Kant famously made a distinction between actions from duty and actions in conformity with duty claiming that only the former are morally worthy. Kant’s argument in support of this thesis is taken to rest on the claim that only the motive of duty leads non-accidentally or reliably to moral actions. However, many critics of Kant have claimed that other motives such as sympathy and benevolence can also lead to moral actions reliably, and that Kant’s thesis is false. In addition, many readers of Kant find the claim that we should deny moral worth to a dutiful action performed from friendly inclination highly counterintuitive. Moreover, Kantian commentators disagree about the status of actions in conformity with duty, some claim that these can be taken as equally morally worthy as those performed from duty, while others argue that they are not even permissible.
It has also been claimed that Kant’s theory of moral worth should be related to the theory of the Gesinnung developed in the Religion. Thus, some authors claim that, in order for an action to possess moral worth, the agent has to be unconditionally committed to morality, that is, the agent must possess a virtuous character or good fundamental maxim (i.e. a good Gesinnung). However, according to Kant’s radical evil thesis (that is, the thesis that man is evil by nature ), the default position for man is to possess an evil Gesinnung, i.e. a Gesinnung which is only conditionally committed to morality insofar as morality does not demand a great sacrifice of our own happiness. So, an unwelcome consequence of this line of interpretation is that in Kantian ethics morally worthy actions become very rare indeed.
The paper is divided in two parts. The first part aims to clarify why Kant thought that only actions from duty are morally worthy, replying to some common objections against Kant’s view. I argue that Kant’s non-accidental condition should not be understood in terms of reliability because such interpretation is incompatible with Kant’s theory of motivation and rational agency. I propose an alternative interpretation which supports Kant’ s claim that only the motive of duty leads nonaccidently to dutiful actions, and thus only actions from duty possess moral worth. I end by showing that although actions in conformity with duty are worthless from the moral point of view, they are not (in many cases) impermissible. The first part concludes that the criterion for the permissibility of actions is different to the criterion for the ascription of moral worth. Thus, rightness, which pertains to actions performed on maxims that can be willed as universal laws, and moral worth, which pertains to actions performed from a sense of duty, should be understood as two different levels of moral assessment.
The second part of the paper examines Kant’s conception of virtue with the aim of showing that although only agents with a virtuous character (good Gesinnung) will reliably act from duty, a person with an evil character (evil Gesinnung) could on frequent occasions act from duty. I argue that we should not deny moral worth to actions performed from duty even when the agent has an evil Gesinnung. Goodness of Gesinnung is not a necessary condition of the action of an agent possessing moral worth; reliability of motivation is necessary for the ascription of virtue but not for the ascription of moral worth. It follows that virtue, which refers to the agent’s character or fundamental maxim (i.e. the agent’s Gesinnung), and moral worth are also two different levels of moral assessment. The paper concludes that three levels of moral assessment can be distinguished in Kant’s ethical system: (i) rightness, (ii) moral worth and (iii) moral virtue. Moral virtue is the highest level of moral perfection for a human being. Striving towards virtue requires constant progress and effort and ultimately a ‘revolution of the heart.’ The important point is that even when we are still striving to achieve virtue (i.e. an unconditional commitment to morality), we can ascribe moral worth to actions performed by a genuine sense of duty. It turns out that, contrary to many influential interpretations, Kantian ethics is not merely concerned with the rightness or wrongness of particular actions nor is Kantian ethics primarily an ethic of virtue. Instead, Kant’s ethical system is complex and allows for different levels of moral assessment in which both an action-centred and agent-centred perspective can be integrated.