For some time now philosophers have discussed the possibility of the existence of right and wrong. The issues of morality and ethical decision-making play an integral role in human conduct and we are constantly contemplating whether or not the choices we make are ‘moral’. As an intuitive species when presented with a choice we are continuously plaguing ourselves with the question of: “Which alternative should I choose and what motive should be behind my choice?”
Ultimately it is this unceasingly bothersome question that Kant tries to answer in his passage The Role of Reason. In fact for this question Kant establishes a universal formula – the categorical imperative – by which all acts can be measured as either morally praiseworthy (in accordance with the will) or not morally praiseworthy (in accordance with something other than the will – a means). This ‘formula’ which, commands us to follow duty as established by the law no matter with whom or what you are dealing, according to Kant is universally applicable for the ‘moral’ way to behave in any situation
The will Kant says, is the faculty of acting according to a conception of law. When we act, whether or not we achieve what we intend with our action is often beyond our control thus the morality of our actions does not depend on their outcome. What we can control however is the will behind these actions. That is we can will to act according to one law rather than another. The morality of an action therefore, must be assessed in terms of the motivation behind it and not the consequences associated with it.
According to Kant the only thing that is good without qualification is the good will. A good will is good in itself, not just for what it produces:
“The good will is not good because of what it effects or accomplishes or because if its adequacy to achieve some proposed end; it is good only because of its willing, i.e. it is good in itself.” (Singer, 124)
All other candidates for an intrinsic good have problems Kant argues. Courage, health, and wealth can all be used for ill purposes Kant contends, and therefore cannot be intrinsically good. Happiness is not intrinisically good because even being worth of happiness Kant says, requires that one possess a good will. The good will is the only unconditional good despite all infringements. Misfortune may render someone incapabable of achieving her goals for instance, but the goodness of her will remains.
Goodness cannot arise from acting on impulse or natural inclination. It can only arise from conceiving one’s action in a certain way. We might be tempted to think that some motivations that make actions good and have a positive goal -to make people happy, or to provide some benefit- are then moral. But this is not so Kant says if the act is not done with the right motive.
No outcome should we achieve it, can be unconditionally good. Fortune can be misused, what we thought would induce benefit might actually bring harm, and happiness might be undeserved. Hoping to achieve some particular end no matter how beneficial it may seem, is not purely and unconditionally good. It is not the effect or even the intended effect that bestows moral character on an action. All intended effects “could be brought about through other causes and would not require the will of the rational being, while the highest and unconditional good can be found in only such a will.” (Singer, 129)
Furthermore, having established that our actions cannot be moral on the ground of some conditional purpose or goal but rather in the motive for which they are done, Kant now establishes a categorical (as opposed to hypothetical) imperative which serves as a golden rule for moral action. The passage seems to develop a formulation of the Categorical Imperative which prescribes us to act from duty in all situations:
“An action done from duty does not have its moral worth in the purpose which is to be achieved through it but in the maxim by which it is determined. Its moral value, therefore, does not depend on the reality of the object of the action but merely on the principle of volition y which the action is done.” (Singer, 128).
Arguably from this we can develop Kant’s account of the categorical imperative:
“Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” 1
I will argue this first formulation in this way. We have seen that in order to be good we must remove inclination and the consideration of a particular goal from our motivation to act. An action Kant says, cannot be good because it seeks after some particular goal so we must abstract away from all hoped for affects. If we remove the biased purpose of the motivation every act would then have the same universal purpose; to do as is our duty. The question to contemplate then when deciding which guidelines to follow for life should not be particular to each situation but should always hold constant . A question such as: “What rule ought to universally guide action?” is then the proper question to ask and the answer is essentially this version of the Categorical Imperative: What we must do in any situation of moral choice is act according to a maxim that we would will everyone to act according to.
This instance of the categorical imperative is thus a supreme moral principle that seems to ride contrary to utilitarianism. Unlike a utilitarian perspective Kant’s moral philosophy maintains that the consequences of an action do not make an act morally praiseworthy rather the right making quality of an action is the motive for which it is done.
For instance if a person performs an action, say of returning a lost Emory Card to its rightful owner, out of the motive that this is the right thing to do then the person is doing the right thing. But if the person performs the act because it may make the person who lost the Emory Card happy or because the honest person may be esteemed by others for returning the Emory Card then the person may be doing a decent thing just not a moral deed. Acting from a moral motive is acting out of a sense of duty – doing what we believe to be right even if it is not in our best interest or we do not feel like doing it.
In The Role of Reason Kant maintains that what makes an action morally praiseworthy is its being done from a good will. Those acts that are done from good wills are those that are done in concurrence with a sense of duty not those that are done for some purpose:
“Duty is the necessity of an action done from respect for the law.” (Singer, 128)
He places this necessity to do things out of principle alone in an imperative that we must follow. This imperative is not hypothetical for it does not describe conditions to fulfill an end. Rather it is a categorical imperative describing what we ought to do regardless of the outcome of the action. Once again, Kant’s categorical imperative states:
“Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” 1
Reason reflecting upon choice uses the categorical imperative in order to decide between alternatives. From an act, reason abstracts a principle of action and judges it against the categorical imperative; reason then asks ‘ought I to wish this principle of action become a universal law of nature?’. Since it is the ultimate measure by which all acts are judged morally good or bad, the categorical imperative to act in harmony with duty, is thus Kant’s supreme moral principle.
1 Nelson, Amaral. Kant’s Categorical Imperative. New York: New York. Scudder, Stevens & Clark, 1989. pp 149-156.