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Immanuel Kant holds in Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals that ethics, like physics, is partly empirical and partly a priori. This work deals only with the a priori part in that it is based entirely on the use of reason without recourse to experience. Everyone must recognize, Kant writes, that since moral laws imply absolute necessity, they cannot be merely empirical. For example, “Thou shalt not lie” applies not merely to all human beings but to all rational beings. Its ground, therefore, must be found in pure reason. Moreover, what is done morally must be not only in accordance with law but also for the sake of law; if this were not its motivation, different circumstances of the agent would call forth different responses.

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This book, issued as a preliminary to an intended metaphysic of morals, Kritik der praktischen Vernunft (1788; The Critique of Practical Reason, 1873), comprises a critical examination of purely practical reason and establishes the supreme principle of morality. The order of inquiry is from common moral knowledge to the supreme principle (analysis), then back to application in practice (synthesis).

Good Will

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Kant begins by claiming, “Nothing in the world—indeed nothing even beyond the world—can possibly be conceived which could be called good without qualification except a good will”—not intelligence, wit, judgment, courage, or the gifts of fortune. Possession of these is a positive evil if not combined with good will, which indeed is the indispensable condition even of worthiness to be happy. Although moderation, self-control, and calm deliberation are all conducive to good will, they can also characterize the cool villain and make that evil person even more abominable. The goodness of the good will does not depend on its accomplishments; it “would sparkle like a jewel in its own right, as something that had its full worth in itself,” even if external circumstances entirely frustrated its actions.

The good will is the rational will. Why has nature appointed reason to rule the will? Not for the sake of adaptation, which would be more efficiently accomplished by instinct. Moreover, when a cultivated reason makes enjoyment its end, true contentment rarely ensues. Reason, then, is intended for something more worthy than production of happiness. Being a practical faculty, yet not suitable for producing a will that is good merely as a means (instinct would do better), reason must be given us to produce a will good in itself. Everyone knows, at least implicitly, according to Kant, the concept of a will good in itself. We need only bring to light that to which we give first place in our moral estimate of action.


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Kant considers the concept of duty, distinguishing between what is done in accordance with duty (but motivated perhaps by a natural inclination or a selfish purpose) and what is done from duty. Moral import is clearly seen only in those cases in which, on account of absence of inclination, duty is exhibited as the motive. It is our duty to be kind, and amiable people are naturally inclined to kindness. However, do they act from duty or from inclination? Ordinarily we cannot be sure which; however, suppose that someone in such deep sorrow as to be insensible to the feelings of others yet tears himself out of this condition to perform a kind action. We see, then, that that person’s action has genuine moral worth. Conversely, we know a person who by nature is unsympathetic yet behaves beneficently; that person must be acting from duty, not from inclination.

Moral worth attaches to action from duty even with...

(The entire section contains 3957 words.)

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