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The importance of good will in Kant’s ethical theory

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  • Category: Ethics

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Kant places good will at the centre of ethics, and in doing so; went beyond anything ever written before. For Kant, the supreme thing on earth is the development of a good will, and to act from a sense of duty. Kant believed that good will is the only thing that is good in all circumstances.

‘It is impossible to conceive anything at all in the world, or even out of it, which can be taken as good without qualification, except a good will.’

To develop a good will, we must act rationally, and we must be ruled by reason. Kant believed that if we did this, we would be acting according to God’s wishes.

Kant’s theory directly opposes utilitarian ethics. Kant would insist we were honest (even when faced with death) Kant does not consider the end results, for example happiness for the greatest number, only the action. Before Kant, the most important moral theories were based upon Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, which asserts that whatever leads to the greatest happiness (eudaimonia) is what is moral.

For Kant, ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ and therefore what we ought to do must be under our control.

Kant believed that everyone possesses a conscience, a sense of right and wrong, a sense of duty. Kant placed a high emphasis on reason- he believed if it were applied correctly, it would lead to identical results, in the same way that a science experiment will produce the same results, regardless of who performs it, providing that the person follows the correct method and that no external factor is present.

Kant formulates the Categorical Imperative in three different ways.

Kant presented the first formulation as a principle that one should only do something if one can will at the same time that everyone else should be able to do it too.

‘Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.’

In other words, one’s actions become morally good if done with conviction and without the prospect of self-contradiction if everyone else does the same. At the centre of this theory stands the belief that rational beings should always treat other rational beings equally and in the same way they would treat themselves as expressed in the second formulation.

The second formulation makes people the end, and not the means.

‘Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.’

Because human beings are rational being, they count equally with one another.

Subjective ends Kant defines as any that we take only for ourselves, by inclination or desire etc. Objective ends are those which are willed universally for all, and which serve as the ‘for-the-sake-of-which’ of all actions.

The third (Kingdom of ends) combines the first two:

‘So act as if you were through your maxims, a law- making member of a kingdom of ends.’

The Categorical Imperative does not tell you the content of your moral obligations. It does not give any rule about promise- keeping. What it offers is a principle of the pure practical reason, merely that something is right only if you can, without contradiction, wish it to become a universal law. Kant illustrated this by considering the situation of someone who needs a loan, and will only get it if he promises to repay it. If he knows he will not be able to go ahead and repay it, should he still go ahead and make that promise? Kant says it would only be right to make that promise, if you could, at the same time, agree that making such a promise would become a universal law.

Kant follows Aristotle in seeing virtue as a human excellence. What counts for a person to do his or her duty is not mere obedience, but a good will. Having a good will is an attitude, rather than a way of behaving. To do something good is simply because you enjoy doing it, is not in itself moral. Morality is always a matter of conscious choice.

Kant makes a distinction between duty and inclination. We may be inclined to do what benefits ourselves, but morality is more than personal preference.

Kant believed that any action is not good in itself- the goodness depends on the guiding principle under which the action was taken. Therefore, an action that is done from instinct is not good as it is not a rational action. Even success and happiness are not in themselves good, honour can lead to pride, happiness without good will is underserved good luck.

A key for Kant is autonomy. If my intention is right, then I will not act at the whim of my sense, but with autonomy. The principles of my action come from my practical reason alone, they are not imposed on me from outside.

Kant maintained that all human beings were free, he did not consider this could be proved, but he considered this an inevitable statement.

Kant believed that humans seek an ultimate end called the supreme good, the sunnum bonum- a state in which human virtue and happiness are united. He believed that it was impossible for human beings to achieve this state in one lifetime, so he therefore said we have immortal souls to succeed. Although Kant rejected arguments for the existence of God, his ethical theory assumes immorality of God’s existence. Kant believed that the after life and God exist to provide an opportunity for reaching this supreme good, so it could be said that for Kant, morality led to God.

One of the first major challenges to Kant’s reasoning came from a Swiss philosopher, Benjamin Constant. He said that since truth telling must be universal according to Kant’s theory, one must (if asked) tell a known murderer the location of his prey. Kant replied that it is indeed one’s moral duty to be truthful to a murderer

In conclusion, does Kant’s universability provide us with an absolute set of moral values, or values that are relative to culture? Since no two people are the same and will not have exactly the same ‘good will’ and will experience moral dilemmas differently, it means that, in practise, there will be a whole variety of actual ethical practise. In addition, are any two moral dilemmas the same?

Kant’s theory has several advantages. It is rational and certain and does not depend on results of happiness. It is simple and a useful guide when facing a moral dilemma.

However, a morality in which results are left out of account seems detached from reality. Most people do not want to take the results of their actions into account, and may feel guilty if harm comes as a result of their good intentions.

Furthermore, Kant’s theory will not guarantee a morally good, or even moral rule just because someone believes that a certain maxim should be universalised. Thieves might well prefer to see stealing universalised, believing they will stand to gain financially, even though their own property is at risk. How can I be sure that my maxim is right, compared to another’s? The problem lies within two varying absolutes, how can we be sure which one, if either, is right? A weakness in Kant’s is emphasis in telling what we ought not, rather than what we ought to do. What ends, therefore, should we have in mind?

Evaluate the argument that Kant’s moral theory could not support the idea of voluntary euthanasia.

The issue of euthanasia raises the thorny problem of the relationship between law and morality. Does the law make something right? Is it always right to obey the law? It could be asserted that Kant’s theory and his views on suicide would dismiss any idea of voluntary euthanasia. However, this is not so. Kant places a high emphasis on human freedom, and his principle of autonomy could well defend the idea of voluntary euthanasia.

Voluntary euthanasia, by definition, is the intentional killing of a person for euthanasiast reasons, carried out at the request of a person, prompted by the sense that continued existence is no longer worthwhile.

Kant argued that suicide was wrong because it would be contrary to the universal duty (or moral law) to preserve life. For the argument to work, Kant assumes a priori that a stable society in which members can be happy self- evidently depends on the duty to preserve life. A duty to kill oneself would therefore undermine the stability of society on which the duty of life depends. Suicide undermines the stability of society. For example, the effects on family and friends and so on. Suicide undermines Kant’s practical imperative never to treat people as a means to an end. If suicide treats oneself as a means of escape, it would clearly not be respecting self. Alternatively, it is possible to see suicide as an act of dignity without disrespect for self.

Kant believed that if your only reason for committing suicide is unhappiness, Kant does not think you are free to kill yourself. His argument is that a person who commits suicide destroys their own free will, their own ability to set ends for themselves. To commit suicide cannot be a rational decision, since a successful suicide terminates the ability to make any further rational decisions. Therefore, freedom does not include the right to kill yourself, since suicide annihilates your very freedom:

‘If freedom is the condition of life, it cannot be employed to abolish life and so to destroy and abolish itself. To use life for its own destruction, to use life for producing lifelessness, is self- contradictory.’

Kant believed that any action taken for a deliberate end, whether it is happiness or some other goal, is morally neutral. An act is good if it is good as a matter of principle as it derives from duty, not from psychological inclination. If euthanasia were good, it should be the duty of everyone, at least everyone in that situation. But euthanasia can not be a universal duty, and therefore, it can not be a good duty, and therefore, lacks moral value.

Kant says that actions should be based on what is good. Egoistic actions, such as kill oneself due to suffering or poor quality of life, goes against benevolence.

Kant would be against euthanasia in terms that it cannot be universalised, saying that everyone in suffering should take the option of death.

However, whether one can universalise a maxim or not under the categorical imperative has more to do with how you state your maxim, rather than with the maxim itself. For example, if I said, ‘Tiffani can kill anyone she wants so long as she is sure she will get away with it.’ This can be universalised and it does not seem to fit Kant’s criteria for a non- universaliable maxim. However, we cannot say this maxim is moral by any sense.

In Kantian Ethics, motive and good will are important. Nothing in the world can possible be conceived which could be called good without the qualification except good. This would seem to promote euthanasia, however, Kant only permits will to be good if it entails acting from respect of moral law. Thou shall not murder is a moral law. Therefore, a Kantian approach being deontological (duty based) would never permit euthanasia.

For Kant, there is an objective moral law that we know through reason. Moral rules exist and that they are binding. In his writing, Kant identified three principles in the categorical imperative (two of which are of importance to the argument concerning euthanasia)

The notion of universal law, in terms of euthanasia, Kant would argue that if we were obliged to alleviate suffering by destroying the sufferer, it would be hard to imagine how human life would exist for long. Euthanasia is not an option because you can not universalise the option of active euthanasia.

The second principle of the Categorical imperative is that you should treat humans as ends in themselves not as means to achieve some further end. He believed that humans were the highest point of creation and as such required moral protection and that there could be no use of the individual for the sake of the many. We have a duty to seek happiness of others as long as the actions are legal and that they do not break the freedom of others. In terms of euthanasia, we would use the terminally ill patient as an end. The death becomes the means to terminate the pain and relieve the emotional and physical burden of suffering from the family.

Kant fundamentally believed ‘man can not have power to dispose of his life.’ Therefore, euthanasia would never be permitted. However, Kant also believed in human autonomy and that people were free to make rational choices, but how does that reflect on an absolutist deontological view?

If we were to legalise euthanasia, Kant believed it would be an end to human life. Would it not be possible for someone to want euthanasia if they were terminally ill and in great suffering and gold the view that ending the life of someone who is not terminally ill and in the process of dying wrong. And are we really using people as a means to an end if we allow them to practise euthanasia?

Kant believed that permitting euthanasia universally would destroy our understanding of the intrinsic value of human life. However, modern philosophers disagree by saying that if we allow a few very ill people in pain to choose euthanasia; this wouldn’t destroy the concept of euthanasia or life in everyone’s mind, as Kant claims. It therefore, wouldn’t be irrational or immoral to allow it in a few rare cases.

At the face of the argument for euthanasia is that Kant was one of the most passionate advocates of human autonomy. For him, there is no value more than important than individual freedom. Indeed, freedom takes precedence over life itself. Therefore, we as humans should have the freedom and will to die with dignity and respect.

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