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motive to abide by it was, for example, conditional on his expectation that
abiding by it would give him pleasure (KpV 9, note). The requirement that
the supreme principle of morality be a priori in the motivational sense
entails that it cannot be a material principle. It will become apparent why,
precisely, Kant thinks the supreme principle of morality must be a priori
in the motivational sense in section 5.7 when we examine his arguments
for his third criterion for the supreme principle of morality (introduced in
section 4.7), namely the criterion according to which this principle must be
such that an agent™s representing it as a law gives him suf¬cient incentive to
conform to it.
At any rate, Kant™s appealing to experience in his derivation of the For-
mula of Universal Law does not seem incompatible with all rational agents
having an empirically unconditioned motive at their disposal for abiding
by this formula. That we rely on our moral experience in pinpointing the
supreme principle of morality does not, for example, seem to entail that our
having at our disposal suf¬cient motive to comply with it is conditional on
our expectation that doing so will get us something we want.
The second sense in which, according to Kant, the supreme principle
of morality must be a priori is what I call the epistemological sense. Kant
states that a practical law, and thus the supreme principle of morality, must
be knowable a priori (see GMS 425“426 and KpV 26). In the Critique of
Pure Reason, Kant de¬nes a priori knowledge as “knowledge absolutely inde-
pendent of all experience” (KrV B 2“3). If we had a priori knowledge of a
practical principle, that is, knowledge that it was valid, this knowledge would
have to be “absolutely independent” of all experience in the following sense:
it would have to be grounded or legitimated without appeal to any particular
set of experiences.26
Why does Kant claim that a practical law must be knowable a priori?
According to him, a practical principle could be a practical law only if it
were unconditionally and universally valid, thus admitting of no possible
exception. But, in Kant™s view, if a principle can be justi¬ed only by appeal
to particular experiences, then it cannot be known that no exception to it is
possible.27 That experience has thus far shown that there is no exception to a
principle fails to entail that there will be none. To bring the point to the issue
at hand, that experience has thus far shown that a given principle generates
all the duties we take ourselves to have does not entail that the principle
will always generate all these duties. For it to be known that there can be no
exception to a principle, the principle™s validity must be grounded a priori.
Does this apriority requirement clash with Kant™s view that the deriva-
tion of the Formula of Universal Law requires an appeal to experience?
In section i.3 we discussed Kant™s distinction between the derivation of the
supreme principle of morality and its deduction. A successful derivation
would show that if there is a supreme principle of morality, then it is a certain
principle. A deduction would establish that this principle is universally and
The Formula of Universal Law 91

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

derivation of the Formula of Universal Law. Korsgaard™s interpretation has
serious textual and philosophical shortcomings (section 4.2), and one ver-
sion of the traditional reading clearly fails (4.4). The other version of the
traditional reading, that defended by Bruce Aune, presents greater dif¬cul-
ties. However, I have, I hope, shown that the text of Kant™s derivations in both
Groundwork I and II permit the criterial reading. Whether this reading ulti-
mately prevails is largely a question of whether it renders Kant™s derivation
more philosophically powerful and interesting than does Aune™s construal.
To see whether it does, we need to probe the plausibility both of the crite-
ria Kant offers for the supreme principle of morality, and of his argument
that, upon re¬‚ection, no principle besides the Formula of Universal Law
(or something equivalent) remains as a viable candidate for meeting all of
them. The chapters that follow do just that.
The second main goal of this chapter has been to sketch a preliminary ac-
count of the derivation™s ¬rst step. I have located in Kant™s text several criteria
for the supreme principle of morality in addition to those belonging to his
basic concept of it. It will be helpful to have them in view. The supreme
principle of morality must be such that: (1) all and only actions conform-
ing to this principle because the principle requires it “ that is, all and only
actions done from duty “ have moral worth; (2) the moral worth of conform-
ing to this principle from duty stems from its motive, not from its effects;
(3) an agent™s representing this principle as a law, that is, a universally and
unconditionally binding principle, gives him suf¬cient incentive to conform
to it; (4) a plausible set of duties (relative to ordinary rational knowledge of
morals) can be derived from this principle. At this point, the criteria might
seem somewhat vague, unmotivated, and disjointed. Chapter 5 attempts to
show in detail what these criteria mean, how Kant defends them, and how
they relate to one another. Chapter 6 probes whether (or to what extent)
we should accept criterion 1. This criterion is obviously controversial. It is
also crucial to Kant™s derivation. As I hope becomes apparent in Chapter 7,
this criterion (or, more precisely, one component of it) serves as the ultimate
basis for a strong Kantian argument against many consequentialist candi-
dates for the supreme principle of morality.
5

Criteria for the Supreme Principle of Morality




5.1 Plan of Discussion: Focus on First Criterion
If the argument of Chapter 4 has been successful, then it is apparent that
in the Groundwork, from the Preface all the way up to the statement of
the Formula of Universal Law in Section II, Kant develops criteria that the
supreme principle of morality must ful¬ll. According to his basic concept,
already implicit in the Preface, this principle must be practical, absolutely
necessary, binding on all rational agents, and serve as the supreme norm
for the moral evaluation of action (section I.2). Later in the Groundwork
Kant develops four additional criteria (Chapter 4). The supreme principle
of morality must be such that: (1) all and only actions conforming to this
principle because the principle requires it “ that is, all and only actions
done from duty “ have moral worth; (2) the moral worth of conforming
to this principle from duty stems from its motive, not from its effects; (3)
an agent™s representing this principle as a law, that is, a universally and
unconditionally binding principle, gives him suf¬cient incentive to conform
to it; (4) a plausible set of duties (relative to ordinary rational knowledge of
morals) can be derived from this principle.
Until Chapter 8, I have little more to say about the fourth criterion. Kant
appeals to ordinary rational knowledge of morals in developing criteria 1“3.
I suspect that part of the reason he introduces criterion 4 is because he makes
this appeal. He recognizes that it would be intolerably odd to base criteria
for the supreme principle of morality on ordinary moral consciousness, yet
to champion a principle that clashed dramatically with this consciousness as
the only viable candidate for the supreme principle of morality. After all, if he
were prepared to dismiss completely the judgment of commonsense moral
reason regarding which moral duties we have, then what grounds would he
have to rely on it in developing criteria for the supreme principle of morality?
This chapter focuses on the ¬rst three criteria for the supreme principle
of morality that Kant develops in addition to those contained in his basic

95
Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality
96

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


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

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

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


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

to a principle from duty. An agent does so, I suggest, only if each of two
conditions is met.
According to the ¬rst condition, the agent™s incentive for acting must
stem from the notion that the principle is universally and unconditionally
binding and that it requires the action. In actions from duty, asserts Kant,
an agent™s will is determined by the “representation of the law in itself,” not by
any of the action™s “hoped-for effects” (GMS 401); and, he says, “an action
from duty is to put aside entirely the in¬‚uence of inclination” (GMS 400).8
Brief discussion of the latter statement will help shed light on the former,
enabling us to see that Kant embraces this ¬rst condition.
That for Kant inclination has no in¬‚uence in an action done from duty
strongly suggests that in his view only morally required actions can be done
from duty.9 For how in performing a morally permissible but not required
action could one put aside entirely the in¬‚uence of inclination?10 As an
example of such an action, imagine a typical case of someone™s cutting his
hair. No matter how morally re¬‚ective or concerned the person may be,
in cutting his hair he would not be putting aside entirely the in¬‚uence
of inclination. There would be other morally permissible yet not required
things he could do, for example, watch television or wash dishes. Moral
grounds alone would not determine that he cut his hair rather than do
one of these other things. As a basis for this choice, he must appeal to his
inclinations “ for example, his desire to be comfortable in this hot, humid
weather. If the person is to act at all, he must have some incentive on the
basis of which he chooses between the actions available to him. But for Kant,
in morally permissible yet not required actions, this incentive could only be
some inclination. Therefore, in Kant™s view only morally required actions
can be done from duty. Since Kant holds that an action has moral worth if
and only if it is done from duty, he holds in effect that only morally required
actions can have moral worth.
When Kant says at GMS 401 that in actions from duty an agent™s will is
determined by the representation of the law in itself, one might be tempted
to take him to mean simply that in such actions, the agent™s will is determined
by the Formula of Universal Law. After all, Kant does often refer to this
formula as “the law.” But it is important to resist this temptation. At this
point in the text, “the law” does not designate the Formula of Universal
Law, for Kant has not yet derived this formula. That is what he is in the
very midst of doing. What Kant means in this passage is that in actions
from duty, an agent™s will is determined by her representing a principle to
herself as a law “ that is, as unconditionally and universally binding. Since
only actions an agent takes to be morally required can be done from duty,
Kant is suggesting that, in actions from duty, an agent™s will is determined
by her notion that an unconditionally and universally binding principle
requires these actions. For an agent to represent a principle as a law, she must
be (or at some point have been) conscious of this principle, perhaps in a
Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality
100

rough-and-ready form.11 For Kant, when we do something from duty, we
derive our incentive to do it from the notion that doing it is required by a
principle we represent as a law.
There is a further feature of Kant™s view that I merely note in passing.
Kant holds that in us, human beings, the representation of a principle as a
law determines the will through the feeling of respect. Roughly, our repre-
senting a principle to ourselves as a law and being aware of what it requires
produces in us a feeling of respect for it, a feeling that constitutes an in-
centive for conforming to the principle. Kant™s statement that “an action
from duty is to put aside entirely the in¬‚uence of inclination” continues
thus: “hence there is left for the will nothing that could determine it except
objectively the law and subjectively pure respect for this practical law” (GMS
400). Kant™s discussion of respect is very complex “ he develops the concept
in detail in the second Critique (see KpV 71“89) “ and I do not pursue it
here.12 For our purposes, the important point is that in Kant™s view an agent
acts from duty only if her incentive for acting stems ultimately from her
notion that her action is required by a practical law.
It is helpful to relate the understanding of acting from duty suggested
by this ¬rst condition to contemporary discussion of related issues. Led by
Barbara Herman, some philosophers attribute to Kant a distinction between
acting from duty as a “primary motive” and acting from duty as a “limiting
condition” (or, equivalently, “secondary motive”).13 Acting from duty as a
primary motive involves meeting the ¬rst condition we mentioned for acting
from duty. It occurs only when an agent™s incentive for acting is the notion
that the action is required by moral principle. In acting from duty as a
limiting condition, however, an agent™s will need not be determined by the
notion that the action is morally required. An agent acts from duty as a
limiting condition when his conduct is governed by a commitment to doing
what duty requires. A person who cut his hair acted from duty as a limiting
condition if the following was the case. Had cutting his hair been contrary
to duty, then, since it was contrary to duty, the person would have refrained
from doing it. To act from duty as a limiting condition, the person obviously
need not have as an incentive the notion that his cutting his hair is morally
required. When an agent acts from duty as a limiting condition, he need
not have as his incentive the notion that he is morally obligated to act as he
does. He is often not morally required to act as he does, for example, in a
typical case of cutting one™s hair. To use Herman™s vocabulary, only actions
done from duty as a primary motive have moral worth, in Kant™s view.14
However, I do not employ this vocabulary myself. Kant would, I believe,
recognize a distinction between acting from duty (as a “primary motive”)
and governing one™s conduct by a commitment to do what moral principle
requires. According to one of Kant™s conceptions (what I call the whole
character view in section 3.7), a human being has a good will by virtue of
governing his conduct by a commitment to do what duty requires. And
Criteria for the Supreme Principle of Morality 101

given Kant™s view of human nature, especially his conviction that human
inclinations are often incentives for immoral action, a human being™s good
will will sometimes manifest itself in actions from duty. For in cases in which
an agent is inclined to do wrong, the only way he can do right, and thus
manifest his commitment to morality, is to rely on the incentive provided to
him through his representation of moral principle. Of course, a person with
a good will does not constantly perform morally required actions; some of
what he does is morally permissible but not required, and thus cannot be
done from duty (as a “primary motive”). Although Kant would acknowledge
a distinction between an agent™s acting from duty (as a “primary motive”)
and her governing her conduct by a commitment to conforming to moral
principle, he does not refer to individual cases of her doing the latter but not
the former as ones of acting from duty.15 However entrenched the vocabulary
of acting from duty as a “limiting condition” or “secondary motive” has
become in contemporary discussions, it is not Kant™s. For simplicity™s sake,
I do not adopt it. In my terminology, an agent acts “from duty” only in cases
in which his incentive for acting stems from the notion that doing so is
morally required. Only in such cases, suggests Kant, does his action have
moral worth.
Although Kant holds that actions from duty exclude the in¬‚uence of
inclination, he does not maintain that having an inclination to do something
is incompatible with doing it from duty. This point has recently been made
by several philosophers, and I do not belabor it here.16 According to Kant,
an agent™s motive for doing something can be that the supreme principle
of morality requires it, even if the agent wants to do it. I might have an
inclination to keep my promise to a friendly acquaintance. But that does
not entail that my motive for keeping it could not be that the supreme
principle of morality requires it.17 Kant implicitly distinguishes between an
action™s being accompanied by an inclination and its being motivated by
one “ that is, its being done from inclination.18 The former is compatible
with the action™s having moral worth.
But what about actions done both from duty and from inclination? Could
there be such actions on Kant™s scheme, and would any of them have moral
worth? These questions have recently been at the center of intricate and
extensive debate.19 Exploring them in detail would take us far from our
central concern: Kant™s derivation of the supreme principle of morality.
Brief consideration of these questions, however, can lead us to a second
condition that must be met if an agent is to act from duty.
As we have noted, Kant says that “an action from duty is to put aside
entirely the in¬‚uence of inclination” (GMS 400; see also KpV 72 and 81).
Re¬‚ecting on Kant™s theory of agency and his account of nonmoral action
leads us to a better understanding of this dictum.20 Kant embraces the Incor-
poration Thesis, according to which no incentive can determine an agent™s
will unless she has incorporated it into a maxim (see sections 1.2 and 2.2).
Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality
102

This thesis applies not only to inclinations as incentives but also to moral
principle as incentive. The thought that an action is required by moral prin-
ciple can serve as an agent™s motive for acting only if she has taken account
of this thought in some self-given rule. Let us now consider an alleged case
of acting both from duty and from inclination. Suppose that from both an
agent keeps a promise. She has incorporated into her maxim both an in-
clination, one to preserve professional ties with a business associate, and
the thought that keeping the promise is required by a moral principle. Her
maxim would be something like this: “Because I want to maintain my busi-
ness reputation and because keeping promises is morally required, I will do
what it takes to keep my promises to my business associates.” Contrary to
Kant™s dictum, in acting on this maxim the in¬‚uence of inclination is obvi-
ously not entirely excluded. For the maxim makes the agent™s doing what
it takes to keep her promise conditional on her wanting to maintain her
business reputation. She will not act on her maxim unless she has a desire
to maintain it. Therefore, acting on this maxim would not amount to acting
from duty. When Kant suggests that an action from duty excludes entirely
the in¬‚uence of inclination, he is implying that an agent who acts from duty
must take the action™s being morally required as itself generating enough
of an incentive for her to do it. The second condition on conforming to a
moral principle from duty “ that is, conforming to it because the principle
requires it “ is that one must take the action™s being morally required itself
to generate a suf¬cient incentive for performing it.
But is it really the case that no actions done both from duty and from incli-
nation could meet this second condition? Suppose someone acted on the fol-
lowing, rather awkward, maxim: “Because I want to maintain my good busi-
ness reputation and because keeping promises is morally required (which is
itself suf¬cient incentive for me to keep them), I will do what it takes to keep
my promises to my business associates.” It appears that the agent would be
acting not only from inclination, but also from duty, thereby ful¬lling the
second condition. Yet the agent would not actually count as acting from
inclination. Kant, I have argued, has a hedonistic view of acting from incli-
nation (sections 1.6“8). According to him, if an agent acts from inclination,
his performing the action is conditional on his expectation that realizing its
object will give him pleasure. Suppose that from my inclination to preserve
my professional ties with an associate, I do what it takes to keep my promise
to him. In this case, my taking the necessary steps to keep my promise is
conditional on my expectation that preserving these ties will have a hedonic
payoff. I do not treat the notion that keeping promises is morally required as
a suf¬cient incentive for doing what it takes to keep my promise. Therefore,
I cannot be acting on the maxim in question: one in which an agent does
treat the moral necessity of keeping promises as a suf¬cient incentive for his
action. If one genuinely performs an action from inclination in Kant™s sense,
then she cannot ful¬ll Kant™s second condition on acting from duty “ she
Criteria for the Supreme Principle of Morality 103

cannot, at the same time, hold that the action™s being morally required itself
engenders a suf¬cient incentive for performing it. She must acknowledge
that a further incentive is needed as well, namely the expectation that doing
the action will have some hedonic payoff. Kant does not recognize the possibility
of an action™s being done at the same time from inclination and from duty.
If, contrary to this conclusion, Kant held that a particular action could be
done at the same time from duty and from inclination, then he would also
be committed to the view that a hedonically conditioned action could have
moral worth. For Kant, of course, all actions done from duty have moral
worth. In the second Critique, however, Kant says:

Now, because all determining grounds of the will except the one and only pure prac-
tical law of reason (the moral law) are without exception empirical and so, as such,
belong to the principle of happiness, they must without exception be separated from
the supreme moral principle and never be incorporated with it as a condition, since
this would destroy all moral worth just as any empirical admixture to geometrical
principles would destroy all mathematical evidence. (KpV 93)

In the Analytic of the second Critique, Kant offers a purely hedonistic account
of happiness, according to which happiness is “a rational being™s conscious-
ness of the agreeableness of life uninterruptedly accompanying his whole
existence” (KpV 22).21 For Kant the term “agreeableness” (Annehmlichkeit)
designates a kind of sensation (KpV 22). Since to experience this sensa-
tion is to experience pleasure (see, e.g., KpV 23), Kant is suggesting at KpV
93 that an action™s being conditional on the expectation that it will result
in some hedonic bene¬t for the agent destroys its moral worth. In effect,
Kant denies the possibility that a hedonically conditioned action could have
moral worth. That he denies this is, of course, consistent with my contention
that he does not recognize the possibility of an action™s being done at the
same time from inclination and from duty (thus accruing moral worth).
To employ contemporary terminology, I am denying that in Kant™s view
there can be “overdetermined” actions “ actions done from both duty and
inclination, where either motive by itself would have suf¬ced.22 For Kant an
agent simply does not count as acting from inclination unless the motive
of duty would not suf¬ce for the action. All actions from inclination are
hedonically conditioned.
In this section we have addressed some complex issues regarding Kant™s
conception of acting from duty. But our main aim has been to clarify when
an agent conforms to a principle because the principle requires it. We have
found that for this to occur, two conditions must be met. First, the agent™s
incentive for acting must stem from the notion that the principle (repre-
sented 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 short, when an agent acts from duty, his notion
that his action is morally required provides him with a suf¬cient incentive
Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality
104

for acting. In effect, our investigation has shown that a principle to which
an agent could conform from duty would have to meet one of the criteria
we discussed earlier for the supreme principle of morality. According to
this other criterion, which is the focus of section 5.7, the supreme principle
must be such that an agent™s representing this principle as a law “ that is,
a universally and unconditionally binding principle “ gives him suf¬cient
incentive to conform to it. As we have seen, if, from duty, an agent conforms
his action to a principle, then his (in itself suf¬cient) incentive for acting
stems from the notion that the action is required by an unconditionally and
universally binding principle: a principle the agent has represented as a law.
Although in this section I have set out two necessary conditions for an
action™s being done from duty in Kant™s sense, it has not been my intention
to offer ( jointly) suf¬cient conditions for an action™s being done from this
motive. Before I try to do this (section 6.9), I need to make explicit two
further necessary conditions for an action™s being done from duty.
At any rate, this section and the preceding one have led us to a better
understanding of what Kant means when he suggests in Groundwork I that
we cannot hold a principle to be the supreme principle of morality unless
we can maintain that all and only actions that conform to it because the
principle requires it have moral worth. For Kant, maintaining this commits
one to the view that all actions with moral worth must actually conform to
the supreme principle of morality (section 5.2). It also commits one to the
view that in all actions with moral worth the agent™s incentive is ultimately
that the action is morally required “ an incentive that the agent himself takes
to be a suf¬cient basis for his action.


5.4 All Actions from Duty Have Moral Worth
In addition to understanding Kant™s ¬rst criterion, we need to isolate his
grounds for it. We have already considered Kant™s grounds for holding that
only actions that are in accordance with the supreme principle of morality
can have moral worth (section 5.2). We now need to examine why he claims
that whatever the supreme principle of morality is, we must be able to hold
that all and only actions conforming to it because the principle requires
such conformity have moral worth. Put more simply, we need to examine
Kant™s grounds for claiming that all and only actions from duty have moral
worth. I propose to do so in this and the next section. This section is devoted
to Kant™s claim that if an action is done from duty, then it has moral worth “
that is, all actions done from duty have moral worth. The next section (5.5)
focuses on Kant™s claim that if an action has moral worth, then it is done
from duty “ that is, no action done from a motive other than duty has moral
worth.
A suf¬cient condition for an action™s having moral worth, claims Kant
in Groundwork I, is that it be done from duty.23 But Kant does not there
Criteria for the Supreme Principle of Morality 105

present an argument for this claim. He sets out grounds for rejecting the
notion that actions from motives other than duty have moral worth (section
5.5). Yet he apparently ¬nds it unnecessary to argue that all actions done
from duty possess such worth. Consider, for example, Kant™s discussion of
self-preservation. Kant suggests that we have a duty to preserve our lives and
that, the vast majority of the time, when we take steps to preserve them, we
are acting from an immediate inclination to stay alive. “But on this account,”
Kant says, “the often anxious care that most people take of [their lives] still
has no inner worth and their maxim has no moral content. They look after
their lives in conformity with duty but not from duty” (GMS 397“398). Kant
simply assumes here that, if a person preserves his life not from inclination
but from duty, “his maxim has moral content,” and thus acting on it has
moral worth. It appears that while Kant thinks he needs to help us to see
that actions done from immediate inclination fail to have moral worth, he
supposes we ¬nd it obvious from the very outset that actions done from duty
possess moral worth. He assumes that this view is obvious to “ordinary moral
reason.” If we re¬‚ect on our moral judgments, we will very quickly ¬nd that,
in our view, doing what is morally required because it is morally required
has moral value.
At bottom Kant seems to take it as given that, according to ordinary
moral reason, if an action is done from duty, then it has moral worth. Kant
does, however, suggest an account of what is so special about such actions:

The human being is a being with needs, insofar as he belongs to the sensible world,
and to this extent his reason certainly has a commission from the side of his sensibility
which it cannot refuse, to attend to its interest and to form practical maxims with
a view to happiness. . . . But he is nevertheless not so completely an animal as to be
indifferent to all that reason says on its own and to use reason merely as a tool for
the satisfaction of his needs as a sensible being. For, that he has reason does not at
all raise him in worth above mere animality if reason is to serve him only for the
sake of what instinct accomplishes for animals; reason would in that case be only a
particular mode nature had used to equip the human being for the same end to
which it has destined animals, without destining him to a higher end. (KpV 61“62)

For Kant, in all acting an agent employs practical reason. (Without the
faculty of reason, he could not give himself maxims, that is, the rules on
which, in Kant™s view, an agent acts.) When an agent acts from inclination,
she always to some extent employs her reason as a tool for the satisfaction
of her needs as a sensible being. In acting from many inclinations “ for
example, those for food, shelter, or sex “ an agent is in a straightforward
way aiming to satisfy such needs. But what about acting from an inclination
to write a good novel or to solve a mathematical puzzle? Even in acting
from these inclinations, which might not seem to have much to do with
her needs as a sensible being, an agent would to some extent be using her
reason as a tool to satisfy such needs. For Kant, one of the needs we have
Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality
106

as sensual beings is to experience pleasure and avoid pain. In all actions
from inclination, an agent™s acting is conditional on his expectation that
doing so will have some hedonic bene¬t. This is true with regard to actions
done from the inclination to solve a mathematical puzzle just as it is with
regard to actions done from the inclination for sex. Nature has foisted on
all animals, including human beings, a need for pleasure. In all of our
acting from inclination, we necessarily take account of this need to some
extent. When an agent acts from duty, however, he is not necessarily using
his reason as a tool for the satisfaction of his needs as a sensible being.
His having suf¬cient incentive to act does not depend on his expectation
that acting will enable him to gain some hedonic bene¬t. That actions from
duty are not tied to sensible needs, which we share with other animals, gives
them a special value. In acting from duty we fully elevate ourselves above the
beasts.24


5.5 Only Actions from Duty Have Moral Worth
To defend the view that only actions from duty have moral worth, Kant
highlights two conditions on actions with such worth, both of which he
takes to be accepted by everyday moral consciousness. He then intimates
that no action from inclination could meet these conditions.
Kant introduces the ¬rst condition in the Groundwork Preface:
[I]n the case of what is to be morally good, it is not enough that it conform with the
moral law; but it must also be done for the sake of the law; without this, that conformity
is only very contingent and precarious, since a ground that is not moral will indeed
now and then produce actions in conformity with the law, but it will also often
produce actions contrary to the law. (GMS 390)

As we discussed earlier (section 5.2), Kant holds that only actions that con-
form with duty can be morally good, that is, have moral worth. Kant here
points to a condition on a morally valuable action: it must be done from
a motive that will not produce actions contrary to duty. In the Groundwork,
Kant maintains that acting “for the sake of the law” “ that is, doing some-
thing because you take it to be required by moral principle “ meets this
condition, whereas acting from inclination does not.
Kant invokes this condition in his famous discussion of the “philan-
thropist” (or “friend of humanity”) (GMS 398). Before undertaking this
discussion, Kant suggests a distinction between acting from a mediate in-
clination (self-interest) and acting from an immediate inclination (GMS
397). A mediate inclination to do something is an inclination to do it for
the sake of ful¬lling some further inclination. The shopkeeper in Kant™s ex-
ample presumably has a mediate inclination to charge his customers fairly.
He wants to do it but merely as a means to satisfying another end, for ex-
ample, that of having a thriving business. An immediate inclination to do
Criteria for the Supreme Principle of Morality 107

something is an inclination to do the thing itself. Since he is “sympatheti-
cally attuned,” the philanthropist presumably has an immediate inclination
to promote the well-being of others. His inclination to help them is not
one that he strives to satisfy merely to ful¬ll some further desire. Kant, of
course, denies that acting from this inclination has moral worth. Doing so,
he says, is like acting from other inclinations, for example, the inclination
to honor, “which, if it fortunately lights upon what is in fact in the com-
mon interest and in conformity with duty and hence honorable, deserves
praise and encouragement but not esteem” (GMS 398).25 Here Kant un-
derscores the possibility that, in acting from an immediate inclination to
help others, that is, from sympathy, an agent might do something that con-
¬‚icts with duty. (To echo a well-known example, someone might, because
of his sympathetic temper, have an immediate inclination to help someone
he sees late one night quietly struggling to move a sculpture out the back
door of an art museum and into his waiting car.26 Acting from this incli-
nation might presumably be contrary to duty.) Since the philanthropist is
acting from an immediate inclination, and thereby doing something that
might fail to accord with duty, his action, Kant suggests, does not have moral
worth.
Yet, as Herman emphasizes, in his discussion of the philanthropist Kant
points to a further condition he places on an action™s having moral worth.27
Kant says that the maxim on which the philanthropist acts “lacks moral
content, namely that of doing such actions not from inclination but from
duty” (GMS 398). Kant does not tell us explicitly what the philanthropist™s
maxim is. From the description Kant provides, however, we can assume
that it is something like the following: “Because I want to help others, I
will promote their happiness.” This maxim, says Kant, lacks moral content,
and it is not hard to pinpoint a reason why. The maxim re¬‚ects no com-
mitment to the action™s being morally permissible, that is, in accordance
with what moral principle requires. In other words, the maxim expresses no
interest in the rightness of the kind of action it speci¬es, namely promot-
ing others™ happiness. If we re¬‚ect on our ordinary moral understanding,
suggests Kant, we ¬nd that we are willing to attribute moral worth only to
actions done on maxims that (if fully speci¬ed) re¬‚ect a commitment to
doing only what is morally permissible. The grounds of a morally valuable
action “ its motive “ must express an interest in the action™s moral right-
ness. This is Kant™s second condition for an action™s having moral worth.
It is a necessary condition, not a suf¬cient one. That an agent does some-
thing against the background of a commitment to doing what is morally
permissible does not entail that his action has moral worth. What the agent
does might be morally permissible but not morally required. And for Kant
only morally required actions can have moral worth. According to Kant, of
course, actions from duty ful¬ll this second condition. In them, an agent™s
basis for acting “ his maxim “ obviously expresses concern for his action™s
Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality
108

moral rightness, for it invokes the notion that actions of its kind are morally
required.
As Herman has pointed out, Kant would insist that an action might ful¬ll
the ¬rst condition for moral value without ful¬lling the second.28 Suppose,
for example, that the philanthropist™s immediate inclination to help others
were such that it served as the basis only for morally permissible actions.
In that case, the philanthropist™s bene¬cent actions would ful¬ll Kant™s ¬rst
condition; they would be done on a motive that always produced actions
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
Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality
118

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
120

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
122

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

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