Kant’s First Formulation of the Categorical Imperative
The categorical imperative describes Kant’s account for morality’s absolute and unconditional commandment, which dictates rational beings’ moral obligations and duties. From the notion and understanding of a ‘good will’, to that of ‘duty,’ springs out Kant’s three propositions that give rise to the categorical imperative’s first formulation. Through these propositions, the first formulation arrives at the fundamental principle of morality and thus the principle upon a good will must act. It can be read as follows: ‘Act only according to that maxim whereby you can the same time, will that it should become a universal law.’ In order to understand how it is that Kant arrived at this first formulation, first, I will present a close examination and definition of concepts such as ‘good will’ and ‘duty,’ and then analyze how these are incorporated in Kant’s three propositions that arrive at the categorical imperative itself through the explanation of his three propositions. Together with this will be certain limitations I have observed upon close examination of the text in this first section of Kant’s Groundwork. To start off, a brief explanation of the ‘will’ seems important to understand the concept of a ‘good will’ that is first presented by Kant. A will carries intention to perform an action. When the will is free, it is free to act without regards to inclinations. When the will is good, a ‘good will,’ it makes a commitment to do what is right in any case, free from inclinations, in accordance with duty (duty will be discussed later). Kant starts off Section I of the Groundwork saying, ‘There is nothing that is possible to think of anywhere in the world, indeed even outside it, that can be held to be good without restriction except a good will.’ Here, Kant introduces the ‘good will’ and starts the foundation upon where the rest of Section I will follow. This statement suggests that anything seen as good, such as talents, qualities of character, fortune, and even happiness, is only good with certain limitations. For example, the quality of being a leader is only good if and only if one uses this quality in good will, such as being a moral ruler of the land and not a selfish dictator. Similarly, the achievement of happiness wouldn’t be a good thing if it were achieved by actions of an ill will, such as taking pleasure at the expense of others. Since all such good things and virtuous and qualities we can imagine a rational being having could possibly be corrupted in certain ways by our natural inclinations, it can be inferred that what has unconditional value and is good ‘without restriction’ must be the good will itself. Kant states that a good will ‘is not good because of what it effects or accomplishes or because of its fitness to attain some proposed end, but only because of its volition, that is, it is good in itself…’ Since the good will cannot be corrupted and it can remain alone, untouched, shining ‘like a jewel,’ despite any circumstances, it is unconditionally good in itself. While it all seems pretty convincing, we must ask ourselves, can one correctly infer just because all these things don’t posses unconditional value that a good will does? Perhaps nothing really has unconditional value. When a good will is combined with negative qualities, such as ineptness, the bad outcomes produced could be a result of ineptness itself (since the will was good). In turn couldn’t one say that when good virtues and qualities produce evilness, they are not caused by a ‘bad’ will but by the virtue or quality itself, like courage, or power? How can one be sure that either a bad or good will is causing the good or bad outcomes and not the qualities themselves? Nevertheless, Kant is appealing to the common intuition that the intention rather than the outcome is what counts and it allows for what he is saying to make sense. Kant continues his argument and proceeds to assigning...
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