“Nothing in the world – indeed nothing even beyond the world – can possibly be conceived which could be called good without qualification except the good will (Kant 61).”
These are the enigmatic words Immanuel Kant begins his first section in Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, encompassing the most pivotal and hardest to grasp point of his deontological model of morality. Kant, writing his philosophical treatises in mid-eighteen century Prussia, was a man motivated by his time (Rossmann 4). With contemporary philosophers such as David Hume undermining the very groundwork of reason, it fell to Kant to not only prove its validity, but its very place in determining morality (Neiman 35). Hume presented a model of morality similar to emotivism, in which reason, “Is, and ought to be slave to the passions (Neiman 34).” Reason, to Hume, had no place in determining morality.
Subsequently, Kant developed a moral theory based on a priori knowledge, in which morality is determined not by how the world is, but what it ought to be, a model based solely on the establishment of reason. Reason, in Kantian philosophy, is not subjugated by experience; furthermore, if it is unsuited to satisfying certain desires, such as happiness, perhaps it is necessary to ask if reason’s task has been misunderstood (Neiman 106). Reason’s true task is not the fulfillment of the needs of man, as Kant believed; for such tasks, instinct is perfectly capable (Kant 63). Its place, rather, is the fulfillment of the good will. Reason, Kant argued, is, “Given to us as a practical faculty, i.e. one which is meant to have an influence on the [good] will (Kant 63).” But if reason exists and is a tool for all rational beings, what is the good will for which it is to be used?
The good will, according to Kant, is the only thing that is good in and of itself. Regardless of ends, disentangled from subjective wants and desires, the good will is its own end. It is absolute and “to be esteemed incomparably higher than anything which could be brought about by it in favor of any inclination or even of the sum of total inclinations (Kant 62).” Or, more poetically, “It would sparkle like a jewel in own right, as something that has full worth in itself (Kant 62).”
While seemingly abstract, the good will can be understood as a facet of Kant’s desire to remove morality and reason from the subjectivity that Hume extolled. Kant wanted a system of morality in which there could be an objective standpoint from which actions could be judged; he wanted a world in which one could make rational demands, and achieve true freedom and betterment (Neiman 37). The good will, then, is the standard that Kant first establishes, the paradigm of reason and goodness.
However, the question begs why the good will, as opposed to other traditionally valued attributes, should be supreme. For surely kindness, loyalty, bravery, intelligence, wit, and the like are all to be venerated and cherished. Not though, as Kant points out, if the will behind them isn’t good (Kant 61). For these are all tools to the will, and if not good, can be directed towards aims otherwise bad. The villain, for example, who knows how use kindness to further his ends, and how to abuse his powers of intellect, surely is all the more terrifying.
It then follows that such things are not good in and of themselves, as the good will is, but rather are, “Far from being good without qualification (Kant 62).” More importantly to Kantian philosophy, the gifts of fortune, character, birth, etc. are contingent entirely upon the individual, often based on luck and chance, and as such could not possibly constitute the universal standard that Kant wished to create. Kant’s subtle disavowal of the traditionally esteemed morals and standards is best understood again as his larger attempt to undermine the presupposed subjectivity in morality.
Yet the idea of something good in itself seems rather open and fanciful, as Kant willingly concedes (Kant 62). Furthermore, what can best be understood as achieving the good will? Kant finds the closest human construct to emulating the carrying out of the good will is duty, “though with certain restrictions and hindrances (Kant 64).” For example, the man who tells his wife he cheated on her because its his duty to treat other rational beings with honesty and respect is acting out of the good will. Action alone out of duty, an obeying of the good will, is what constitutes moral actions. As Kant succinctly puts it, “Thus the first proposition of morality is that to have moral worth an action must be done from duty (67).”
Even so, adherence to duty seems like an inflexible moral model, and still susceptible to doubts. Consider the man in the above example, who now tells his wife he’s cheating out of feelings of guilt. According to traditional standards, he still doing the morally correct thing by telling his spouse. Indeed, even by the Kantian model, he seems to be following the correct path. Kant, however, says otherwise, “For the maxim [I should confess when I feel guilt] lacks the moral import of an action done not from inclination but from duty (Kant 65).” Here, Kant once again disengages the good will from subjectivity. Following one’s duty, achieving the good will, is not the same when one’s actions coincide with duty. Thus, the action is still consider immoral, regardless of the consequences being the same.
Kantian philosophy then can be understood in new terms: it is not the result that matters, but the intent – the good will upon which an action is based. The goodwill solely dictates moral value. This is the second proposition of morality, “An action performed from duty does not have its moral worth in its purpose by which is to be achieved through it but in the maxim in which it is determined (Kant 67).” The maxim is the reason for action, the particular duty to which the good will calls. Thus Kant can also be seen as refuting the concept of negative responsibility. The consequences, in Kantian thought, do not matter, even if by acting out of the good will one passively allows something bad to happen (Driver 95). Kantianism, then, is by these very premises anti-utilitarianism.
Surely though, one can act out of duty and inclination? Kant admits that it is very possible, and even states that at some points it may be impossible to ever distinguish the two completely (Kant 65). However, he who acts out of kindness, though such a trait is admirable and to be esteemed in its own right, “has no moral worth (Kant 65).” While he who acts not because he wants to, nor because his interests seem to coincide, but out of duty alone is moral. Thus, once more, Kant rebukes traditional moral standards. Indeed, many find that Kantian ethics downplay the value of such important emotions and as a result seem rather impersonal and mechanic. However, Kant is not saying that such feelings do not have worth, simply not moral worth, and do not help achieve the good will (Driver 86).
Perhaps it’s odd that Kant based his theory so heavily on the good will. Having to obey an absolute duty by virtue of being a rational being is an unusual and perhaps incomplete answer, for Kant never addresses the question, “Why be moral?” However, there is something in Kantian thought that intrinsically resonates with people – the idea that there are immutable, set standards in morality, as in science. That intentions matter, and actions can be moral, apart and insulated from luck (Driver 97). It is perhaps for these reasons that Kant, writing and teaching from his home town of Königsberg over two hundred years ago, still has so much pull in the field of philosophy today.
Driver, Julia. Ethics the Fundamentals. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.
Kant, Immanuel. “Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals.” The German Library: Volume 13. Ed. Ernst Behler. New York: The Continuum Publishing Company, 2006.
Neiman, Susan. The Unity of Reason. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Rossmann, Kurt. Immanuel Kant. 1956. The Federal Republic of Germany: Bonner Universitäts-Buchdruckerel, 1974.