Duty And Reason As The Ultimate Principle

: Kant Essay, Research Paper

Duty and Reason as the Ultimate Principle: Kant

Kant claims that only actions from duty have moral worth. In other words, actions from motives other than duty deserve no positive moral evaluation. I like and agree with Kant?s view because I believe that a good will makes a good person. I also believe we have all been put on this earth to do our duty. We should do our duty just for duty alone; we should not be concerned about anything else. I will begin by discussing Kant?s distinction between what is good merely as a means to an end and what is intrinsically good, or good in itself.

A good will is not good because of what it accomplishes; it is good through its willing alone. Contrary to some people?s belief, to be healthy, wealthy, or happy does not guarantee that a person is morally praiseworthy. Many people object to this statement because these characteristics are good features of human nature and benefits of a good life. However, they have value only under appropriate conditions, since they may be used either for good or for evil. For example, Hitler had all these characteristics, but he had an ill will. Thus, he was undeniably not a good person. Therefore, these characteristics do not make the possessor a good person.

I will use Bill Gates as another rebuttal to the objection I mentioned earlier. Bill Gates has been the richest man in America for a few years. He undoubtedly has more money than he will ever spend, but just recently has started to donate some of his money to charity. Some people would say he donates money because he has a good will, and, therefore, he is a morally good person. But did Bill Gates really donate money because he had a good will? No, I feel he gave money to charity because of social pressure, not a good will. He would have started donating much earlier if he would have had a good will. However, it wasn?t until he and Microsoft started to get a bad, greedy reputation that he started to donate his money. Therefore, Bill Gates did not donate because of a good will, and is not a morally good person for doing so.

A good will is easily distinguished from one that acts from an indirect inclination, doing the right thing merely as a means to an end, for a selfish purpose. For many people, the difficult thing is to distinguish a good will from a will that has a direct inclination to do something that is right. For instance, it is not surprising that many people think if you are helping others because you have love in your mind, you have moral virtue. However, Kant does not believe this is true. There are people so sympathetically constituted that without any motive of selfishness they find an inner satisfaction in spreading joy and helping others. Many of us look at these people as having moral virtue. I must admit I was one of these people before I understood and took a liking to Kant?s view. To Kant, having a natural inclination to do what coincides with duty is not the same thing as acting from duty. Only if someone acts without any inclination, from the sake of duty alone, does his or her actions have genuine moral worth.

Kant?s moral theory states that actions are morally right in virtue of their motives, which must derive from duty, not inclination. The clearest examples of morally right action are precisely those in which an individual?s determination to act in accordance with duty overcomes his or her evident self-interest and obvious desire to do otherwise. In such a case, Kant argues, the moral value of the action can only reside in a formal principle or “maxim”, the general commitment to act in this way because it is one?s duty. Thus, he concludes, “Duty is the necessity to act out of reverence for the law.” This brings about an interesting question. What should we do today, if tomorrow is the end of the world? Should we execute all the criminals who are on death row, or would this be a selfish, inappropriate action? Kant would say, and I agree, that if tomorrow is the end of the world, it is our duty to execute all criminals sentenced to death. If we do not, we will not have performed our duty to do so. I do not believe this act is selfish or inappropriate because it is not done out of hate or rage, simply duty. This view to do your duty is commonly used in the military today.

According to Kant, then, the ultimate principle of morality must be a moral law conceived so abstractly that it is capable of guiding us to the right action in application to every possible set of circumstances. So the only relevant feature of the moral law is its generality, the fact that it has the formal property of universalizability, by virtue of which it can be applied at all times to every moral agent. For this chain of reasoning about our ordinary moral concepts, Kant derived as a preliminary statement of moral obligation the notion that right actions are those that practical reason would will as universal law.

A categorical imperative unconditionally demands performance of an action for its own sake; it has the form “Do A.” It states, “Act in such a way that the maxim of your will can always become a universal law.” That is, each individual agent regards itself as determining, by its decision to act in a certain way, that everyone, including itself, will always act according to the same general rule in the future. I believe this expression of the moral law provides a concrete, practical method for evaluating particular human actions.

Consider, for example, the case of someone who contemplates relieving a financial crisis by borrowing money from someone else, promising to repay it in the future while in fact having no intention of doing so. The maxim of this action would be that it is permissible to borrow money under false intentions if you really need it. But making this maxim into a universal law would be clearly self-defeating. The entire practice of lending money on promise presupposes honest intention to repay; if this condition were universally ignored, the false promises would never be effective as methods of borrowing. Since the universalized maxim is contradictory in and of itself, no one could will it to be law, and Kant concluded that we have a perfect duty not to act in this manner.

Kant supposed that moral obligations arise even when other people are not involved. For example, killing yourself whenever you feel like it could never be a moral rule. It could not be universalizable because everyone would be dead. Since it would be contradictory to universalize the maxim of taking one?s own life if it promises more misery than satisfaction, we have a duty to ourselves not to commit suicide.

Kant offered another categorical imperative stating, “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of the other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.” This places more emphasis on the unique value of human life as deserving of our ultimate moral respect. This imperative can be applied to the cases I mentioned earlier. For instance, violating a duty by making a false promise (or killing myself) would be to treat another person (or myself) merely as a means for getting money (or avoiding pain), and violating a duty by refusing to offer benevolence (or neglecting my talents) would be a failure to treat another person (or myself) as an end in itself.

In conclusion, only a morally good will makes a morally good person, and only actions from duty have moral worth. Kant?s view has opened my eyes and has inspired me to do my duty in life. He gives people a simple way to evaluate whether their actions are morally good. A person should simply ask himself or herself whether their actions could be universalizable. If they could not be universalizable, then they are not moral.



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