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Good Will

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     The standard that should be used to judge the moral worth of certain actions has remained debated and controversial over time. Though it is hard to apply in real life, I personally believe that the moral worth of an action should be determined by the motivation and intention that initiated it, but not by the consequences or influences that the action brings about. I will illustrate my reasoning by focusing on Kant’s views on good will and moral worth, along with some real life examples, Socrates’s discussion on differences between mere true belief and real knowledge of virtue and several other philosophers’ unique interpretations and related discussions on this topic.

     Kant makes a clear argument about good will in the very beginning of his book Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. He explicitly states that: “There is no possibility of thinking anything at all in the world, or even out of it, which can be regarded as good without qualification, except a good will. (Kant 7)” Kant believes that a good will is always morally good. Therefore, what a good will does is always morally good as well. Also, he obviously takes good will as the only true standard to judge the moral worth of a certain action. He explains that everything that seems to be good by itself actually could only be good if they are driven by a good will; without a good will, these other things might be used to produce negative outcomes. Except for a good will, nothing else would be good simply on its own. For example, loyal soldiers with bravery driven by a good will protect the city and the citizens well, and some of them may even sacrifice their own lives for such honorable aims. But without a good will, bravery can be used by greedy robbers and may lead to terrible outcomes. Also, scientists may use intelligence with a good will to improve our lives in various aspects; without such good will, intelligence could also be used by criminals as weapons against us.

     Sometimes people who have good will may end up not getting the results they would have anticipated, but we should not blame them simply because they accidentally did the wrong things with good motives. Since we cannot always control whether or not our actions achieve their intended goals, the moral worth of our actions should not depend on their consequences. For instance, if a student answered a question wrong, it would probably not be the best thing for us to do to blame him for not getting the right answer. Instead, we usually encourage him to always take the chance and have a try. In this case, the student has a good will for attempting to learn and exploring the answer to a question. Therefore, whatever he does is driven by an absolutely good motive. What he does will remains good no matter if he answered the question right or wrong because as long as it is driven by a good will, it is good in itself throughout time and across situations.

     Tom Bailey, in the first part of his journal article, “Analyzing the Good Will: Kant’s Argument in the First Section of the Groundwork,” provides a detailed interpretation of Kant’s view on good will. First, Bailey indicates that Kant made two conclusions about good will. The first one is the ‘irrespective of other conditions’ claim that a good will is unconditionally the only good. The second one is the ‘condition of all goodness’ claim that a good will is the condition of goodness for every other good (Bailey 636). From the “irrespective of other conditions” claim, Kant draws the “from duty” conclusion that a good will does what is morally good because it is morally good. From the “condition of all goodness” claim, Kant draws another “exclusivity” conclusion that moral goodness is a goodness that only a will can achieve. These claims detailed explained various features of good will and supported Kant’s idea that good will is the only good without qualification. (Bailey 637-641)

     On the basis of these two conclusions, Kant identifies two distinctive features of moral goodness. One of them is based on the “exclusivity” conclusion: the “mere reason” feature, which means that moral goodness is a goodness of reason for actions instead of the consequences. This is to say that only an action with a good motivation can be morally good regardless of the consequences. The other one is based on the “from duty” conclusion and the “mere reason” feature: the “will as such” feature which states that moral goodness is a goodness of reasons for actions that concern what is good for a will as such, rather than what is good for satisfying any particular inclinations. (Bailey 641-647)

     However, in a later part in Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant seems to believe that when a person does his duty and doing that duty actually fulfills some of his inclinations, that person’s action has less moral worth than if the action had been done from  duty that is against his own inclinations. This opinion has been one of the most hotly debated parts of Kant’s argument over time, as considerable people do not find this to be logically correct. Some have even doubted whether Kant really held this point.

     But I agree with the strong interpretation of Kant’s view that an action has more moral worth if its motivation is against that person’s inclinations. Kurt Baier’s article, “Moral Value and Moral Worth” also provided abundant supporting arguments and explanations. Kurt Baier offered his own interpretation on moral worth, which in a way supported Kant’s opinion against criticisms by clarifying the difference between moral value and moral worth. Baier explained that at the time Kant was alive, they only had one word, “wert”, for both value and worth, but if we can understand the difference between these two concepts, we will know what Kant really was trying to express. (Baier 24)

     According to Baier, the value of something is its capacity to benefit someone and make a favorable difference to his life. When we inquire into the value of something, we want to know what it is about that particular benefit that makes the favorable difference. However, worth is totally different from value. Inquiring about the worth of something is a much more complicated procedure than inquiring about the value of that thing. Baier believes that when we are asking about the worth, we already know the benefit, and now we are asking how great that benefit is in terms of some standard, such as money or land, which can be given in exchange for what is desired. Therefore, when we attribute moral value to some practice that is generally against one’s own inclinations, the practitioner becomes a more moral man because he is more capable and more willing to sacrifice for what he thinks can be expected from him. (Baier 18-20)



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