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  • Print publication year: 2007
  • Online publication date: June 2012

2 - Moral Worth


Kant famously begins the First Section of the Groundwork by proclaiming that the only thing in the world or outside of it that is good without limitation is the good will. He then proceeds to associate the good will in some way with acting from duty and claims that only actions done from duty have true moral worth or moral content, while actions in conformity to duty that are done from self-interest, or even beneficent actions done from a natural inclination such as spontaneous sympathetic pleasure agents take in seeing those around them happy, are lacking in authentic moral worth or moral content.

Most readers of these statements immediately draw from them on Kant's behalf several conclusions that many find highly controversial, if not downright repellent. They conclude that for Kant the only actions that display a good will are those done from duty, so that even beneficent actions done from sympathy must be cases of a will that is not good. They infer that if Kant thinks only actions done from duty have moral worth, then he must regard even actions that otherwise would accord with duty, if done from some motive other than cold duty, as really immoral or at best morally indifferent. They think Kantian ethics must be positively hostile to all natural desires, feelings, and emotions, because it bestows moral approval only on people whose orientation to life is characterized by an unhealthy detachment from this side of their nature.

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