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Role of the 'good will' in Kant's moral theory


To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Role of the 'good will' in Kant's moral theory
Date: 10th December 2008 11:50

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 30 November, with your essay for the University of London 'Ethics Historical Perspectives' module, in response to the question, ''It is impossible to think of anything at all... that could be considered good without limitation except a good will' (Kant). Critically assess the role that this claim plays in Kant's moral theory.'

Most of your essay is concerned with mounting a heroic attack on Kant's claim about the good will. In the last couple of pages, you gesture towards the role that this claim plays in Kant's moral theory. This would make an excellent essay -- in response to a different question (e.g. 'Critically assess Kant's claim that nothing is good without limitation except a good will'). From the relatively little that you do say, an adequate answer can be constructed in response to the question, and a generous examiner might allow for this. However, you need to say more.

Let's look at the claim which Kant makes about the good will. Kant makes a simple distinction between something that is 'good in itself' and something that is 'good for something else'. Into the latter category fall things that are good for something that is good in itself, things that are good for things that are good for something that is good in itself, and so on.

He believes that not only does his claim about the good will accord with our ordinary sense of morality, but moreover that it is the only logically tenable view. That is on the face of it an amazingly bold claim.

Admittedly, Kant says a number of things which go beyond this, such as the argument which you criticize in detail based on dubious assumptions about the 'purpose' of different organs or faculties. I would regard this as a 'sweetener' designed to massage our intuitions rather than the killing argument.

The killing argument arises from Kant's distinction between categorical and hypothetical imperatives. This distinction should have played a major part in your essay. Everything turns on the idea that no merely hypothetical imperative can generate genuine moral reasons. Without categorical imperatives, ethics would not exist.

As Sellars observes, any 'good X' is good by definition and cannot be bad. Anything can be 'good' in this sense. However, having established that the X in question is 'good' the next question is whether it is 'good in itself' or 'good for something else'.

You are absolutely right that Kant does not 'define good... other than by a circular definition.' There is no other way to define good. Ordinary moral consciousness believes that something is good. It could be wrong. Perhaps nothing is good. We have to wait until the last section of the Grundlegung before we discover whether indeed Kant has an adequate response to the sceptic, i.e. an adequate metaphysical grounding for the Moral Law in terms of the mysterious 'third term' -- noumenal freedom.

If every X that we call 'good' is 'good for something else' then nothing is good. You can't keep pursuing the chains of 'good for...' indefinitely, in pain of a vicious regress. Right now, at the beginning of the Grundlegung, Kant is not worrying about scepticism. He is pretty confident that he can find something that is good in itself: the good will.

Having interrogated ordinary moral consciousness, Kant gets to the argument which I have called the 'killing argument'. Many of the things we do are motivated by hypothetical imperatives. If you want to eat some ice cream, go to the fridge and get some. If you want to deter thieves, put a secure lock on your door. Many apparently 'moral' reasons can be expressed in terms of hypothetical imperatives. Holding up the entire structure are human desires and needs, all contingently given.

Many philosophers today would argue that this is all we have -- see e.g. Philippa Foot's article, 'Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives' and also John McDowell's criticisms of Foot. Maybe you agree with Foot, but Kant claiming the authority of 'ordinary moral consciousness' believes there must be more. Without categorical imperatives, all 'good' things would be contingent on what human beings want. Nothing is 'good in itself'. Everyone is his or her own authority on what they want. If I want to kill human beings and feast on their flesh, then my 'good' is equivalent to a good meal.

Can there be a categorical imperative? Well, let's see. All imperatives involve the will, by definition. Hypothetical imperatives involve the 'will for X' where X is something which we contingently want, either as a matter of brute fact, or because we need it in order to get something else that we want. A categorical imperative would therefore have to be an imperative which didn't have this characteristic. And like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, Kant finds the very formula he is seeking, a formula which expresses the idea of a 'good will' in logical terms (or so he believes).

The subsequent formulations of the categorical imperative can, arguably, be traced back to the 'good will' concept. I don't think it is correct to describe Kant, as you do, as introducing a 'consequentialist' element. However, he is unashamedly appealing to a teleological notion of a 'kingdom of ends'. The ultimate purpose of human reason -- the only purpose it could have if it has any purpose at all -- is to reason as a 'lawmaking member of the kingdom of ends'.

I do agree with you that there is more to ethics, contra Kant, than 'duty for duty's sake'. However, it is not clear (to me at any rate) that Kant is required to downgrade the importance of actions done from sentiment in order to be consistent with his claim about the good will and categorical imperative. Just as there are actions we ought to do whether we want to or not, there are things we ought to want. Desires too can be made a valid subject for moral criticism. They are not simply 'given', as Kant apparently believed.

All the best,