“Will” and “good” in Kant’s moral theory

In my previous blog post I finished with two open questions on Kant’s moral thinking:

  1. Is there some distinction for Kant in talking about “will” as a property of rational beings versus “will” being an action?
  2. Is limiting the property of “good” to actions too limited a concept? E.g. could beauty be “good”? If yes, in what sense?

In this post I will briefly discuss these questions.

Willing as an action

Firstly, if will were to be an action, and not merely the faculty of choosing morally right actions, we must define this action. To me an intuitive definition of willing would be to want something. This leads us hardly further, since now we must define what it means to want something. To want I would define in the following way:

I want A, if and only if A’s existence implies my happiness AND A’s non-existence implies my not being happy.

A more concise and an equivalent formulation is:

I want A, if and only if (I am happy if and only if A).

In the second formulation I have used the brackets to indicate, which statements belong together. The formulation means that I can only happy when the disjunction of all Ai that I want is true. I can, of course, make my happiness independent of any single Ai, but if some Ai is required for my happiness, then I can only be happy, and I will always be happy, when that Ai is true. For example, I could say that

  • I am happy if I get ice cream or if I get candy.
  • I am happy if I get ice cream and candy.

In the first case, getting either ice cream or candy makes me happy, but in the second case both are required for my being happy. I could also make my happiness independent of both ice cream and candy, but in that case I wouldn’t be wanting either of them.

This definition of will as wanting something is un-Kantian since the above definition of wanting something makes wanting, and thus willing, conditional on happiness. Since Kant defines will as the faculty of acting based on laws, the provided definition of will as an action is at odds with Kant’s definition of will as a faculty; if actions based on will are done without exception, the will behind those actions cannot be conditioned on anything.

Can only actions be good?

This second question, the scope of the word good, seems trickier and I do not try to answer it completely, but will provide some insight. The question whether the term good is reserved by Kant only for actions can actually be answered by taking a look at Kant’s own definitions. In his Fundamentsl Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals Kant writes:

“[…] the will is a faculty to choose that which reason independent of inclination recognizes as practically necessary, i.e. as good.”

Here Kant gives a definition of good as something that is necessary in the practical sense. Now we must ask what is meant by practically necessary. The answer lies in Kant’s definition of practical reason, with which he refers to reason used in judging moral questions. As I understand it, good is something that is necessarily required, i.e. something that must be true in the realm of morals. In other words, something that is good is an absolute moral principle or command and does not contradict itself.

In his text, Kant also talks about a perfectly good will. If good is something that is an absolute moral principle or command without contradictions, then an absolutely good will would be an absolutely moral principle or command in itself, and this is actually what Kant also says in his text:

“That will is absolutely good which cannot be evil – in other words, whose maxim, if made a universal law, could never contradict itself.”

Thus the word good can be understood as a definition in the sphere of morality, a definition of things that are necessary in the sense, that they never contradict themselves. A further question can be made by asking what kind of contradictions are meant here. C. M. Korsgaard discusses this question in her paper.

Whether we want to call things outside the realm of morals good, may be a mute question. If we strictly reserve the word good with its special meaning for talking about things that are practically necessary, we can use other words to evaluate art and its aesthetic value, for example. In the case of art, we might even define art as something that is aesthetically pleasing, so that the word art becomes evaluative in itself; bad “art” would not be art at all.

Open questions from Kant’s text on morality

In my previous post on Kant and his moral theory I analyzed my own reconstruction of Kant’s argument to make sure that the argument was valid. After having examined my argument, I was left with four further questions to be answered

  • What is rationality?
  • Does rationality necessarily create a will? Why?
  • Is there some distinction for Kant in talking about “will” as a property of rational beings versus “will” being an action?
  • Is limiting the property of “good” to actions too limited a concept? E.g. could beauty be “good”? If yes, in what sense?

Having read once more Kant’s text “Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals”, the 10th edition of the eBook from Project Gutenberg, English translation by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott, I can give some answers to the first two questions. These answers are my interpretations of those Kant gives in his paper.

What is rationality

Kant describes rationality by defining rational beings as being the only ones with the ability “of acting according to the conception of laws […] i.e. have a will.” Further Kant defines will as being the “faculty of choosing what reason determines to be necessary, i.e. being good.”

In my first post on Kant, I had will defined as “the ability to choose to act based on laws.” This definition is actually closer to Kant´s definition of rationality, although Kant also defines will in his own text roughly as the ability to act based on laws. So where does this seeming discrepancy between definitions arise?

The subtlety lies in the definition of a law. As Kant puts it, rational beings are able to act according to laws. Yet, these laws do not have to be moral laws that provide absolute commands, as Kant defines them. The law could also be of a hypothetical type, e.g. if you want to become a doctor, you must study at the university. A rational being can act according to such a law, but this law does not command absolutely, rather gives the conditions under which one might expect to become a doctor, should one wish to become one. Moral laws, on the other hand, command unconditionally. A will is then a result of rationality in the sphere of morality, while rationality in general can be used to act based on any laws.

To understand Kant’s idea here, we need to note that he uses in deriving his moral theory the idea that anything that is good must be so necessarily, in all cases and without contradictions. Since anything good is always good, such a good thing is by definition necessary in the sense that reason must conclude it being good without contradictions or exceptions. A will is then the ability to act based on such an absolute, commanding law. Now we see that my definition of will being “the ability to choose to act based on laws” should actually be “the ability to act based on moral laws”.

Rationality is then, as Kant put it, the ability “of acting according to the conception of laws […] i.e. have a will.” and it supersedes will.

Does rationality necessarily create a will?

In his text Kant states that rationality supersedes a will and that a will is created by rationality. Producing a will is actually, according to Kant, rationality’s purpose.

Rationality is not the best way to fulfill peoples’ want for happiness, for rationality makes people doubt, while acting on their instincts would suffice in fulfilling the pursuit for happiness and pleasure. Therefore, rationality must have some other end, another purpose, and this is to produce a will, since rationality is required for deducing what is necessary. After knowing what is necessary, a person can use his will to act accordingly.

Rationality necessarily creates a will, since a rational being has the faculty of choosing to do what is necessary, in the moral sense, although he might act against his will. An important caveat here is the concept of the freedom of the will, which is required to make a rational being able to choose his actions. Freedom of will Kant assumes as a kind of axiom for rational beings.

Is will a property or rational beings or an act, or both?

The question of the exact linguistic definition of will, whether it is a verb, a noun, or both, did not become clear to be from the English translation of Kant’s text.

What can be good?

Kant defines good as that what is necessary, logically speaking. In his paper Kant also seems to limit the concept of good to morality only, not considering e.g. aesthetics.

Secondary literature on Kant

In order to learn more about Kant and his possible interpretations, I will consult at least Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to get others’ views on Kant and his philosophy. Hopefully these will shed some light on the still reaming questions:

  • Is there some distinction for Kant in talking about “will” as a property of rational beings versus “will” being an action?
  • Is limiting the property of “good” to actions too limited a concept? E.g. could beauty be “good”? If yes, in what sense?