Unlike many other readers, I am inclined to read Kant as a kind of realist (rather than a “constructivist”) about goodness. Nonetheless, Kant holds a distinctive view of goodness: In his view, the fundamental kind of goodness can only be instantiated by the will itself.
According to Kant, this view of goodness is built into common sense moral thought. But in my opinion, this Kantian view is deeply mistaken. Indeed, it is the central illusion on which Kant’s ethics is based.
In this post, I shall first explain what this Kantianview of goodness amounts to; then I shall explain why I believe that this view is false.
First, let us distinguish between absolute and relative goodness:
- Something that is relatively good is good for something – that is, useful for some end or purpose (KpV, 59) – e.g., good for making cheesecake with, etc..
- Absolute goodness, by contrast, is not relative to arbitrary ends or purposes in this way. It seems to be a mark of items that are absolutely good that “an impartial rational spectator takes pleasure in contemplating” them (G 393).
The only sort of goodness that I am concerned with here is absolute goodness (not mere relative goodness).
Now, let us define what it is for something to be “good without qualification” and “intrinsically good”:
- Something is “good without qualification” (ohne Einschränkung gut, G 393) iff it is a general type or property that is good in all possible instances.
- Something is “intrinsically good” (an sich gut, G 394) iff its intrinsic features are sufficient to explain why it is good.
For Kant, the good will is not merely good without qualification and intrinsically good (G 393-4). It has a further feature as well. Although it is not the “complete good”, it is “the condition of every other [good]” (G 396). This claim is repeated in the second Critique: a good will is “the supreme condition of all good” (KpV 62).
Thus, whenever anything is absolutely good, its goodness is explained by the goodness of the good will: It is absolutely good either because (i) it is itself an instance of the good will, or because (ii) it is an object of a good will, or because (iii) it essentially involves something that is either an instance or an object of the good will.
So the good will is the source of all goodness of objects of the will. There is no goodness in these objects except in consequence of their being the objects of the good will.
It follows that we cannot analyse the good will as: the will that chooses objects that are good in some appropriate way. (That analysis would presuppose that there is some goodness in these objects that is antecedent to their being the objects of the good will.) More generally, we also cannot analyse the good will as: the will that chooses objects of a certain sort. Any such analysis would also effectively view objects of that “sort” as having a kind of goodness – the status of being worthy of being chosen – that is antecedent to their being objects of the good will.
So the good will must instead be understood as the will whose acts all have a certain purely formal property – that is, a property that characterizes these acts of will themselves, quite independently of all properties of the objects of the will. In this way, Kant’s view of goodness leads directly to his radically formalistic conception of the fundamental principles of practical reason (G 400).
Kant’s view of goodness is, it seems to me, profoundly false. First, I am inclined to believe that the world is full of intrinsic values that are antecedent to the value of the good will. In my view, these primitive intrinsic values include at least the following: the ecological value of flourishing living organisms and ecosystems; the disvalue of physical pain, and the value of freedom from pain; and the value of admirable cognitive achievements of various sorts – including artistic, athletic, intellectual, and scientific achievements, among others. None of these wonderful things owe their value to their being the object of the good will.
Secondly, if the Categorical Imperative (the principle that guides the good will) really were purely formal (as Kant’s derivation of it requires it to be), it would in fact be entirely empty – just as so many of its critics complained (cf. Hegel, J. S. Mill, F. H. Bradley, inter alios). So it is unsurprising that Kant’s own interpretation of the Categorical Imperative illicitly smuggles in numerous assumptions about the value of the objects of the will – although since he is not fully aware of relying on these assumptions about the value of these objects, these assumptions remain imprecise, unanalysed, and undefended throughout.
- Kant makes several strange appeals to natural teleology – e.g., in his arguments for the wrongfulness of suicide (“the natural purpose of self-love is to preserve life”, G 422), and for the imperfect duty to develop one’s talents (our capacities are “given to us for all sorts of possible purposes”, G 423).
- Kant also makes some unexplained and undefended claims about what it is impossible to will without one’s will contradicting itself (e.g. everyone who willed a world in which no one ever helped anyone else would have a will that contradicted itself, G 423).
- Finally, no real attempt is made to show that the Formula of Humanity (G 427-9) is purely formal, in the way that for Kant the principle of the good will would have to be.
All this leads me to think that Kant’s ethics is based on an illusion about goodness. There is no way of developing an adequate ethical theory without clearly acknowledging that many things have intrinsic goodness in a way that is antecedent to their being the object of the good will.
In the end, Kant is trying to banish all fundamental goodness out of the natural empirical world into the super-sensible world of noumena. Lying behind this is the Augustinian Christianity of his childhood, which took all natural things to be utterly trivial and worthless, in comparison with the supreme glory of God. All philosophers who see real value in the empirical natural world should resolutely reject the false allure of Kantian ethics.