How is Kant's philosophy of "good will" related to happiness?

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laurniko eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Happiness was the foundation for many ancient philosophers' systems of ethics; the endpoint of all ethical behavior. Immanuel Kant disagreed. Kant's theory of good will is that it is the only truly good and ethical thing in the world. He did not believe that happiness itself was necessarily good or ethical. 

To understand the connection between Kant's philosophy of good will and happiness, it is important to first understand how Kant viewed happiness. In The Metaphysical Principles of Virtue, he says it is "continuous well-being, enjoyment of life, complete satisfaction with one's condition." Three years later in 1788, he defined happiness as, "the state of a rational being in the world in the whole of whose existence everything goes according to his will and his wish" in the Critique of Practical Reason. To him, happiness was entirely separate from moral values—in other words, happiness was not necessarily a completely good thing.

Many philosophers before Kant—those who believed in eudaimonistic ethics—believed what made something good or right was its ability to make humans happier and promote goodwill. Kant disagreed because of his views on happiness.

It is also important to understand Kant viewed good will as the only universally good thing. To him, it means to act from a sense of moral obligation; to do one's duty. Not because it makes you happy or fulfills a need, but rather because it is the right thing to do. He says in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals:

A good will is good not because of what it effects, or accomplishes, not because of its fitness to attain some intended end, but good just by its willing, i.e. in itself; and, considered by itself, it is to be esteemed beyond compare much higher than anything that could ever be brought about by it in favor of some inclinations, and indeed, if you will, the sum of all inclinations. Even if by some particular disfavor of fate, or by the scanty endowment of a stepmotherly nature, this will should entirely lack the capacity to carry through its purpose; if despite its greatest striving it should still accomplish nothing, and only the good will were to remain (not of course, as a mere wish, but as the summoning of all means that are within our control); then, like a jewel, it would still shine by itself, as something that has full worth in itself.

He believed that for something to be truly, wholly good, every instance and intention of it had to be good. In other words, if something like intelligence can be used for bad, it is no longer good. Therefore, many things humans see as intrinsically good, like wealth, education, health, or wit, are not intrinsically good according to Kant.

Kant believed happiness is one of these traits that is not wholly good. He agreed with other philosophers that people are motivated by happiness—but not that this motivation makes something an action ethically correct or incorrect. He says:

The general well-being and contentment with one's condition that is called happiness, can inspire pride, and often presumption, if there is not a good will to correct the influence of these on the mind.

So happiness, unlike good will, does not guarantee an ethical or positive end. The only true thing that is completely good is good will. Happiness, like many other things in the world, can become negative under certain conditions. Because Kant did not base his system of ethics on happiness—but rather on moral obligation and good will—he spoke much less about happiness than his contemporaries and the philosophers who came before him.

Kant also believed happiness was ultimately not a good basis for a system of morals because not everyone can be happy; sometimes attaining happiness prevents another from having it. Rather, a system of morals built on good will made sense to Kant because he said, "the true vocation of reason must be to produce a will that is good." 

Ultimately, for Kant, good will was the only true, moral good thing in the world. Happiness, like other traits and qualities, was susceptible to negative influences and outcomes. Therefore, it was not as desirable to rational thinkers. 

rareynolds eNotes educator| Certified Educator

For Kant, “good will” means a willingness to act in accordance with a moral law. A “moral law” is a law that is universally true in every circumstance—for example, the principle of ”Always tell the truth” means that the truth must be told, no matter what, in every circumstance. Kant’s famous formulation of the categorical imperative expresses this: “I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.” In other words, actions are moral only to the extent that they are expressions of a universal good.

It is hard to see how happiness plays into this. In fact, it would seem to have very little to do with it, if by “happiness” we mean “having our own way.” The “good will” has to do with duty, and duty, by definition, means doing things that might be against your personal inclinations but benefit the greater good. In fact, for Kant, actions can only be “moral” if they are done against your personal inclination. Kant’s’ idea of “happiness” is best understood as participating in a just and moral society, in which every individual acts acts in a way consistent with a universal moral law and sacrifices their own personal inclinations to do so. 

mperez-mugg21 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The relationship between happiness and good will in Kant's work is somewhat complex. According to Kant, having a good will is the necessary precondition for deserving happiness. However, possessing a good will does not guarantee happiness, and, in fact, they are frequently at odds with one another. According to Kant, possessing a good will requires one to act in accordance with the moral law and also to be motivated to perform actions with a sense of moral duty. Thus, having a good will requires one to disregard one's own happiness as a source of motivation.  Kant's theory also frequently requires one to perform actions that conflict with one's own happiness. One of the paradoxes of Kant's moral theory is that he believes that only those who possess a perfectly good will deserve to be happy, but in turn possessing a good will makes individuals less likely to achieve happiness.