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Present, explain, and assess the thesis that only acts done from duty have moral worth
In his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Immanuel Kant addresses the issue of how people can determine the moral value of actions. His central claim is that only acts that are done out of duty can be considered to have any moral value. Implicit in this topic is the need to reconcile the intent of one's actions with the result of their actions. Kant explores exactly where morality can be located when identifying the value of one's actions. At stake in Kant's argument is whether there is in fact an a priori framework for how people should behave, and where virtue is found.
At the beginning of the Groundwork, Kant explains the notion of logic and defines the terms that he deploys to explain his governing thesis. These terms include: good will, categorical imperative, rationality, and duty. The departure point for Kant's theory lies in the Preface, where Kant states that "Logic can have no empirical part" (4:387). This claim stipulates that logic must necessarily be grounded in practice, and that logic must be determined not through an individual's subjectivity but through whether an action benefits people in practice.
In order to prove his central thesis, Kant introduces a number of terms, the first of which involves the topic of good will. Specifically, Kant states that all people must exhibit good will, and that "A good will is not good because of what it effects or accomplishes, because of its fitness to attain some purposed end, but only because of its volition" (4:396). Accordingly, good will necessarily involves an action that is conducted with honorable intent. Kant's thesis is significant in that it divorces itself from a progress-driven philosophy in which ends justify their means. The result of an action is ultimately of little import to Kant, as people cannot ultimately control the results of their actions. In this regard, it is important to remember that "will" refers to the intent and motivation that people have to effect a given outcome. Accordingly, to possess "good will" means to have the intention of causing a "good" outcome, regardless of the result that actually occurs. The implication of Kant's argument is that people can control their intent, and that they should be able to discern whether or not their actions are conducted toward their own self-interests or the betterment of society as a whole.
The concept of "good will" also connotes a strong degree of purity, such that there is no ambiguity in which an action could be construed as ignoble. Indeed, Kant writes that "It is impossible to think of anything at all in the world, or indeed even beyond it, that could be considered good without limitation except a good will" (4: 393). To this end, "good will" refers to that which cannot be considered bad.
In addition to introducing the concept of "good will," the thesis of Kant's Groundwork involves the definition of "duty." Specifically, Kant argues that duties involve universal virtues that people assume as members of society. He defines duty as the "necessity of an action from respect for law" (4:400). The association between duty and the law is significant since it denotes the way in which duty constitutes a form of social contract that people enter into when they are part of a society. It is necessary for Kant to introduce the topic of duty since it involves the practical application of the virtue of good will. Per Kant, the union of good will and duty constitutes whether or not an action has any moral value.
One of the challenges that Kant's argument faces involves how people are to determine good will, and duty. According to Kant, everyone has the ability to exhibit good will and should have a strong sense of their duties; they are not esoteric truths but are considered to be self-evident. He argues that by using reason, people can ensure that they act according to their duties: "the true vocation of reason must be to produce a will that is good, not perhaps as a means to other purposes, but good in itself, for which reason was absolutely necessary" (4:396).
Kant delineates a small number of inherent duties with which everyone is tasked. First, he states that everyone has a duty to act in the best interests of the collective, to preserve their own life, and to assure one's happiness is a duty. In order to demonstrate these two duties, Kant provides a pair of examples. In his first example, he invokes the hypothetical case of a shopkeeper, who possesses the agency to raise prices at their discretion. In the event that a shopkeeper has a captive audience (for example, someone who is rich and can afford to pay a greater price than the other customers) and knows that even by raising prices they would still retain their client, it would nonetheless not be acting in according to their duty for the shopkeeper to raise prices on that lone individual (4: 397). For the shopkeeper to raise the prices would be to act in their own self-interest rather than acting out of good will toward the collective. Accordingly, people have a duty to subordinate their personal benefit when it is to occur at the expense of others.
Another example that Kant provides involves the duty that people have to preserve their life. In order to prove his point, Kant uses the example of a man who his depressed and possesses no inspiration to continue living their life. Accordingly, the man would be faced with the decision of whether or not to take their own life. Per Kant, the man has a duty not to kill himself, and by refraining from killing himself, he exhibits great moral content (4:398). In this example and the preceding one involving the shopkeeper, people adhere to their duties through acting against their own desires and self-interests.
After elucidating the concept of duty, Kant advocates for what he refers to as the "categorical imperative" (4: 414). The categorical imperative is juxtaposed against the hypothetical imperative; if an imperative is categorical, then it has universal applicability and is beneficial to everyone involved. Meanwhile, the hypothetical imperative denotes a situation in which one has privileged themselves over the collective. The categorical imperative thus borrows from the principle delineated earlier that one must act in the best interests of everyone, and that "I ought never to act in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law" (4:402). In this context, "should" is a significant term in that it distinguishes how people should not promote laws that do not already exist. Additionally, "should" is an arbitrary term that may not mean the same to each person. Accordingly, people should never impose their subjective beliefs onto others as though they were constituted as law. If an action does not have universal appeal, then it is not conducted out of one's duty and therefore has little moral value.
There are a number of implications stemming from Kant's thesis. The first is that everyone has a responsibility to subordinate their personal self-interests for the betterment of the whole. Kant does not deny that everyone has their own dispositions toward acting in ways that can advance themselves. Moreover, he feels that everyone has a duty to preserve their own life and be happy. However, his overarching belief is that a person should never benefit at the expense of another individual; the implication for this belief is that this mode of conduct would initiate a war and would render society unsustainable.
Another chief implication of Kant's thesis is that it is possible for people to distinguish between people's subjective desires (those…[continue]
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