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if it is determined by this principle. By “the will” here I take Kant to be
referring to an instance of willing. But when is willing unconditionally good?
Kant answers this question as it applies to the willing of rational agents like
humans who, unlike other (possibly extant) agents such as God and angels,
can be tempted by their inclinations to act immorally.18 Kant suggests that
willing is unconditionally good if and only if it is done from duty. All and
only actions from duty have moral worth, which is unconditional worth.19
This is widely taken to be Kant™s “¬rst proposition,” which he implies, but
does not state, in Groundwork I (GMS 397“399).20 Kant takes this point
to yield a further, related, one (GMS 399). Given that acting from duty is
unconditionally valuable, its value cannot stem from its producing certain
effects. For if it stemmed from this source, then there would be contexts in
which it was not valuable, namely those in which the action did not produce
these effects. Thus Kant intimates in his “second proposition” that the moral
worth of actions from duty stems not from their effects but rather from the
principle of volition on which they have been done (GMS 399“400).
But what kind of principle is such that acting on it has moral worth?
Kant™s “third proposition” is that: “Duty is the necessity of an action from respect
for law” (GMS 400). In his discussion of this proposition, Kant suggests that
an action has moral worth if and only if it is determined by the law (the
supreme principle of morality).21 Acting from duty involves conforming to
the supreme principle of morality because this principle requires that one
conform to it. In sum, Kant suggests that the supreme principle of moral-
ity must be such that willing is good without quali¬cation if and only if it
is determined by this principle. For us, willing (or, equivalently, acting) is
unconditionally valuable just in case it is done from duty. (Here Kant is
Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality
82

employing what I earlier called his “particular action” account of the good
will (section 3.7).) The value of action from duty does not lie in its effects but
rather in its grounds. When we act from duty, we act because the supreme
principle of morality (the law) requires it. In this sense, the supreme prin-
ciple of morality determines our action.
I claimed that in Kant™s view to meet the condition implicit at GMS 402,
a principle would have to meet at least two criteria. We can now see what
those criteria are. First, the supreme principle of morality must be such
that all and only actions conforming to it because the principle requires
it “ that is, all and only actions done “from duty” “ have moral worth. We
cannot (rationally speaking) hold a principle to be the supreme principle
of morality unless we can maintain that it ful¬lls this criterion. Second, the
supreme principle of morality must be such that the moral worth of actions
conforming to it “from duty” stems from the actions™ motive “ that is, the
principle on which they are performed “ rather than from their effects.
Kant suggests that the ¬rst criterion entails the second. If the moral worth
of actions done from duty stemmed from their effects, then, contrary to the
¬rst criterion, some actions done from duty would not have moral worth,
namely actions that failed to have a certain effect.
As it stands, these criteria are quite abstract. In Chapter 5, we probe
what they mean and how Kant defends them. It should now be appar-
ent, however, that we may plausibly interpret Kant to be developing cri-
teria for the supreme principle of morality in Groundwork I. The criterial
interpretation will meet the ¬rst requirement for success sketched earlier
if we can, in addition, show that Kant needs to appeal to these criteria to
eliminate rivals to the Formula of Universal Law. Chapter 7 focuses on this
task.


4.7 Law as Motive: A Third Criterion for the Supreme
Principle of Morality
For now, let us turn to the second requirement for success. What might
Kant mean when he says that “nothing is left but the conformity of actions
to universal law as such, which alone is to serve the will as its principle”?
Is there a plausible alternative to the notion that he is embracing L, the
imperative “Conform your actions to universal law”? I believe that there is.
However, in fairness to Aune, we should note that the obscurity of Kant™s
remarks here renders it very dif¬cult to arrive at a de¬nitive interpretation.
Kant writes:

But what kind of law can that be, the representation of which must determine the
will, even without regard for the effect expected from it, in order for the will to
be called good absolutely and without limitation? Since I have deprived the will of
every impulse that could arise for it from obeying some law, nothing is left but the
The Formula of Universal Law 83

conformity of actions to universal law as such, which alone is to serve the will as its
principle. (GMS 402)

In the ¬rst sentence, Kant implicitly invokes criteria, which he developed
earlier in Groundwork I, for our accepting a principle as the supreme prin-
ciple of morality. We stated two of these criteria in the preceding section. I
now suggest that in the second sentence, before introducing the Formula
of Universal Law, Kant implicitly invokes another criterion. This criterion
for the supreme principle of morality has to do with a motive that must be
available to us for conforming to it.
In the sentence immediately preceding the cited passage, Kant distin-
guishes between two basic ways we can be motivated to conform to a princi-
ple. Kant contrasts cases in which the representation of a principle in itself
constitutes the determining ground of the will from ones in which some ex-
pected effect constitutes this ground. Moreover, he suggests that only cases
of the former sort are cases of good willing. Thus he says “nothing other
than the representation of the law in itself . . . insofar as it and not the hoped-for
effect is the determining ground of the will, can constitute the preeminent
good we call moral, which is already present in the person himself who acts
on this representation” (GMS 401).
Returning to GMS 402, Kant is concerned with the kind of will that is
absolutely good. He speci¬es here that what determines absolutely good
willing is not the effects one expects to result from the willing. Kant has
“deprived the will of every impulse that could arise for it from obeying some
law” in the sense that, in his view, he has shown that absolutely good willing is
not at all motivated by some “impulse” (e.g., the sensation of pleasure) that
one believes will result from obeying some principle.22 It is rather motivated
by the representation of the law. What determines absolutely good willing
is the “conformity of actions to universal law as such.” In other words, the
motive for absolutely good willing is the notion that it conforms to a univer-
sally and unconditionally binding practical principle. This principle is, of
course, the supreme principle of morality. We can now see the criterion that
Kant is implicitly invoking in the second sentence. The supreme principle of
morality must be such that our representing it as a law, that is, a universally
and unconditionally binding principle, gives us a suf¬cient motive to con-
form to it. If this reading is on target, then Kant is not suggesting here that
we must embrace the imperative “Conform your actions to universal law,”
but rather invoking yet another criterion that he takes himself to have estab-
lished earlier in his discussion. Whatever the supreme principle of morality
is, implies this criterion, we must (rationally speaking) be able to hold that
our having suf¬cient motive to adhere to it does not depend on any effect
we expect from doing so.
The notion that Kant indeed takes this as a criterion gains support from
a distinction he makes between “material” and “formal” principles. Kant
Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality
84

introduces this distinction in his discussion of the “second proposition” in
Groundwork I:

For, the will stands between its a priori principle, which is formal, and its a posteriori
incentive, which is material, as at a crossroads; and since it must still be determined
by something, it must be determined by the formal principle of volition as such when
an action is done from duty, where every material principle has been withdrawn from
it.23 (GMS 400)

Kant holds that when an agent acts from duty, her will is determined by the
supreme principle of morality. Kant here says, moreover, that when an agent
acts from duty, her will is determined by a formal, rather than a material,
principle. So Kant is implying that the supreme principle of morality must
be a formal, rather than a material, principle. Kant does not discuss in this
passage precisely what a formal principle is. Yet he does suggest that, in one
sense, a formal principle is one that determines the will even though “every
material principle has been withdrawn.” What does this mean? In light of
Kant™s most thorough discussion of material practical principles, namely the
one he conducts in the second Critique, we will be able to see that it means
the following: a formal principle is a rule such that our representing it as a
law governing our actions gives us suf¬cient motive to conform to it.
Let us turn to the Analytic of the Critique of Practical Reason. In Theorem
I, Kant claims: “All practical principles that presuppose an object (matter) of
the capacity of desire as the determining ground of the will are, without ex-
ception, empirical and can furnish no practical laws” (KpV 21). No material
practical principle, says Theorem I, can be a practical law. Since the supreme
principle of morality would have to be a practical law, this theorem (if true)
entails that no material practical principle can be the supreme principle of
morality. According to Kant, a material practical principle presupposes an
object of the capacity of desire as the determining ground of the will. In
other words, a material practical principle is a rule that an agent has suf¬-
cient motive to adhere to only on condition that, in his view, doing so will
enable him to realize some object he desires (section 1.8). Take the rule:
“In order to visit Grant™s tomb, you ought to travel to New York.” To say that
it is a material practical principle is to say (in part) that an agent™s having
suf¬cient motive to act on it (i.e., to travel to New York) is contingent on his
belief that doing so will enable him to realize some object he desires (i.e.,
his visiting Grant™s tomb).24
Now, obviously, for Kant formal principles are not material. Whatever else
it might be, a formal principle is a rule such that an agent™s having suf¬cient
motive to adhere to it does not depend on his expecting that doing so will
enable him to realize some object he desires. Nevertheless, according to
Kant if a principle is a formal one, an agent does have suf¬cient motive to
adhere to it. What is this motive? Later, under Theorem III, Kant states that
“all that remains of a law if one separates from it everything material, that is,
The Formula of Universal Law 85

every object of the will (as its determining ground), is the mere form of giving
universal law” (KpV 27; see also KpV 24). Since a formal principle counts as
one from which “every object of the will (as its determining ground)” has
been separated, this statement suggests that what serves as a determining
ground for abiding by such a principle is “the mere form of giving universal
law.” In other words, what serves as a motive for abiding by a formal principle
is the representation of it as a law. So, in one sense, a formal principle is a
practical rule such that our representing it as a law gives us suf¬cient motive
to conform to it. (I have not tried to give an exhaustive account of Kant™s
distinction between formal and material principles, but to pinpoint one way
in which Kant draws such a distinction.)25
In sum, no material principle, Kant claims, can be the supreme principle
of morality. The supreme principle would have to ful¬ll a criterion of for-
mality; it would have to be such that an agent™s representing it as a law “ that
is, a universally and unconditionally binding principle “ gives him suf¬cient
motive to conform to it. Kant offers this criterion in the Groundwork and
develops it at greater length in the second Critique.
We could not show the criterial reading of Groundwork I to be superior
to Aune™s reading unless we could plausibly interpret Kant™s assertion that
“nothing is left but the conformity of actions to universal law as such, which
alone is to serve the will as its principle” in some way other than as an
endorsement of the imperative “Conform your actions to universal law.” We
have found that there is another plausible interpretation of this assertion,
namely that it amounts to a statement of one criterion that in Kant™s view
the supreme principle of morality must meet: this principle must be such
that our representing it to ourselves as a law governing our action gives us a
suf¬cient motive for us to conform to it.
On Aune™s reading, Kant sees his discussion of the good will, duty, and
moral worth as necessary for him to establish the imperative “Conform
your actions to universal law.” After establishing this imperative, Kant thinks
(wrongly) that he can move immediately to the Formula of Universal Law.
There is an obvious gap in Kant™s reasoning. On the criterial reading, in
contrast, Kant sees his discussion of the good will, duty, and moral worth as
necessary for him to establish criteria for the supreme principle of moral-
ity. The supreme principle of morality must be such that: (1) all and only
actions conforming to this principle because the principle requires it “ that
is, all and only actions done from duty “ have moral worth; (2) the moral
worth of conforming to this principle from duty stems from its motive, not
from its effects; (3) an agent™s representing this principle as a law (i.e., a
universally and unconditionally binding principle) gives him suf¬cient mo-
tive to conform to it. Kant crystallizes these criteria at GMS 402, right before
he sets out the Formula of Universal Law. In effect, Kant holds that only
this formula (and equivalent ones) remain as viable candidates for ful¬lling
each of the criteria he develops for the supreme principle of morality. (The
Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality
86

criteria Kant develops are, I believe, the three just mentioned, those implicit
in his basic concept of the supreme principle of morality, and one other I
discuss later, in section 4.9.) If Kant™s argument fails, it is not because it
contains an obvious gap between a practically uninformative principle and
the supreme principle of morality.
We have already gone half of the way toward showing the criterial reading
to be superior to Aune™s version of the traditional reading. We have seen
that there is a plausible alternative to Aune™s reading of Kant™s claim that
“nothing is left but the conformity of actions . . . ” We have seen that Kant
holds his discussions of the good will, duty, and moral worth to be necessary
for the development of criteria for the supreme principle of morality. All
we need to do to show that he could reasonably hold these discussions to
be necessary for the derivation is to establish how he might use the criteria
to eliminate various candidates for this principle. Chapter 7 focuses on
eliminating these rivals as well as showing that the criterial interpretation
makes Kant™s argument far more forceful and philosophically interesting
than it is on the traditional interpretation.


4.8 The Criterial Reading and Groundwork II
Before developing the criterial reading any further, however, I must attend
to a worry that readers might have. This reading has been presented as an
alternative to the traditional interpretation of the Groundwork derivation of
the Formula of Universal Law. The main proponent of the traditional inter-
pretation, Aune, bases his contention that this derivation contains a crucial
gap on examination of Groundwork I. The criterial reading also focuses on
Groundwork I. To be successful the reading must be consistent with what Kant
actually says in the sentences preceding his ¬rst statement of the Formula
of Universal Law. Yet when I initially sketched the traditional reading of
the Groundwork derivation of the Formula of Universal Law, I cited not only
Kant™s argument in Groundwork I (culminating at GMS 402) but also a par-
allel argument in Groundwork II (culminating at GMS 420“421). The worry
is that, although the criterial reading might constitute a viable alternative
to the traditional one in light of Groundwork I alone, when we take into con-
sideration Groundwork II as well we ¬nd that only the traditional reading is
permitted by the text. In Groundwork II, Kant says that he is going to “inquire
whether the mere concept of a categorical imperative” can provide him with
a principle that is alone suited to be a categorical imperative (GMS 420).
He then says:

When I think of a hypothetical imperative in general I do not know beforehand what
it will contain; I do not know this until I am given the condition. But when I think
of a categorical imperative, I know at once what it contains. For since the imperative
contains, beyond the law, only the necessity that the maxim be in conformity with
The Formula of Universal Law 87

this law, while the law contains no condition to which it would be limited, nothing is
left with which the maxim of action is to conform but the universality of a law as such;
and this conformity alone is what the imperative properly represents as necessary.
There is, therefore, only a single categorical imperative and it is this: act only on
that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law. (GMS
420“421)

It appears that Kant might be making just that unacceptable move that
Aune claims he makes in Groundwork I. Does Kant not here jump without
argument from the notion that the fundamental moral requirement is to
conform your actions to universal law to the conclusion that the only way to
adhere to this requirement is to conform to the Formula of Universal Law?
Does Kant not here take an illicit step from the notion that, by virtue of its
very concept, a categorical imperative commands conformity to law to the
further notion that it commands that you act only on maxims that you can
at the same time will to become universal laws?
This worry is reasonable, and I have no quick and easy response to it.
However, several considerations show at least that the worry is not as serious
as it might initially seem to be.


4.9 Coherence with Ordinary Moral Reason: A Fourth Criterion
To begin, Kant does not take the derivation of the Formula of Universal Law
to end with his setting out of the formula. The text continues: “Now, if all
imperatives of duty can be derived from this single imperative as from their
principle, then, even though we leave it undecided whether what is called
duty is not as such an empty concept, we shall at least be able to show what we
think by it and what the concept wants to say” (GMS 420“421). The deriva-
tion is not complete unless “all imperatives of duty” can be derived from
the imperative Kant proposes as the only viable candidate for the supreme
principle of morality. By “all imperatives of duty,” Kant apparently means all
imperatives that we, re¬‚ective rational agents, take to express our moral du-
ties. Kant proceeds, of course, to try to show that four such imperatives (e.g.,
a requirement not to make false promises for ¬nancial gain) follow from the
Formula of Universal Law. He then says: “These are a few of the many actual
duties, or at least of what we take to be such, whose derivation from the one prin-
ciple cited above is clear” (GMS 423“424, emphasis added). If these duties™
derivation from the Formula of Universal Law were not clear “ for example,
if it simply did not follow from the formula that we had them “ then, Kant
implies, we could not accept this formula as the only viable candidate for
the supreme principle of morality. In the short paragraph (GMS 420“421)
following his statement of the Formula of Universal Law, Kant not only em-
phasizes that he has not (yet) established (i.e., given a deduction for) this
formula but also indicates an important criterion for any viable candidate for
Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality
88

the supreme principle of morality. We must be able to see how it follows from
this candidate that if it were established, we would indeed have moral duties
that we are convinced we do have. So, despite initial appearances, Kant is
not guilty of moving immediately, without argument, from the notion that
the fundamental moral requirement is to conform your actions to universal
law to the conclusion that the only way to adhere to this requirement is to
conform to the Formula of Universal Law. His transition is, at the very least,
mediated by consideration of whether the Formula of Universal Law could
generate duties that conform to what we take our moral duties to be.
This sort of consideration is found not only in Kant™s Groundwork II deriva-
tion of the Formula of Universal Law but elsewhere as well. Consider Kant™s
derivation of the Formula of Humanity. Before stating the formula, he says
that “it must be possible to derive all laws of the will” (GMS 429) from the
“supreme practical principle” (GMS 428). After stating the formula, he says:
“we shall see whether this can be carried out” (GMS 429), implying that if
the Formula of Humanity is to be a viable candidate for the supreme princi-
ple of morality, we had better see that we can derive all laws of the will from
it. Granted, in Groundwork I Kant does not explicitly make it a condition of
success of his derivation of the Formula of Universal Law that this principle
generate moral prescriptions we take ourselves to be bound by. Immediately
after setting out the principle, however, Kant turns to supporting the view
that common human reason “agrees completely with this in its practical
appraisals” (GMS 402). And it is only after Kant supports this view that he
claims that “we have arrived, within the moral cognition of common human
reason, at its principle” (GMS 403). In light of the evidence we have seen in
the other derivations, it seems reasonable to conclude that here as well he
holds that for his argument to be successful, the principle he selects must (if
it is valid) generate moral requirements that cohere with those we pretheo-
retically believe ourselves to have. Therefore, I will take it that for Kant any
viable candidate for the supreme principle of morality must be such that,
if valid, it would generate a plausible set of duties, where plausibility is to
be assessed in relation to ordinary moral thinking. In brief, the supreme
principle of morality must be such that a plausible set of duties (relative to
ordinary moral consciousness) can be derived from it.
Those friendly to the idea that Kant embraces this criterion might wonder
why the criterion does not belong to Kant™s basic concept of the supreme
principle of morality. The term “basic concept” is mine, not Kant™s. In my
usage, Kant™s basic concept contains only those criteria that Kant employs
from the very outset of the Groundwork, namely its Preface (section I.2). I do
not ¬nd evidence in the Preface that Kant holds that any viable candidate
for the supreme principle of morality must generate moral prescriptions
acceptable to ordinary moral consciousness. The evidence emerges later,
in the places just highlighted. A philosopher might, however, insist that the
criterion is obviously implicit in the notion of a supreme principle of morality.
The Formula of Universal Law 89

If a practical principle generated duties that clashed dramatically with what
we take our moral duties to be, then there would be no sense in which it
could be a principle of morality,the philosopher might insist. In reply, I think
Kant himself suggests a sense in which such a principle could conceivably
be a principle of morality. It could conceivably be a categorical imperative,
the kind of imperative Kant himself associates with morality (see GMS 416).
The principle could set out unconditional practical requirements, that is,
specify (correctly) what all of us are obligated to do, regardless of whether
we have an inclination to do it (or even regardless of whether we believe that
we have a duty not to do it). In the end, what is important is not that we
agree on the precise point in his argument that Kant embraces the criterion
in question but rather that we realize that Kant does indeed embrace it.


4.10 The Apriority of the Supreme Principle of Morality
Before moving on to other reasons for rejecting the notion that, in light
of Groundwork II, the traditional interpretation of the derivation is the only
plausible one, we need to address an issued raised by the ¬rst reason. It
might seem puzzling that in Kant™s view a criterion any viable candidate
for the supreme principle of morality must ful¬ll is that of being capable of
generating duties that cohere with the moral duties we take ourselves to have.
Does not whether we conclude that a given principle meets this criterion
rest on experience, that is, our particular experience of morality, and does
not Kant insist that the supreme principle be an a priori one? Already in the
Groundwork Preface, Kant says that the ground of an obligation to conform
to the supreme principle of morality must be sought “a priori simply in
concepts of pure reason” and that any principle that “rests in the least part
on empirical grounds, perhaps only in terms of a motive, can indeed be
called a practical rule but never a moral law” (GMS 389).
To determine how much, if any, real tension exists in Kant™s view, we need
to understand two senses in which according to him the supreme principle
must be an a priori rather than an empirical principle. It must be a priori
in both (what I call) a motivational sense and an epistemological sense.
Beginning with the former, the supreme principle of morality must be
such that all rational agents always have available to them a suf¬cient motive
for abiding by it. (Whether they actually act on this motive or some other
one, such as an inclination, is another question.) But that means that their
having suf¬cient motive available to them to conform to the principle must
not depend on anything empirical “ that is, on their particular inclinations
or even on their nature, insofar as this nature is not necessarily shared with
all rational agents (KrV A 806“807/B 834“835). A principle is a priori in the
motivational sense just in case any rational agent™s having available to him a
suf¬cient motive for abiding by it is not conditional on anything empirical.
A principle would be empirical in case a rational agent™s having suf¬cient
Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality
90

motive to abide by it was, for example, conditional on his expectation that
abiding by it would give him pleasure (KpV 9, note). The requirement that
the supreme principle of morality be a priori in the motivational sense
entails that it cannot be a material principle. It will become apparent why,
precisely, Kant thinks the supreme principle of morality must be a priori
in the motivational sense in section 5.7 when we examine his arguments
for his third criterion for the supreme principle of morality (introduced in
section 4.7), namely the criterion according to which this principle must be

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