Kant and Moral Worth

Posted by on July 9, 2011

In “Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals,” Kant establishes an ethical view that only actions performed from duty have moral worth.  In order to be a moral action, the action must have its grounding in a maxim that can be universalized; the maxim should be applicable to every circumstances or cases without a fundamental flaw being found in the maxim.  In this paper I will critically analyze one of Kant’s examples of acting from duty while supporting and defending his argument.  I think it is important not to misinterpret Kant’s examples and to be particularly mindful of the context of the overall argument that he is making.  I will begin by presenting and explaining one of his examples, and then proceed to criticize his argument.  Lastly, I will follow up with a defense against this criticism on behalf of Kant and conclude with a few remarks regarding the problems with misinterpreting Kant’s examples.

One of Kant’s examples of acting from duty is that of being kind.  To be kind where one can possibly be kind is a duty.  There are cases in which some people are naturally sympathetic and without any other motive find satisfaction in spreading joy to others.  Kant particularly uses this case because he wants to make a distinction between acting from duty and acting in accordance with duty.  In this case, the kind person is not acting from duty but in accordance with duty, because he is inclined to be sympathetic.  Inclinations are different from acting from duty, because acting from duty is not dependent upon the consequences of the action.  One can be inclined to be kind because one seeks to spread joy.  Kant’s differentiation here is that acting from duty entails doing an act simply because it is the right action and not because of the consequences it produces.  Kant explicitly explains this differentiation by stating:

But I say that however dutiful and however amiable it may be, that kind of action has no true moral worth.  It is on a level with [actions done from] other inclinations…the act lacks the moral import of an action done not from inclination but from duty. (FMM 14)

Clearly in this statement Kant is making a very definitive and strict distinction, the latter of which possibly leads toward misinterpretations.  This possibility becomes even greater as Kant presents an example of a person that is entirely uncompassionate.  This person, being devoid of sympathy and other natural philanthropic tendencies, does not do the kind thing from inclination, but from duty (FMM 14).   Therefore, this person’s action has moral worth.  Through this Kant leads himself into one of the strongest criticisms of his argument, which I believe is simply a misinterpretation of Kant’s writing.

The criticism made against Kant is that his example illustrates that only the most miserable person can be acting from duty; therefore, only his character would have moral worth.  This thinking emerges from understanding Kant’s argument to mean that one’s actions having moral worth requires always acting against one’s inclinations and desires, regardless of whether these inclinations and desires are benevolent.  Thus, it would appear to logically have the form that only those persons can have moral worth who are miserable in their duties; if a person does an act dutifully from a feeling of sympathy the act has no moral value, but if done without any feeling or done so begrudgingly it does have moral worth.  This type of understanding of Kant’s ethics compels one towards an interesting paradoxical view, such that a morally desirable act would be to not want to do that action that you morally ought to do.  The criticism here is especially important because it is trying to reinstate the importance of feelings and inclinations, as these are seen to be necessary because they make one act morally.

An important reply that Kant would give to these criticisms is evident in his text itself.  Kant mentions in his book soon after the kindness example that:

Beneficence from duty, even when no inclination impels it and even when it is opposed by a natural and unconquerable aversion, is practical love, not pathological love; it resides in the will and not in the propensities of feeling, in principles of action and not in tender sympathy, and it alone can be commanded. (FMM 15)

Here, Kant is recognizing that the criticism that had been made towards him was that feeling is what motivates people to do things, even moral things.  Kant replies that there is something other than feelings, which he calls the principles of action.  He develops this thought further into meaning that respect for law is what causes human beings to act lawfully and morally.

Earlier I had mentioned that the kindness example creates a potential for misinterpretation, being that only miserable people’s actions can have moral worth.  Reading further into Kant’s writing in the first section, it is clear that he does not mean that.  Kant states that “an act from duty wholly excludes the influence of inclination” (FMM 16).  This is the “influence” and not “inclination” itself, meaning that one could like the act one does so long as the motivation was to obey duty.   The reason Kant gives the kindness example of an uncompassionate person is because it allows one to see clearly what it means to do an act from duty.  Kant knows well that examples from the basis of ordinary reason can be obscure and inconsistent, and admits this toward the end of the first section (FMM 20).   Due to these obscurities he attempts to provide a clear example, but problems arise from the very sharp distinction he makes between inclination and acting from duty.  It is important though to notice here the impact a misinterpretation of Kant’s words can have in understanding his overall ethical viewpoint.

In having analyzed an example of what Kant meant by acting from duty, one thing became absolutely clear.  In order to fully comprehend Kant, his writing must be read in a manner which envelops the whole picture that he is trying to develop.  Without this in mind, his wording can get confusing very quickly and lead one astray from the overall picture that is being described.

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