About the Groundwork

Section I

The Good Will
The End of Practical Reason
Duty and Moral Worth
The Three Propositions
The Feeling of Respect
Conformity to Universal Law
Maxims of Action
The Lying Promise
The Inquiring Murderer

Section II

Hypothetical Imperatives
The Categorical Imperative
The Suicide Example
Perfect and Imperfect Duties
The Contradictions
Moral Realism
The Formula of Humanity
Deontology and Ethical Ends
The Formula of Autonomy
Autonomy and Heteronomy
The Kingdom of Ends

Section III

Freedom of the Will
Free in a Practical Respect
The Hidden Circle
Two Standpoints
The Deduction
Failure of the Deduction


Duty and Moral Worth “We shall set before ourselves the concept of duty, which contains that of a good will though under certain subjective limitations and hindrances, which, however, far from concealing it and making it unrecognizeable, rather bring it out by contrast and make it shine forth all the more brightly.”

With the statement above Kant initiates a series of examples meant to illuminate the concept of good will (Kant 1997a, 10/4:397). He signals his intention to analyze the ordinary concept of moral “duty,” explaining that only doing one’s duty from duty has “moral worth.” The implication is that a good will is one disposed to act this way—to do the right thing from the recognition that it is the right thing to do.

Two examples. Kant’s seven or eight paragraphs on duty and moral worth include a pair of examples that are most often cited: the fair-dealing merchant and the depressed philanthropist. The merchant may charge a fair price to all his customers, even those he could easily cheat, but there is no moral worth in this honesty if he acts this way because it is good for business. The cheerful philanthropist lacks moral worth until he ceases to do good from a natural inclination and, battling depression and apathy, resolves to help someone in need because his duty requires it. In Kant’s explanation of the good will he seems to say that actions are morally worthless unless done from duty alone. (When I use the phrase “from duty” I shall refer to an action’s being motivated entirely from moral considerations.)

Criticism. Two standard lines of objection to Kant’s conception of “moral worth” have arisen: (1) some actions are morally praiseworthy even though they are not done from duty—acts of kindness or gratitude, for example; and (2) some actions are not morally admirable if they are done from duty—for example, someone visiting a friend in the hospital solely because “it is the right thing to do” (Stocker 1976). Friedrich Schiller famously parodied Kant’s ethics with the advice that one should cultivate hatred of his friends, because only then will his friendly actions toward them be truly virtuous (see Paton 1948, 48).

Overdetermination. During the 1980s and ’90s it was popular to attempt to address the complaints about Kant’s views on duty and moral worth with some conception of “motivational overdetermination” (Henson 1979). The aim was to address the first type of objection, above, by explaining a form of “acting from duty” that would not exclude motivation by cooperative inclinations. One thought was that so long as the motive of duty would be sufficient for the action in the absence of an inclination to do the same thing, acting on the inclination would have moral worth. So there could be morally worthy actions that are not motivated by duty (alone). But problems arose for this suggestion around the idea of motivational sufficiency. It was hard to define this idea in a way that would not imply that duty would motivate the action, instead of the inclination. After all, if the motive of duty was supposed to be sufficient, then why shouldn’t the action necessarily follow from that motive? A more attractive idea was that there can be multiple orders or levels of motivation for an action. Duty might operate as a kind of regulating motive, on a “secondary” level, and allow motives of inclination to operate on a “primary” level (Herman 1993, 1-22). An action might be prompted primarily by inclinations of friendship or kindness, which would operate under the oversight of the motive of duty. The latter would operate by being ready to limit the primary motive if necessary. So it was thought that duty’s controlling inclination-based actions in this way could allow them to have moral worth. But it was pointed out that for the same reason that it would be desirable to include inclinations in morally worthy action, as primary motives, it would be desirable to include them also on the secondary level of oversight (Benson 1987). I never favored the overdetermination-explanation: I do not think motives relate to one another in the way required. A motive is a prompt to action, and relates to other motives as competitors possibly prompting alternative actions. A motive is not a scrutinizer of other motives.

What is moral worth? I think the “problem” of duty and moral worth arises from misunderstanding what Kant had in mind. A good will is supposed to have “unlimited” goodness, value or worth. An action stemming from a good will exhibits this worth. I think the misunderstanding is that Kantian ethics expects actions to have moral worth, or expects us to aim at moral worth in everything we do—as act utilitarianism expects us to aim at overall happiness in everything we do. The idea is rather, I think, that moral worth is merely a value some actions exhibit. Kantian ethics expects us to do our duty; and when we do it from duty, our action has moral worth. Explaining the significance of this worth added to dutiful actions is important for the development of the theory (see below), which is why Kant begins his exposition with the idea of the good will. Take another, comparable value-term in Kantian ethics: “right.” An action can be right and not have moral worth; and an action can be wrong and have moral worth (if the agent thought what she was doing was her duty, and did it for that reason). Another comparable value-term is “virtue,” although Kant does not discuss virtue in the Groundwork (see The Metaphysics of Morals). If an action can be right and not have moral worth, an action can be virtuous and not have moral worth. The controversy over duty and moral worth in Kantian ethics arose in part because of the complaint that some actions not done from duty seem morally praiseworthy, and Kant seems to deny this. It is not clear that he does deny this, however. A virtuous action, from kindness or gratitude, could be morally admirable and not be done from duty. There is no reason Kant would have to deny this. The action would not exhibit the good will, or “moral worth” but it would exhibit other morally praiseworthy aspects of the virtuous character of the agent (McCarty 2009, 188-99). Again, it is not as if Kantian ethics expects us to choose to act with good will over acting with virtues like kindness. We are expected, rather, to do our duty; and sometimes kindness or gratitude are our duty. Any praiseworthiness arising from one or another motive, whether it is moral worth, or some other form of praiseworthiness, is a “moral ornament.”

Structure of the argument. It may help to keep in mind where Kant’s argument is going in the first section of the Groundwork. He starts with the good will, and then connects that concept with duty. He is moving toward deriving a principle by which we can tell what our duty is. He is eventually going to ask, When a person acts with moral worth, what principle could she be following in her action? At that point, considering what he has established about good will and acting with moral worth, a principle about “conformity to universal law” is supposed to be the only one that could answer the question. This remains to be seen, however.



Benson, Paul (1987), “Moral Worth,” Philosophical Studies 51: 365-82.

Kant, Immanuel (1997), Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Mary Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Henson, Richard G. (1979), “What Kant Might Have Said: Moral Worth and the Overdetermination of Dutiful Action," The Philosophical Review 88: 39-54.

Herman, Barbara (1993), The Practice of Moral Judgment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

McCarty, Richard (2009), Kant’s Theory of Action (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Paton, H. J. (1948), The Categorical Imperative, A Study in Kant’s Moral Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Stocker, Michael (1976), “The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories,” The Journal of Philosophy 73: 456-66.


© Richard McCarty
Department of Philosophy & Religious Studies
East Carolina University

Last modified: April 25, 2015

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