Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals | Study Guide

Immanuel Kant

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Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals | Main Ideas


Good Will

The good will is the moral will. It is how people ordinarily conceive of a moral person. According to Kant, the good will is inherently good. It is not good, in other words, because of what it achieves; it is not good because of its consequences. Instead, the will is good simply because it has done the right thing for the right reason. Another way to put it is to say that to will the good is to do one's duty.

Kant begins the main text of Groundwork by identifying the good will as the only intrinsically valuable thing in the universe. The term good will is nontechnical—it does not assume a specialized or philosophically technical knowledge. Instead, it reflects colloquial usage. It is common, for example, to talk about someone having a good will. What is typically meant is that the good-willed person does the right thing for the right reason—they had the right intention. This becomes significant when Kant articulates the difference between actions that conform with duty and those done for the sake of it.

Armed with this common understanding, the reader can follow Kant's analysis of the good will. This analysis proceeds in part by way of distinguishing it from those things that are not inherently good. Kant declares that "gifts of nature," such as intellectual talents, and "gifts of fortune," such as wealth, are not good without being directed by a good will. Their goodness depends, then, on the will that directs them.

Moreover, the good will, according to Kant, finds its value exclusively in willing the good. Consequently, the consequences of the action willed have no bearing on its worth. Suppose, for example, a good-willed person has tried to save a drowning child. If successful, the child's parents are pleased and grateful for the outcome. If unsuccessful, the child's parents are devastated and wished things were different. Neither outcome determines the value of the will to save the child. That is because in willing the good, the will is good.

The good will is determined by reason and not by inclination. This is because there is no other appropriate purpose for it. Reason is not well suited to direct the will toward happiness, for example. It is, nevertheless, a "practical faculty," and Kant sees its purpose in directing the will toward the good. This good is understood in terms of duty.

Inclination versus Duty

Kant thinks duty is the way people conceive morality. To do one's duty is to have been obligated to do the right thing only because it is the right thing to do. The right thing to do and the right reason to do it, Kant explains, is to be obligated to act from respect for the moral law: one could say, "I must do my duty, regardless of how I feel about it or what might happen as a result."

Duty is, then, the articulation of the demand reason makes upon the will. Actions that merely conform with duty are not moral. Instead, only those actions done from duty are moral. So the person who tries to save the drowning child acts in accordance with duty, but if duty is not the motivation to act, then the act has no moral value. Kant is at pains to show that one's motive for acting determines whether one's will is good. When one is motivated to act for the sake of duty—when duty alone motivates one to act—one's will is good.

The concept of duty further clarifies the nature of morality as an obligation. More specifically, duty is perceived as what must be done, what is necessary. That necessity is intellectually felt as respect for the moral law. Duty is entirely independent of one's personal desires and feelings. To be obedient to the law, to do one's duty, is central to Kant's moral theory.

Hypothetical versus Categorical Imperatives

Kant's analysis of duty reveals its lawlike features: morality is binding on everyone equally. It does not consider one's desires, feelings, emotions, attitudes, and the like. Instead it is a command, an imperative that holds unconditionally for all rational beings.

Kant formulates four versions of the categorical imperative: one has two parts that focus on the universality of the moral command; one focuses on human dignity; one focuses on autonomy; and the last focuses on the moral community. Each of the formulations applies equally to all rational beings and, as such, is blind to the peculiarities and vicissitudes of particular inclinations, goals, or other forces. In addition, each of the formulations reveals reason as the source and value of morality.

The first formulation requires that an agent's reason for acting—the "maxim"—be universalized. This means that the reason for acting is one that everyone can accept—one that can bind every rational being. Universalization can be understood in two ways: one is that a maxim not be self-contradictory, and the other is that the maxim can be willed.

A maxim that cannot be consistently universalized is a maxim that cannot be conceivable in a world governed by it. Lying is one such case of a contradiction in conception. A world in which everyone lied whenever it was expedient is a world in which no one can be trusted. Lying in this world is, then, already defeated.

A maxim that cannot be rationally willed is a maxim that prevents the end to be achieved. After all, to will is to aim toward an end. For example, Kant thinks it is impossible to will that no one ought to help others in need. This is tantamount to willing that no one be able to achieve their ends. Or suppose that one would attempt to will choosing laziness over cultivating one's talents. Such a maxim contradicts one's own will because there are plenty of occasions when one's talents are required for what one wills. While there is no contradiction in conceiving a world in which people are lazy, one cannot consistently will such a world without contradicting one's own will.

Kant's second, third, and fourth formulations are typically easier to understand, perhaps because of their resonance. The formulas of the dignity of persons, autonomy, and the kingdom of ends all share the idea that people have inherent dignity: They should be treated accordingly and should act accordingly. This dignity derives from their status as moral lawgivers because they have reason. Reason generates the moral law. Consequently, each person is effectively a lawgiver. When each person acts to fulfill the moral law, they act as members of a moral community.

Heteronomy versus Autonomy

The core of morality, in Kant's view, may be most exactingly clarified by contrasting heteronomy with autonomy. The former, heteronomy, is associated with an influence on the will that is external to it. A heteronomous motivation is, then, an external motivation articulated by a hypothetical imperative. A command such as "Do not kill" is heteronomous if the principle aims the motivation at something outside the act. So one would think that killing is wrong because it makes God angry or because doing so will yield a negative consequence in a future life. A heteronomously motivated will is a will motivated for an end that is external to the dictates of the individual's own reason.

Autonomy, by contrast, is associated with self-rule or self-legislation. This is not to be confused with the relativism that comes with subjectivity, since rationality is universal, and moral self-legislation is, for Kant, associated with autonomy. Kant argues that if there is a categorical imperative, it necessarily depends on that which exists as an end in itself. On the assumption that one is committed to the correctness of the categorical imperative, one is thereby committed to the idea that something exists as an end in itself. This end in itself is, then, an autonomous being, which is to say, a being that can give laws to itself by virtue of its rationality.

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