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such that an agent™s representing it as a law gives him suf¬cient incentive to
conform to it.
At any rate, Kant™s appealing to experience in his derivation of the For-
mula of Universal Law does not seem incompatible with all rational agents
having an empirically unconditioned motive at their disposal for abiding
by this formula. That we rely on our moral experience in pinpointing the
supreme principle of morality does not, for example, seem to entail that our
having at our disposal suf¬cient motive to comply with it is conditional on
our expectation that doing so will get us something we want.
The second sense in which, according to Kant, the supreme principle
of morality must be a priori is what I call the epistemological sense. Kant
states that a practical law, and thus the supreme principle of morality, must
be knowable a priori (see GMS 425“426 and KpV 26). In the Critique of
Pure Reason, Kant de¬nes a priori knowledge as “knowledge absolutely inde-
pendent of all experience” (KrV B 2“3). If we had a priori knowledge of a
practical principle, that is, knowledge that it was valid, this knowledge would
have to be “absolutely independent” of all experience in the following sense:
it would have to be grounded or legitimated without appeal to any particular
set of experiences.26
Why does Kant claim that a practical law must be knowable a priori?
According to him, a practical principle could be a practical law only if it
were unconditionally and universally valid, thus admitting of no possible
exception. But, in Kant™s view, if a principle can be justi¬ed only by appeal
to particular experiences, then it cannot be known that no exception to it is
possible.27 That experience has thus far shown that there is no exception to a
principle fails to entail that there will be none. To bring the point to the issue
at hand, that experience has thus far shown that a given principle generates
all the duties we take ourselves to have does not entail that the principle
will always generate all these duties. For it to be known that there can be no
exception to a principle, the principle™s validity must be grounded a priori.
Does this apriority requirement clash with Kant™s view that the deriva-
tion of the Formula of Universal Law requires an appeal to experience?
In section i.3 we discussed Kant™s distinction between the derivation of the
supreme principle of morality and its deduction. A successful derivation
would show that if there is a supreme principle of morality, then it is a certain
principle. A deduction would establish that this principle is universally and
The Formula of Universal Law 91

unconditionally binding. In Groundwork III Kant offers a deduction of the
Formula of Universal Law. (Strictly speaking, he offers a deduction of a prin-
ciple that resembles this formula and that he takes to be equivalent to it.
But this point is not important to the present discussion.)28 Obviously, in
Kant™s view for this deduction to succeed, it cannot be grounded in any ap-
peal to experience. But if the deduction depended on the success of Kant™s
derivation of the Formula of Universal Law, then it would, at least partly, be
grounded in such an appeal. For, as we noted, in Kant™s view the derivation
itself could succeed only if the principle it yielded cohered with our moral
experience. Therefore, perhaps Kant™s considered view in the Groundwork
is the following: the Groundwork III deduction establishes the validity of the
Formula of Universal Law, and this deduction relies not at all on appeals to
particular experiences. That this formula is universally and unconditionally
binding can be demonstrated a priori. However, what cannot be demon-
strated a priori is that we are to think of this principle as the supreme
principle of morality. For whether we think of it as such depends on the
principle™s ful¬lling an empirical criterion. The principle must be such that
(if valid) it would generate a set of duties that would cohere largely with
the set we, upon re¬‚ection, take ourselves to have. In short, I am suggesting
that on Kant™s considered view, the deduction of the Formula of Universal
Law does not presuppose the success of its derivation.
Of course, I would need to do much more, including a close reading
of the deduction, to defend this suggestion. Since my main concern here
is the derivation, I hope I will be permitted to stop at suggesting a way in
which to accommodate Kant™s appeal to experience in the derivation with
his apriority condition for a deduction.
In any case, we need to keep in view that not only in the derivation of
the Formula of Universal Law, but in that of the Formula of Humanity as
well, Kant suggests that unless a principle generates moral prescriptions that
accord with those we take ourselves to be bound by, we cannot accept this
principle as the only viable candidate for the supreme principle of morality.


4.11 Rejecting the Traditional Interpretation
of the Groundwork II Derivation
The traditional interpretation of the Groundwork II derivation has Kant move
directly from the notion that, if there is a supreme principle of morality, we
ought to conform to universal law, to the further notion that, if there is such a
principle, it is the Formula of Universal Law. But Kant does not move directly
from the former notion to the latter. At the very least, he makes his transition
conditional on the Formula of Universal Law™s ability to ful¬ll the criterion
we have discussed, namely that of generating a plausible set of duties.
There are other grounds for rejecting the traditional interpretation.
Granted, if we focus exclusively on the paragraph that spans from GMS 420
Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality
92

to 421, we, indeed, get the impression that Kant jumps without argument
from the concept of a categorical imperative simply as an unconditionally
and universally binding requirement (a practical law) to the Formula of
Universal Law as the only principle that could realize this concept. And
such a jump would indeed be problematic, since the concept of such a re-
quirement could be realized in many principles, not just the Formula of
Universal Law. Misleading though Kant™s presentation might be, however,
we need not interpret him to be operating here with such a thin concept of
a categorical imperative.
Just a few pages before he makes the argument in question, Kant distin-
guishes between hypothetical and categorical imperatives. Regarding the
latter he writes:

Finally there is one imperative that, without being based upon and having as its
condition any other purpose to be attained by certain conduct, commands this
conduct immediately. This imperative is categorical. It has to do not with the matter
of the action and what is to result from it, but with the form and the principle from
which the action itself follows; and the essentially good in the action consists in the
disposition, let the result be what it may. This imperative may be called the imperative
of morality. (GMS 416)

In this passage, Kant is obviously explaining his concept of a categorical
imperative (as the imperative of morality). And this concept is thicker than
that of an unconditionally and universally binding principle. Kant here sug-
gests that a categorical imperative (in the relevant sense) must ful¬ll each of
the criteria for the supreme principle of morality we discovered in our dis-
cussion of Groundwork I. First, Kant writes about “the essentially good in the
action.” In which action? Given his discussion in Groundwork I, he must be re-
ferring to the essential goodness of action from duty. So, Kant here implies,
a categorical imperative (as the imperative of morality) must be such that
conforming to it because the imperative requires it has moral value. Second,
Kant maintains that a categorical imperative in the relevant sense must be
such that when conforming to it has value “ that is, when such conformity is
from duty “ this value stems from the principle on which one acts, “let the
result be what it may.” Third, Kant here hints at his distinction between ma-
terial and formal principles. It seems plausible to construe his rather vague
statement that a categorical imperative “has to do” not with the matter of
an action but with its form to be an expression of his view that a categorical
imperative must not have any material condition. It must rather be such that
an agent™s representing it to himself as a law provides him with suf¬cient
incentive for conforming to it. In short, the passage supports what is actu-
ally an unsurprising conclusion: Kant™s concept of a categorical imperative
(as the imperative of morality) echoes his concept of the supreme principle
of morality in Groundwork I “ not merely his basic concept, but the thicker
one he develops in his discussion of the three propositions. Although at
The Formula of Universal Law 93

GMS 420“421 Kant does not say so explicitly, it seems reasonable to assume
that he has this thicker concept in view.
If this is correct, then despite appearances we need not interpret Kant
to jump from the thin concept of a categorical imperative as an uncondi-
tionally and universally binding principle (a practical law) to the Formula
of Universal Law. We may read Kant™s argument at GMS 420“421 to be el-
liptical. Kant moves from a thick concept of a categorical imperative to the
notion that this concept could be actualized only in the Formula of Univer-
sal Law (or equivalent principles). In defense of this move, Kant suggests
the argument that no other principle could meet each of the criteria he
has established for the supreme principle of morality. (Much of the remain-
der of this book focuses on understanding and evaluating this argument.)
Since the Groundwork II derivation of the Formula of Universal Law admits
of a criterial reading, it does not cast doubt on the criterial reading of the
Groundwork I derivation of this formula. It is at least worth a try to see if
on the criterial reading Kant™s derivation is more philosophically power-
ful and engaging than it is on a reading according to which it contains a
devastating gap.
Even for a reader who remains convinced that the traditional interpre-
tation accurately re¬‚ects Kant™s intentions in the Groundwork derivation of
the Formula of Universal Law, all is not lost. It is open to such a reader
to take the criterial reading of the derivation as a reconstruction of Kant™s
argument. Whether or not the reader agrees that Kant employs his criteria
for the supreme principle of morality in his derivations of it, it is clear that
he does indeed embrace and, in some cases, defend the criteria themselves.
The criterial reconstruction (if that is how one sees it) of Kant™s derivation
uses materials that Kant himself provides.


4.12 Summary
We have covered a lot of ground in this chapter, so it might be helpful
to pause here to get our bearings. I have introduced a criterial reading of
Kant™s Groundwork I derivation of the Formula of Universal Law. On this
reading, the derivation has three main steps. First, Kant sets out criteria
that any viable candidate for the supreme principle of morality must ful¬ll.
These criteria include, but are not limited to, those which belong to his
basic concept of this principle. Second, Kant tries to show that no (possi-
ble) rival to the Formula of Universal Law remains a viable candidate for
ful¬lling all of the criteria. Finally, Kant attempts to demonstrate that the
Formula of Universal Law does remain a viable candidate for ful¬lling all of
them. Therefore, if there is a supreme principle of morality, then it is this
formula.
In this chapter, I hope to have accomplished two main goals. The ¬rst
was to show that there is room for a new approach to Kant™s Groundwork
Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality
94

derivation of the Formula of Universal Law. Korsgaard™s interpretation has
serious textual and philosophical shortcomings (section 4.2), and one ver-
sion of the traditional reading clearly fails (4.4). The other version of the
traditional reading, that defended by Bruce Aune, presents greater dif¬cul-
ties. However, I have, I hope, shown that the text of Kant™s derivations in both
Groundwork I and II permit the criterial reading. Whether this reading ulti-
mately prevails is largely a question of whether it renders Kant™s derivation
more philosophically powerful and interesting than does Aune™s construal.
To see whether it does, we need to probe the plausibility both of the crite-
ria Kant offers for the supreme principle of morality, and of his argument
that, upon re¬‚ection, no principle besides the Formula of Universal Law
(or something equivalent) remains as a viable candidate for meeting all of
them. The chapters that follow do just that.
The second main goal of this chapter has been to sketch a preliminary ac-
count of the derivation™s ¬rst step. I have located in Kant™s text several criteria
for the supreme principle of morality in addition to those belonging to his
basic concept of it. It will be helpful to have them in view. The supreme
principle of morality must be such that: (1) all and only actions conform-
ing 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 conform-
ing to this principle from duty stems from its motive, not from its effects;
(3) an agent™s representing this principle as a law, that is, a universally and
unconditionally binding principle, gives him suf¬cient incentive to conform
to it; (4) a plausible set of duties (relative to ordinary rational knowledge of
morals) can be derived from this principle. At this point, the criteria might
seem somewhat vague, unmotivated, and disjointed. Chapter 5 attempts to
show in detail what these criteria mean, how Kant defends them, and how
they relate to one another. Chapter 6 probes whether (or to what extent)
we should accept criterion 1. This criterion is obviously controversial. It is
also crucial to Kant™s derivation. As I hope becomes apparent in Chapter 7,
this criterion (or, more precisely, one component of it) serves as the ultimate
basis for a strong Kantian argument against many consequentialist candi-
dates for the supreme principle of morality.
5

Criteria for the Supreme Principle of Morality




5.1 Plan of Discussion: Focus on First Criterion
If the argument of Chapter 4 has been successful, then it is apparent that
in the Groundwork, from the Preface all the way up to the statement of
the Formula of Universal Law in Section II, Kant develops criteria that the
supreme principle of morality must ful¬ll. According to his basic concept,
already implicit in the Preface, this principle must be practical, absolutely
necessary, binding on all rational agents, and serve as the supreme norm
for the moral evaluation of action (section I.2). Later in the Groundwork
Kant develops four additional criteria (Chapter 4). 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, that is, a universally and
unconditionally binding principle, gives him suf¬cient incentive to conform
to it; (4) a plausible set of duties (relative to ordinary rational knowledge of
morals) can be derived from this principle.
Until Chapter 8, I have little more to say about the fourth criterion. Kant
appeals to ordinary rational knowledge of morals in developing criteria 1“3.
I suspect that part of the reason he introduces criterion 4 is because he makes
this appeal. He recognizes that it would be intolerably odd to base criteria
for the supreme principle of morality on ordinary moral consciousness, yet
to champion a principle that clashed dramatically with this consciousness as
the only viable candidate for the supreme principle of morality. After all, if he
were prepared to dismiss completely the judgment of commonsense moral
reason regarding which moral duties we have, then what grounds would he
have to rely on it in developing criteria for the supreme principle of morality?
This chapter focuses on the ¬rst three criteria for the supreme principle
of morality that Kant develops in addition to those contained in his basic

95
Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality
96

concept of this principle. How, precisely, are we to understand these cri-
teria, and what are Kant™s arguments for them? The bulk of the chapter
(sections 5.2“5) explores what is perhaps Kant™s most controversial crite-
rion, namely the ¬rst, while sections 5.6“7 investigate the second and third
criteria respectively.1 At several points in the chapter, I comment on the
relations that obtain between the criteria.


5.2 Moral Worth and Actions Contrary to Duty
According to what is perhaps Kant™s most important and controversial cri-
terion, the supreme principle of morality must be such that all and only
actions conforming to it because the principle requires it (i.e., all and only
actions done from duty) have moral worth.
The ¬rst thing to note about the criterion is that, according to it, no
action that fails to conform to the supreme principle of morality can have
moral worth.2 That this is indeed Kant™s view in the Groundwork is not hard
to see. Kant, of course, distinguishes between actions that are in accordance
with duty [p¬‚ichtm¨ ßig] and actions that are done from duty [aus P¬‚icht].
a
To perform an action that is in accordance with duty, that is, a morally
permissible action, is to do something that violates no duty. For example,
we presumably have a duty to deal honestly in ¬nancial transactions. Fol-
lowing Kant™s discussion in Groundwork I, consider a shopkeeper who re-
frains from overcharging inexperienced customers. Whether he does so
because he fears that his overcharging them might come to light and ruin
his business or because it is required by moral principle not to overcharge
them, he is acting in accordance with duty (GMS 397). Only in the latter
case, however, is he acting from duty. Not all actions that are in accordance
with duty (i.e., morally permissible) are from duty. In Groundwork II, Kant
elaborates on his notion of what it means to act in accordance with duty.
There it becomes clear that, in his view, whether an action complies with
duty depends on its maxim. An agent™s action complies with duty if and
only if the maxim on which he does it accords with the Formula of Uni-
versal Law. In other words, the agent™s action is in accordance with duty
if and only if he can act on its maxim and at the same time will that it
should become a universal law. A maxim such as “From self-love, I will give
correct change to all of my customers in order to promote my business”
accords with the Formula of Universal Law. Nevertheless, in acting on it
an agent would not be acting from duty. According to Kant, not all actions
done on maxims that pass the Formula of Universal Law test are done from
duty.
On Kant™s account, however, all actions done from duty are also done on
maxims that pass this test; all actions done from duty are also in accordance
with it. In his famous exploration of cases in Groundwork I, Kant is attempting
Criteria for the Supreme Principle of Morality 97

to elucidate the concept of a good will. With the help of the concept of duty,
he is trying to clarify when we, imperfectly rational beings, perform actions
that have intrinsic value “ that is, actions that express good will. Ultimately,
Kant aims to pinpoint the principle of a good will: the supreme principle
of morality (section 4.3). At the beginning of his discussion, Kant tells us:
“I here pass over all actions that are already recognized as contrary to duty,
even though they may be useful for this or that purpose; for in their case
the question whether they might have been done from duty never arises,
since they even con¬‚ict with duty” (GMS 397). Why on Kant™s view does
the question never arise as to whether actions that con¬‚ict with duty can be
done from duty? Kant offers no explicit explanation of this remark. Perhaps,
according to him, it simply belongs to the concept of an action done from
duty that it be done in accordance with it. It may be that Kant has chosen
from the outset of the Groundwork to use the expression “from duty” to refer
only to actions that one does because one believes they are right and that
according to Kant™s standard are indeed right.
There is, however, another interpretation of Kant™s claim that the ques-
tion never arises as to whether actions that con¬‚ict with duty can be done
from duty. This interpretation seems to me to be more compelling because it
reveals how remarks Kant makes elsewhere in the Groundwork might explain
the claim. Consider Kant™s emphasis in this work and elsewhere on how
easy it is to determine what our duties are. Kant intimates that “cognizance
of what every man is obligated to do” is available to each of us, “even the
most ordinary” (GMS 404), and that what the supreme principle of morality
commands “is plain of itself to everyone” (KpV 36). Perhaps, then, he rea-
sons thus. The ultimate ground of an action done from duty is the agent™s
notion that the action is morally required. But it is very simple to ¬gure out
whether doing something is morally required. Therefore, if someone does
something contrary to duty, he has obviously not been motivated by the no-
tion that doing it was morally required. In short, Kant might hold an agent™s
duties to be so transparent to her that she just could not both be motivated
by the notion that she is required to ful¬ll them yet violate them.3 On either
the interpretation that has Kant simply de¬ne actions from duty as in accor-
dance with it, or the one (which I advocate) that highlights Kant™s notion
of the great ease with which one can determine her duties, Kant holds that
no actions from duty are contrary to it.
One might, however, offer a very different reading of the passage at GMS
397. Kant asserts that the question does not arise at all as to whether actions
already recognized as contrary to duty can be done from duty. In agreement
with other interpreters, I take “already recognized” to mean already recog-
nized by the reader “ that is, by “objective” observers “ to be contrary to
duty.4 But one might construe “already recognized” as contrary to duty to
mean: believed by the agent himself to be contrary to it. On this construal,
Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality
98

Kant would not be implying that no action that con¬‚icts with duty can be
from duty. Rather, he would be intimating that if an agent believes an action
to be contrary to duty, she cannot do it from duty.5 Kant would be leaving
open the possibility that an agent could, from duty, do something she took
to agree with duty, but which actually con¬‚icted with it.
The text fails to support this construal. Perhaps Kant does hold that if an
agent believes an action to be contrary to duty, she cannot do it from duty.6
Nevertheless, the evidence in the Groundwork indicates that Kant also em-
braced the notion that all actions done from duty are actually in accordance
with it. As we noted, in examining cases Kant is elucidating the concept of a
good will. He is trying to pinpoint when our actions are morally good “ that
is, when they have intrinsic, moral worth, which is the kind of worth charac-
teristic of a good will. He makes the well-known suggestion that they have
moral worth if and only if we do them from duty. Moreover, in the Preface to
the Groundwork, Kant remarks: “[I]n the case of what is to be morally good,
it is not enough that it conform with the moral law but it must also be done
for the sake of the law” (GMS 390). In other words, for an action to have moral
worth (be morally good), it must both be done from duty (for the sake of
the law) and be in accordance with duty (conform with the moral law). Here
Kant implies that if an action has moral worth, it is in accordance with duty.
Since for Kant all actions done from duty have moral worth, it follows that
all actions from duty are in accordance with it.7
As I have suggested, I suspect that in the Groundwork Kant has a simple
reason for holding actions that are from duty (and thus have moral worth)
to include only those that are in accordance with duty. On the view he there
maintains, what duty requires is so transparent that any agent who genuinely
acts from the notion that doing something is morally required will succeed in
abiding by his duty. The Kant of the Groundwork did not, I venture, overlook
the possibility of acting from duty yet contrary to it; rather, based on his
conviction that it is very simple to determine what one™s duty is, he rejected
this possibility as practically irrelevant.
We have gone some way toward understanding Kant™s criterion for the
supreme principle of morality. We have seen why for Kant only actions that
conform to duty can be done from duty, and we can thus comprehend why,
in Kant™s view, we cannot hold a principle to be the supreme principle of
morality unless we can maintain that no actions that fail to conform to it
can have moral worth.


5.3 Two Conditions on Acting from Duty
But we need to inquire further. The supreme principle of morality, says the
criterion, must be such that all and only actions conforming to it because the
principle requires it (i.e., all and only actions from duty) have moral worth.
To clarify the criterion, we need to understand when an agent conforms
Criteria for the Supreme Principle of Morality 99

to a principle from duty. An agent does so, I suggest, only if each of two
conditions is met.
According to the ¬rst condition, the agent™s incentive for acting must
stem from the notion that the principle is universally and unconditionally
binding and that it requires the action. In actions from duty, asserts Kant,
an agent™s will is determined by the “representation of the law in itself,” not by
any of the action™s “hoped-for effects” (GMS 401); and, he says, “an action
from duty is to put aside entirely the in¬‚uence of inclination” (GMS 400).8
Brief discussion of the latter statement will help shed light on the former,
enabling us to see that Kant embraces this ¬rst condition.
That for Kant inclination has no in¬‚uence in an action done from duty
strongly suggests that in his view only morally required actions can be done
from duty.9 For how in performing a morally permissible but not required
action could one put aside entirely the in¬‚uence of inclination?10 As an
example of such an action, imagine a typical case of someone™s cutting his
hair. No matter how morally re¬‚ective or concerned the person may be,
in cutting his hair he would not be putting aside entirely the in¬‚uence
of inclination. There would be other morally permissible yet not required
things he could do, for example, watch television or wash dishes. Moral

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