Saturday, November 10, 2007

Where Did Kant Put the Moral Worth of Character?

Kant’s theory does provide some insight into the intrinsic value and universal nature that we intuitively grasp in the day-to-day moral precepts we follow. His theory captures these intuitive insights by articulating the role of the will and providing a mode of reasoning that would guide a will capable of moral worth. Despite Kant’s worthy contribution to an understanding of right action he mistakenly identifies the moral worth of an action with its being done from duty, revealing that there are actions deserving of moral worth that are not done from duty. Articulating the relationship between the will, our actions, and our motives is the starting point for Kant’s distinction between a person who acts from the motive of duty and a person who acts from inclination.

For Kant there are only two kinds of motives from which human beings act. Either a person acts from inclination or acts from duty. Inclinations are contingent in the sense that natural sympathy may or may not be present in an individual from day to day. For example a person may decide to be helpful from natural sympathy one day, and then the next will not have any sympathy to help anyone. Furthermore, inclinations direct their energies towards the effects of a proposed action. In contrast, the motive of duty is supervised by the categorical imperative. This imperative serves as decision procedure that determines whether a proposed maxim could be willed as universal law. Kant maintains inclinations are not guided by reason because reason demands motives that necessarily have respect for universal law. According to Kant the will that is motivated by the motive of duty, motivated by respect for universal law, is a good will.

A person who is acting from inclination is not rendering their action through the good will, but is rendering action through the will from a contingent motive (e.g. natural sympathy, cooperation, modesty). On the other hand a person acting from the motive of duty is rendering their actions through the good will. Hence a person motivated by inclination or duty renders action via the will with different foci. A person whose will is motivated by inclination focuses on the effects of action. A person whose will is motivated by duty, a person with a good will, does not focus on the ends attained by an action, but is governed by universal moral laws; in other words a persons good will acts necessarily from respect for law.

By recognizing that people who act from the motive of duty are guided by moral laws Kant claims that the only actions that have genuine moral worth are those actions done from duty. Inclinations are not bound by the authority of reason, and seem to come and go within individuals especially in times of hardship. Therefore Kant concludes actions necessarily derive their worth from an absolute and universally binding moral authority because intuitively – Kant believes we would agree with him - we do not want to grant moral worth to actions that may have been in accord with duty, but were motivated from inclination, happened by chance, or happened by some unforeseen cause. Since the good will follows the unconditional and absolute moral authority of reason it attains its unconditional value from the fact that it acts from respect for law. Only those actions that are done from duty are bound by the moral authority that is reason, and are the actions rendered by the good will. Thus the supervision of duty by reason ensures that the good will is only motivated from duty and will render only those actions that are required by the moral laws sanctioned with categorical imperative, which allows the unconditional value of the good will to confer genuine moral worth to such actions.

Although Kant’s theory does capture our intuitions on the universal applicability and intrinsic moral value we intuitively grasp in precepts like “Thou shall not lie”, we must ask ourselves in following Kant’s impartiality has Kant missed a facet of life deserving of moral worth that every moral theory must address? After considering Kant’s view would it even be possible to meet our duty to happiness? Let alone lead satisfying moral lives with a total self-reliance on reason and under such duress. If Kant has his way then we will have to settle with the earnest demands of reason. I know I’m unsatisfied with the lack of zeal for life and impersonal character that Kant’s theory implies. If Kant has missed something, then what do we look for, where do we look, and how do we justify that what we have found deserves moral worth.

Kant’s mistake of identifying the moral worth of an action with its being done from duty most vividly reveals itself when examining the role of virtue in our moral lives. Last year I had an appendectomy. At that time I was dating a girl Lindsey that came to visit me. She brought me all sorts of goodies: food, reading material, boxers, conversation, good jokes, and all sorts of other things. Her visit really lifted my spirits. After a few visits I began to experience that hazy-butterfly feeling that I sometimes get when I start falling for someone. She showed a side of her that I had never seen before, a compassionate side that had no other motive than concern for my well-being for my sake.

By examining my private life we see there is a powerful sentiment in Lindsey’s compassion for me; a sentiment that, intuitively, deserves consideration for moral worth. Why? Personally, if Lindsey had shown up simply from duty, or duty was even a motivation factor, I would have preferred her not to show up at all. Nobody would want someone to come to a hospital to lift their spirits from duty because duty’s impartial nature makes it cold and impersonal. I think there is a powerful sensibility that nearly everyone shares about situations like these, and that is “do not do such-and-such just because you feel that you have to.”

What is behind the virtue of compassion that merits moral worthiness? There is a very natural and distinct motivation/authority. This motivation is in tension with Kant’s assignment of reason to the role of moral authority, which sanctions the basis for assigning moral worth. People want, need, and value compassion, loyalty, and love in their personal relationships. It is essential to the very idea of compassion, and the other virtues just mentioned, that when acting out of compassion that one is acting for the sake of another. On the other hand duty is determined from an impartial perspective with no regard to an individual. In situations like my hospital stay it is obvious that one needs something like compassion or love. And these virtues are apart of larger social relationships such as friendship and family that everyone needs for a life that would be worth living. Furthermore, nobody would want the compassion or love of someone who thought that their affections were a duty to them. And nobody would want to be that kind of person and would think that that kind of love was part of a life worth living. The universal need of such virtues as love and compassion is what confers moral worth onto actions that are done for such motives.

Kant’s equivalence between moral worth and duty is further weakened because if we accept my argument for the moral worthiness of actions done from virtue, then Kant’s own universalization test would result in a contradiction in will. In which case the test does not allow a world in which everyone only morally values actions done from duty because those individuals would be incapable of meeting their duty to happiness. What is meant by happiness in this context is roughly a life worth living. The test runs as follows:

MAXIM: A rational agent will only morally value an action done from duty.
UNIVERSAL: Everyone will only morally value actions done from duty.
QUESTION: Could I will this?
  1. All morally worthy actions are done from duty.
  2. Rational agents only morally value actions done from
  3. If a rational agent only morally valued actions done from duty
    then that rational agent could not lead a life worth living. That is
    meet their duty to happiness that involves love and compassion.
  4. Therefore, one cannot will a world in which rational
    agents only morally value actions done from duty.
The argument offered here I think gets at what is missing from Kant’s theory. And strongly suggests that Kant’s moral theory inadequately, if at all, captures the moral worth that we do and can give to actions done from virtue; and also coldly and impersonally subordinates, to reason, “the better angels of our nature."