Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals, part 2

Posted by Michael Dickens on March 3, 2010

A continuation of this post. I will be critiquing the beginning of the first chapter of the Groundwork. I am working from a translated version that can be found here.

Kant speaks of nature’s purpose for humans. He says that our purpose is to survive, thrive, and be happy. He then argues that our reason is not as good at supporting these purposes as pure instinct is; therefore, nature must have given us reason for some other purpose.

The proper function of reason must be to produce a will that is good in itself and not good as a means. Why? Because:
1. nature has everywhere distributed capacities suitable to the functions they are to perform,
2. the means to good are, as I have pointed out, better provided for by instinct; and
3. reason and it alone can produce a will that is good in itself.

This syllogism can easily be seen to be flawed, based on knowledge of today that Kant did not have. Kant wrote his Groundwork before Darwin proposed his Theory of Evolution. We now know that nature is not perfect at “distributing capacities similar to the functions they are to perform.” For example, we have a blind spot in our eye. Heck, 90% of our DNA is thought to be useless.

The syllogism is also flawed because of a different assumption that Kant makes. He assumes that the goals people are to survive, thrive, and be happy. He uses this to argue that the mans to good are better provided for by instinct than reason. But he falsely assumes that to be happy is one of nature’s goals for us. In fact, happiness is really nature’s way of tricking us into wanting to survive. Regarding the other two goals, survival and thriving, reason is rather effective at supporting them. Look at the civilization that has risen up because of the human ability to reason.

Kant assumes that it is more important that a will be good in itself than that it do good deeds. This is expressed in the following quote, regarding a hypothetical person:

Through bad luck or a miserly endowment from step-motherly nature, this person’s will has no power at all to accomplish its purpose; not even the greatest effort on his part would enable it to achieve anything it aims at. But he does still have a good will – not as a mere wish but as the summoning of all the means in his power.

Yes, this person is admirable: that is, he should be admired. But this is entirely in line with Consequentialist values. If we admire him, then we will want to be more like him and do what the would do. He, having an inherently good will, would want to do good deeds if possible. So we, by emulating him, will do good deeds. Thus, despite his impotence, he is contributing to the goodness of the world simply by being admirable.

But if he were in complete isolation from other people, if there was no one around to admire him, he would not be helping society at all. He would not be useful in the least, and there would be nothing better about him than about an equally helpless person with a malicious will.

However, in real life the above situation rarely occurs. People can almost always take some sort of action, even if trivial. And powerless people do not remain powerless forever. Intentions are important, even from a Consequentialist stance. For example, a person who does good deeds but has bad intentions is not as useful as someone who does harm to others but has good intentions. The malicious person may have done one good deed, but is more likely to do bad deeds in the future. Conversely, the good person is more likely to do good deeds in the future. It is therefore supports the welfare of society to punish and reward people based on intentions and not consequences.


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