10 February 2008
There is nothing that can be called "good" without qualification except a good will. Everything else is sometimes good, sometimes not, depending on context. But a will aimed at doing its duty is always good.
That, at least, is the heart of what Kant was trying to tell us.
If you accept that much as valid (a big "if") the next logical question you'll raise may be: how does one determine one's duty?
This is where the categorical imperative comes in. There are two inter-related formulations. First, one should always act such that one's action could become a universal law.
This means, for example, that one should never lie. Lying couldn't become a universal law because if all statements were lies, language would lose all value and significance, and the act of lying itself would become impossible. So lying is always and everywhere a violation of duty.
From this "universal law" formulation, Kant inferred another version of the categorial imperative, the means/end formulation. Never treat another human being as entirely a means to an end, but always as an end in himself.
All of this has given rise to an enormous literature of exposition and debate, of course, but I hope I've given you a sense of the inter-relation of some of the basic terms.
One standard objection to this view of right and wrong is sometimes summarized in the phrase "one thought too many." If my wife is drowning in a lake, and I swim out and save her, Kant would think this act moral only if I saved her because it is my duty. What if I just save her because I love her? Or because I'd feel devastated if she weren't around any more? As I understand it, even those are the "wrong" reason for Kant, and remove value from the action.
Only duty is the right reason.
That sounds absurd because if I'm actually standing ont he shore reasoning about my duty, I'm over thinking the matter. One thought (at least) too many. And even if I do save her life, our marriage may well be in trouble.
Good article on this point? Barbara Herman, "On the Value of Acting from the Motive of Duty," THE PHILOSOPHICAL REVIEW (July 1981).
Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.