entirely within the human capacity and that the eventual attainment of happiness can be interpreted as a matter of chance which depends primarily on the varying capacities of man.
No universal assurance on the attainment of happiness can then be seen. Consequently, by trying to remove cynicism and nihilism and by allowing the ethical norms of man to occupy the actions of all, it is necessary for these ethical norms or doctrines to be both unconditional such that there should be no exceptions and universal in the sense that these tenets should be applicable to each and every human being (Kant, 1965).
To act from duty is to act, not with regard to the purpose to be attained by our action, but with regard only to the maxim in accordance with which it is decided upon. This is Kant’s “second proposition” (Kant, 399). It has been reworded slightly to bring it into closer relation to our proposition of “A human action is morally good if and only if it is done from duty”. The paragraph in which Kant states this proposition and attempts to justify it is worth quoting in full:
An action done from duty has its moral worth, not in the purpose to be attained by it, but in the maxim in accordance with which it is decided upon; it depends therefore, not on the realization of the object of the action, but solely on the principle of volition in accordance with which, irrespective of all objects of the faculty of desire, the action has been performed. That the purposes we may have in our actions, and also their effects considered as ends and motives of the will, can give to actions no unconditioned and moral worth is clear from what has gone before.
Where then can this worth be found if we are not to find it in the will’s relation to the effect hoped for from the action? It can be found nowhere but in the principle of the will, irrespective of the ends which can be brought about by such an action; for between its a priori principle, which is formal, and its a posteriori motive, which is material, the will stands, so to speak, at a parting of the ways; and since it must be determined by something, it will have to be determined by the formal principle of volition when an action is done from duty, where, as we have seen, every material principle is taken away from it. Kant, 399–400). The argument here is complex, and Kant is not entirely clear about what he is arguing for, as we shall see. If action from duty is action expressive of a good will, and hence is action good in itself (as the good will is good in itself), then the goodness of the action can lie neither in its actual or intended effect, for in that case, the action would only be good as a means. But all actions undertaken for the purpose of fulfilling some desire are actions which are good merely as means.
So morally good action cannot be action which is undertaken to fulfill a desire. But when our actions are morally good, our will has been determined to action by something. What can it be which determines the will to a morally good action, if it is not some inclination? Kant’s answer is that the basis of determination can be found nowhere but in “the principle of the will”. The will is then pictured as choosing between “an a priori principle, which is formal, and its a posteriori motive, which is material” (Kant, 400).
Since the latter has been ruled out as a candidate for what determines the will in morally good action, it must be the case that in action from duty the will is determined by “the formal principle of volition”. Kant offers a definition of “maxim” a page later: “The subjective principle of willing” (Kant, 400-401). The maxim is thus the general rule or policy of action a person is following when he performs an action. It is “subjective” in that it holds only for the agent who has adopted it.
Kant contrasts “maxims” with practical laws (Kant, 400n) or imperatives both of which are objective practical principles. As “objective” they are binding for all rational agents, will be followed by a fully rational will, and ought to be followed by an imperfectly rational being. It was said earlier that Kant seems not entirely clear in the last quoted paragraph about what he is arguing for. In fact, it seems that he is establishing two distinct propositions.
The first is: The moral value of an action is a quality of its maxim. This proposition is consistently a part of Kant’s moral doctrine. This part of Kant’s doctrine is especially prominent in the Religion and the Metaphysics of Morals; in the former work, virtue is defined in terms of a perfectly general and formal maxim of action; in the latter work, it is said that the duties of virtue arise from imperatives directed, not to actions (as in the Doctrine of Right); but to maxims of action (Kant, 388-389).
Maxims are rules of action which are freely chosen by the agent. They are the “inner” rules which are followed in the performance of “outer” actions; it is for our choice of maxims that we are most directly responsible, for actions for which we are responsible are simply consequences of our having adopted a certain maxim. At times it seems that Kant intends a definite contrast between actions and maxims of action (Ibid. ), and at other times it seems that we may speak indifferently of an action or its maxim.
In any case it is consistently a part of Kant’s moral doctrine that we cannot tell the moral value of an action from its “outer” nature—we must look to its “inner” principle, i. e. , its maxim. But there is another proposition for which it seems that Kant is arguing in the present paragraph. He wants to assert not only the “moral value of an action is a quality of its maxim”, but he also wants to say that the maxim of action from duty is of a particular kind—it is a maxim which has been adopted, not because its adoption will lead to the fulfillment of some desire of ours, but solely in virtue of its “form”.
Thus we have: Action from duty is action done on the basis of a maxim which we have adopted, not because its adoption will fulfill desires of ours, but because of its form. Kant proceeds with his idea of the good will by defining it as a will that operates for the sake of duty and as a “good-in-itself”. For the most part, the concept of duty is central to the ethical precepts of Kant which he regards crucial by considering the difference that dwell between actions in accordance with duty and actions performed for the sake of duty.
For Kant, the latter phrase is the only one which bears moral worth which appears to imply that a greater moral worth of man’s actions results primarily from a person’s greater disinclination to act merely for the sake of duty. That is, if a person is motivated to do a certain act simply because one is entirely inclined to do such an act, then the act itself is considered to be bereft of moral worth. Duty for Kant is the inevitability or necessity of functioning out of a strict observation for laws that are universal.
Consequently, the worth or value of the action done by the individual in terms of moral contexts is essentially drawn from the intention of the action. Moreover, Kant’s treatment of a maxim can be briefly summarized as a given principle upon which one acts such that its nature is based on the manner in the expression of the intention. Thus, the content of the actions in terms of intent have an important role in Kantian ethics. This content can be further expressed in two manners. The first states that there are maxims or imperatives which stipulate that there are acts based on the desires of the individual.
This is what Kant calls the hypothetical imperative. On the other hand, those which are based on reason and not merely dependent on one’s desires belong to the categorical imperative. The latter type deals with what ought to be done. All these can be roughly transposed and summarized into Kant’s conception of the practical imperative which claims that one ought to act to treat human beings as ends in themselves and never merely as a means to any given end, whether the individual is the self or another person.