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Kant on Moral Worth March 29, 2007

Posted by Ninja Clement in Philosophy.

Question: In what does the moral worth of an action consist, on Kant’s account? (Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, I 397-399)


Kant asserts that only actions undertaken for the sake of duty alone have moral worth (equivalently, only those actions undertaken in reverence for the moral law alone have moral worth). Everyone is capable of having a good will, a firm commitment to doing what is right. Yet a will is only good to the extent that it compels oneself to ignore inclinations, acting out of respect for a principle whose validity is not conditional on whether or not one has certain ends. Indeed, the very concept of duty implies that some acts or omissions ought to be undertaken regardless of what desires one may have.

Now often people act in accordance with duty, but their motive is of some interest other than performing one’s duty. They have no immediate inclination to perform one’s duty, but they do have a mediate inclination. Grocers are obliged to offer her their at a fair price to everyone, but many abide by this duty because competition from other grocers forces them to undercut one another and fear of being thought of as disreputable compels them to act as if they were truly fair minded. Similarly, all people have a duty to help others in distress, but many offer their help not out of a sense of duty but because it feels pleasurable to render assistance. Here the agent does have an immediate inclination to perform one’s duty.

A person acts for the sake of duty alone when, for example, feeling no compassion, she nonetheless helps someone in need, recognizing that it is her duty to do so. Similarly, a person who finds that his life is in shambles and yet refuses to commit suicide, not because he loves life, but because he knows that taking one’s life is treating oneself as a means to an end, is acting for the sake of duty alone. This is the only way to tell whether or not an action has moral worth.

The corollary is that actions are assessed not according to the purpose they were meant to bring about, but rather by the maxim that serves as motivation. This idea is similar to the first. When someone undertakes an action with no other motivation than a sense of duty, they are doing so because they have recognized a moral principle that is valid a prioriBy contrast, if they undertake an action in order to bring about a particular result, then they have a motivation that lies beyond duty. Even seeking one’s happiness is an act that has moral worth only if it follows from obligation alone, and not from the intention to bring about good results.

Kant does not claim that acts in accordance with duty but undertaken for reasons other than those grounded in duty are immoral. Rather, they have no moral worth. Furthermore, he does not say that an action cannot have moral worth if the agent has other motives besides the intent to act for the sake of duty. What matters is whether or not one’s will is governed by the moral law, in the sense that one would act rightly even if one lacks other motives besides the intent to act for the sake of duty.



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