Sunday, March 09, 2008

How convincing is Kant’s claim that only a good will has unconditional worth?

For those who are curious, this is one my first essays in Philosophy. I'm not going to be giving up the day job anytime soon...

In order to say that something is of unconditional worth, it implies that the object has a value in and of itself, not subject to any conditions, nor reliant upon any particular context. A claim such as is made by Kant can,as he himself mentions, be met with some suspicion as to it's basis[1]. What can we make of Kant's claim that a good will is good in and of itself, with no conditions? That it is of unconditional worth? In order to examine his claim, we do need to understand such key terms as what he refers to when he discusses the 'will' and the nature of its relationship with the good. In fact, even the nature of the good cannot be taken for granted, as we will see later, Kant did in fact break with previous philosophers with regards to its nature and also as to his starting point for morality and ethics. Kant's search for the supreme principle of morality leads him to argue that the good will has unconditional worth, an argument which we will find the more we look into it, has proven quite resilient.

Kant begins by arguing that there is nothing which can be conceived of that is good, in and of itself, apart from 'a good will'. Of all the characteristics which human beings are said to possess, this feature or trait, stands out distinctly from all others. Courage, fortitude, moderation and sober reflection are all virtues which could rightly be considered part of what he refers to as 'the inner worth' of the individual[2], however, they are not necessarily good. Wielded by an individual whom we might commonly refer to as 'evil' or as with bad intentions, these same traits may cause much harm and in fact lose all of the 'good' which might normally have been ascribed to them. The good will, in and of itself, cannot be hijacked for malicious purposes and it alone remains good. Furthermore, a good will is good not because it may bring benefits or praise to it's wielder, rather it is by virtue of it's existence good and should be exerted even if it demands a heavy price in terms of consequences or reputation. Kant continues to shape his description of the good will as something which remains good regardless of whether there is even an outcome from it's application. As such, the good will “shines like a jewel” regardless of all circumstances, but can we claim that it is something which can be inherent within all human beings? What would cause such a will to emerge and shape it and what does Kant mean by “will”?

In the Groundwork, Kant devotes a small section, perhaps out of formality, to cover what he considers is something to be clarified rather than taught. The will itself is what “holds the highest place in estimating the total worth of our actions and constitutes the condition of all the rest”[3]. This 'will' is produced as a result of a reason which ought to have as it's sole duty, the creation of a will that is good. The rationale behind this is explained by way of an analogy involving nature and the human body. Nature, Kant argues, has designed each organ of our bodies to perform the task it is most suited for. Therefore, the will can be good in and of itself, but must be forged first by a “Reason”, possessed by rational beings. Crucially, Kant accounts for the lack of good will in some human beings by acknowledging that whilst reason allows us to grasp what one ought to do, personal inclinations and distractions may cause one to act differently from their duty. Duty, according to Kant, can only be performed with no consideration to either self interest or inclinations if it is to have real moral worth, in addition, for it to be observed, the actions conforming to it must be done out of the reverence which one would have for a law. The value of the duty is rooted in the original purpose or motivation of the action, which must be priori and which one would carry out regardless of the outcome of their action. The nature of this decision or law upon which a supposedly rational being will act is thus guided by a maxim. The maxim is presented to us in the form of the Categorical Imperative as it's purest expression, expressed famously as “that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law”. In this way Kant's system of ethics uses as it's basic foundation the good will, upon which all of the above is made possible and which, since it is the only good in and of itself, would guarantee the moral value of the Categorical Imperative or law upon which a human being must live by. The application of the Categorical Imperative purely out of a principle of duty, or reverence, would be the sign of a will 'good' in itself, according to Kant, and an expression of the reason possessed by rational beings – a category within which human beings fall. As a result, it is only good will which has unconditional worth since it's very goodness cannot be altered or diverted and from which a true morality can be ascribed to all actions or intent of actions.

An examination of Kant's argument for the good will and the Categorical Imperative raises some interesting questions concerning what Kant takes for his starting point in formulating his system of morality based on maxims. As Silber points out[4], Kant broke with previous philosophers in his interpretation of what constitutes 'a good', as well as it's relationship with the will. Whilst a philosopher such as Socrates would have based their interpretation of morality on an objectified good, Kant believed that such a good could not exist in and of itself yet still exist with a will that was free and which would seek it out of desire. In fact, desire had nothing to do with the relationship of the will with the good because the good in and of itself did not exist except as a projection of the subjective laws which seek out the appropriate object for a will which is good. The will is described by Silber, from a Kantian perspective, as:

...the power of a rational being to act in accord with it's own idea of law rather than in mere conformity to law[5].

When a rational being creates laws to which it conforms to, it does so out of complete freedom to perform obligations which have been laid out by a will which is good through it's application of maxims that are not only subjective but can also be objective. Kant's idea of a will ruled by maxims, the Categorical Imperative, means that this will, through reason, becomes good, and it's actions moral, since it performs it's duties with regards to the Categorical Imperative, a maxim which can be applied on all and be acceptable to all as good. Rather than being material, the 'good' as Kant reinterprets it, is completely formal in that it resides completely within the realm of reason and ideas as dictated by the will's laws.

There are problems however, with a good will which determines a priori the laws that must be followed with no consideration to either inclination or ends, or where compassion plays no role in making decisions of charity or help for example. One of the examples Kant presents is that of helping others. In this example, a person who has enough problems to preoccupy them from worrying about those of others and who is largely self sufficient would have no motivation to assist others and may be oblivious to their plight. In addition, say that person was somehow made aware of their need for assistance, he would by nature be lacking of the pity needed to assist these people, perhaps because he has managed to rely upon himself to resolve his problems and might expect all others to do the same. Such a person therefore has no compulsion or inclination to help others, yet when he does do so from maxims which he has prescribed unto himself from his will which is good, then that action has a moral worth. In fact, according to Kant, that action would have more moral worth than an act of assistance made because one genuinely enjoys helping others and obtains satisfaction from this.

Now there is an argument that can be made, according to Schneewind[6], that there is something distinctly uncomfortable about a world governed by a cold sense of duty devoid of any emotional considerations, regardless of whether this is produced by a will which is good and of unconditional worth. Schneewinds responds to such concerns by pointing out that whilst Kant might show a tendency for the former 'cold sense of duty[7], he does also demonstrate a more emotional aspect to his views on morality. As such, according to Schneewind, we might consider the Categorical Imperative more as a baseline or trigger which would ensure morality should natural inclination fail to produce the desired moral action or intentions.

Schneewind's article can, at first glance, appear contradictory since we cannot forget Kant's insistence that any and all action which is to be judged as truly moral must, in fact, be detached from all motives, ends or inclinations. This problem is not insurmountable however since on closer inspection of Kant's own explanation of the Categorical Imperative, we find him accommodating to the reality of human actions which is not always in conformity with the Categorical Imperative, as defined by the good will. As mentioned previously, far from hindering the validity of the good will, it would make it “shine like a jewel”. These explanations can lead us to the understanding that Kant probably never believed that a human being would always live strictly by maxims derived from a good will. The possibility of a life led mostly in “conformity with duty” does not exclude the possibility of the Categorical Imperative, nor it's application when necessary. As such, presenting the good will with unconditional worth because of the maxims it chooses to live under is akin to the use of a compass in orienteering. Rather than walk whilst constantly looking at the compass to show the way, something far from desirable (or safe), it is best to refer to it at regular intervals to ensure one is on the right path. The good will sets the initial direction and as such, is used to check the validity of the maxims at regular intervals to ensure that one has not deviated far from morality.

To state that only the good will is of unconditional worth, Kant broke with a long tradition of philosophy which preceded him and his arguments remain highly convincing in spite of some of the reservations we had investigated above. However, unlike what could almost be termed as the bullying or intimidating tactics of a Socratic dialogue, Kant begins with a systematic and honest examination of what is essentially the building block of an entire system of morality. To cast doubts on Kant's interpretation of the good and the will remain problematic, as we saw in Sibler's defense of Kant whereby it is the enigmatic nature of 'the good' itself, which has made it so difficult to identify exactly what constitutes it. In contrast, Kant began his thought from what he believed was probably the only concept that other philosophers might agree upon, the idea of a will which rational beings exert in order live by. As Bertrand Russell mentions, the study of ethics is precisely because the interests and desires of human beings can clash so philosophy of ethics and morality are needed to identify the “right” from the “wrong”, and encourage the right while discouraging from the wrong. In addition, claims that Kant's system may be too harsh and do violence to the ideas of what it means to be human and with emotions are also unfounded, since he has also managed to take these into consideration and in fact accommodate them in his arguments.


Kant, I. (1989), The Moral Law, Unwin Hyman, Boston Sydney Wellington

Silber, J.R., “ The Copernican Revolution in Ethics: The Good Re-examined, in, Wolff, R.P. (1967), Kant: A Collection of Critical Essays, University of Notre Dame Press, London

Schneewind, J.B., “Autonomy, obligation, and virtue: An overview of Kant's moral philosophy”, in, Guyer, P. (1996), The Cambridge Companion to Kant, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
[1] Kant, p60
[2] Ibid.
[3] Kant, p62
[4] Silber, 268
[5] Silber, 267
[6] J.B. Schneewind, 327-8
[7] Ibid.


poshlemon said...

Thanks for sharing it. I will get back to it tomorrow and read it while I am more alert. It's almost 5 am and I am sleepy. But, the topic is nice and the first thing that came to my mind was "how does wassim get through studying philosophy? it's so difficult!". Well done.

Wassim said...

Your welcome, but rest assured I didn't put it on to massage my ego or show everyone how brilliant I am, it's just that I myself would have been interested in what a philosophy essay would look like!

As for what's on your mind. I ask myself that question everyday and my answer is, "With difficulty!"

;) thanks for the kind words.