Chapter 9  Kantian Theory : The Categorical Imperative
Section 1. Moral Evaluation

What is the object of moral evaluation?
Kant's philosophical project is to develop a systematic explanation of ethics -- an explanation of the ground or source of moral obligation, and of how to figure out what our obligations are.

It is crucial to realize what Kant presupposes about ethics. He presupposes that there are some actions which are simply wrong, and there are some actions that are obligatory. In other words, he presupposes that utilitarians are wrong to think that the only way of evaluating the rightness or wrongness of actions is simply by looking at the consequences of those actions.

There are no consequences that can justify rape. There are no consequences that can legitimate the torture of an innocent child.

It is not the results of actions that are morally valuable, then -- it is the action itself that we should evaluate.

The Will

The only thing that is good without qualification is the good will, Kant says. All other candidates for an intrinsic good have problems, Kant argues. Courage, health, and wealth can all be used for bad purposes, Kant argues, and therefore cannot be intrinsically good. Not even happiness is not intrinsically good because even being worthy of happiness, Kant says, requires that one possess a good will. The good will is the only unconditional good despite all encroachments. Misfortune may render someone incapable of achieving her goals, for instance, but the goodness of her will remains.

Goodness cannot arise from acting on impulse or natural inclination, even if impulse coincides with duty. It can only arise from conceiving of one's actions in a certain way. A shopkeeper, Kant says, might do what is in accord with duty and not overcharge a child. Kant argues, "it is not sufficient to do that which should be morally good that it conform to the law; it must be done for the sake of the law." (Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals) There is a clear moral difference between the shopkeeper that does it for his own advantage to keep from offending other customers and the shopkeeper who does it from duty and the principle of honesty. Likewise, in another of Kant's carefully studied examples, the kind act of the person who overcomes a natural lack of sympathy for other people out of respect for duty has moral worth, whereas the same kind act of the person who naturally takes pleasure in spreading joy does not. A person's moral worth cannot be dependent upon what nature endowed them with accidentally. The selfishly motivated shopkeeper and the naturally kind person both act on equally subjective and accidental grounds. What matters to morality is that the actor think about their actions in the right manner.

What about natural gifts?

Often we praise people because they are nice, or smart, or generous, or because they possess some other inclination to act in accord with what the moral law requires. But for Kant, if someone's natural inclination is in conformity with what duty requires, s/he is lucky, rather than good. Of course it is better that one's own inclinations point us in exactly the same direction as what our responsibilities require of us -- but this is not the most morally praiseworthy. It could be that such virtues could, under certain circumstances, be used for evil. Without a person having good intentions or a will to to good what would otherwise be a good act or a virtue such a courage could turn into a what most reasonable people would think of as a bad thing and an extremely bad thing.

The courageous bank thief is one example.

Proceed to the next section of the chapter by clicking here>> section.

Copyright Stephen O Sullivan and Philip A. Pecorino  2002. All Rights reserved.

Return to:               Table of Contents for the Online Textbook