Kant and Moral Motivation: The Value of Free Rational Willing

In Iakovos Vasiliou (ed.), Moral Motivation (Oxford Philosophical Concepts). New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 202-226 (2016)
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Kant is the philosophical tradition's arch-anti-consequentialist – if anyone insists that intentions alone make an action what it is, it is Kant. This chapter takes up Kant's account of the relation between intention and action, aiming both to lay it out and to understand why it might appeal. The chapter first maps out the motivational architecture that Kant attributes to us. We have wills that are organized to action by two parallel and sometimes competing motivational systems. One determines us by way of motives that are sensuous, natural and given from without, the other by motives that are intellectual, rational, and given from within. Each set of motives belongs to a system of laws – natural motives to the laws of nature, rational motives to the laws of freedom. For Kant, all things, including actions, are what they are in virtue of the laws governing them; actions, qua actions, are always governed by laws that govern individual wills. These laws are Kantian maxims, 'or subjective practical laws.' Maxims, for Kant, thus make actions the actions they are. The chapter then maps out the implications of this motivational architecture for Kant's theory of value. Maxims always advert to or 'contain' both ends and means. Ends are always specifications of one of two ultimate ends. Actions have the moral value they have depending on which of two ultimate ends the maxim adverts to. The possibilities are 'happiness,' or gratification of desires with sensuous origins, and 'duty,' or accord with the moral demand to will in ways that respect free rational agency wherever it is found. Only actions aimed at the latter – actions with rational motives – have moral value. Actions aimed at the former – actions with natural motives – though not immoral in themselves, become so when pursuit works against rational motives. For Kant, actions aimed at happiness are ultimately allied with efforts to sustain our 'animal' existence, and so are governed by terms and conditions given by the natural world. Actions aimed at duty, in contrast, are ultimately allied with efforts to impose a rational form on nature, to make it over, so to speak, according to values not given by nature itself. Actions aimed at duty, therefore, create a specifically moral world, one in which mores and norms, formal and informal arrangements, institutions, policies, and so on, realize, harmonize, and promote free rational agency itself. Finally, the chapter addresses motivations for Kant's view. The architecture of will and the theories of action and value he proposes allow Kant to accommodate a host of intuitions and commitments. His view makes room for metaphysically free agency, and for the lived experience of motivational freedom from ever-changing natural desires. It makes room for conflicts within the will while still holding out hope that resolution is possible. It accommodates views that the best human lives engage 'higher' faculties in sustained ways. It identifies a stable, necessary, universal end amidst the evident contingency, pluralism, and instability of most ends. It makes us, and not God or nature, the authors of our moral lives. In the end, Kant's 'anti-consequentialism,' his focus on intentions, is a way of insisting on actions that take their character and value from what should matter most to us, namely individual and collective free rational agency, rather than only and always taking the character of reactive responses to circumstance.

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Jennifer K. Uleman
Purchase College, State University of New York


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