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conforming to duty. Nevertheless, the philanthropist™s actions would still
not have moral worth; for the grounds of his actions would fail to express
concern for their moral rightness, thereby running afoul of the second
condition.
In the Groundwork, Kant maintains that only actions from duty can have
moral worth, since only these actions meet each of the two conditions we
have discussed. However, there might be a third condition Kant places on
morally valuable actions. This condition is implicit in our discussion of a
Kantian ground for assigning special worth to acting from duty (section
5.4). Unlike in acting from inclination, Kant suggests, in acting from duty,
we are not using our reason as a tool for the satisfaction of needs foisted
upon us by nature. Kant intimates that the special worth of acting from duty
derives from such independence from natural desire. Perhaps Kant holds
that actions with moral worth must re¬‚ect this independence, that is, must
elevate the agent above striving to satisfy needs we share with other animals.
In Kant™s view, no action from inclination could meet this condition; for, as
we have seen, all of them are conditional on the agent™s expectation that
they will result in promoting the satisfaction of a natural need, namely that
for pleasure.
The past several sections (5.2“5) have been devoted to the ¬rst criterion
for the supreme principle of morality that Kant develops in Groundwork I:
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 have focused on clarifying
this criterion and illuminating Kant™s grounds for it. In sum, Kant asserts,
to take a principle as the supreme principle of morality, we must be able
to hold the following: an agent™s action has moral worth when and only
when the agent™s (correct) notion that an unconditionally and universally
binding principle requires the action is his (in itself suf¬cient) incentive
for performing it. In other words, an agent™s action has moral worth if and
only if it is done from duty. Although Kant seems to take as obvious that
all actions done from duty have moral worth, he offers arguments for the
view that only such actions have it. Among the arguments are the following.
Unless it is from duty, an action is done from a motive that may produce
actions contrary to duty, and no action from such a motive has moral worth.
Moreover, the maxims of actions not done from duty are devoid of moral
Criteria for the Supreme Principle of Morality 109

content. Since they do not re¬‚ect concern for moral rightness, acting on
them cannot have moral worth.


5.6 The Second Criterion and Its Grounds
We need now to turn to two other criteria that, I have argued, Kant advances
in Groundwork I. Clarifying these criteria and their grounds can be done
relatively quickly. This section and the next consider the second and third
criteria respectively.
According to criterion 2, the supreme principle of morality must be such
that the moral worth of any given instance of conforming to it from duty
stems from its motive, not from the effects actually produced by this instance.
We cannot af¬rm a principle to be the supreme principle of morality unless
we can hold that the moral worth of actions conforming to it from duty does
not stem from the actions™ results. That Kant embraces this criterion is clear.
In his “second proposition,” he says that the moral worth of an action done
from duty “does not depend upon the realization of the object of the ac-
tion but merely upon the principle of volition in accordance with which the
action is done” (GMS 399“400, emphasis omitted). Later in Groundwork I
Kant says that “the moral worth of an action does not lie in the effect ex-
pected from it” (GMS 401). The criterion relies on a distinction between an
action and its effects. For Kant, to act in the relevant sense is, strictly speak-
ing, to exercise one™s will (section 1.4). It is to try, based on some principle
(some maxim), to realize a state of affairs (an object or end). This state
of affairs (or whatever state of affairs actually results from the action) is an
effect of the willing. Acting consists in the willing itself, not in its effects.
According to the second criterion, it is not the results of acting from duty “
that is, willing to conform to the supreme principle of morality because the
principle requires it “ that gives it moral value.
Implicit in Groundwork I is a straightforward argument for this second
criterion. Suppose that, contrary to it, the moral worth of an action from
duty did stem from its effects. There would, then, be possible circumstances
in which an action from duty did not have moral worth, namely ones in
which the action failed to produce certain effects. For Kant, however, if an
action is done from duty, then it has moral worth, no matter what the cir-
cumstances may be. His ¬rst criterion incorporates this view. Moral worth is
“unconditional,” Kant suggests (GMS 400). Therefore, as the second crite-
rion indicates, the moral worth of an action from duty does not stem from
its effects. For example, suppose that an agent holds the supreme principle
of morality to be: “Always do what you believe will please God.” Moreover,
contrary to the second criterion, the agent maintains that the moral worth
of her conforming to this principle because the principle requires it “ that is,
the moral worth of her acting from duty “ stems from its effects. Whether her
action has moral worth, she thinks, depends on whether it actually pleases
Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality
110

God. There would then presumably be possible circumstances in which her
acting from duty would not actually please God. As a fallible being, she might
be mistaken as to what would please God. In these circumstances, the agent
would be compelled to maintain, her acting from duty would be devoid of
moral worth. But this acknowledgment would contradict Kant™s ¬rst crite-
rion, one of the constitutive claims of which is that a suf¬cient condition
for an action™s having moral worth is that it be done from duty. In short,
Kant defends the second criterion by appealing to the ¬rst. That the effects
of our actions can give them “no unconditional and moral worth,” he says,
“is clear from what has gone before” (GMS 400). What has gone before, of
course, is Kant™s discussion of the relations between acting from duty and
moral worth: a discussion that lays the basis for his ¬rst criterion.


5.7 The Third Criterion and Its Grounds
According to the third criterion, the supreme principle of morality must
be such that our representing it as a law provides us with suf¬cient motive
to adhere to it. If this criterion is correct, then we can (rationally speak-
ing) maintain a principle to be the supreme principle of morality only if
we can hold that our representing it as a law “ that is, a universally and
unconditionally binding principle “ gives us a suf¬cient motive to conform
to it.
It might seem that this criterion is entailed by criterion 1, according to
which the supreme principle of morality must be such that an action has
moral worth if and only if it conforms to the principle because this principle
requires it. After all, in probing the meaning of criterion 1 (section 5.3), we
found that, in Kant™s sense, an action conforms to a principle because the
principle requires it (the action is done from duty) only if the agent™s (in
itself suf¬cient) incentive for acting is the notion that the principle, repre-
sented by the agent as a law, requires the action. Strictly speaking, however,
we can imagine scenarios in which it would be possible for a principle to ful-
¬ll criterion 1 yet fail to ful¬ll criterion 3. For example, suppose that acting
from duty is impossible and that no action can have moral worth. Obviously,
on this supposition, no principle could ful¬ll 3. But all principles would ful-
¬ll 1. For criterion 1 just says that a viable candidate for the supreme principle
of morality must have the following characteristics. It must be such that if
there are actions that have moral worth, then they are done because the
principle requires them, and if there are actions done because the principle
requires them, then these actions have moral worth. Against the background
of our supposition, the antecedent of each conditional is necessarily false,
rendering each conditional trivially true. So no practical principle could
ful¬ll 3, but any such principle would, albeit trivially, ful¬ll 1. Actually, 1
does not entail 3.
Criteria for the Supreme Principle of Morality 111

As far as I can tell, Kant suggests two arguments for criterion 3. He hints
at one in his Groundwork discussion of the “second proposition” (GMS 399“
400). Kant ¬nds in ordinary moral thinking the view that conforming to the
supreme principle of morality can have unconditional worth. Against the
backdrop of this view, the argument unfolds as follows. Denying criterion 3
would, Kant seems to assume, amount to holding that the supreme principle
of morality must be such that each agent™s expectation of the effects of con-
forming to it necessarily constitutes (at least part of) the agent™s incentive
for conforming to it. Now suppose an agent denies 3 and takes a particular
principle to be a viable candidate for the supreme principle of morality.
She would then be committed to the view that the value of her conforming
to this principle necessarily derives (at least in part) from its effects. After
all, if, in her view, conforming to the principle were valuable in itself, then
she would not hold that she necessarily needs to look to its effects to ¬nd a
suf¬cient incentive to do so. But if the agent inextricably ties the value of
her conforming to a principle to its expected effects, then she is rationally
compelled to deny that her conforming to it can have unconditional worth.
She must hold that its having such worth would always depend on some
conditions being met, that is, on whether the expected effects actually oc-
cur. But, according to ordinary moral reason, conforming to the supreme
principle of morality can have unconditional worth. Therefore, the agent
must not deny criterion 3, but instead agree that we can hold a principle
to be the supreme principle of morality only if we can maintain that our
representing it as a law governing our actions gives us a suf¬cient incentive
to conform to it.29
Kant suggests another argument for criterion 3 in the second Critique
(KpV 21“22). According to him, to reject the criterion is to hold that the
supreme principle of morality could be a material practical principle. But,
Kant argues, no material practical principle could be a practical law (the
supreme principle of morality). The supreme principle of morality must,
he maintains, be absolutely necessary (section i.2). A human agent would
always be obligated to conform to the supreme principle, no matter what
he desired or took pleasure in.30 Moreover, Kant maintains that an agent™s
having an obligation to do something entails that he is able to do it: ought
implies can (e.g., KpV 159). Kant thus holds that the supreme principle
of morality must be such that each of us is necessarily able to conform to
it. But each of us is necessarily able to conform to a principle only if each
one necessarily has suf¬cient motive to conform to it. And, Kant asserts, no
material practical principle is such that each of us necessarily has suf¬cient
motive to conform to it. According to Kant™s account of such principles,
an agent will have suf¬cient motive to conform to a given one only if she
expects that doing so will enable her to realize some object she desires and
that realizing this object will give her pleasure (section 1.8). But there is
Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality
112

nothing to guarantee that she will expect these things from conforming to
a given material principle. Whether she will is a contingent “ Kant might say
“empirical” “ matter. Suppose, for example, that we (and the agent) inter-
preted the following as a material practical principle: “In order to perfect
yourself, you ought to develop your physical strength and ¬‚exibility.”31 The
agent™s having suf¬cient motive to develop the capacities in question would,
in part, depend on whether she expected doing so to have a hedonic payoff.
But instead of expecting this, she might think that she is strong and ¬‚exi-
ble enough and that more exercise would be a painful waste of time. The
agent would, then, have insuf¬cient motive to conform to the principle. She
would recognize from her own case that it did not meet the absolute neces-
sity requirement of the supreme principle of morality. In sum, Kant argues
that unless a principle meets the third criterion for the supreme principle of
morality, it cannot conform to his basic concept of this principle, speci¬cally
to the notion that the principle must be absolutely necessary.32


5.8 Relations between the Criteria
On my reading, Kant offers a set of criteria for the supreme principle of
morality. According to Kant™s basic concept, this principle must be practical,
absolutely necessary, binding on all rational agents, as well as the supreme
norm for the moral evaluation of action. I have argued that, in the course of
Groundwork I and II, Kant develops four more criteria. The supreme princi-
ple of morality must also 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 (any case 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 univer-
sally 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. This chapter has
focused on understanding what criteria 1“3 mean and how Kant defends
them.
At several points, I have discussed relations between Kant™s criteria. But
it might be helpful for me to summarize them. According to Kant, criterion
2 follows from 1. In brief, if one holds that in all possible circumstances an
action done from duty has moral worth, then one is committed to the view
that this worth cannot stem from the action™s effects. For there are possible
circumstances in which the effects do not occur. Strictly speaking, 3 does
not follow from 1 or from 2. If either 1 or 2 entailed that some actions
actually are done from duty, then it would yield 3. That is because in order
for there to be any actions from duty, criterion 3 would have to be ful¬lled.
However, neither 1 nor 2 entails that there are any such actions. But Kant
does suggest two arguments for 3, as we have just seen. One appeals to his
Criteria for the Supreme Principle of Morality 113

notion that according to ordinary moral consciousness, there are actions
that have unconditional value. The other is based on Kant™s axiom that
ought implies can, as well as a criterion that belongs to his basic concept
of the supreme principle of morality, namely that this principle must be
absolutely necessary.
Of course, it is one thing to understand how Kant argues for his criteria
and quite another to accept them. The next chapter considers several objec-
tions to what is perhaps Kant™s most controversial criterion, that according
to which the supreme principle must be such that all and only actions con-
forming to this principle because the principle requires it “ that is, all and
only actions done from duty “ have moral worth.
6

Duty and Moral Worth




6.1 Aims of the Discussion
The success of Kant™s derivation of the Formula of Universal Law (as well as
the Formula of Humanity) depends on his ability to eliminate rival candi-
dates for the supreme principle of morality. To eliminate them Kant appeals
to criteria for the supreme principle of morality. He argues that unlike his
candidates, the rivals fail to remain as viable candidates for ful¬lling the
full set of criteria. As Chapter 7 illustrates in detail, the derivation relies
on a criterion (or part of one) that has been a main topic for the past two
chapters. This principle, the criterion goes, must be such that all and only
actions conforming to it because it is morally required “ that is, all and only
actions done from duty “ have moral worth. We now understand what this
means and how Kant argues for it. This chapter explores the criterion™s plau-
sibility. It addresses objections to the view that an action has moral worth
if and only if it is done from duty. The bulk of the chapter focuses on the
claim that all actions done from duty have moral worth (sections 6.2“9).
The penultimate section (6.10) takes up the claim that only actions from
duty have such worth. The chapter focuses more on the former than the
latter claim for a couple of reasons. Whereas I want to defend the former
claim (albeit understood a bit differently than Kant does), I do not ¬nd
the latter entirely plausible. Moreover, I think that the former plays a much
more central role than does the latter in the elimination of rival candidates
for the supreme principle of morality.
Kant claims that if an action is done from duty, then it has moral worth. In
the Groundwork, however, he does not so much argue for this view as point
to it as a fundamental tenet of ordinary rational knowledge of morals, a
starting point not really in need of defense. In the second Critique, he does
suggest a reason why actions from duty have a special value. They are not
conditional on our expectation that they will ful¬ll any sensible needs, and
they thus elevate us over other animals, whose behavior is geared toward

114
Duty and Moral Worth 115

ful¬lling such needs (see section 5.4). But the force of this suggestion
depends on two controversial notions. The ¬rst is that acting from incli-
nation is more animal-like than acting from duty. But this is not obvious.
While acting from the inclination to slake one™s thirst clearly seems more
animal-like than acting from duty, acting from the inclination to prove a
mathematical theorem does not. Is an action done not from duty but from
a desire, such as that to prove a theorem, really always conditional on the
agent™s expectation that the action will result in some hedonic bene¬t for
him? Kant asserts this, but he does not establish it. The force of Kant™s sug-
gestion also depends on the notion that since an action from duty is less
animal-like than one from inclination, the former has a special value that
the latter lacks. But some might, in a Nietzschean vein, hold that this notion
smacks of an irrational devaluation of our animal nature. I doubt whether
Kant™s second Critique suggestion as to why actions from duty have a special
value will (or was intended to) change the views of those who do not think
they do.
I believe, however, that Kant is fundamentally correct in holding it to
belong to ordinary moral consciousness that all actions done from duty have
moral worth. There is a signi¬cant adjustment to his view that I propose
in section 6.6, one that arises from internal critique. Presently I consider
external critique of Kant™s view (sections 6.2“3). I discuss two objections to it
with the aim not of refuting them de¬nitively, an aim that seems out of place
with respect to issues that must ultimately be adjudicated by controversial
appeals to intuition, but of blunting the objections™ force so that we can see
that it is at least reasonable, and perhaps even attractive, to hold the Kantian
view. The two objections stem from general criticisms of Kantian morality
developed by Bernard Williams and Michael Stocker.1 These criticisms have
been thoroughly addressed by Kantians before, and much of my discussion,
which concerns only how they apply to Kant™s claim that all actions from
duty have moral worth, draws on their work.
Before beginning the business of the chapter, it might be helpful to bring
together some general points regarding Kant™s notion of an action™s moral
worth. First, for Kant to act is to exercise one™s will (section 1.4). It is to
attempt, based on some principle, to realize a state of affairs. This state of
affairs (or whichever one really results from the action) is an effect of the
willing. Acting consists in the willing itself, not in its effects. So to say that
a certain kind of action has moral worth is really just to say that a certain
kind of willing has such worth. Second, for Kant moral worth is uncondi-
tional worth (section 4.6). If a particular type of action, for example, action
done from duty, has moral worth, then every possible token of this type has
such worth. Third, according to Kant, moral worth is a “preeminent” good
(GMS 401). This suggests that if only one particular type of action has moral
worth, then actions of this type have higher value than actions of any other
type.
Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality
116

6.2 Moral Worth and Helping a Friend from Duty
The ¬rst objection I consider to Kant™s view that all actions from duty
have moral worth can be derived from a well-known scenario sketched by
Stocker:2
[S]uppose you are in a hospital, recovering from a long illness. You are very bored and
restless and at loose ends when Smith comes in once again. You are now convinced
more than ever that he is a ¬ne fellow and a real friend “ taking so much time to
cheer you up, traveling all the way across town, and so on. You are so effusive with
your praise and thanks that he protests that he always tries to do what he thinks
is his duty. . . .You at ¬rst think he is engaging in a polite form of self-deprecation,
relieving the moral burden. But the more you two speak, the more clear it becomes
that he was telling the literal truth: that it is not essentially because of you that he
came to see you, not because you are friends, but because he thought it his duty.3

Stocker goes on to suggest that Smith™s action is “lacking in moral merit or
value.” Stocker might mean by this that, though Smith™s action is good, it
could be better, and is in that sense lacking in moral value. In other words,
his visit to his friend has moral value, but not the most moral value that
such an action might have. But if this were Stocker™s contention, then it
would not threaten the particular claim that all acting from duty has (some)
moral worth. Granted, following Kant we have understood whatever has
moral value to be unconditionally and preeminently good “ that is, good
in all possible situations and always better than anything possessing some
other kind of goodness. Yet consistent with this understanding is the view
that moral value itself might come in differing degrees. At any rate, this
initial reading of Stocker™s passage seems to me less natural than another,
according to which he is charging that Smith™s action is simply devoid of
moral value. Since this charge would threaten Kant™s claim, I focus on it.
Although Stocker does not conceive of Smith™s motive precisely in Kantian
terms “ the target of his criticism is modern ethical theories as a whole, not
primarily Kantianism “ let us do so. Smith, let us say, makes his visit from
Kantian duty. He takes the notion that helping others is morally required
as his incentive (and a suf¬cient one) for visiting his friend, call her Jones,
in the hospital. (He acts on a maxim such as this: “Because it is morally
required, I will promote others™ well-being.”) Why, according to Stocker,
does Smith™s visiting Jones from duty lack moral value? The main reason
seems to be that it is not “essentially” because of Jones, not because she and
Smith are friends, that Smith visits her. Concern for his friend does not con-
stitute Smith™s basis for visiting Jones, and thus his action lacks moral value.
However, do we really hold that since Smith™s basis for visiting Jones is
not concern for her that it is devoid of moral value? Imagine that Smith
does have concern for Jones. But Smith ¬nds that, in itself, this concern is
not strong enough to outweigh his great anxiety at the prospect of visiting a
hospital. In Kant™s terms, Smith™s inclination to avoid the hospital is stronger
Duty and Moral Worth 117

than his inclination to cheer up his friend. Nevertheless, from duty, Smith
brings himself to go to the hospital and do his best to raise his friend™s spirits.
I think that in such a case most of us would grant that Smith™s action had
moral worth. So, in the kind of circumstances Stocker describes, that one
does not act from concern for one™s friend does not itself appear to preclude
one™s action from having moral worth.
Yet perhaps other ways of ¬lling in the details of the scenario will reveal
that upon re¬‚ection we hold that Smith™s acting from duty might not have
moral worth. Suppose that though Smith has no disinclination for hospitals,
he does not want to comfort Jones. Smith is like one of the people Kant
describes in the Groundwork. He is “by temperament cold and indifferent to
the suffering of others,” including his friends, “perhaps because he himself
is provided with the special gift of patience and endurance toward his own
sufferings” (GMS 398).4 Would Smith™s action, done from duty, of trying to
cheer up Jones be entirely lacking in moral worth? We would condemn as
wrong attempts by Smith to deceive Jones into thinking that he sympathizes
with Jones™s suffering. But Smith appears to be quite frank with Jones in
the scenario as Stocker describes it. We would also question whether, given
Smith™s lack of sympathy, we would choose to have friends like him. Some
of us might even insist that Smith is incapable of being a true friend, since
genuine friendship necessarily involves having the very sympathy he lacks.5
Nevertheless, I do not believe that we would deny all moral value to Smith™s
action. After all, from duty, he did do his best to improve Jones™s condition,
and there seems to be something morally admirable in that.
If there is a lingering unwillingness to attribute any moral worth to Smith™s
action, it is, I suspect, based on the worry that in the scenario just sketched,
he sees Jones™s misfortune as an opportunity of sorts. What matters to Smith,
according to the worry, is not that he can raise Jones™s spirits, but rather that
her suffering provides him with an occasion to discharge his duty. He is using
his visit to Jones as an instrument to increase his own moral merit “ behavior
that some might ¬nd to be lacking entirely in moral value. Yet if Smith is
doing this, then he is not really acting from duty. When an agent acts from
duty, she takes as a suf¬cient incentive for acting the notion that her action
is morally required. If Smith were really using his visit to Jones as a means
to increase his moral point total, then he would not be doing this. For he
would be treating the notion that his moral merit would increase as (part of)
his incentive for acting. He would presumably not visit Smith if he thought
that doing so would have no effect on his moral merit or that moral merit
was not additive, and so forth.
In short, it does not appear that Stocker™s example shows that acting
from duty (as Kant envisages such action) sometimes lacks all moral worth.
However, we need to be clear on what this entails. Acknowledging that
Smith™s action has moral value does not in itself commit us to the view
that only visiting Jones from duty, as opposed to some other motive such

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