10 February 2008

Good Will

Let's think our way through Kantian ethics for a change of pace this Sunday.

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).


Henry said...

It has been years since I studied Kant, but, insofar as I remember, Christopher's summary is excellent. When Kant said that one should never lie, he meant it literally; he wrote that, if a would-be murderer asks you where his innocent victim is hiding, you may not lie. (I don't know whether Kant would permit you to decline to answer the question, although I suppose that not answering questions wouldn't be a good universal law.) Kant, as you might imagine, was an obsessional person, with the townspeople said to have set their clocks in accordance with his daily walk.

Christopher, do you remember how Kant derived the means/end formulation from the universal law formulation?

Henry said...

P.S. But answering all questions wouldn't be a good universal law either, as demonstrated by the murderer hypothetical. It seems to me that creating universal laws does not make a good universal law.

Christopher said...


IIRC, the two formulations are connected through Kant's idealization of the "autonomy" of the will. A good will shouldn't be at the mercy of outside events, it should be a law onto itself.

The universalization formula shows how my will can be a law onto itself, and the means/ends formula derives from my recognition that the other people with whom I come into contact (including that murderer to whom I might be tempted to lie) also have wills that are, in principle, also autonomous.

The obvious problem here: even leaving the prospective victim out of consideration for the moment, maybe I'm being more respectful of the would-be murderer if I lie to him, thus saving him from having this blood on his hands. Maybe the experience of frustration by virtue of my wile will help produce a conversion and make him a better person. Wouldn't that be treating him as an end, then?

Henry said...

I assume that "wile" should be "lie." You ask a good question, whether lying to the would-be murderer, in the hope of converting him into a better person, would be treating him as an end. Isn't being paternalistic a form of not respecting a person? Isn't trying to convert him to treat him not as an end, but as an instrument to fulfill your own idea of a better person? Don't get me wrong -- I believe that not to lie to the would-be murderer would be immoral. But I don't share Kant's morality.

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.