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Such a project would address such questions as, What is a duty? What kinds of duties are there? What is the good? What kinds of goods are there? These appear to be metaphysical questions. Any principle used to provide such categorizations appears to be a principle of metaphysics, in a sense, but Kant did not see them as external moral truths that exist independently of rational agents.

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Moral requirements, instead, are rational principles that tell us what we have overriding reason to do. Metaphysical principles of this sort are always sought out and established by a priori methods.

Do We Have Moral Freedom?

However, the considerations he offers for an a priori method do not all obviously draw on this sort of rationale. The following are three considerations favoring a priori methods that he emphasizes repeatedly. The first is that, as Kant and others have conceived of it, ethics initially requires an analysis of our moral concepts. Given that the analysis of concepts is an a priori matter, to the degree that ethics consists of such an analysis, ethics is a priori as a well.

Of course, even were we to agree with Kant that ethics should begin with analysis, and that analysis is or should be an entirely a priori undertaking, this would not explain why all of the fundamental questions of moral philosophy must be pursued a priori. Indeed, one of the most important projects of moral philosophy, for Kant, is to show that we, as rational agents, are bound by moral requirements and that fully rational agents would necessarily comply with them. Kant admits that his analytical arguments for the CI are inadequate on their own because the most they can show is that the CI is the supreme principle of morality if there is such a principle.

Kant must therefore address the possibility that morality itself is an illusion by showing that the CI really is an unconditional requirement of reason that applies to us. This is the second reason Kant held that fundamental issues in ethics must be addressed with an a priori method: The ultimate subject matter of ethics is the nature and content of the principles that necessarily determine a rational will. Fundamental issues in moral philosophy must also be settled a priori because of the nature of moral requirements themselves, or so Kant thought.

This is a third reason he gives for an a priori method, and it appears to have been of great importance to Kant: Moral requirements present themselves as being unconditionally necessary. But an a posteriori method seems ill-suited to discovering and establishing what we must do whether we feel like doing it or not; surely such a method could only tell us what we actually do. Kant argued that empirical observations could only deliver conclusions about, for instance, the relative advantages of moral behavior in various circumstances or how pleasing it might be in our own eyes or the eyes of others.

Such findings clearly would not support the unconditional necessity of moral requirements. To appeal to a posteriori considerations would thus result in a tainted conception of moral requirements. It would view them as demands for which compliance is not unconditionally necessary, but rather necessary only if additional considerations show it to be advantageous, optimific or in some other way felicitous. Thus, Kant argued that if moral philosophy is to guard against undermining the unconditional necessity of obligation in its analysis and defense of moral thought, it must be carried out entirely a priori.

Nevertheless, this idea of a good will is an important commonsense touchstone to which Kant returns throughout his works. The idea of a good will is supposed to be the idea of one who is committed only to make decisions that she holds to be morally worthy and who takes moral considerations in themselves to be conclusive reasons for guiding her behavior. This sort of disposition or character is something we all highly value, Kant thought.

He believes we value it without limitation or qualification. By this, we believe, he means primarily two things. First, unlike anything else, there is no conceivable circumstance in which we regard our own moral goodness as worth forfeiting simply in order to obtain some desirable object.

By contrast, the value of all other desirable qualities, such as courage or cleverness, can be diminished, forgone, or sacrificed under certain circumstances: Courage may be laid aside if it requires injustice, and it is better not to be witty if it requires cruelty. There is no implicit restriction or qualification to the effect that a commitment to give moral considerations decisive weight is worth honoring, but only under such and such circumstances. Second, possessing and maintaining a steadfast commitment to moral principles is the very condition under which anything else is worth having or pursuing.

The value of a good will thus cannot be that it secures certain valuable ends, whether of our own or of others, since their value is entirely conditional on our possessing and maintaining a good will. Indeed, since a good will is good under any condition, its goodness must not depend on any particular conditions obtaining. Human beings inevitably feel this Law as a constraint on their natural desires, which is why such Laws, as applied to human beings, are imperatives and duties.

A human will in which the Moral Law is decisive is motivated by the thought of duty. A holy or divine will, if it exists, though good, would not be good because it is motivated by thoughts of duty because such a will does not have natural inclinations and so necessarily fulfills moral requirements without feeling constrained to do so. Kant confirms this by comparing motivation by duty with other sorts of motives, in particular, with motives of self-interest, self-preservation, sympathy and happiness.


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He argues that a dutiful action from any of these motives, however praiseworthy it may be, does not express a good will. Only then would the action have moral worth. Many object that we do not think better of actions done for the sake of duty than actions performed out of emotional concern or sympathy for others, especially those things we do for friends and family. What is crucial in actions that express a good will is that in conforming to duty a perfectly virtuous person always would, and so ideally we should, recognize and be moved by the thought that our conformity is morally obligatory.

The motivational structure of the agent should be arranged so that she always treats considerations of duty as sufficient reasons for conforming to those requirements. In other words, we should have a firm commitment not to perform an action if it is morally forbidden and to perform an action if it is morally required. Having a good will, in this sense, is compatible with having feelings and emotions of various kinds, and even with aiming to cultivate some of them in order to counteract desires and inclinations that tempt us to immorality.

Jonathan B. Wight, Ethics in Economics, An Introduction to Moral Frameworks

Suppose for the sake of argument we agree with Kant. We now need to know what distinguishes the principle that lays down our duties from these other motivating principles, and so makes motivation by it the source of unqualified value. According to Kant, what is singular about motivation by duty is that it consists of bare respect for the moral law. What naturally comes to mind is this: Duties are rules or laws of some sort combined with some sort of felt constraint or incentive on our choices, whether from external coercion by others or from our own powers of reason.

For instance, the bylaws of a club lay down duties for its officers and enforce them with sanctions. City and state laws establish the duties of citizens and enforce them with coercive legal power. Thinking we are duty bound is simply respecting, as such, certain laws pertaining to us. Respect for such laws could hardly be thought valuable. For another, our motive in conforming our actions to civic and other laws is rarely unconditional respect. We also have an eye toward doing our part in maintaining civil or social order, toward punishments or loss of standing and reputation in violating such laws, and other outcomes of lawful behavior.

Indeed, we respect these laws to the degree, but only to the degree, that they do not violate values, laws or principles we hold more dear. Yet Kant thinks that, in acting from duty, we are not at all motivated by a prospective outcome or some other extrinsic feature of our conduct except insofar as these are requirements of duty itself.

We are motivated by the mere conformity of our will to law as such. Human persons inevitably have respect for the moral law even though we are not always moved by it and even though we do not always comply with the moral standards that we nonetheless recognize as authoritative. The force of moral requirements as reasons is that we cannot ignore them no matter how circumstances might conspire against any other consideration.

The Morality of Freedom

Basic moral requirements retain their reason-giving force under any circumstance, they have universal validity. So, whatever else may be said of basic moral requirements, their content is universal. Only a universal law could be the content of a requirement that has the reason-giving force of morality.

This is the principle which motivates a good will, and which Kant holds to be the fundamental principle of all of morality. Kant holds that the fundamental principle of our moral duties is a categorical imperative. It is an imperative because it is a command addressed to agents who could follow it but might not e. Take the cannoli. It is categorical in virtue of applying to us unconditionally, or simply because we possesses rational wills, without reference to any ends that we might or might not have.

It does not, in other words, apply to us on the condition that we have antecedently adopted some goal for ourselves. A hypothetical imperative is a command that also applies to us in virtue of our having a rational will, but not simply in virtue of this. It requires us to exercise our wills in a certain way given we have antecedently willed an end. A hypothetical imperative is thus a command in a conditional form. For Kant, willing an end involves more than desiring; it requires actively choosing or committing to the end rather than merely finding oneself with a passive desire for it.


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  4. Further, there is nothing irrational in failing to will means to what one desires. The condition under which a hypothetical imperative applies to us, then, is that we will some end. Now, for the most part, the ends we will we might not have willed, and some ends that we do not will we might nevertheless have willed. But there is at least conceptual room for the idea of a natural or inclination-based end that we must will.

    The distinction between ends that we might or might not will and those, if any, we necessarily will as the kinds of natural beings we are, is the basis for his distinction between two kinds of hypothetical imperatives. If the end is one that we might or might not will — that is, it is a merely possible end — the imperative is problematic.

    Almost all non-moral, rational imperatives are problematic, since there are virtually no ends that we necessarily will as human beings. As it turns out, the only non-moral end that we will, as a matter of natural necessity, is our own happiness.

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    Any imperative that applied to us because we will our own happiness would thus be an assertoric imperative. Rationality, Kant thinks, can issue no imperative if the end is indeterminate, and happiness is an indeterminate end. Since Kant presents moral and prudential rational requirements as first and foremost demands on our wills rather than on external acts, moral and prudential evaluation is first and foremost an evaluation of the will our actions express.

    Likewise, while actions, feelings or desires may be the focus of other moral views, for Kant practical irrationality, both moral and prudential, focuses mainly on our willing. That is, do such imperatives tell us to take the necessary means to our ends or give up our ends wide scope or do they simply tell us that, if we have an end, then take the necessary means to it.