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principle, but contrary to Kantian duty, he has failed to heed his conscience.
And Kant, of course, would not excuse such a lapse. On his view, conscience
simply is the court of the Categorical Imperative.
Kant moves toward recognizing the moral worth of some morally imper-
missible actions, namely those which stem from errors in applying the Cate-
gorical Imperative. Nevertheless, he remains steadfast in his denial of moral
worth to actions whose moral impermissibility would seem to stem from
errors in choosing a moral standard.20 I believe this denial to be contrary
to ordinary (and better) moral judgment. Actions stemming from moral
Duty and Moral Worth 127

standards other than Kant™s can have moral worth, and can thus express
what, intuitively speaking, we might call a good will.


6.8 The (Alleged) Transparency of Moral Requirements
Let me now turn to two objections to my claim that Kant should acknowl-
edge that some actions contrary to duty can be done from duty, and thus
that among actions that have moral worth, we might ¬nd some that clash
with moral requirements. First, whatever intuitive force the claim has de-
rives largely from the following notion: however hard an agent tries to do
what is right, she might actually end up doing something that con¬‚icts with
Kantian duty. But as we reminded ourselves, Kant rejects this notion. In the
Groundwork, he says:

[W]e have arrived, within the moral cognition of common human reason, at its
principle, which it admittedly does not think so abstractly in a universal form but
which it actually has always before its eyes and uses as the norm for its appraisals.
Here it would be easy to show how common human reason, with this compass in
hand, knows very well how to distinguish in every case that comes up what is good
and what is evil, what is in conformity with duty or contrary to duty, if, without in the
least teaching it anything new, we only, as did Socrates, make it attentive to its own
principle; and that there is, accordingly, no need of science and philosophy to know
what one has to do in order to be honest and good, and even wise and virtuous. We
might even have assumed in advance that cognizance of what it is incumbent upon
everyone to do, and so also to know, would be the affair of every human being, even
the most common. (GMS 403“404)

Here Kant implies that he would deny the possibility of an agent™s trying
her best (without succumbing to inclination) to do what is right, yet erring
either in choice or application of moral standard. Of course, the principle
of “the moral cognition of common human reason” to which Kant refers is
the Categorical Imperative. Ordinary reason, he believes, has (a version of)
the Categorical Imperative always in view. In light of this belief, it is hard
to see how, for Kant, a completely sincere and dedicated inquirer could
embrace any moral standard other than this imperative. Kant also here
seems to reject the idea that someone who had embraced the Categorical
Imperative could, his best efforts notwithstanding, misapply this principle.
With the compass of the Categorical Imperative in hand, says Kant, ordinary
reason “knows very well how to distinguish in every case that comes up . . .
what is in conformity with duty or contrary to duty.”
In response, suppose for a moment Kant is right in claiming that ordinary
reason uses the Categorical Imperative (perhaps in a folksy form) as the
standard of moral judgment. It is, nevertheless, a strain to deny that even
with the best of intention and effort, we might fail to apply this standard
Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality
128

correctly. After all, haven™t we behind us two hundred years of scholarly
disagreement on how to employ the Categorical Imperative test?21 Second, if
ordinary reason always employed the Categorical Imperative as the standard
of moral judgment, then Kant might have grounds for insisting that anyone
who sincerely tried to determine what was right would not embrace or act
on any other principle. But it is easy to be skeptical as to whether ordinary
reason does employ exclusively something like the Categorical Imperative as
the standard for moral judgment. Granted, in contemplating whether to do
something, we sometimes ask ourselves the roughly Kantian question, “What
if everyone did that?” But we also sometimes pose the roughly utilitarian one:
“If I did this, how would it affect the well-being of those I care about?” The
passage in question does little to undermine the possibility that a sincere and
strong-willed moral inquirer might, either by misapplying the Categorical
Imperative or by correctly applying some other principle, act in a way that
con¬‚icts with Kantian duty.
At this point one might object that I have not really focused on the crux
of Kant™s notion that, unless he is swayed by his inclinations, an agent would
not embrace a moral standard other than the Categorical Imperative. Kant
holds that this imperative is valid (unconditionally binding on all of us)
and that it has its source in reason alone.22 If he is right, goes the objec-
tion, then the Categorical Imperative would obviously present itself as the
standard of moral judgment to every being who possesses reason. Every such
being would legislate this imperative to herself by virtue of the very cognitive
equipment she possessed. She couldn™t help but embrace it as the standard
of moral judgment.
In this objection we ¬nd the beginnings of an explanation of Kant™s view
that no agent could in a sincere quest to discover his duty embrace a moral
standard other than the Categorical Imperative. However, we ¬nd no gen-
uine justi¬cation of the view. Granted, if the Categorical Imperative were
valid and had its source in reason, we might have license to conclude that it
would be recognized by all of us as the standard of moral judgment.23 (I say
“might” because there seems to be no guarantee that reason is transparent
in the requisite sense. That an agent is obligated by her own reason to obey
the Categorical Imperative would not in itself entail that she would realize
that she is. An agent could conceivably fail to discern what her own rea-
son demands. Why should the transparency of practical reason be taken for
granted?) At any rate, the truth of the claim that if the Categorical Imper-
ative were valid and had its source in reason, it would be recognized by all
sincere inquirers as the standard of moral judgment fails to justify the view
that, actually, all sincere inquirers do recognize it as this standard. In the
second Critique, Kant himself seems to acknowledge that he does not prove
the Categorical Imperative to be valid and to have its source in reason (see
section I.3). Moreover, consider a parallel. Suppose that the following claim
is true. If an Act Utilitarian principle were valid and had its source in human
Duty and Moral Worth 129

reason and intuition, it would be recognized by all sincere inquirers as the
standard of moral judgment. The truth of this claim would fail to justify
the view that, actually, all sincere inquirers do recognize an Act Utilitarian
principle as this standard. What we might be able to conclude if we had a
proof of the validity and origins of a moral principle has little relevance to
what we have grounds to believe now, in the absence of such a proof.


6.9 Odious Actions and Moral Worth
Let me now turn to a second objection to my suggestion that, even if the Cat-
egorical Imperative is indeed the supreme principle of morality, the moral
worth of an action should not turn on its Kantian moral permissibility. If we
conclude that Colonel Mikavitch™s and Stram™s actions have moral worth,
goes the objection, then we are rationally compelled to admit that any action
that could be done from duty can have such worth. But there are actions
done from duty that are so odious that we are unwilling to grant them any
moral value.24 In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt writes of the Cate-
gorical Imperative in the Third Reich, a principle that was apparently known
to some Nazis: “Act in such a way that the Fuhrer, if he knew your action,
¨
25
would approve it.” If we remove moral permissibility as a condition for
moral worth, then we are forced to conclude that an agent™s acting from duty
on an imperative such as this would have moral worth. Kant™s Groundwork
account enables us to avoid this unwelcome and disturbing conclusion.
In response, if I am correct in ¬nding an untenable asymmetry in Kant™s
view of what affects an action™s moral worth, then Kant™s account does not
really give us any philosophically plausible means for avoiding this conclu-
sion at all. However, the question is whether Kant™s account, revised in the
way I have suggested, can meet the objection. To a large extent, I think
it can.
The key to seeing this is to understand what in Kant™s view it means to
act from duty. In the preceding chapter (5.3) we found that an action is
done from duty only if two conditions are met. First, the agent™s incentive
for acting must stem from the notion that the principle (represented by
the agent as a law) requires the action. Second, the agent™s notion that the
action is morally required must itself provide suf¬cient incentive for him to
perform it. In sum, the agent™s (in itself suf¬cient) incentive for acting must
stem from the notion that a principle (represented by the agent as a law)
requires the action.
The discussion in this chapter enables us, I believe, to make explicit two
further conditions on acting from duty. First, as we found in section 6.6, an
agent must do his best to realize the end of his action. Expressing a good
will through acting from duty involves “the summoning of all the means in
our power” to realize our aim. If an agent holds breaking promises to be
forbidden by a principle she represents as a law, she would not count as
Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality
130

willing, from duty, to keep a promise unless she made every (in her view
morally permissible) effort to do so. Kant ¬nds this condition in ordinary
moral reason.
I think we also ¬nd in ordinary moral reason an additional condition
on acting from duty, namely that an agent must make a genuine effort to
determine what her duty is. At least part of why we think an agent™s making
a halfhearted attempt to attain her end to be inconsistent with its being
from duty (and thus having moral worth) is that her action betrays a lack
of commitment to doing what is morally required in the case at hand. An
agent™s failure to make a genuine effort to determine just what her moral
duty is betrays a similar lack of commitment. If someone is really interested
in doing what is morally required, then she must take an active interest in
¬nding out just what is morally required. She need not delve into casuistry
before every action, but she needs to act against the background of re¬‚ection
on the moral status of her action, that is, act against the background of what
I call conscientious re¬‚ection. Since, I venture, it belongs to our everyday
concept of an action done from duty that it express a commitment to doing
what is morally required (at least in the case at hand), we hold that no action
that fails to express such a commitment can be done from duty. We do not
allow factors that, intuitively speaking, we hold to be beyond an agent™s
control to preclude her action from having moral worth. Factors within her
control, however, are a different matter. And among these factors we ¬nd
not only the agent™s effort to realize the ends of morally required actions
but also her effort to determine just which actions these are. In the spirit
of Kant™s view, if an action ful¬lls each of the four conditions we have just
sketched, then it has been done from duty and thus has moral worth.
Returning to the objection, I doubt very much whether someone acting
in accordance with the Nazi perversion of the Categorical Imperative would
ful¬ll all four conditions we have isolated for acting from duty. In particu-
lar, I ¬nd it far more likely that slovenliness, rather than sincere effort at
re¬‚ection, would result in a person™s embracing this principle. Moreover, I
doubt very much that the agent™s (in itself suf¬cient) incentive for acting
would really lie in the notion that this principle, represented by him as a
law, required the action. It is, I think, much more likely that greed or am-
bition would constitute the grounds of his action. In the case of Eichmann,
these doubts seem to be con¬rmed. However, I cannot prove it to be im-
possible that in performing an odious action, someone might ful¬ll each of
the conditions in question, thereby giving his action moral worth. Acknowl-
edging the possibility of odious actions having moral worth is painful. Yet
I see no way of avoiding it while, at the same time, defending a coherent
reconstruction of Kant™s views.
At this point, someone might object that I have overlooked a very Kantian
way of avoiding this disturbing conclusion. In the Religion within the Limits
of Reason Alone, Kant considers the case of a religious inquisitor “who clings
Duty and Moral Worth 131

fast to the uniqueness of his statutory faith even to the point of [imposing]
martyrdom, and who has to pass judgment upon a so-called heretic
(otherwise a good citizen) charged with unbelief” (Rel 186, English ed.
174). Suppose that the inquisitor condemned the heretic to death and that
this action was, by Kant™s standard, morally impermissible. Here, it might
seem, we have a case in which a morally impermissible action could have
moral worth. For it appears that the inquisitor™s action might meet each of
the Kantian conditions we have discussed: he might have arrived through
sincere moral re¬‚ection at his action of condemning the heretic, he might
have had as his incentive for condemning him the notion that doing so was
required by a universally binding principle, and so forth. In short we seem
to have just the sort of case the objection worries about “ an odious action
that (if my view is correct) we must acknowledge to have moral worth.
One might think that Kant™s own reaction in the Religion to a case such as
this provides us with a way of avoiding this acknowledgment. Kant suggests
that the inquisitor™s action could not meet these conditions. In Kant™s view,
sincere moral re¬‚ection leads an agent to the view that he must be sure
(gewiß ) that an action he proposes to perform is right before he performs
it. Kant calls this view a “postulate of conscience” (Postulat des Gewissens ; Rel
186, English ed. 174). However, the inquisitor cannot, Kant argues, sincerely
reach the conclusion that he is sure of the rightness of his condemnation.
Apparently, Kant holds that earnest re¬‚ection would lead the inquisitor to
the conclusion that it is wrong, based on a man™s religious faith, to deprive
him of his life “ unless the divine will has ordered it (Rel 186“187, English
ed. 175). If the inquisitor believed that the divine will had indeed made such
an order, his belief would be based either on what he took to be his personal
communication with God or on divine doctrine revealed to someone else.
In either case, Kant argues, the inquisitor could not sincerely come to the
conclusion that he was sure that the condemnation was ordered by God
and thus right.26 Therefore, the inquisitor™s condemnation of the heretic to
death could not, in Kant™s view, be the result of sincere moral re¬‚ection, nor,
it seems, could the inquisitor be motivated by the notion that his action was
morally required. If Kant™s views regarding this “postulate of conscience”
are correct, then we can say that, appearances to the contrary, the inquisitor
is really not acting from duty.
Although I believe that actions like the inquisitor™s would almost always
fail to meet the Kantian conditions for moral worth, I am not convinced
that Kant™s considerations here prove that they could never meet them. First,
although I think it highly unlikely that the inquisitor would sincerely con-
clude that he was sure of the condemnation™s rightness, I do not think it
to be impossible that he would. We cannot totally discount the possibility
that, even after earnest re¬‚ection, he takes it to be certain that the condem-
nation was commanded by God. Second, I do not believe it to be obvious
that all sincere, morally re¬‚ective agents would embrace Kant™s postulate
Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality
132

of conscience. Serious moral re¬‚ection might lead an agent to the view
that, ideally, one would be sure that an action is right before he did it, but
that, sometimes, given the complexity of the moral landscape, one is forced to
choose between actions none of which one holds with certainty to be right.27
Appeal to Kant™s “postulate of conscience” would not enable us to avoid the
painful conclusion that being faithful to the spirit of Kantianism “ and, I
believe, of ordinary views regarding moral worth “ requires us to admit the
possibility (though by no means the likelihood) that some terribly wrong
actions have moral worth.


6.10 Sympathy and Moral Worth
Against Kant™s of¬cial view (at the very least his view in the Groundwork), I
have argued that some actions not in accordance with duty can be done from
duty. The logic of Kant™s own position, I have contended, requires him to
acknowledge this. Kant™s claim that all actions from duty have moral worth
must in the end be understood to allow that some morally impermissible
actions can have such worth. I have tried to defend Kant™s claim understood
in this way.
But there is a far more familiar criticism of Kant™s views regarding moral
worth that warrants attention. Kant claims not only that all actions from
duty have such worth but that only such actions have it. The criticism is that
actions from other motives, typically from sympathy, compassion, and the
like, have moral worth. A full treatment of the moral worth (or lack thereof)
of acting from such motives is beyond the scope of my project. However, as I
try to explain regarding the motive of sympathy, some speci¬cations of this
objection seem to have force, whereas others do not.
To begin, we need a rough idea of what critics of Kant mean by acting
from sympathy. On one critic™s account, namely that of Lawrence Blum,
acting from sympathy amounts to acting from an emotion that has three
elements.28 First, it has a cognitive element. Sympathy is intentional; it is
directed at another™s weal or woe. If an agent has sympathy for another,
then he believes that she is in a certain state (e.g., one of suffering). Second
(and obviously), sympathy involves feeling. To have sympathy for a person,
an agent must at least sometimes be in a certain affective state regarding
her (e.g., pained at her suffering). Third, sympathy has a conative element.
If an agent has sympathy for another, then he wants to help the person for
her own sake. To act from sympathy is to act from this emotion. It typically
involves thinking that another is suffering, feeling distress at this suffering,
and trying to help the other for her own sake. Acting from sympathy alone
does not involve any re¬‚ection on the moral status “ for example, the moral
permissibility or even virtuousness “ of one™s action.
In his well-known Groundwork I discussion of the sympathetically attuned
person, Kant does not offer a precise account of what is involved in acting
Duty and Moral Worth 133

from sympathy. It might seem clear that what he does say is incompatible
with that suggested by his critics. Kant holds acting from sympathy to be a
kind of acting from inclination (GMS 398). If my reading of acting from
inclination is correct (see sections 1.6“8), his holding this entails that, in his
view, all of an agent™s acting from sympathy is conditional on his belief that
it will have some hedonic payoff for the agent, for example, in relieving his
pain at seeing another suffer. Some might think that no action thus condi-
tioned is really done for the sake of another person. If you genuinely act
for another™s sake, the idea goes, then your expectation of a hedonic payoff
for yourself does not enter into your motivation. But I am not convinced.
Sometimes, at least, a particular action can be conditional yet done for the
sake of another. Suppose for example that given my current ¬nancial goals,
I decide that my birthday gift to a friend must meet a certain condition: it
must cost less than ¬fty dollars. It seems that, nevertheless, I might buy the
present for the friend™s sake. Analogously, my helping a stranger might be
conditional on my expectation of hedonic bene¬t for myself “ for example,
the disappearance of my pain of seeing him suffer “ yet its being so seems
compatible with my helping the stranger for his own sake. For it does not
seem to prevent me from having as one of my ultimate ends to improve the
stranger™s condition.29 Since Kant does not construct a detailed account of
what it means to act from sympathy, it is hard to determine the extent to
which his basic concept of such action diverges from that of his critics. It
seems to me, however, that Kant™s account is compatible with the notion
that an action from sympathy is done for another™s sake.
Kant offers several arguments against the view that acting from sympathy
has moral worth. According to one speci¬cation, this view is very straight-
forward. If an action is done from sympathy, then it has moral worth; an
action™s being done from this motive is a suf¬cient condition for its being
morally good. Critics of the Kantian view have not, as a rule, held this view.
One critic, for example, denies that it is morally good for a bystander to have
sympathy for a corporate criminal™s hiding his face from cameras as he is
being led to prison. The critic would presumably also hold that it would be
devoid of moral worth to act from this sympathy, for example, by trying to
block the criminal from the cameras™ view.30 It is easy to generate other cases
in which many of us would refuse to grant moral worth to an action done
from sympathy. Two members of a band of “ethnic cleansers” are plundering
the house of a hated minority. One soldier sees another struggling long and
hard to open a glass display cabinet full of delicate antique dolls that the
other wants to steal for his girlfriend. From sympathy for the other soldier
alone, the one picks the lock. On the face of it, some actions seem to lack
moral worth, even if they are done from sympathy. I will have more to say
regarding examples such as this. For now, moving from the concrete to the
abstract, let us examine some arguments Kant suggests against the view that
all actions done from sympathy have moral worth.
Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality
134

First, in the Groundwork Kant suggests that if an action is not done from
duty, it is done from inclination (section 1.6). Since actions from sympathy
are not done from duty, they are done from inclination. Yet there is no guar-
antee that an action from any particular inclination, including sympathy,
will actually be in accordance with duty (see section 5.5). Actions from incli-
nation, including those from sympathy, sometimes con¬‚ict with duty (GMS
390, 398; Rel 30“31, English ed. 26). Since only actions in accordance with
duty can have moral worth, it is not the case that if an action is done from
sympathy, then it has moral worth. This argument rests on the premise that
only actions in accordance with duty can have moral worth. But if I am cor-
rect, the logic of Kant™s own position compels him to reject this premise
(sections 6.5“7). That an action from sympathy con¬‚icts with duty does not
in itself give Kant legitimate grounds for denying it moral worth.
Kant might locate a second basis for rejecting an action™s being done
from sympathy as suf¬cient for its having moral worth in the conditional
nature of actions from inclination. As we noted, in Kant™s view, all of an
agent™s acting from sympathy is conditional on her expectation that it will
have some hedonic bene¬t for her. But the desire for pleasure has been
foisted upon us by nature. In acting from inclination, even from sympathy,
we are (in part) pursuing an end that we have not set ourselves. Only in
acting from duty do we manifest the independence from animality that
gives our action a special worth (see sections 5.4“5). This argument rests
on two very controversial premises. The ¬rst is that all acting from sympathy
is conditional in the way Kant holds. Kant™s critics do maintain that the
sympathetic agent acts from an emotion, one component of which is an
affective state (e.g., pain at the suffering of others). Yet they would probably
not agree that the sympathetic agent™s action is conditional on the expectation
of a hedonic bene¬t to herself (e.g., the relief of her pain at the suffering
of others). The sympathetic agent, the critics might say, would help even if
she believed that doing so would, on balance, increase her own suffering
by, for example, making her more familiar with the excruciating pain of a
burn victim. Since Kant simply sets out rather than argues for his hedonistic
account of all acting from inclination, and since this account does not seem
to be deeply entrenched in ordinary moral psychology, he would not be on
strong ground in insisting the critics are misguided. Another premise on
which Kant™s argument rests is that moral value accrues only to actions that
manifest a greater independence from our sensuous nature than any actions
from inclination (see section 5.4). Yet as Kant™s critics would surely wonder,
why should we consider an action™s manifesting this greater independence
from sensuous nature to be requisite for its having moral worth? Why place
so much importance on it? It would be one thing if Kant actually held that
actions from inclination were, from all perspectives, totally unfree. But he
does not hold that. According to him, all actions are done on maxims the
construction of which involves the spontaneity of the will (section 2.2).
Duty and Moral Worth 135

More promising in my view than the ¬rst two bases is a third one Kant sug-
gests for rejecting the notion that being done from sympathy is a suf¬cient
condition for an action™s having moral value. This basis is that an action
done from duty, but not one done purely from sympathy, re¬‚ects a commit-
ment to morality. The agent takes the action to be of a kind that is morally
required. At some point, though not necessarily at the time of the action, she
has judged that it is. She acts against the background of (what I have called)
conscientious re¬‚ection “ that is, thought regarding the moral status of her
action. Even if in acting from duty she gets things wrong and violates Kant™s
moral law, her action expresses conscientiousness “ something that cannot
be said for an action done from sympathy alone. Although both an agent
who acts from sympathy alone and one who acts from duty might actually
act contrary to what morality dictates, the latter does so against the back-
ground of concern with the moral status of what he does. To the Kantian,
such concern is a necessary ingredient in a morally valuable action.
Of course, Kant™s critics might object to this use of the notion of moral
commitment. Granted, actions from duty necessarily take place against the
background of conscientious re¬‚ection, whereas actions from sympathy
alone do not. Yet it would be question-begging simply to assume that only
actions involving conscientious re¬‚ection have moral worth. Some virtue
ethicists deny that conscientious re¬‚ection need play any role whatsoever
in a morally valuable action.31 Why should we not hold that what gives an
action moral worth is simply its being done from sympathy?32
In answer I can offer only an appeal to the view (which I take to be widely
shared) that some actions done from sympathy alone do not have moral

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