Kant’s Theory of Value1
Contemporary interpreters of Kant have been doing what they can to deconstruct the traditional division of moral theories into deontological and teleological, with Kant serving as the paradigm case of the former.2 Anyone who reads the opening paragraphs of the Groundwork innocent of the traditional distinction can hardly miss the fact that Kant is setting out a theory of value in the context of the ancient question of the highest good. Kant’s theory is not deontological in the sense of repudiating the line of questioning that quite naturally leads from wondering what I ought to do, to wondering about what is good or worthwhile, and from conditional goods to some ultimate good. It is a theory of value framed by teleological assumptions Kant shares with the larger European tradition of moral philosophy. In addition to this, contemporary interpretations of the priority of right in Kant recognize that his critique of pure practical reason is simultaneously a theory of right and a theory of value. The two fundamental notions condition each other in his conception of the object of the moral law. (See below.)
It is very unlike Kant to set out seven meanings of good in a flat outline like the one that follows. But it can be done, and doing so has the merit of suggesting that there is a theory of value in Kant—a point sometimes overlooked. Doing this preliminary work will also serve the purposes of the second half of the paper, where an analysis of Kant’s theory of value is undertaken.
Kant uses the term good in more than seven ways, but the following, in their distinctions and relations, from the skeletal frame of his theory of value.
The good as the object of natural desires. In his fullest treatment of moral psychology, (Book 1 of Religion), Kant distinguishes between the biological and sociobiological predispositions we have as living beings, the specifically human predispositions we have as rational beings, and what he calls the “predisposition to personality,” or our “capacity for respect for the moral law as it itself a sufficient condition of the will.”(R21-23) The first do not require reason, are primarily a matter of instinct and acquired habits, and include such things as self-preservation, reproduction, the care of offspring, and our basic social instinct.(R22) These are said to be good in the negative sense that they enjoin the observance of the law.(R23) They are also called “original,” because they condition the possibility of human nature.(R23) We can use our biological predispositions in a manner contrary to their ends, but we cannot eliminate them from our nature.(R23) They are explicitly said to be part of the multivariate “original predisposition to good”(R21) natural to us as human beings.
The good as the object of empirical practical reason. While we cannot alter our biological predispositions, and while these are understood as predispositions to good, it is a property of human beings, as not only alive but also rational, that no desire or inclination, biological or otherwise, can be the determining ground of the will except insofar as the individual incorporates it into her maxim by her power of free choice.(R17) “Everything in nature works according to laws. Only a rational being has the power to act according to this conception of laws, i.e., according to principles, and thereby has he a will.”(G412) To have a will, for Kant, is to act for reasons. It is to decide to act by taking certain inclinations, or desired states of affairs, or principles, as reasons to act, out of a conception of their good-making properties.
The good as object of empirical practical reason is a complex object, constructed by practical reason from the goods that are objects of natural desires. Kant believes there is at least one principle analytic of practical reason in this constructive capacity: rationality requires that whoever wills a particular end wills the necessary and available means.(G417) It may be true, as Onora O’Neill suggests, that the volitional consistency Kant has in mind here requires not only that we will all available necessary means to an intended end, but also that we intend some sufficient means, and all necessary and some sufficient components of the intended, end, that we seek to make sufficient means available when they are not, that the foreseeable results of the means we adopt be consistent with the end, and so on.3 Such consistency in willing is analytic of empirical practical reason. When human agents fail to live up to it, they choose irrationally.
Particular hypothetical imperatives are not analytic of practical rationality, however. Kant agrees with the traditional view that seeking our own happiness belongs to our nature. But particular hypothetical imperatives, even such general counsels as prudence dictates, have only the conditional necessity valid “under a subjectively contingent condition, viz., whether this or that man counts this or that as belonging to his happiness.”(G416) The concept of happiness is an indeterminate one, the elements of which are unexceptionally empirical.(G418) “It is impossible for the most insightful… being a frame here a determinate concept of what it is that he really wills.”(G418) The idea of happiness as “an absolute whole, a maximum of well-being in my present and in every future condition,” is an ideal of the imagination, not of reason.(G418) We can by choice relinquish as an end on particular occasions.
It is thus an important feature of Kant’s theory of value that no substantive principles of mean-ends reasoning are accepted as analytic of practical rationality. Objects of natural inclinations are good in the attenuated sense described above under #1, but it is not for Kant analytic of practical rationality that their being of an inclination is in itself a reason to act. Pleasure, for example, even in its higher forms, and happiness itself, are not intrinsically choice-worthy.
Also missing from Kant’s account of empirical practical rationality are maximizing principles. It is no secret that principles like “Maximize expected utility over time” can, depending on one’s preferences, conflict with such categorical moral imperatives as might exist. This is not the case with the only principle Kant accepts as analytic of practical rationality, since if any means which the hypothetical imperative directs me to choose, given a certain end, conflicts with a moral principle, I have the option of giving up the end.4
The absolute value of the good will. The first section of the Groundwork begins with the famous sentence, “There is no possibility of thinking of anything at all in the world, or even out of it, which can be regarded as good without qualification, except a good will.”(G393) The good will is the only thing that is always good, in itself, without qualification. All other goods, even those that can be good intrinsically, even the goods of character which the ancients held in such high esteem, are good only under certain conditions. Talents of the mind, qualities of temperament such as courage and perseverance, and gifts of fortune such as riches and health, can all become harmful if the will which makes use of them is not good. Even such qualities as are conducive to the good will itself (like moderation and self-control) have no intrinsic unconditional worth apart from it(G393).
This is plainly the key to Kant’s theory of value. He writes the opening passage of the Groundwork with an eye to ancient Greek philosophy, taking the traditional approach that the highest good must be the first principle of moral philosophy, and putting the good will in that highest-good slot. The good will is not good because of its effects.(G400) The good will is not good because it conduces to happiness.5 It cannot be judged good by reference to any independently given standard of value. It is the only thing that is always, unconditionally, good in itself. Its value cannot be put on a scale with the value of other things good in themselves; it cannot be added to, or summed.
Good willing is said to be a matter of taking the principles of pure practical reason as grounds for one’s action, and adjusting one’s individual pursuits to the universal ends theses principles require. So even before we are told what the principles of pure practical reason might be, we know that the good will and pure practical reason are together in the highest-good slot. The right is defined by pure practical reason independently of any pre-rational or empirically rational conception of the good, and the good will, as the confirmed capacity consistently to take what’s right as the sufficient ground of one’s action, is the one absolute value.
The good as the fulfillment of permissible ends.6 How do we know what the principles of pure practical reason are? In the first section of the Groundwork Kant argues that implicit in our ordinary judgments about the moral worth of actions and the character they express is a recognition of the moral law as independent of our inclinations.(G403-404) We all recognize, Kant believes, the special moral worth of actions performed precisely because they are the right thing to do, whether or not we have other interests in doing them.(G397-399) We also recognize that the special moral worth of such action depends, “not on the realization of the object of the action, but merely on the principle of volition according to which, without regard to any objects of the faculty of desire, the action has been done.”(G400) The pre-eminent good can only be found in the will of a rational being, where a representation of the moral law is the determining ground of the will.(G401) “But what sort of law can that be, the thought of which must determine the will without reference to any expected effect, so that the will can be called absolutely good without qualification/ since I have deprived the will of every impulse that might arise for it from obeying any particular law, there is nothing left to serve the will as principle except the universal conformity of its actions to law as such, i.e., I should never act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law.”(G402)7
There is only one categorical imperative, then; it requires the conformity of our maxims to the principle of universal law-giving. The person of good will, faced with a situation in which some action is morally obligatory acts out of her interest in the moral law as such. (Other interests may be present, but her interest in the morality of what she does is sufficient motive to act.8 The categorical imperative also serves in a regulatory role, when we routinely consider the moral permissibility of our ordinary maxims and the ends we want to pursue.9 When the maxim of a possible action does not conform to the moral law, the person of good will gives up the intended action, rejecting the particular desire or inclination it would satisfy as sufficient ground of action. In this way the moral law establishes a range within which permissible ends must fall, and sets limits on the means that can be used in pursuit of these ends. These limits are the basis for duties of justice. The categorical imperative also establishes certain ends as obligatory, setting duties of virtue.
So there is another important meaning of good for Kant: the good as the (inclusive) object of good willing. This falls into two parts: the good as the fulfillment of permissible ends (#4,) and the good as the object of the moral law (#5 below). Once the good as fulfillment of permissible ends is in view, it becomes clear that the object of empirical practical reason (#2 above) is only conditionally choiceworthy. What is rational in the limited context of the pursuit of individual happiness is only fully rational and good if it conforms to universal ends.
The good as the object of the moral law. What precisely is our end when we choose to do a morally obligatory act, for the sake of duty, in the absence of corroborating non-moral interests? We might evade the question, appealing to the “priority of right” in Kant’s thought, except that Kant believes all action is for an end. What is our end in doing the morally required thing because it is morally required?
In G436, where he is explaining that the 3 formulations of the categorical imperatives are fundamentally the same law, Kant says, “all maxims have 1) a form, which consists in universality:….maxims must be so chosen as if they were to hold as universal laws of nature, 2) a matter, viz., and end: and here the formula says that a rational being inasmuch as he is by his verify nature an end and hence an end in himself, must serve in every maxim as a condition limiting all merely relative and arbitrary ends, and 3) a complete determination of all maxims by the formula that all maxims proceeding from his own legislation ought to harmonize with a possible kingdom of ends as a kingdom of nature.”(G436) Kant introduces beings with a rational nature as ends-in-themselves in this and other passages because, in addition to setting limits to our pursuit of empirical ends, the moral law must set ends of its own. Rational nature as an end-in-itself fulfills this role in Kant’s system. The kingdom-of-ends is a more complete determination of the final end of good-willing: it is the ideal of a possible system of such end-in-themselves and their ends.
The complete good10. It is a consistent theme of Kant’s writings, from the first Critique to Religion that good willing is not reliably conducive to happiness, that two such incommensurate ends as happiness and the moral law can only be reconciled by the complete subordination of the one to the other, and that “without a god and without a word invisible to us now but hoped for, the glorious ideas of morality are indeed objects of approval and admiration, but not springs of purpose and action.”11 Neither mere happiness, nor mere worthiness to be happy is the complete good.12 “To .make the good complete, he who behaves in such a manner as not to be unworthy of happiness must be able to hope that he will participate in happiness.”13
In the Dialectic Kant describes the struggle of the ancient Greek schools to assert an analytic connection between virtue and happiness, seeking in thought what cannot be found in life. “The Stoic asserted virtue to be the entire highest good, and happiness was only the consciousness of this possession as belonging to the state of the subject. The Epicurean stated that happiness was the entire highest good and that virtue was only the form of the maxim by which it could be procured through the rational use of means to it. But it is clear…that the maxims of virtue and those of one’s own happiness are wholly heterogeneous…and that even though they belong to a highest good, which they jointly make possible, they strongly limit and check each other in the same subject.”14
Kant has no illusions: “No necessary connection, sufficient to the highest good, between happiness and virtue in the world can be expected from the most meticulous observance of the moral law.”15 In the second Critique this fact is seen as a threat to the moral law itself. “Since the furthering of the highest good, which contains this connection in its concept, is an a priori necessary object of our will and is inseparably related to the moral law, the impossibility of the highest good must provide the falsity of the moral law also. If the highest good is impossible according to practical rules, then the moral law which commands that it be furthered must be…directed to empty imaginary ends, and consequently inherently false.”16
While the complete good is the complete object of pure practical reason, the moral law alone is the motive of the pure will.17 “The moral law alone must be seen as the ground for making the highest good and its realization or promotion the objective of the pure will.’18 Otherwise, if we assume this object, conceived as the complete good, as the motive of the will prior to the moral law, and derive our practical principles from it, we fall into heteronomy.19
The supreme original good. In the first Critique Kant refers to the complete good, the fulfillment of both virtue and happiness, as the “supreme derivative good,” and God as the “supreme original good.”20 “It is only in the ideal of the supreme original good that pure reason can find the ground of this connection, which is necessary from the practical point of view, between the two elements of the supreme derivative good.”21 In the Dialectic, Kant elaborates on the idea of God as a postulate of pure practical reason. As we cannot conceive of any other way in which the complete good that is the object of the moral law can be fulfilled except as the work of God, we will not be able to sustain our commitment to the moral law through our entire life apart from a practical belief in God.
We have distinguished 7 meanings of the term good in Kant, as follows:
The good as the object of natural desires
The good as the object of empirical practical reason
The absolute value of the good will
The good as the fulfillment of permissible ends
The good as the object of the moral law
The complete good
The supreme original good
Since both #4 and #5 are the objects of good-willing, we might think of these meanings of the term good as arranged like this:
The good as the object of natural desire
The good as the object of empirical practical reason
The good as the object of good-willing (This includes #4 and #5 above.)
The value of the good with itself
The complete good
The supreme original good
The first thing to notice is the complexity of the conception of the good in Kant. The meanings for good seem to separate into kinds. In three cases (1, 2, & 3 in the second list) the good is understood as the object of one or another of our human capacities. We recognize here a traditional teleological shape: the good is that which we desire or the good as the actualizing of a potency. But hidden in the traditional teleological frame is a radical understanding of the relationship between our rational and biological natures. Our orientations toward the objects of natural desires are not in themselves reasons for action according to Kant. We can have an inclination and not act on it, even if there are no competing inclinations and no prior reasons not to act on it. Rational action is action done for reasons, but practical rationality itself creates the reasons, as follows: In a typical situation I have several possible courses of action, each satisfying some inclination(s). I freely take one such action-satisfaction pair as sufficient ground of my willing, out of some conception of the goodness of doing so. If I choose an alternative action-satisfaction pair, that different inclination will play an explanatory role with regard to the different action, but only because I freely choose to take the different action-satisfaction pair as the ground of my willing. Choosing makes it the case that one inclination is partially explanatory of the action I choose, but inclinations cannot explain the choosing. To understand the choosing, I will have to pay attention to the principles of practical reason and to my conceptions of the good-making properties of what I am considering doing.
So while there are three meanings of good in the list that are correlated with the objects of three kinds of orientation in us, these goods do not have any naturally-given order that exists prior to practical reason. There is not a natural hierarchy, with “higher-level goods” supervening on ”lower-level goods.” The goodness of an object of empirical practical reason never simply supervenes on a goodness attributed to objects of empirical desires. The same is pre-eminently true, for Kant, of the relationship of the moral law to happiness (goods #3 and #2).
Only one meaning of good on the list refers to the value of a predisposition or capacity, rather than to its object. This of course is the absolute value of the good will. Why is the value of empirical practical reason not an explicit theme in Kant’s writings? Perhaps the reasons are polemical rather than systematic. Kant’s main worry is empiricism in ethics. He is convinced that the pursuit of individual happiness using empirical practical reason is not ultimately order-producing in a community of rational natures, and this for him is weighty evidence that happiness cannot be the highest end of practical reason. He wants to insist that the moral law not only regulates our rational pursuit of happiness, but set ends for rational natures that are independent of their empirical inclinations altogether. The right is defined by pure practical reason independently of empirical rationality’s conception of the good, and the good will, as the confirmed capacity to take what is right as the sufficient ground of one’s action, is an absolute value that does not belong to the natural world.
In spite of this, we should not skip too lightly over the immense significance for Kant’s moral constructivism of the creativity of empirical practical reason. All actual human goods, for Kant, are constructions. The whole human world of families and societies, products, services, institutions and practices is largely the product of empirical practical reason. In every making and doing, practical reason creates a new local order among events in the natural world. Empirical practical reason is not capable of providing the highest systematic unity of ends in a realm of rational natures who are ends in themselves—that is the object of pure practical reason. But in the realm of pre-moral goods, empirical practical reason covers the planet with a human world, a fabric of local domains created and ordered by mini “laws of nature” we conceive ourselves. A woman plans the menu for a dinner party, a store manager at Vons receives a new way to encourage egg-carton recycling, a teenager constructs his end of a phone conversation—in each case new principles order new patterns of events. Down to their very roots, human goods are constructed objects. This means that there are no pre-rational moral facts to anchor our moral deliberations. Both the moral law and pre-moral goods are mediated by human rationality. Objectivity in morals cannot for Kant be the result of any form of naturalism.
In our function as practical reasoners we construct all the goods of the human world. We do this for reasons of which we ourselves are the ultimate source.22 I create an ordered pattern of events, deciding, say, to bring one combination of friends together for dinner rather than another, for reasons of my own. I initiate new causal chains in nature. Beginning with this Kantian theory of rational action, we know there are at least two kinds of value: the goods of the human world that we create in each making and doing, and we ourselves as originators of value. As originators of value, who create value according to reasons grounded in ourselves, we are ultimate ends.
What are the conditions of rational willing for a plurality of such originators of value? On can argue that one such condition of rationality is that we do our constructing of human goods in a way that recognizes each member of the plurality as an originator of reasons and of value, and therefore as an end in herself. That is, we can proceed from an acknowledgement of the value of practical reason to and elucidation of its principles.
If we take Kant at his word that he is explicating the presuppositions actually implicit in everyone’s ordinary moral judgments and evaluations of character, we must view his moral theory as leading to a kind of self-knowledge. In this self-knowledge we recognize the value not only of the objects to which we find ourselves oriented by our natural capacities, but also of these capacities themselves and of their principles. In particular, we recognize practical reason and its principles as originating (and thus ultimate) values that will play a key role in any adequate theory.
The third section of the Groundwork begins with this passage:
Will is a kind of causality belonging to living beings so far as they are rational. Freedom would then be the property this causality has of being able to work independently of determination by alien causes…the above definition of freedom is negative and consequently unfruitful as a way of grasping its essence; but there springs from it a more positive concept, which, as positive, is richer and more fruitful. The concept of causality carries with it that of laws in accordance with which, because of something we call a cause, something else—namely, its effect—must be posited. Hence freedom of the will, although it is not the property of conforming to laws of nature, is not for this reason lawless.: it must rather be a causality conforming to immutable laws, though of a special kind; for otherwise a free will would be self-contradictory. … What else then can freedom of the will be but autonomy—this is, the property which the will has of being a law to itself? The proposition ‘Will is in all its actions a law to itself? The proposition ‘Will is in all its actions a law to itself’ expresses, however only the principle of acting on no maxim other than one which can have for its object itself as at the same time a universal law. This is precisely the formula of the Categorical Imperative and the principle of morality. Thus a free will and a will under moral laws are one and the same.(G446-7)
This is Kant’s famous argument that the moral law is an inescapable feature of the rational agency of any negatively free will. Our concern is not with whether this claim can be defended against the moral skeptic, but with the fact that Kant proceeds from a claim about the freedom of the will to a derivation of its principles. He argues that practical rationality, as an originating value and therefore as free in the negative sense, is a law unto itself. Practical rationality has its own reasons that are independent of inclinations, because it is its own reason. It is a final end, and thus a ground of action for the will.
So beginning with the creativity of empirical practical reason, we have arrived at an idea of rational natures as ends in themselves, who are objects of the moral law (good #5 in the first list). Kant believes that the second formulation of the categorical imperative, “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means”(G429) is equivalent to the injunction never to act except in such a way that you can also will that your maxim should become a universal law.(G402) In the following passage Kant suggests that the latter injunction, to act only according to principles that could be universally adopted by all members of the human community, follows from the first. “If there is to be supreme practical principle…it must be such that from the conception of what is necessarily an end for everyone, because this end is an end in itself, it constitutes an objective principle of the will and can hence serve as a practical law.”(G428) It is as ultimate ends that rational natures introduce principles of moral obligation.
It remains to consider what Kant’s moral theory implies about the value of the non-human world. Deontological theories are supposed to be able to work directly from moral obligation, without addr3essing questions of value. We have seen that Kant’s moral theory is not deontological in this sense. In Kant’s thought, practical rationality is both a regulative norm and an ultimate value. The primary meanings of good in Kant’s thought are 1) the good as possible object of rational willing and 2) the good of rational willing itself, the good will.23 The second grounds the moral law. The first should be understood as a second-order definition of value in general.
With the exception of #7, non-human value does not appear on the list of meanings for good except as objects of human capacities. Does this mean that apart from human beings there is no value in the universe? One answer to this question might be that from a Kantian point of view all that exists is the object of the rational will of the supreme original good. But the idea of God functions as a postulate of practical reason for Kant and this is a speculative question.
Suppose there is an old sycamore tree on a man’s lot that drops most of its leaves on his neighbor’s lawn. The neighbor proposes cutting the tree down. The owner is indifferent, but some other people in the town oppose it because, they say, they like the old tree. When pressed about their reasons, they resort to language about the tree’s intrinsic value.
What does Kant’s theory imply for the question of the intrinsic value of the non-human world/ One suggestion has been that by locating unconditioned goodness in the good will Kant introduces distinctive assumptions about value that are quite restrictive. “The domain of ‘the good’ is rational activity and agency: that is, willing. Objects and events are not possible bearers of value. They can be thought of as good only insofar as they are possible ends of rational willing. They are judged good just in case the determination to act for them (here and in this way and for this purpose) is good. …The activity of rational willing brings value into a world that, absent rational beings, could have none.”24 If the last sentence read “the activity of rational willing brings a kind of value into the world that, absent rational beings, it would lack,” this would be a truism for Kant. But as stated it seems to imply the much stronger claim that without rational beings the world has no value. Of course if is called into question.25 How can they be judged good in certain cases? The claim that objects and events can only be thought of as good insofar as they are possible ends of rational willing can be interpreted broadly to include the goodness of anything rational beings could will to exist. This weaker claim is immediately narrowed by the next sentence, however, where something is said to be good if the determination to act for it (in a particular situation, etc.,) is good. This would deny value to all but one member of any set of non-compossible objects of a single decision to act.
I suggest we back up a step and look again at the statement that with reference to non-moral value, the good is the possible object of rational willing. This may not be a statement about the world, i.e. that there is no pre-human value, but rather a statement about the indirect, discursive, ultimately political manner in which human reason assesses value.26 What is the value of the old sycamore? The answer is not empirical. Value is not an immediate object of experience. And there is no such thing as direct rational intuition of value, for Kant. We have no value radar. Our general notion of non-moral value must be a second order definition, which directs us to the ongoing discursive, social process of human moral evaluation. Kant’s theory provides no short-cuts on this question.
It is in the spirit of Kant’s critical philosophy to recognize that the central account of good for rational natures will be grounded in a self-consciousness that understands the role of the moral law in the unity of reason.27 The good for human beings is the object of practical reason. This entails a constructivist account of both moral and non-moral value.
Kant begins his moral theory with our concepts of obligation and duty, not because he has no theory of value, but because they lead to the idea of the good will and its object, which forms its centerpiece. The principles of right set limits on our pursuit of particular conceptions of the good. But they also set ends that orient us toward the final good of rational natures and their highest possible unity in a system of ends.