What does Kant mean when he says that an action has moral worth only if it is done 'from the motive of duty'? Is he right?
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What does Kant mean when he says that an action has moral worth only if it is done 'from the motive of duty'? Is he right? A person's actions are right or wrong, a person is morally worthy or lacks moral worth (i.e., is morally base). A person's actions determine her moral worth, but there is more to this than merely seeing if the actions are right or wrong. All the things we do can be divided into those things which are voluntary actions, and those that are mere behaviour (e.g., knee jerk reflexes). Of course there is no moral worth based on mere behaviours. All voluntary actions can be divided into those that are contrary to duty and those which are not contrary to duty. Kant claims that this distinction is based on the categorical imperative. Clearly, no moral worth is attained by doing actions that are contrary to duty. All those action that are not contrary to duty can be divided again into those action which are required by duty and those actions which are not required by duty. Actions that are required by duty are things like keeping promises, paying debts, and other things that we commonly consider to be our duties.
Kant would argue that based on these actions both drunks are equally bad, and the fact that one person got lucky does not make them any better than the other drunk. After all, they both made the same choices, and nothing within either one's control had anything to do with the difference in their actions. The same reasoning applies to people who act for the right reasons. If both people act for the right reasons, then both are morally worthy, even if the actions of one of them happen to lead to bad consequences by bad luck. There is a further intuitive appeal of this theory, it has the advantage that a person is totally in control of whether they are a good person. A person does not have to be in a position of power and be able to bring about good consequences in order to be a good person, all that they need to do is to act for the right reasons. This makes Kant's theory fairly egalitarian. It also explains how people with greatly differing moral opinions can still have respect for each other as people. It is not just selfishness that is ruled out by Kant's theory, but any motive at all other than morality.
There is also a tendency to think that Kant says it is always wrong to do something that just causes your own happiness, like buying an ice cream cone. This also I believe to be false. Kant thinks that you ought to do things to make yourself happy as long as you make sure that they are not immoral (i.e., contrary to duty), and that you would refrain from doing them if they were immoral. Getting ice cream is not immoral, and so you can go ahead and do it. Doing it will not make you a morally worthy person, but it won't make you a bad person either. Many actions that are permissible but not required by duty are neutral in this way. Therefore according to Kant a good person is someone who always does their duty because it is their duty. It is fine if they enjoy doing it, but it must be the case that they would do it even if they did not enjoy it. It seems to me that Kants argument is strong and that he is correct in the idea that moral worth only comes from the sense of duty. Alex O'Cinneide 27th March 2004 PH416
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