Kant believes that the morality of an action should be judged by the motivation behind this action, not solely with the result of it. In other words, the consequence of the action itself is not adequate alone to determine its morality, a moral motivation has to accompany the action as well. That means a moral action consists of a moral deed plus a moral motivation. In Kant’s opinion the true motivation behind the real moral actions can only be delivered by good will. Thus, if there is any other motivation behind an action besides good will such as fear of punishment, desire to reach happiness, to increase self-interest or satisfaction, to obtain the spiritual joy coming from helping others etc. the action cannot be morally praiseworthy regardless the results of it.
At this point, naturally the question “what is a good will?” arises. Kant’s answer to this question can be summarized with a metaphor of three circle chain. As it is obvious the last circle is “good will”, the second one is “sense of duty” and the third one is “universal law” which is also the address which this sense of duty belongs to. In summary, a moral action can only emerge if a person acts with a good will which comes from a sense of duty to the universal law in Kant’s thought. In this sense, we need to distinguish an action which is in accordance with duty from an action which is coming from duty in order to determine whether this action is moral or not. An action can look totally in accordance with duty from outside but that doesn’t prove its morality if we can’t look into the motivation of that action. Kant gives several examples to illustrate this point in Chapter I of the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. One example is about a person who loses all of his interest to mankind and doesn’t care at all about other people but still helps others just because out sense of duty even though he doesn’t get any joy or satisfaction with doing this. Kant argues that in this example, what this person does is morally praiseworthy because his motivation is coming from good will- sense of duty-universal law chain. If we reverse this example, if the same person did the same action for different reasons namely the happiness he feel with helping others we would be talking about an action that doesn’t have a moral value. Another example is the decision of not ending his life by a person who doesn’t want to live and who doesn’t enjoy living at all just because he believes he has a duty to preserve his life. This person’s action of not killing himself is moral because there is nothing he gains from this action personally, on the contrary he suffers from this decision but still does it because of the sense of duty. The example of course assumes that decision is not about fear of punishment by God neither which is also a selfish motivation. These examples also show us the distinctions Kant makes between happiness versus duty; and instinct versus reason. In Kant’s thought, nature gives us instincts to preserve ourselves and reach happiness; so following these instincts cannot be defined as moral calls; on the other hand reason we have should be above the our natural instincts because this what distinguishes an human being from other creatures. Reason is the only tool to discover the universal law and to act accordingly to it. Therefore the use of reason is the tool we need to develop a good will, not following our instincts.
The role of reason is important at this point because it helps us to understand why Kant defines moral action as the one only comes from good will or sense of duty. That is actually related to Kant’s constant desire to avoid relativity in his philosophy, and also it is related to the distinction Kant makes between ‘appearances’ and ‘things in themselves’ in this sense. An action can’t be called moral if a subjective reason lies behind this action. So it won’t be wrong to argue here that for Kant morality should be something which is a thing itself. That means personal perspectives shouldn’t have the ability to define this concept. That is why Kant writes “Good will is good because of how it wills… it is good in itself.” With this explanation Kant shows us his desire to use a universal standard as a measure which should be same for every person in every circumstance. Only a thing in itself carry this a priori value. A thing in itself doesn’t need a definition derived from experience unlike appearances; thus a good will doesn’t need any justification coming from the outcome of the action. Any attempt to evaluate an action’s morality by its results unavoidably will need to apply personal judgments and therefore it will need using experience as a defining element. This exactly what Kant rejects when he was making his argument about the morality of actions. In Kant’s opinion, the decisive element in defining morality of an action shouldn’t have anything to do with any subjective judgment, so experience which focuses on outcomes shouldn’t be a tool for us when determining whether an action is moral or not; in this respect, an objective measure namely universal law should remain the only measure to reach this judgment for us; and the pure reason is the only tool we have that enables us to use this kind of objective measure. That is simply why result of the action has a secondary importance if it does any for Kant in terms of determining the morality of it.
This argument naturally brings the question: “what is universal law then?” Knowing he will face this question eventually Kant continues his reasoning not by giving a direct answer to this question and listing the articles of the universal law but instead explaining the method of how we can discover what the universal law demands from us. He uses the term “maxim” here when explaining this method. A Maxim can be defined as a formula produced by someone to guide him to decide what to do in certain circumstances. These maxims can be moral or immoral depended on their compatibility with universal law or in other words they can be moral or immoral depending on whether their source is sense of duty or any other subjective motivation. Only a moral maxim can be an article of universal law. For instance, “don’t lie unless you can save someone’s life if you lie” can be a formulated as maxim. However there is a test that show us whether this maxim can really be an article of the universal law. This test requires answering the question: “can this maxim be used by every person in every circumstance and will we be fine if it is used that way?” The maxim proposed above would fail this test according to Kant due to its self-destructive nature. This notion of destroying itself eliminates the necessity to seek an actual polling of people on the subject. If all people accept that lying is permissible under some subjective circumstances, then naturally they also have to accept that a statement such “ I am telling to truth” can’t be true in all cases; this situation destructs the meaning of truth because it breaks its tie with universality; people would know there is not an unbreakable rule about not lying, and some conditions which are subject to individual evaluation allow us to lie. As a result the trust needed to believe someone’s promise would be gone forever; and there wouldn’t be any difference between truth and lie once that maxim is extended to everybody in every situation. Kant gives a similar example in Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals about maxims regarding making false promises; and he reaches the conclusion that allowing making false promises in some circumstances couldn’t be a universal law because, it can’t be accepted by everyone in every situation; and for this reason this kind of maxim would eventually destroy itself due to the self-contradiction it has. In conclusion, it won’t be wrong to say that according to Kant maxims which are not self-destructive and could be accepted by everybody in anytime can be articles of universal law. Kant chose this method probably to eliminate the relativity in the philosophical question morality. If everyone agrees on something in every situation there wouldn’t be any room left of any subjective evaluation.
Nevertheless, Kant’s view on morality of actions is problematic in some aspects. First of all, Kant’s reference to universal law is very vague; the question “what is universal law” remains unanswered even if we use his test to look for the answers. Even, Kant’s argument that only categorical imperatives can direct us to universal law seems inadequate to enlighten this vagueness. Unlike hypothetical imperatives which reflects our self –interests; categorical imperatives come from our sense of duty according to Kant, but the definition of categorical imperatives still remains abstract. To make it clear, if we take one of Kant’s universal laws “Don’t lie”, we see that under some circumstances it is very doubtful that this alleged universal law should be reached in every situation by everyone who listens categorical imperatives. For example, in the case of Schindler; can we all -without a dispute- say that Schindler lied because he obeyed hypothetical categories and his action was immoral because his motivation was not coming from sense of duty? Or should we defend his action because by lying he wanted to save hundreds of innocent people’s lives even at the cost of risking his own life. In Schindler’s example, it is very controversial that the use of reason and appeal to sense of duty would lead every person to the same conclusion. In this context, Kant’s view on morality ignores the complex structure of society; the existence of conflicted interests of the members of it and tremendous number of possible circumstances that one single absolute law will always fall short to make an undisputable decision regarding them in terms of morality. This complexity that Kant ignores not only creates serious disputes about implementation of one single universal law but in some circumstances it also even creates conflicts between different universal laws which Kant suggests. For instance, we can see this kind of conflict between two universal laws “Don’t lie” and “Preserve yourself” in the case of an arrested murderer under threat of death penalty. Arrested person can’t follow a universal law without violating another one in this example. If he doesn’t lie, he can’t preserve his life, and if he lies he fails his duty to preserve his life. This dilemma is resulted from Kant’s vagueness regarding definition of universal law; and this vagueness makes his view on morality problematic in some cases. Secondly, Kant’s using motivation as the only indicator for deciding whether there is morality in action gives too much credit to people who have bad nature unfairly. It doesn’t seem quite fair -in cases like helping others- praising people who don’t enjoy what they do but still do it while finding it not praise worthy for people who do the exact same thing but also enjoy it. Last but not least, there is another important problem of Kant’s view on the subject. It is the potential of his views to create moral relativism even though Kant is considered a defender of moral absolutism. In this regard, this danger is quite ironic but not baseless. As it is mentioned above Kant wants to avoid relativity in his philosophy but his views also feeds a strong tendency toward relativism. This tendency is originated due to Kant’s from lack of a precise definition of the universal law. If the outcomes of an action can’t be used to judge morality of them, and a vague concept of duty is shown as the sole measure, naturally people will have a complete freedom to judge their own actions’ morality regardless of other people’s thoughts on these actions. That has a potential to create irresponsibility to others, and it also carries the danger of ignoring terrible consequences of some decisions for other people with focusing on solely intentions. May be an example can make this point more clear: when judging a dictator like Stalin’s actions in terms of morality Kant’s view on the subject tells us that death of 20 million people shouldn’t be used as an indicator but his motivation should be. At this point the objective indicator seems more like the outcomes of the actions than vague terms like “good will”, “duty” or “universal law.”