21 November 2011
The Two Shopkeepers
One of the several topics covered in Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals is the issued of two shopkeepers. One shopkeeper is honest with his customers in order to maintain a positive reputation and improve profits. The second one is honest because he thinks it is right and exercises his respect for the moral law. The first shopkeeper is motivated to be honest by the rewards of a positive reputation and profit. The second is motivated by respect for morally right action. Taking these motivations into consideration from the standpoint of Kantian ethics, it is clear which shopkeeper is acting right.
Kant believes that actions that are consistent with moral law, yet motivated for desires for happiness or pleasure are absent of moral worth. One reason he concludes this can be seen in Groundwork where he introduces the idea of the categorical imperative. This idea contains two formulas, the first one states that one ought to “act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should be a universal law” (Singer 274). In other words, if ones principle, or maxim, behind what they are doing is something they would be willing to make a universal law, it is a good action. The first shopkeeper’s motivation to be honest is inconsistent with this formula, as their maxim of being honest is purely selfish, and it would not be effective if willed to a universal law. This is because it fails the concept of reversibility, for in an ideal society one would want others to treat him according to what the other person is doing. In this case, society would not function in the sense of moral rightness because if everyone acted honest to each other for solely their benefit, no one could trust anyone else or assume they are acting out of respect for the moral law. Since the first shopkeeper’s action fails the notion of reversibility, it also fails the...