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Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality

as sympathy, would have moral value. Kant might be correct that all, but
incorrect that only, actions from duty have moral worth. We explore this
possibility in section 6.10. Nor does acknowledging that Smith™s action has
moral value in itself commit us to holding any position regarding the relative
moral worth of his acting from duty versus some other motive. Although,
in a given situation, acting from duty is morally valuable, acting from some
other motive could be more so.

6.3 One Thought Too Many?
One might base a further objection to Kant™s claim that all acting from
duty has moral worth on the notion that doing so sometimes involves “one
thought too many,” to use Bernard Williams™s phrase.6 Suppose that an
agent™s husband, who has accidently fallen overboard, is drowning and that
the agent can rescue him, with little risk to herself. She does not simply take
action, motivated by a desire to save her husband, but rather she re¬‚ects
then and there on her duty. She quickly decides that rescuing her husband
is morally required and, from duty, jumps in the water to save him. Does
the agent™s re¬‚ection empty her action of all moral worth? Just as we did
in the case of the hospital visit, we need to distinguish between the claim
that acting from duty has moral value and the further claims that only acting
from this motive has moral value or that acting from this motive always has
the highest moral value. Here, once again, the ¬rst claim alone is at issue.
And, once again, I believe that it resists counterexample.
Consider three ways of ¬lling in some of the details of the story.7 First,
imagine that the agent is deeply estranged from her husband, who is an
abusive drunk. In this case, I take it to be obvious that the agent™s re¬‚ection
would not rob her action of moral worth. Her husband might wish that an
inclination to save him would have played a role in motivating her action, but
his wish seems to be irrelevant to the issue of whether her action had moral
worth. Second, suppose that the agent loves her husband and, on some
level, realizes that saving him will pose little risk to herself. But since she
has an irrational fear of swimming in the ocean, she is strongly disinclined
to jump in. If, nevertheless, the re¬‚ection that it is her duty to save her
husband steels her for the plunge and, from duty, she saves him, then it
seems unproblematic to say that her action has moral worth. In both of
these cases, had the agent not re¬‚ected on her duty, she would have had
not one thought too many but one thought too few. Yet what about the
following, third, speci¬cation of the drowning case? The agent who loves
her husband dearly has a strong inclination to rescue him and none not to
do so. But before she dives in to save him, she re¬‚ects that helping others
in peril is morally required, and then, from duty, she rescues him. There
is something odd about this scenario. What would prompt the agent to
re¬‚ect in that instant that she has a duty of bene¬cence? What would bring
Duty and Moral Worth 119

the agent in this case to act from duty, rather than from inclination? Yet
however unusual the situation might be, the question remains: would her
rescue be devoid of moral worth? I still do not see why it would. The agent
is not treating her husband™s peril as an occasion to make a deposit in her
moral bank account “ otherwise, she would not be acting from duty. She is
doing something that conforms with duty because she thinks she morally
ought to do it. And this action does seem to have some moral value.

6.4 The Moral Worth of Actions Contrary to Duty
Kant™s claim that all actions from duty have moral worth withstands some
well-known objections. At this point, however, someone might wonder why I
have not considered a further, seemingly obvious objection. Don™t people, in
acting from duty, sometimes do horri¬c things? Think of “ethnic cleansers”
who, apparently from duty, round up and kill members of a hated minority.
Surely we would resist acknowledging that these actions have moral worth.
This objection would, however, be misplaced as a criticism of Kant™s un-
derstanding of the notion that all actions from duty have moral worth. For
Kant all acting from duty is acting in accordance with duty, as he and, he
thinks, we conceive of duty (section 5.2). The actions of the ethnic cleansers
are contrary to Kantian duty “ surely they are not treating their victims as
ends-in-themselves “ and they thereby cannot be from duty, holds Kant. So
from Kant™s own perspective, the view that these actions have no moral worth
does not threaten Kant™s claim.
However, as I argue in sections 6.5“6, things are not so simple. For Kant
should acknowledge that actions contrary to duty can be done from duty
and thus can have moral worth. If I am right about this, the objection in
question does come into play, a point I address in section 6.9.

6.5 A Disturbing Asymmetry in Kant™s View of Moral Worth
According to Kant, all actions from duty are morally permissible (section
5.2). No morally impermissible action, he implies, can be done from duty,
and none, therefore, can have moral worth. I argue that Kant should relin-
quish this position. He should hold instead that some actions contrary to
duty can actually be done from duty and thereby have moral worth.8 Key to
my argument is the observation that there is an asymmetry in Kant™s account
of how two kinds of failure affect the question of an action™s moral worth.
While failure to judge correctly whether one™s action is morally permissi-
ble precludes it from having moral worth, failure to attain the end of one™s
action does not. This asymmetry is disturbing because the very considera-
tions that imply the one kind of failure to be irrelevant to the assessment
of moral worth suggest the other kind to be irrelevant as well. Both kinds
of failure can be due to circumstances beyond an agent™s control and thus,
Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality

in the spirit of Kantianism, immaterial to an action™s moral worth. Kant,
I claim, needs to acknowledge that morally impermissible actions can be
done from duty and thus can have moral worth.9
Let me now explain in detail the asymmetry I ¬nd in Kant™s view. In
Groundwork I, Kant insists that an action can have moral worth even if it does
not bring about its intended results.

[A]n action from duty has its moral worth not in the purpose to be attained by it but
in the maxim in accordance with which it is decided upon, and therefore does not
depend upon the realization of the object of the action but merely upon the principle
of volition in accordance with which the action is done. (GMS 399“400)

Like each of the fundamental claims in Groundwork I, Kant bases this one
on ordinary knowledge of morality.10 Kant appeals to our intuition that
an action done from duty has moral worth even if it does not succeed in
realizing its end. Why doesn™t the failure of an action done from duty to
bring about its intended effects disqualify it from having moral worth? The
answer seems to be: because such a failure is outside the agent™s control. In
a well-known passage, Kant says:

A good will is not good because of what it effects or accomplishes. . . . Even if, by a
special disfavor of fortune or by the scanty provision of a stepmotherly nature, this
will should wholly lack the capacity to carry out its purpose “ if with its greatest efforts
it should yet achieve nothing and only the good will were left (not, of course, as a
mere wish but as the summoning of all means insofar as they are in our control) “
then, like a jewel, it would still shine by itself, as something that has its full worth in
itself. (GMS 394)

Here Kant suggests that an agent™s action can express good will only if she
does everything in her power to realize the action™s end. Since in Kant™s view
the actions we do from duty express good will, Kant implies that to count
as performing an action from duty, an agent must do her best to realize
the action™s end.11 If an agent fails to muster all her resources in an effort
to realize an end, her action is not really from duty and is thus devoid of
moral worth. Factors presumably within an agent™s control, such as the effort
she makes to realize an end, count in determining whether her action has
moral worth. But factors outside of her control seem not to count.12 In this
passage, Kant mentions conditions such that when they prevent an agent
from realizing her end, they do not preclude her action from having moral
worth. These conditions are an “unfortunate fate” or the “scanty provision of
stepmotherly nature,” both of which are clearly outside the agent™s control.
It seems to be in the spirit of Kant™s remark to hold that an agent™s action
is not to be disquali¬ed from having moral worth by anything we take to be
outside of her control.
Kant embraces the notion that an agent does not determine all of the
effects of her willing. The best-laid (and executed) plans sometimes come to
Duty and Moral Worth 121

naught. But now the question arises: is an agent™s choice of a plan of action
itself under his control to such a degree that whenever he adopts a morally
impermissible one, he has committed an error for which he is morally ac-
countable? In the Groundwork, Kant writes of an agent™s inclinations as a
force, which, if he permits it, will push him to leave his duty unful¬lled.
“The human being feels within himself a powerful counterweight to all the
commands of duty,” says Kant. This counterweight consists of “his needs
and inclinations, the entire satisfaction of which is summed up under the
name of happiness” (GMS 405). Kant appears to hold that each one of an
agent™s failures to act rightly stems from his privileging the satisfaction of
some inclination over ful¬lling his duty.13 Instead of a question of succumb-
ing to inclination, however, might not whether one succeeds in adopting a
principle of action that is in accordance with Kant™s standard of morality be
a matter of one™s circumstances, upbringing, or cognitive abilities? These
questions point us toward the asymmetry I have in mind. It is an asymmetry
between the way in which two different kinds of failure relate to an action™s
moral worth. On the one hand, Kant holds that failure to realize its end
does not disqualify an action from having moral worth; on the other hand,
he holds that failure to act on a morally permissible principle (and thus in a
morally permissible way) does disqualify it. There is nothing blatantly con-
tradictory in this asymmetry. But whether we should accept it depends on
the plausibility of Kant™s implicit view that our failure to perform a morally
permissible action is always a failure of will “ that is, a succumbing to incli-
nation “ and never an unfortunate event ultimately beyond our control.14

6.6 Failure of Will or Unfortunate Event?
I believe that this view is implausible, as I try to show with the help of a couple
of examples. First consider the well-educated Colonel Mikavitch. A morally
re¬‚ective person since she was a child, she has embraced the Formula of
Universal Law as the supreme principle of morality; she tries to act only on
that maxim by which she can at the same time will that it should become a
universal law. Colonel Mikavitch, who has studied the Groundwork, believes
that even though Kant offers several formulas of the supreme principle of
morality, he insists that we do best if we adopt “the strict method” and make
the basis of our moral appraisal the Formula of Universal Law (GMS 436“
437).15 Unfortunately and unforeseeably, a foreign power has attacked the
colonel™s country, bent on exterminating one of its ethnic minorities. With
the enemy nearly on her doorstep and no hope of escape, she comes to
the painful conviction that if she is captured, she will, under the weight of
torture, reveal a secret known only to her: the location of several minority
families. After careful consideration of the alternatives, she has decided that
the only way to save the families is to kill herself. The colonel ¬nds in herself
no inclination to do so and, indeed, believes that suicide would require her
Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality

last ounce of courage. Although she thinks she has a moral duty to save the
families, she wonders whether it is morally permissible for her to take her
own life. She asks herself whether it is permissible to act on the maxim: “If
my end is to save others but I ¬nd no means available but suicide, I will
kill myself.” After careful thought she judges that this maxim passes the
Categorical Imperative test. She could will that it become a universal law.
It is not self-contradictory to imagine a world in which, whenever an agent
believed taking his own life to be the only means of securing his end of
saving others, he killed himself. Furthermore, the colonel reasons that, as
a rational being, she could act on the maxim and, at the same time, will
that it become a universal law. Her willing would not sink her into rational
self-contradiction; that every agent in circumstances like hers committed
suicide would not prevent her from attaining her end of saving others by
committing suicide herself. With the regretful thought that she must heed
the call to save innocent lives, she takes poison.
On Kant™s view, would Colonel Mikavitch™s action have moral worth?
Kant would be quick to make an epistemological point. Even supposing
the colonel™s action were in accordance with the Categorical Imperative, we
could not conclude with certainty that it had such worth. “[I]t is absolutely
impossible by means of experience to make out with complete certainty a
single case in which the maxim of an action otherwise in conformity with
duty rested simply on moral grounds and on the representation of one™s
duty” (GMS 407). Some “secret impulse of self-love,” such as fear of torture,
might actually have prompted the colonel™s suicide.
Moreover, Kant would insist that the colonel™s suicide could have moral
worth only if it were in accordance with duty. Was it actually in accordance
with Kantian duty? I am unsure. On the one hand, Kant argues that we
have a duty to preserve ourselves in our animal nature (MS 421). On the
other hand, in his casuistical discussion of this duty he brings up the case of
Frederick the Great, who carried a fast-acting poison with him “presumably
so that if he were captured when he led his troops into battle he could not
be forced to agree to conditions of ransom harmful to his state” (MS 423).
Since it is unclear whether Kant would morally condemn a country-saving
suicide by a king, it is uncertain whether he would condemn the analogous
family-saving suicide by the colonel.16 Of course, even if Kant himself would
always condemn suicide, it does not follow that the colonel™s was contrary
to the Categorical Imperative. Perhaps Kant was not the best interpreter of
his own principle.
In any event, the point this case is designed to illustrate is simple.
According to Kant, if the colonel™s action was not morally permissible, it
would follow that it could not have had moral worth. Suppose that “ after
due consultation with the world™s greatest Kantian casuists “ we discovered
that, measured by Kant™s principle, the colonel™s suicide was morally im-
permissible. On my view, this discovery would not, in itself, warrant the
Duty and Moral Worth 123

conclusion that her action failed to have moral worth. Intuitively speaking,
as far as moral worth goes, it just would not matter. The colonel did her
best to determine whether her course of action was morally permissible. If
she did not succeed, her failure stemmed, it seems, not from lack of sincere
effort but rather from the limits of her cognitive capacities. Kantian casuistry
is hard. Much as it is often beyond her control whether the world cooperates
and she succeeds in her efforts to promote the happiness of others, so is
it beyond her control whether she succeeds in discerning whether a given
action meets the standard of Kantian moral permissibility.
Kant, of course, might insist that if the colonel™s action was contrary
to duty, then it was really motivated by some inclination of which she was
unaware. But this reply seems weak. Note that Kant™s epistemological claim “
neither the colonel nor anyone else can know for sure that she has acted
from the notion that her action was morally required instead of from in-
clination “ does nothing to bolster the reply. That it is impossible for us to
know whether the colonel has acted from duty does not entail that she has
actually failed to act from duty. Why, then, should we conclude that if, as it
turns out, the colonel™s action was contrary to duty, its wrongness was due to
her succumbing to some inclination? Such a conclusion seems forced to ¬t
Kant™s denial of moral worth to all actions contrary to duty. And, to me, at
least, it seems to go against “ordinary knowledge of morality”: the very basis
of Kant™s case in the Groundwork.
The suicide example revolves around someone who has embraced the
Categorical Imperative as the supreme principle of morality and, perhaps,
has made an error in applying it. But suppose a person, call him Stram,
has not embraced this principle. After years of long, careful, and strenuous
re¬‚ection, Stram has concluded that a version of Act Utilitarianism is the
valid moral doctrine. According to him, the supreme principle of morality is:
always do what you believe will maximize the pleasure and minimize the pain
of all sentient beings. Stram does his very best to live by this principle. He has
internalized it to such a degree that at times he is surprised to ¬nd himself
calculating the effects on sentient beings of even seemingly trivial deeds.
At one point, he ¬nds himself in a situation where he believes that lying
is demanded by the combination of his circumstances and the utilitarian
principle. After thinking through the alternatives, he decides that he must,
in his position as an accounting consultant, lie to a politician about the
county™s ability to raise funds for a proposed dam. Only by lying, he judges,
can he insure that the dam will not be built, wildlife decimated, and three
whole towns destroyed. Because he believes it to be the right thing to do,
Stram goes ahead and lies to the politician.
The key question here is not whether Stram™s action is by Kant™s standard
morally permissible; let us just assume that it is not “ that he did it on a
maxim that fails the Categorical Imperative test. The central issue is, rather,
whether the moral impermissibility of Stram™s action would, as Kant suggests,
Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality

be a sure sign that it was lacking in moral worth. What if, as a sincere Act
Utilitarian, Stram has used all of his powers in a struggle to determine what is
right? What if, in Kant™s terms, he did not merely wish but willed to discover
the correct course of action? In this case, it appears that his failure might
have stemmed not from his inclinations but rather from factors beyond his
control: factors that should not, in the spirit of Kant™s own view, matter in a
determination of whether his action could have had moral worth.17
Notice that the cases of Colonel Mikavitch and Stram illustrate two ways
an agent™s action might fail to be morally permissible, yet have moral worth.
In the ¬rst case, an agent has (in Kant™s view) embraced the correct moral
standard, but has failed to apply it accurately. This case illustrates an error
in principle application. In the second case, an agent has (in Kant™s view)
embraced an incorrect moral standard and applied it correctly. This case
illustrates an error in principle choice.18
Of course, examples like that of Stram and Colonel Mikavitch have an arti-
¬cial ring. There may not be many colonels or accounting consultants who
have explicitly embraced the Kantian, Act Utilitarian, or, for that matter,
any one “supreme principle of morality.” Nevertheless, there are, I ven-
ture, plenty of people who throughout their lives have done their best to
determine what is right but, measured by the standard of the Categorical
Imperative, have failed. In the determination of an action™s possible moral
worth, Kant discounts the effects an agent™s action actually has in the world,
apparently on the grounds that these effects are beyond her control.
Nevertheless, at least in the Groundwork, he does not discount mistaken
moral judgments, even though, when an agent makes her best effort to get
it right, these also seem to be beyond her control. It is this questionable
asymmetry that the cases of Stram and the colonel were designed to bring
into focus.
This asymmetry in Kant™s view stems from his limitation of actions done
from duty to ones that, by the standard of the Categorical Imperative, are
morally permissible. I suggest that we reject this limitation “ that we acknowl-
edge that a morally impermissible action can be done from duty and thus
can have moral worth.

6.7 Moral Permissibility and Moral Worth in the Metaphysics of Morals
In fairness to Kant, we should note that in the Metaphysics of Morals he moves
toward, though he does not explicitly embrace, the possibility of morally
impermissible actions having moral worth. Evidence that he makes this move
emerges in his discussion of conscience.19 For Kant, conscience is practical
reason™s capacity to hold a person™s duty before him, judge him on whether
he has abided by it, and even punish him for his failures to do so. Conscience
is an internal court where a person™s practical reason, in its capacity as judge,
Duty and Moral Worth 125

renders a verdict on her deeds. Practical reason renders this verdict on the
basis of “the law,” namely the Categorical Imperative (MS 438). According
to Kant, everyone has a conscience. When we refer to someone™s having
none, what we mean (or should mean) is that this person never heeds his
conscience (MS 400). Kant goes on to say:

[W]hile I can indeed be mistaken at times in my objective judgment as to whether
something is a duty or not, I cannot be mistaken in my subjective judgment as to
whether I have submitted it to my practical reason (here in its role as judge) for
such a judgment. . . .[I]f someone is aware that he has acted in accordance with his
conscience, then as far as guilt or innocence is concerned nothing more can be
required of him. It is incumbent on him only to enlighten his understanding in the
matter of what is or is not duty. (MS 401)

Here Kant makes an acknowledgment that, in my view, would have been
welcome in the Groundwork: without being led astray by his inclinations, an
agent can make an error in determining what his duty is. Kant does not tell
us explicitly how such an error occurs. It is evident, nevertheless, that the
mistake gets made at the level of applying the fundamental standard of moral
judgment (i.e., “the law”) rather than at the level of determining what this
standard might be. For Kant, the law on the basis of which each person™s
conscience reaches its verdict just is the Categorical Imperative.
Not only does Kant here acknowledge that an agent™s acting contrary to
duty might stem simply from an error in principle application, but he also
suggests that when it does, the agent is not morally blamable. When an agent
is heeding his conscience, that is, doing what he believes the Categorical
Imperative to prescribe, he is not morally at fault for acting contrary to
duty. In the Groundwork, Kant makes no such statement, nor is it clear that
he would be amenable to it. As we have seen, Kant is there at pains to
emphasize the ease with which each agent can determine what he (morally)
ought to do. This passage from the Metaphysics of Morals indicates a change
in Kant™s tone, and it seems to mark a shift in his doctrine as well.
But how great a shift? That a conscience-abiding agent incurs no moral
guilt in performing an undutiful action does not in itself entail that this
action can have moral worth. Kant neither states nor plainly implies that an
action done contrary to duty can have moral worth. Nevertheless, at least
on a charitable interpretation, he seems to be leaning in this direction. It
is hard to see what plausible grounds Kant could offer for granting that a
person is not morally blamable for a conscience-abiding, undutiful action,
yet denying that such an action could have moral worth. It is one thing to hold,
as Kant might in the Groundwork, that we are always morally accountable
for acting in a morally impermissible way and, on this basis, to conclude
that morally impermissible actions cannot be from duty and thus cannot
have moral worth. It would be quite another to acknowledge that we are
Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality

sometimes not at all accountable for acting contrary to duty, yet to cling
to a view that, in effect, rules out the possibility of an action contrary to
duty having moral worth. Recall that in his discussion of moral worth in the
Groundwork Kant appeals to our intuition that an agent™s action is not to be
disquali¬ed from having moral worth by anything we take to be outside of
his control. By claiming in the Metaphysics of Morals that a person is not always
morally blamable for acting contrary to duty, he is, in effect, admitting that
whether an agent acts contrary to duty can be determined by factors outside
of his control “ for example, how adept he is at applying the Categorical
Imperative. But now suppose that an individual not only acts in accordance
with his conscience but does so for its own sake. He obeys his conscience
simply because it is the right thing to do. It seems clear not only that this
person might end up acting contrary to duty but that her doing so could
stem from conditions over which she has no real power. In this case, the very
intuition to which Kant appeals in the Groundwork would direct him not to
disqualify the agent™s action from having moral worth. By acknowledging
that when he abides by his conscience, an agent can blamelessly violate his
duty, Kant sets himself on a path toward the view that morally impermissible
actions can have moral worth.
This discussion does not, however, allow us to conclude that the Kant of
the Metaphysics of Morals would agree entirely with my description of cases
where moral worth is at issue. I suspect that he would concur that even if
Colonel Mikavitch acted contrary to duty, her action could have moral worth.
According to the example, she had the Categorical Imperative in view, and
if she acted contrary to it, it was owing solely to a mistake in applying it.
But Stram is a different matter. Recall that Kant conceives of conscience as
an internal court where a judge renders a verdict on each person™s deeds
on the basis of “the law” “ that is, the Categorical Imperative. According
to my description, however, the judge presiding over Stram™s internal court
seems to have based his decisions not on the Categorical Imperative but
rather on a principle of utility. In the spirit of his Groundwork contention
that ordinary human reason always has the Categorical Imperative in view, I
believe that Kant would reject this description. He would, I think, insist that
in cases where an agent purposefully acts in accordance with a rival practical

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