Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Kant's Idea of Duty

In his essay, First Principles of Morals, Immanuel Kant has set for himself a difficult philosophical task: to find and establish a rational foundation for morality. Now the first question we might ask ourselves is whether such a foundation is even possible. To be sure, every religion has some code of ethics by which people are judged. If the code is violated, people are punished; when the code is upheld, people are praised. This is all well and good. But, even though the foundations for such moral codes have certain features in common (thou shall not steal; thou shall not murder; thou shall not lie with your brother's wife), these various codes or systems of morality do not always agree.  When one civilization clashes with another, the morality of the victor is generally adopted as the moral law which governs all.

Several thousand years ago, the Jewish people, for reasons which remain obscure,  began to catalog their sins and their virtues into a systematic code of moral principles which have been passed down to us as the Law of Moses. But, as widespread as these principles have become, they are not endorsed by everyone. Kant wants to establish a principle of morality that will have universal appeal because it is based upon reason, not culture.

Let's start with a simple idea: what is the Good? What does it mean when we say one thing is good and something else is evil? As definitions, these terms are relative concepts. Can anything ever be described as being "good" in itself without reference to something else? No. All language flows from experience. Human beings create words (or metaphors) to describe things they like or dislike. Kant assumes that we are all rational spectators. But is there ever such a thing as an impartial spectator? Of course not. We experience the world through the lens of our own bias. This is why Kant says that virtue without a good will is meaningless. One follows the other. It is our intentions that define us. Good deeds performed without a good will are mere accidents of nature. They have no moral value. Over time, our behavior becomes translated into categories of right and wrong. So how is it possible for our personal view of the world to ever become valid for everyone?

The short answer is that it cannot. One person's virtue is another person's sin. We see through a glass darkly. So we require something beyond our personal experience to correct the lens of our own bias. Kant believes that the ordinary categories of experience are flawed because we share the same human capacity for self deception (the sin of pride).  A good society requires a standard of conduct which is unwavering. Thus, Kant believes that virtue without a good will is meaningless. It is our motivations that inspire us and provide the moral foundation from which we act. Thus, a good will is necessary and prior to any good deed.

"A good will is good not because of what it performs or effects, not by its aptness for the attainment of some proposed end, but simply by virtue of the volition-- that is, it is good in itself, and considered by itself is to be esteemed much higher than all that can be brought about by it in favor of any inclination, nay, even of the sum-total of all inclinations."

Kant's "will" is a kind of striving for or movement toward something. He believes the moral quality of our action is determined solely by what we intend to happen, not by what actually occurs-- "not, to be sure, a mere wish, but the summoning of all means in our power."

Thus, for Kant, good deeds performed without a good will (i.e., accidentally) have no moral value. What about guilt? If a good action is performed to avoid shame, does that qualify as being good? Kant says that nature assigns reason to be the governor of our will. He believes that if happiness were the design of nature, then instinct alone would be a more appropriate means by which to sustain life, for reason is an inferior tool for the acquisition of happiness (see Genesis, the tree of knowledge of good and evil).  Instead, our existence has a different and far nobler end for which reason is properly intended. Reason recognizes the establishment of a good will as its highest practical destination. To have any moral value, Kant believes an action must always be done from a sense of duty. For anyone wondering how to behave, the key is not personal happiness or even personal survival, but to ask "what is my duty?"

Thus, our intention has the purity of an idea unblemished by the realities and circumstance of the world. It sounds Platonic, but when Kant says "the summoning of all means in our power," he is transporting the concept of the will from an abstract hypothetical to the actual world of experience. This is the language of aspiration.  Kant believes we are measured (in moral terms) by what we aspire to, not simply by what we achieve.

This sounds odd. Americans are a results-oriented, practical people. We measure our success in what we actually achieve ("show me the money"). We count, like Silas Marner, the coins of our labor. In the free market economy, success is measured in tangible benefits. But for Kant, we are measured by what we aspire to, not simply by what we achieve.

" a jewel, it would still shine by its own light, as a thing which has its whole value in itself. Its usefulness or fruitlessness can neither add to nor take away anything from this value."
Kant suggests there must be another purpose for man to be the way he is other than happiness. This is why he ranks in order of importance these aims of human society:
  1. the formation of a good will
  2. happiness ("always conditional")
  3. all other considerations

"Here, now, it is the simple conformity to law in general, without assuming any particular law applicable to certain actions, that serves the will as its principle, and must so serve it if duty is not to be a vain delusion and a chimerical notion."
Duty proceeds from a sense of moral obligation. If you believe, as some do today, that nature is about the struggle for existence (survival of the fittest), then Kant's argument will not be persuasive. But Kant properly states that morality has nothing to do with survival. Morality is about the values which people hold dear. We recall that in the classical age, both Greeks and Romans preserved a high standard of virtue which had nothing to do with personal survival.  For them, the survival of the city (the homeland) was more important than the survival of any individual. Today, the classical virtues of duty and honor are now mostly visible only in the slogans and traditions of the armed forces.

Sometimes, something more than prudence or logic is required of us. Sometimes courage and compassion are better guides than an inflexible rule. Which is the better guide? The principle of duty or the principle of love thy neighbor? Or are they, in the final analysis, one and the same principle?


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