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Notes on Kant Groundwork for Meta-ethics

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Philosophy 2700F/G
Anthony Skelton

Notes on Kant: - The fundamental philosophical issues must be addressed a priori, that is, without drawing on observations of human beings and their behavior. Once we “seek out and establish” the fundamental principle of morality a priori, then we may consult facts drawn from experience in order to determine how best to apply this principle to human beings and generate particular conclusions about how we ought to act. - The following are three considerations favoring a priori methods that he emphasizes repeatedly - The first is that, as Kant and others have conceived of it, ethics initially requires an analysis of our moral concepts. We must understand the concepts of a „good will‟, „obligation‟, „duty‟ and so on, as well as their logical relationships to one another, before we can determine whether our use of these concepts is justified. Given that the analysis of concepts is an a priori matter, to the degree that ethics consists of such an analysis, ethics is a priori as a well. - The ultimate subject matter of ethics is the nature and content of the principles that necessarily determine a rational will - Fundamental issues in moral philosophy must also be settled a priori because of the nature of moral requirements themselves, or so Kant thought. This is the third reason for an a priori method, and it appears to have been of great importance to Kant: Moral requirements present themselves as being absolutely necessary. But an a posteriori method seems ill-suited to discovering and establishing what we must do; surely it will only tell us what we actually do. So an a posteriori method of seeking out and establishing the principle that generates such requirements will not support the presentation of moral „oughts‟ as necessities. Kant argued that empirical observations could only deliver conclusions about, for instance, the relative advantages of moral behavior in various circumstances or how pleasing it might be in our own eyes or the eyes of others. Such findings clearly would not support the absolute necessity of moral requirements. To appeal to a posteriori considerations would thus result in a tainted conception of moral requirements. It would view them as demands for which compliance is not absolutely necessary, but rather necessary only if additional considerations show it to be advantageous, optimific or in some other way felicitous. Thus, Kant argued that if moral philosophy is to guard against undermining the absolute necessity of obligation in its analysis and defense of moral thought, it must be carried out entirely a priori. - the only thing good without qualification is a „good will‟ - The basic idea is that what makes a good person good is his possession of a will that is in a certain way „determined‟ by, or makes its decisions on the basis of, the moral law. The idea of a good will is supposed to be the idea of one who only makes decisions that she holds to be morally worthy, taking moral considerations in themselves to be conclusive reasons for guiding her behavior. This sort of disposition or character is something we all highly value. Kant believes we value it without limitation or qualification. By this, I believe, he means primarily two things. - First, unlike anything else, there is no conceivable circumstance in which we regard our own moral goodness as worth forfeiting simply in order to obtain some desirable object. By contrast, the value of all other desirable qualities, such as courage or cleverness, can be diminished, forgone, or sacrificed under certain circumstances: Courage may be laid aside if it requires injustice, and it is better not to be witty if it requires cruelty. There is no implicit restriction or qualification to the effect that a determination to give moral considerations decisive weight is worth honoring, but only under such and such circumstances - Second, possessing and maintaining one's moral goodness is the very condition under which anything else is worth having or pursuing. Intelligence and even pleasure are worth having only on the condition that they do not require giving up one's fundamental moral convictions. Thus, Kant points out that a good will must then also be good in itself and not in virtue of its relationship to other things such as the agent's own happiness or overall welfare. - In Kant's terms, a good will is a will whose decisions are wholly determined by moral demands or as he often refers to this, by the Moral Law. Human beings view this Law as a constraint on their desires, and hence a will in which the Moral Law is decisive is motivated by the thought of duty - So in analyzing unqualified goodness as it occurs in imperfectly rational creatures such as ourselves, we are investigating the idea of being motivated by the thought that we are constrained to act in certain ways that we might not want to, or the thought that we have moral duties - Kant confirms this by comparing motivation by duty with other sorts of motives, in particular, with motives of self-interest, self-preservation, sympathy and happiness. He argues that a dutiful action from any of these motives, however praiseworthy it may be, does not express a good will. Assuming an action has moral worth only if it expresses a good will, such actions have no genuine „moral worth‟ - We now need to know what distinguishes the principle that lays down our duties from these other motivating principles, and so makes motivation by it the source of unqualified value - If we do something because it is our „civic‟ duty, or our duty „as a boy scout‟ or „a good American‟, our motivation is respect for the code that makes it our duty. Thinking we are duty bound is simply respecting certain laws pertaining to us - The force of moral requirements as reasons is that we cannot ign
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