A Good Will

One of the new readings we are doing for this year’s Ethics and Economics Challenge course is Immanuel Kant’s Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. Last week, I spoke with the students about the first part of this essay, and we discussed Kant’s conception of morality based on the good will.

Kant says a good will is the only unconditionally good thing in the world. Everything else — health, wealth, even happiness — is at best conditionally good. More important than being happy is to be worthy of happiness. We discussed this idea with reference to villains. Do we want villains to be successful in their pursuit of happiness, as they define it? Surely not.

Christopher Lee is all right, but we wouldn’t wish Saruman success and happiness.

To have a good will, Kant says, is to be worthy of happiness. A good will requires living your life according to duty, that is, what you are morally obligated to do (and not to do). If you live your life according to the dictates of your conscience, you will be worthy of happiness. And happiness may follow that kind of life, but it is not what motivates it.

We debated at length the oft-heard idea that everything anyone does is selfish, because no matter what you do, you are satisfied to have done it. If you do good things for other people, you get a good feeling. Had you not done those good things, you would not have had a good feeling. Therefore, everything you do is really for the sake of happiness. It’s impossible to be motivated by duty.

I think this argument is circular. It simply defines happiness as doing what I decide to do. By that notion, it would be impossible for any free choice not to be motivated by happiness, just by definition. But should we define happiness that way? I’d say no. For instance, if you reflect on your motivations for doing a good thing and realize that you are doing it for selfish reasons, it causes discomfort, and that discomfort can motivate you to act differently. It would be strange to call this discomfort another species of happiness.

Here’s another example. Think about a time when you changed your mind about something morally significant in your life. Suppose you come to realize that when you give to the less fortunate, it makes a lot more sense to give cash than to try to figure out what it is they “really need.” Most foreign aid is wasted on gimmicky concepts — like soccer balls that generate electricity but fall apart quickly or electric wells that break down and can’t be repaired because there are no local supplies. You don’t know what the lives of the truly poor are like (by “truly poor” I mean people who can’t afford much food or shelter and are likely to die young), but you know they can always use money. So you start giving to givedirectly.org instead.

Now, in this example, what you discovered about your moral obligation changed your mind about what to do. And it changed the sort of action that gave you good feelings. If you were solely concerned with the good feelings, you wouldn’t care what type of aid would actually help people. You would just give to any old charity and forget about it. Now, probably all too many people in fact do this, but the only point I wish to make here is that duty can motivate you at least some of the time, not that it actually motivates most people most of the time. And it’s praiseworthy if you really do care about your duty and follow through on your moral commitments.


  • Great explanation, I feel like it sums up the discussion well and clarifies it too. Looking forward to class this week!

  • Gardner Goldsmith

    This is superb! The kinds of thinking behind the piece, and the kind of thinking it inspires, are incredibly worthwhile.