Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Friday, December 12, 2014

KANT: First Principles of Morals (Good Will)

The ancient philosophers divided knowledge into three categories: Physics, Ethics and Logic.  Physics is concerned with the laws of the natural world.  Physical substances are compelled to act in certain ways.  They have no choice.  Two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen becomes water.  It always turns out the same way.  Ethics is concerned with the laws of human values.  Human beings can freely choose between alternative actions.  We can make a contract with Mephistopheles or we can avoid him like the devil.  Logic is the law of formal thought within the mind; established rules for making sound decisions.

Reading Kant is a good follow-up to reading Faust.  Faust (the play) raises many questions.  How do we distinguish between what is right and what is wrong?  Can we best learn ethics from personal experience or through the power of reason?  If I meet someone like Mephistopheles how do I know if he’s giving me good advice or leading me astray?  Is watching a play the best way for me to come to understand morality?  Kant takes positions on these questions.  He’s a philosopher so he thinks like a philosopher.  For Kant watching a play like Faust is entertaining but it’s not the best way to approach morality.  He believes emotions are too erratic to build a system of ethics on.  Emotional decision-making led to tragedy for Faust and Gretchen.  Kant wants a better way.

What Kant proposes is building a system of ethical behavior based on a firm foundation of logical conclusions.  And a “good will” is the bedrock of his ethical system.  Why good will?  Kant says “nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good without qualification, except a good will.”  Anything else we can think of falls short of being good all the time every time.  Even love has to be qualified in some way in order for it to be called good.  No doubt Faust and Gretchen were “in love” but it still led to bad results.  They might argue (especially Faust) that human beings can’t “reason” our way into or out of love.  But Kant would respond that “we may have misunderstood the purpose of nature in assigning reason as the governor of our will.”  What Kant is looking for is a moral law that will apply at all times in all places to all creatures.  This is a very tall order.     

But Kant gives us a good example of what he’s talking about.  He says “in Scripture we are commanded to love our neighbor, even our enemy.”  How can we be commanded to love even our enemies?  Kant says it’s possible but it has to be “practical love, and not pathological; a love which is seated in the will, and not in the emotions.”  This is a different kind of love than the one Faust and Gretchen were feeling.  This kind of love is “seated in the will” and now we see why it’s so vital for Kant to establish the importance of having a “good will” in the first place.  He wanted to define moral laws that would not only apply to Man on earth but to any rational creature living anywhere in the universe.  Any rational creature would be able to understand these universal moral laws.  The hard part would be putting them into practice with a good will.  The heart of Kant’s moral philosophy can be summed up in this one maxim: “I am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law… should I be content that my maxim should hold good as a universal law, for myself as well as others?”  What if everybody did what I’m doing (or thinking about doing)?  What if we all cut a deal with Mephistopheles like Faust did?  What would the world be like then? 


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