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The act of doing good has been associated with several things. People do good things due to personal, societal, and cultural expectations. There have been debates on whether there are instances of absolute good that can be identified in everyday life and situations. Immanuel Kant has advanced the debate by introducing the concept of goodwill being the only item that can be truly described as being good in itself.
According to Kant, actions done out of duty cannot be described purely as good. To many, there is no difference between the two as the end product is expected to have a positive impact on the involved. It is important to mention that the ideologies used to support the argument that goodwill is the only purely good item in philosophy, also support the fact that reason and intent are not enough to make a decision purely good. This essay looks at Kant’s explanation of goodwill, presenting his key arguments. The paper will prove that even though goodwill is purely good in itself, actions brought on by a sense of duty can also be described as purely good.
The provided excerpt provides that there is an absolute value of goodwill. The premise suggests that the concept of goodwill is highly related to the “good” in itself1. Indeed, the argument also suggests that only goodwill does not need any qualifications to be good2. Kant explains that any other process or activity cannot be described as good simply by the expected outcome. The author quotes items such as the gifts of fortune, temperament, and even the talents of the mind to prove that these activities are not just good due to their expected result. However, goodwill regardless of the result or outcome can still be described as good.
Kant explains that arguments that support the influence of reason on goodwill are substandard3. This is because the logic “alone is not competent enough to guide will safely. The reason should not merely be used to influence the will but its main function should be to produce a will that is not only good but also good in itself”4. One has to appreciate the fact that reason provides a sense of satisfaction. Knowing that one acted due to a reason that can be understood is an effective way of controlling the narrative. However, as Kant observes, this satisfaction that is brought about by reason “may run counter to the satisfaction of our inclinations and so counter to our happiness”5.
The scholar believes that many a time when people try to find a reason for acting or doing something, they end up being more helpless and depressed than before. He gives the example of searching for happiness and states that when someone searches for a reason to be happy, he or she finds that they stray further from happiness than initially intended.
Kant argues that the search for happiness is also an individual duty6. Indeed, one can confuse acting out of duty and goodwill. An example can be given to explain further. An old blind man goes into a shop alone and asks the cashier to pick out some items for him. The cashier has to tell the old man how much the items cost. The cashier must inform the old man of the correct amount and give back the right amount of change. Normally, the cashier would be described as honest and reliable yet he was acting mainly from his sense of duty. However, if a fellow shopper took the man by the hand and took him around the shop and helped him pick the items he needed before guiding him to the cashier and ensuring he received the right amount of change, then one would argue that this fellow shopper had the goodwill.
Still, on the argument of duty, Kant gives four propositions that can be used to differentiate goodwill from other elements. The first proposition which Kant rejects is that “to have moral worth an action must be done from duty”7. The second proposition, which he agrees with, is that “an action from duty has its moral worth not in the purpose to be attained by it but in the maxim in accordance with which it is decided upon”8.
Kant also agrees with the third premise that “duty is the necessity of an action from respect for law”9. Lastly, Kant agrees with the last premise that someone “ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law”10. Kant concludes by stating that even though common knowledge allows people to make decisions on what is good and what is bad, inclinations and needs often cloud judgment. It is at this point that one can then determine whether they were doing something due to a sense of duty or due to goodwill.
The arguments presented by Kant are indeed valid. One can apply the arguments easily to everyday life and situations. Whereas goodwill is indeed different from a sense of duty, the author does not acknowledge the fact that some duties involve goodwill. For example, careers that have often been deemed as “callings” harbor both a sense of duty and goodwill. Nursing, for instance, is considered one of the noble careers in the world because the practice is tethered to the goodwill of the caregiver. Some of the best hospitals in the world are ranked so due to the care and treatment provided by their nurses and staff.
One can argue that in such a case, goodwill has allowed the nurses involved to work beyond their contracts. They are not only duty-bound to ensure the care and treatment of their patients but they also become compassionate to a point where they become friends with their patients. It is undeniable that there are cases where goodwill and duty can be differentiated. But the author should have also taken time to explain that the ideology is not universal. This argument also goes to prove the thesis true that the debate on goodwill is not universal as it cannot be applied to all situations without the exact excerpt included.
Johnstone supports Kant’s arguments and quotes James Wesley Ellington, who also critiqued the concept of pure reason because it cannot use transcendental analytic11. The argument behind this is that every action has a sense of duty and a reason attached to it. People do not just act the way they do. They have to have some allegiance to an event or a person and a reason. When these two elements are combined, realistically, the essence and importance of goodwill are evaded. However, this does not mean that the act that has been done was meant for good. For the act done to be meant for good, it has to have some form of goodwill. It is crucial to also note that Kant agrees that goodwill does not have to be able to sustain the action intended.
The fact that it has been given an absolute value makes it “good” regardless of whether the good in itself (goodwill) adds value or not. This provides the counterargument for this objection because if the goodwill cannot sustain its action then it becomes irrelevant unless other mechanisms are put in place to support the action. One can also argue that good is relative in different circumstances. The dilemma can, thus, also include the definition of the term “good”.
In conclusion, it is easy for one to agree with Kant regarding the absolute value of goodwill. However, even in doing so, one has to agree that there are acts that are not related to any form of goodwill that can still be described as purely good. Indeed, many such acts can also be described as work as they are normally in line with duty. This just goes to prove that what is described as good can be as a result of many things and not just goodwill, albeit its importance not being undervalued.
Johnstone, Mark. 2015. Morality for Humans: Ethical Understanding from the Perspective of Cognitive Science. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
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Kant, Immanuel. 1990. “Transition from The Common Rational Knowledge of Morals to the Philosophical”. In from the Ordinary Knowledge of Morality to the Philosophical by Immanuel Kant, 393-404. London: Macmillan.
- Kant, Immanuel, “Transition from The Common Rational Knowledge of Morals to the Philosophical”. In from the Ordinary Knowledge of Morality to the Philosophical by Immanuel Kant (London: Macmillan, 1990), 393-404.
- Kant, Immanuel, “Transition from The Common Rational Knowledge of Morals to the Philosophical”. In from the Ordinary Knowledge of Morality to the Philosophical by Immanuel Kant, (London: Macmillan, 1990), 393-404.
- Johnstone, Mark, Morality for Humans: Ethical Understanding from the Perspective of Cognitive Science, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 35.