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 the law. Rather, it is the moral motivation of a person who recognizes that the law is an imperative of reason that transcends all other concerns and interests.

Since particular circumstances and motivations cannot be brought into the consideration of moral principles, the moral "law" cannot be a specific stipulation to do or not do this or that particular action. Rather, the moral law must be applicable in all situations. Thus the law of morality is that we should act in such a way that we could want the maxim (the motivating principle) of our action to become a universal law.

Giving a false promise is an example of an action that violates this moral law. Some people might reason that they should be permitted to lie in order to escape a difficult situation. Conversely, some people might reason that they should not lie because in doing so they might create still greater difficulties for themselves in the future. In both cases, the motivating consideration is a fear of consequences, not pure respect for duty. Applying the moral law reveals that lying can never be a universal law. If everyone were to give false promises, then there would be no such thing as a promise.

Although most people are not aware of the moral law in any conscious sense, even untrained minds show a remarkable ability to abide by it in practice. People's intuitive sense for theoretical matters is generally poor. By contrast, their intuitions in the field of practical reason--in other words, their intuitions about morality--are generally correct. For instance, people generally recognize that moral concerns should not include physical ("sensuous") motivations. Nevertheless, a philosophical understanding of morals is important, because untrained minds may be deceived and distracted by non-moral needs, concerns, and desires.


Since Kant's argument in this chapter is complex, it may be helpful to paraphrase it in a more compressed form. Kant starts from the presumption that an action is moral if and only if it is intrinsically good—good "in itself," as he puts it. This view has two main implications. First, moral actions cannot have impure motivations. Otherwise, the action would be based on some secondary motivation, and not on the intrinsic goodness of the action. Second, moral actions cannot be based on consideration of possible outcomes. Otherwise, the action would not be good in itself, but would instead be good in that it brought about a particular outcome.

If we can consider neither motivating circumstances nor intended outcomes, then we need to find a principle with universal validity—a principle that is valid no matter what issue we are considering. The only principles that fit this criterion are the a priori principles of reason--that is, the principles of logic that we have to follow if our statements are to make sense.

One fundamental principle of logic is the principle of non-contradiction: statements don't make sense if they contradict themselves. Kant's moral law is based on this principle of non-contradiction. In order for your action to be moral, he argues, it must be good in itself. In order for it be good in itself, it must make sense in pure logical terms. In order for it to make sense, it must not contradict itself. If you lie but expect other people to believe you, you contradict yourself. Your motivation lacks universal validity and is therefore immoral.

At the end of the chapter, Kant argues that his analysis of the moral law amounts, in effect, to a formalization of a moral sense that we already use intuitively. He argues that a more conscious understanding of the principles of our moral sense can help us to behave more morally. Given the complexity of his argument, it may seem surprising that he believes he is only teaching us what we already know. His claim may seem less surprising if we recognize that his moral law is fundamentally the same as the Biblical teaching that we should "do unto others as we would have done unto us." Kant argues that we violate rational principles of morality when we contradict ourselves, and that we contradict ourselves when we act in a way that we would not want others to imitate. In practice, his doctrine amounts to a doctrine of respect for others.

The major criticism of Kant's approach is that it is too abstract to be useful. The nineteenth-century philosopher Hegel is generally credited with developing this argument against Kant. Hegel argued that our thinking is structured by the beliefs, institutions, and traditions of the society in which we live. In criticism of Kant, he pointed out that you cannot know what actions will appear self-contradictory to people unless you know something about their society.

Take the prohibition against theft, for example. We live in a world of property. In our world, it is contradictory to steal, because when you steal you expect others to recognize your ownership of what you have stolen even though you failed to respect the ownership of the person who originally possessed it. So far, Kant's analysis holds. Yet we can imagine a world without property rights, a world where everything is collectively owned. In such a world, there would be no such thing as theft because there would be no such thing as personal property.

The same analysis can be applied to nearly every moral principle. In our society, it is unethical to cheat on your spouse, because you contradict yourself when accept the marriage vows of your spouse and yet break those vows yourself. Yet we could imagine a world with different family institutions where affairs might not be considered unethical. Similarly (to use Kant's example), it is unethical in our society to make false promises. In our society, there is such a thing as a promise, and when people make promises we expect that they will keep them. But lying might mean something different in a society with different expectations.

According to Hegel's analysis, Kant is correct to recognize that the principle of non-contradiction is an element in moral thinking, but he is wrong to think that we can develop moral principles without considering the circumstances of our world. Morality is not something for automatons living a life of pure rational thought. It is a consideration for human beings who must sometimes subordinate their personal interests to the basic principles of their community.

In defense of Kant against Hegel, some philosophers (including Kierkegaard) have criticized Hegel for overemphasizing the role that social institutions play in forming our beliefs. By some accounts, Kant has the advantageous of allowing us greater freedom in reasoning about which morals make sense to us, independent of the society around us. We will continue to consider this and other views on Kant as we consider his further arguments in Chapters 2 and 3.

As a small side note, it may be of interest to note that Kant wrote the Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals over half a century before Charles Darwin formulated his theory of evolution by natural selection. From a modern-day perspective, Kant's statement that an organism's needs are generally served by the most-suited organ might seem a little strange. An evolutionary biologist would say that our organs and faculties have developed over time in order to serve the needs of survival. According to this perspective, we wouldn't have organs or faculties unless they served our survival needs (or had served those needs at some time); the point is that our organs and faculties should work, not that they perform the tasks for which they are best suited. Kant's outdated view of nature is not of critical importance to his argument, however, so this is not a major problem. It may be interesting nonetheless to observe that ideas about instinct and self- preservation were established long before Darwin included them in his theory.

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