The one thing in the world that is unambiguously good is the "good will." Qualities of
character (wit, intelligence, courage, etc.) or qualities of good fortune (wealth, status,
good health) may be used to either good or bad purposes. By contrast, a good will is
intrinsically good--even if its efforts fail to bring about positive results.
It is a principle of the composition of natural organisms that each of their purposes is
served by the organ or faculty most appropriate to that purpose. The highest purposes of
each individual are presumably self-preservation and the attainment of happiness. Reason
does not appear to be as well suited as instinct for these purposes. Indeed, people with a
refined capacity for reason are often less happy than the masses. As a result, refined
people often envy the masses, while common people view reason with contempt. The fact
is that reason serves purposes that are higher than individual survival and private
happiness. Reason's function is to bring about a will that is good in itself, as opposed to
good for some particular purpose, such as the attainment of happiness.
The specific obligations of a good will are called "duties." We may make three general
propositions about duty. First, actions are genuinely good when they are undertaken for
the sake of duty alone. People may act in conformity with duty out of some interest or
compulsion other than duty. For instance, a grocer has a duty to offer a fair price to all
customers, yet grocers abide by this duty not solely out of a sense of duty, but rather
because the competition of other grocers compels them to offer the lowest possible price.
Similarly, all people have a duty to help others in distress, yet many people may help
others not out of a sense of duty, but rather because it gives them pleasure to spread
happiness to other people. A more genuine example of duty would be a person who feels
no philanthropic inclination, but who nonetheless works to help others because he or she
recognizes that it is a duty to do so.
The second proposition is that actions are judged not according to the purpose they were
meant to bring about, but rather by the "maxim" or principle that served as their
motivation. This principle is similar to the first. When someone undertakes an action with
no other motivation than a sense of duty, they are doing so because they have recognized
a moral principle that is valid a priori. By contrast, if they undertake an action in order to
bring about a particular result, then they have a motivation beyond mere duty.
The third proposition, also related to the first two, is that duties should be undertaken out
of "reverence" for "the law." Any organism can act out of instinct. Chance events could
bring about positive results. But only a rational being can recognize a general moral law
and act out of respect for it. The "reverence" for law that such a being exhibits (this is
explained in Kant's footnote) is not an emotional feeling of respect for the greatness of