Kantian Ethics and The Good Will

Posted on Posted in Analytic Philosophy, Ethics, Kant, Kantian Ethics, Metaethics

One criticism of Kant, among many, is that he is not a good writer. Maybe I’m just a big fan but I think Kant is a great writer. Kant description of the good will is just one of the many passage where Kant displays what I would consider great writing.

Regarding the good will Kant says:

There is nothing it is possible to think of anywhere in the world, or indeed anything at all outside it, that can be held to be good without limitation, excepting only a good will. Understanding, wit, the power of judgment, and like talents of the mind,2 whatever they might be called, or courage, resoluteness, persistence in an intention, as qualities of temperament, are without doubt in some respects good and to be wished for; but they can also become extremely evil and harmful, if the will that is to make use of these gifts of nature, and whose peculiar constitution is therefore called charac- ter,3 is not good. It is the same with gifts of fortune. Power, wealth, honor, even health and that entire well-being and contentment with one’s condi- tion, under the name of happiness, make for courage and thereby often also for arrogance, where there is not a good will to correct their influence on the mind, and thereby on the entire principle of action, and make them universally purposive; not to mention that a rational impartial spectator can never take satisfaction even in the sight of the uninterrupted welfare of a being, if it is adorned with no trait of a pure and good will; and so the good will appears to constitute the indispensable condition even of the worthiness to be happy.

Some qualities are even conducive to this good will itself and can make its work much easier, but still have despite this no inner unconditioned worth, yet always presuppose a good will, which limits the esteem7 that one otherwise rightly has for them, and does not permit them to be held absolutely good. Moderation in affects and passions, self-control, and sober reflection not only are good for many aims, but seem even to constitute a part of the inner worth of a person; yet they lack much in order to be declared good without limitation (however unconditionally they were praised by the ancients). For without the principles of a good will they can become extremely evil, and the cold-bloodedness of a villain makes him not only far more dangerous but also immediately more abominable in our eyes than he would have been held without it.

The good will is good not through what it effects or accomplishes, not through its efficacy for attaining any intended end, but only through its willing, i.e., good in itself, and considered for itself, without comparison, it is to be estimated far higher than anything that could be brought about by it in favor of any inclination, or indeed, if you prefer, of the sum of all inclinations. Even if through the peculiar disfavor of fate, or through the meager endowment of a stepmotherly nature, this will were entirely lacking in the resources to carry out its aim, if with its greatest effort nothing of it were accomplished, and only the good will were left over (to be sure, not a mere wish, but as the summoning up of all the means insofar as they are in our control): then it would shine like a jewel for itself, as something that has its full worth in itself. Utility or fruitlessness can neither add to nor subtract anything from this worth. It would be only the setting, as it were, to make it easier to handle in common traffic, or to draw the attention of those who are still not sufficiently connoisseurs, but not to recommend it to connoisseurs and determine its worth.

Until recently I never quite understood the importance of this passage, or really even why Kant starts off the Groundwork with this discussion. It was never clear how this passage was connected to the rest of the Groundwork. It seemed just appended there.

However when doing philosophy, as a methodological principle it is always best to assume you are missing something rather than that the author has made some mistake. This especially true with the great philosophers and even more so, probably more than with anyone else besides maybe Plato, with Kant.

The above passage wherein Kant describes the good will is in an important sense the most crucial passage in the whole Groundwork!

Kant talks a lot about reason and the importance of reason in determining the categorical imperative and folly of trying to construct any sort of utilitarian or consequentialist ethical theory, which might lead one to think that Kant grounds ethics in reason. More technically one might be inclined to think that Kant uses reason as the metaethical foundation of his ethical system, which is what I believed he was up to until recently.

Reason, for Kant, supplies the content of the fundamental principle of normative ethics, the categorical imperative. But it is the goodwill, or our belief that nothing is valuable except a goodwill which provides the metaethical foundation of Kantian ethics.  Kant statements regarding the goodwill are supposed to capture the basic attitude that we do in fact approach ethics with, which he summarizes in the good will passage. However, the way we think about ethics, the unlimited value we place on a good will, requires the existence of an afterlife to make sense of. It is only within a religious worldview can one make sense of the concept of a good will as the foundation of an ethical theory.

To summarize, my recent insight is that Kantian ethics does not use reason as its metaethical foundation but rather uses the conception of a the goodwill laid out in the beginning of the groundwork. This I think is an important insight and one that is under appreciated. The SEP entry on Kant’s Moral Philosophy doesn’t attribute anything so substantial of a role to the good will in Kant’s moral theory. And morally generally a standard approach in contemporary analytic philosophy is to use a reason based approach defend a kind of moral realism (think Micheal Smith’s Realism). If however Kant was right then reason alone isn’t enough to get a realist project off the ground.

Reason supplies the normative but something else is needed for the metaethical.


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