Merit / [ Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 77, Dec. 1996: 313-337] kant’s conception of merit I

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Merit /

[Pacific Philosophical Quarterly77, Dec. 1996: 313-337]


Robert N. Johnson

Department of Philosophy

University of Missouri

ABSTRACT: It is standard to attribute to Kant the view that actions from motives other than duty deserve no positive moral evaluation. I argue that the standard view is mistaken. Kant’s account of merit in the Metaphysics of Morals shows that he believes actions not performed from duty can be meritorious. Moreover, the grounds for attributing merit to an action are different from those for attributing moral worth to it. This is significant because it shows both that his views are reasonably consistent with our ordinary views, and that he recognized a variety of purposes in evaluating actions, many of which are not furthered by determining whether they were motivated by duty.

A few pages into the Groundwork Kant claims that only actions from duty have moral worth.ii Even though as an aside he also says that a dutiful action from sympathy or honor, though lacking in moral worth, “deserves praise and encouragement”, it is tempting not to take him very seriously. One suspects that he regards this praise as only a poor and morally insignificant cousin of the esteem reserved for actions from duty. In the end, it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that, for him, only dutiful actions from duty deserve any morally significant positive evaluation.iii This conclusion in turn raises a standard objection:iv How can this be squared with the fact that we think highly of actions motivated, not by duty, but by desires to help those we love or those for whom we feel compassion? Of course, if we could ignore our suspicions and take Kant’s aside seriously, the conflict would lessen. Contrary to the standard objection, Kant does indeed think that actions motivated by such desires are worthy of praise and encouragement. But the difficulties would not, for then we would then have to answer serious questions about the nature of the “praise” deserved by a dutiful action not performed from duty, what moral significance (if any) a Kantian view can attribute to it, and the relationship it has to moral worth.

The aim of my paper is to work toward an answer to these questions. I believe that there is room within a Kantian account of moral evaluation to take seriously Kant’s aside about actions from motives other than duty. The focus of my discussion, however, will not be on the account of moral worth in the Groundwork that has attracted much recent attention. Rather, it will be on Kant discussion of “merit” [Verdienst] in the later Metaphysics of Morals. I think that there are deep enough differences between his account of moral merit and his account of moral worth to show that he takes these to be different kinds of moral evaluation. And his account of meritorious action shows that actions not performed from duty can be nonetheless deserving of a morally significant positive evaluation. Moreover, I think that this distinction between merit and moral worth in turn reflects an important difference in purposes we have in moral evaluation. Sometimes we want to evaluate how morally good we really are, and for this, evaluations of moral worth, but not moral merit, are appropriate. Other times we are concerned with what and how much to hold, not only ourselves, but also others, responsible for, what and how much desert and praise or blame are appropriate, or with whether an act has incurred a debt or an obligation to make amends. Evaluations of merit, but not moral worth, are appropriate here. These are two different sorts of purposes for moral evaluation, requiring different sorts of evaluative categories, and Kant’s views respect this difference. Or so I will argue.

My strategy will be to articulate the main features of Kant’s conception of merit, and then to contrast this with his more well-known (though still controversial) views on moral worth. More specifically, I will argue that on Kant’s view the grounds for attributing merit to an action are different from those for attributing moral worth. Moreover, although all actions performed from duty are meritorious, not all meritorious actions must be performed from duty. Kant’s account in fact allows a surprising amount of room to regard actions not motivated by duty as meritorious. I will also argue that even if acting from duty is always meritorious, his account does not imply that it always is meritorious in a great degree. Indeed, his conception of merit does not imply that there must be more merit in acting from duty than from other motives.

For simplicity’s sake, my account will focus on actions, rather than on other objects of evaluation, such as persons, which Kant does not discuss in relation to merit. It may be possible to extend a Kantian view in these directions, but I will not be concerned with this. However, by focussing on actions, I am not assuming that the concepts of “moral worth” or “moral merit” must apply only or even primarily to actions, rather than persons. The issue of whether moral evaluation mainly focusses on persons or on actions is not crucial to the account that follows.

Kant ties responsibility for consequences to judgments of merit, and although I will not focus on this, I will have something to say about how this relates to the different purposes we may have in moral evaluation in general. I do, however, suppose that his account of merit concerns at least in part the grounds of moral praiseworthiness. Kant never explicitly equates merit with praiseworthiness, nor does he say anything that indicates he thinks that they are different. His account of merit, I think, is most naturally taken to concern praiseworthiness, even if some non-meritorious actions might be praiseworthy as well. And if all meritorious actions are praiseworthy, but not all meritorious actions are performed from duty, then what I say here will be sufficient to imply that some morally praiseworthy actions need not be performed from duty.

One final preliminary note. I wish to emphasize at the outset that the issue here is over the grounds for judging an action to be morally meritorious (as opposed to, say, prudentially meritorious). I say this mainly in order to allow space for the argument that follows. For many will resist a discussion of Kantian merit which separates it from moral worth simply because they hold the position which I wish to argue against, namely, that the moral dimension of merit for a Kantian must come from the motive of duty. By taking my topic to be moral merit, I am therefore not surreptitiously begging any questions, but simply putting the issue on the table for discussion.

My discussion is divided as follows: In sections one and two I discuss the first part of Kant’s conception of merit, that meritorious actions are those in which the agent does more in the way of duty than can be rightfully coerced. Here, I will argue, Kant is referring mainly to the moral limits of coercion, and that this show that his view allows certain kinds of actions, even if not motivated by duty, to be morally meritorious. In the third section, I discuss the second element of Kant’s conception, that merit varies with the degree of natural and moral obstacles to performing actions. This, together with the results from the first two sections, leads to my argument in the fourth section, that Kant’s account not only does not restrict moral merit to actions from duty, but it does not even implies that acting from duty necessarily deserves more merit than other meritorious actions. Finally, I will end by briefly explaining the difference between these two kinds of moral evaluation.


In the Groundwork, Kant refers to “wide” duties as “meritorious” [verdienstlichen], in contrast to “narrow” or “rigorous” [unnachlaßlichen] duties.v This reference to merit itself might be taken as evidence that he thinks of an action’s merit as distinct from its moral worth [moralischen Wert]. We can perform narrow duties, such as keeping a promise, from duty, and so the performance of narrow duties can be of moral worth. On the other hand, we can perform wide duties, such as promoting the ends of others, without doing so from duty, and so the performance of wide duties can lack moral worth. Yet here he refers only to wide duties as meritorious. This does not imply that performing narrow duties cannot be meritorious; as we shall see, they can. Nevertheless, a wide duty is meritorious in some sense in which a narrow duty is not. So our first question is, How is the wideness in a duty related to its meritoriousness?

Unfortunately, there is nothing more said of merit or of the wide/narrow distinction in duties in the Groundwork, so we must turn to the Metaphysics of Morals for an In the introduction to this work, Kant defines some concepts that are preliminary and common to both of its parts, the doctrines of right and virtue.vii One of these concepts is that of merit, which he takes up while discussing the imputation of actions and desert. The first part of his definition of merit is this: “If someone does more in the way of duty than he can be coerced by law to do, what he does is meritorious [verdienstlich] (meritum)”.viii If someone simply does what can be coerced, on the other hand, he does what is owed [Schuldigkeit] (debitum), while doing less is culpable [moralische Verschuldung] (demeritum). From the first part of his definition, together with the fact that Kant refers to wide duties as meritorious, we can infer that a wide duty is meritorious because it involves doing more in the way of duty than can be coerced by law.

The idea that some duties can and others cannot be coerced is central to the Metaphysics. Its most basic division is between juridical and ethical legislation, or the legal and ethical aspects of morals. Kant makes this division on the basis of the fact that ethical legislation does not, and cannot, derive its authority from coercion, while juridical legislation must.ix Given this, we can infer that the laws which can coerce only less than meritorious action are juridical, rather than ethical, for only compliance with juridical laws can be coerced. There can thus be no merit in merely conforming to juridical law. Consequently, by “meritorious” Kant does not mean “ethically supererogatory”, or above and beyond the call of ethical duty, but, more minimally, beyond the reach of juridical duty, or the legally coercible. And since all ethical duties are uncoercible, simply performing them will always be meritorious.x By “what can be coerced” here, Kant means both what is conceptually and morally possible to coerce. I will discuss the latter in the next section. Let us first consider the idea of what it is conceptually possible to coerce.

The reason that ethical duties cannot be coerced is that they are duties to adopt ends (most generally, the happiness of others and our own perfection).xi They are therefore of (more or less) wide obligation and so, Kant claims, they leave

a latitude (latitudo) for free choice in following (complying with) the law, that is ... the law cannot specify precisely in what way one is to act and how much one is to do by the action for an end that is also a duty.xii

We cannot specify what or how much should be done in order to fulfill a duty to adopt an end. For instance, adopting the happiness of others as our end requires no particular helping actions in any particular degrees of frequency. Others’ happiness simply must carry some weight in our deliberations, such that we are committed to sometimes and some extent performing actions which promote the happiness of others.xiii Juridical duties, on the other hand, are of narrow obligation because they do specify what and how much the agent is to do. They demand the performance of particular external actions (such as fulfilling one’s contracts).xiv So while ethical legislation characteristically does not concern specifiable external action, juridical legislation does.xv

Since Kant conceives of an end as “an object of free choice, the representation of which determines it to an action”,xvi adopting an end “excludes the possibility of constraint through natural means by the choice of another.”xvii From Kant’s definition of an “end”, then, the very idea of it excludes coercion, and so the very idea of coercing someone to adopt an end is self-contradictory.xviii Kant’s idea here is plausible enough: While one person can coerce another to perform particular external actions, such as to pay for services rendered, to execute the terms of a contract, or to stay off someone’s property, no one can coerce another to do these things in pursuit of money, honor or whatever.xix Given that ethics legislates the adoption of ends, and that the adoption of ends cannot be coerced, the performance of any ethical duty will therefore go beyond the legally coercible.xx

Kant claims that all juridical duties are narrow (in specifying particular external actions), and all ethical duties are wide (in leaving some latitude for choice in what, how much and when to perform actions). However, it is apparent that he regards the categories of narrow and wide as resting on a continuum. (As we shall see, this continuum is important for assessing degrees of merit.) For instance, he claims that duties of respect, being duties of omission, are narrower than duties of love.xxi Moreover, we can and should “bring closer to narrow duty (duties of Right) the maxim of complying with wide duty.”xxii The implication here is clear: Duties can be more or less wide, and the more that a duty specifies in what way one is to act and how much one is to do, the narrower it is. Thus, even if the proscription of suicide is a duty to adopt an obligatory end (or at least to refrain from adopting of various ends which would require self-annihilation as a means to them), and so is included among ethical duties, it is comparatively narrow. For pursuing the ends which require self-annihilation will issue in one kind of act, and so refraining from such ends requires that one refrain from a specific kind of act. In contrast to this, adopting the happiness of others as one’s end, though also an ethical duty, leaves a more latitude in what and how much to do. This makes it all the more clear why all juridical duties are narrow in this sense, for laws coerce specific actions in specific degrees.


So far, we have seen that, because the idea of coercing an end is self-contradictory, and because in adopting an end we are merely adopting a policy of action which (more or less) resists specification as to what and how much is required to be done, Kant holds that the performance of ethical duties is meritorious. However, he also thinks that many actions which could conceivably be coerced are also meritorious. Thus, the conceptual impossibility of coercion is not a necessary condition of merit. Indeed, there is nothing unintelligible about coercing someone to perform those external actions which someone with such ends characteristically, or in the case of narrower ethical duties, always, performs or omits. Aside from the shackling of self-mutilators or confinement of those who are suicidal, we could conceive of “good Samaritan” laws, for instance, coercing people to help others in need.xxiii

Yet helping actions, for instance, seem meritorious quite apart from the inconceivability of coercing ends. When a person does something good for which there was no moral space for coercion, we think that this can make her action meritorious (i.e., we think “she did not have to do it”). Consider someone who helps out at a local soup kitchen. We can well imagine a law which coerces this. But under normal circumstances we would not this justifiable. For the failure to perform good deeds of this kind does not (normally) interfere with anyone else’s rights or free choices. Indeed, such a person would be helping on her own initiative, and that is why we think it meritorious. The fact that she does something which no one has a moral right to coerce, even if it is conceivable that it be coerced, makes her action meritorious.

This idea of moral uncoercibility is central to Kant’s conception of meritorious duties: For instance, he says that “what essentially distinguishes a duty of virtue from a duty of Right is that external constraint to the latter kind of duty is morally possible, whereas the former is based on only free self-constraint.”xxiv There is thus a sense in which the agent who performs a meritorious action does more than can be coerced in a moral sense. Helping strangers in need and taking care of one’s health are instances of doing more than it is morally possible to coerce. Naturally, a law requiring people to moderate their smoking or to help at a soup kitchen is conceivable. Nonetheless, in Kant’s view it is not morally possible.

The moral limits of coercion are defined by Kant’s “Universal Principle of Right”. An action is right (legal) “if on its maxim the freedom of choice of each can coexist with everyone’s freedom”.xxv A law which forbade an action on whose maxim the freedom of choice of each could coexist with everyone’s freedom would not be justifiable. Since the indulgence of immoderate personal habits or the failure to be a good Samaritan does not (normally) impinge on the freedom of choice of others, each would not be, as Kant sees it, a morally fit subject of coercion. Consequently, both moderate and beneficent acts are meritorious when they reflect the pursuit of the obligatory ends of our own perfection and the happiness of others.

Moreover, they may do so even if those ends are not adopted from duty. For, setting aside the interests a person might have in adopting these ends, both go beyond what can be rightfully coerced. Indeed, they do so “in the way of duty”, for the ends the person adopts are the outcome of ethical legislation, even if it is not their being so legislated that is the motive for adopting them. Consider, for instance, a person who pursues her own perfection and the happiness of others, but not motivated by duty. Suppose she pursues them motivated by, respectively, an interest in her reputation as a health-nut and sympathetic person. Even though she has not adopted obligatory ends from the motive of duty, she nonetheless acts according to her ethical duties in adopting them. She simply fails to adopt them from an interest in the dutifulness of adopting them.

It is common, however, to take Kant as saying something much stronger than this, that a person cannot really adopt a morally obligatory end or policy, unless she does so from the motive of duty.xxvi Thus, on this interpretation, one simply fails to perform an ethical duty unless one acts from duty. Although there is some textual support for this interpretation,xxvii I believe it depends on a dubious way of resolving the problem of determining relevant act descriptions. A lot turns, morally speaking, on whether a helping action should be described as “maintaining my reputation as a sympathetic guy” or “promoting the well-being of others” or, for that matter, “doing my duty”, and, on the Kantian view, this is the job of maxims. Our maxim is supposed to determine the description of an action that is relevant for moral purposes. And our interests, at least in some measure, should be counted as a part of maxims. This surely makes sense, given that we ordinarily tend to change our descriptions in light of intentions and motives. Thus, the description of what I am doing, for moral purposes, may depend in part on whether I am acting from duty or not. Some hold that this fact about maxims and act descriptions implies that one cannot perform any ethical duties at all unless one acts from the motive of duty.

But there is good reason to resist the implication. First, it is simply too austere a view. One cannot, on the austere reading, act in accordance with ethical duties and yet still be doing one’s duty. For to act merely in accordance with a duty is to act from some other motive than duty. But if performing ethical duties requires acting from duty, then in acting merely according to one’s ethical duties, one will not be performing any ethical duties at all. But surely there is some sense in which a person who helps others and looks after her health does her ethical duty, even if we may doubt that she does these things simply from the motive of duty.

Second, there is textual evidence in the Metaphysics that Kant did not hold the austere reading. He defines right and wrong action in terms of acting merely according or contrary to duty [pflichtmässig oder pflichtwidrig], even though “the duty itself, in terms of its content or origin, may be of any kind”.xxviii If its content or origin may be of any kind, it can be an ethical duty, or a duty whose origin is the inner legislation of ends. If we can act merely according to our ethical duties, and this in turn is ethically right action, yet our ethical duties are duties to adopt obligatory ends, then we must be able to adopt such obligatory ends without doing so motivated by a view to their obligatoriness. The performance of, for instance, a helping action, may therefore reflect the fact that we have adopted the obligatory end of promoting the happiness of others, even if an interest in duty alone is not what leads us to adopt it.

Third, given that the “ultimate subjective ground” of our choices remains obscure even in light of the most studious self-examination, determining “what someone did” in a given case would be left equally obscure. I may be interested in helping others because I have a further interest, namely, doing whatever I believe is my duty. But I may also, in turn, have that interest, not simply because I have taken an interest in duty, but because I wish to maintain a good reputation and believe that doing what I believe is my duty no matter what will further that. The depth and complexity in the web of interests that motivate us makes it important to find some level of description that is not held completely hostage to them. And, I think, since the deepest part of this web determines whether or not we have really “acted from duty”, that level of interest should not be taken as determining act descriptions in the sense relevant to whether we have or have not performed a given ethical duty.

Finally, although for moral purposes an act description should be determined by the maxim on which the agent acted, not all moral purposes are the same. What may be an appropriate level of description for determining, for instance, the moral value of an action may not be appropriate for determining desert, responsibility, praise- or blameworthiness. Hence, we should not assume that for every moral purpose we have in describing, and so evaluating, an action, we must determine as well what the ultimate interest was that motivated it. What I am supposing here is that for some moral purposes (and I will discuss one below), determining whether someone acted meritoriously need not hang on determining whether she was motivated by duty. For all of these reasons, then, I think there are good grounds for not attributing the austere view to Kant, that performing an ethical duty requires acting from duty.

Applying the more detailed discussion of duties in the Metaphysics back to the remark in the Groundwork, it is clear that Kant thought the performance of wide duties was “meritorious” because (a) they are moral requirements to adopt ends, which cannot be coerced, and (b) the actions which the adoption of such ends requires are not morally fit for coercion. By contrast (c) all juridical duties can be coerced (since they require only external actions), (d) are morally fit for coercion (according to the Universal Principle of Right), and so can typically be performed without doing more than can be coerced. Although the two kinds of limits on coercion are distinct, they are related in the sense that both single out actions that are a product of “free self-constraint”. In so doing, they focus on actions reflecting the agent’s own initiative. Thus, the rationale for judgments of merit is grounded in the reasonable idea that the merit of such actions should be attributed to the agent’s own initiative (rather than, say, the prospect of punishment).


This first part of Kant’s account of merit, however, seems to have problematic results: First, we must count even narrow, perfect ethical duties, such as refraining from suicide and various over-indulgences or contemptuous attitudes, as meritorious, for these cannot rightfully (in one or the other sense) be coerced. But why, one might ask, should refraining from such base behavior be meritorious? Second, Kant contrasts what is meritorious with what is owed--either to others or even oneself. But in performing perfect ethical duties, one is only doing what is owed. So even if ethical duties go beyond what is legally coercible, many are nonetheless owed to others or ourselves, and so should not be counted as meritorious.xxix Yet my account so far does just this.

Regarding the second problem, notice that the actions of refraining from suicide, overindulgence, contempt and the like may or may not reflect the adoption of an obligatory end. Yet surely it is only the external action that can be “owed”, not the adoption of an end. What I owe another is not the adoption of any end in my actions, but simply certain actions. I must refrain from ridiculing others, for instance, because I owe them this in virtue of their humanity. But it is in the adoption of the end of respecting them that my refraint from ridicule becomes meritorious. So when an action is merely considered as what can be owed to ourselves or another, then it is not meritorious. But when that same action is considered as reflecting the adoption of an obligatory end, then it is (minimally, perhaps) meritorious. In other words, perfect ethical duties, in their guise as ethical duties, are meritorious, but in their guise as simple what is owed, whether morally or conceptually coercible, they are not meritorious.

Regarding the first problem, although it is quite clear that refraining from such behavior is not equal in merit to, say, helping others at a substantial personal cost to oneself, there is nothing counter-intuitive about its being meritorious, so long as it is only counted as minimally meritorious. And the second part of Kant’s account allows for just this difference in the relative merit of various kinds of actions, for it provides for gradations in merit:

The greater the natural obstacles (of sensibility) and the less the moral obstacle (of duty), so much the more merit is to be accounted for a good

The common-sense idea here is just that the harder it is to do a good deed, and the less expected it is that one do it, the more meritorious it is that one did it. On the other hand, the easier or more expected it is that one perform a good deed, the less meritorious. Thus, refraining from base behavior such as gluttony, since it is expected of everyone, is of little, but still some, merit. Pursuing the happiness of others, especially when one must make sacrifices to do so, however, is of greater merit.

More precisely, “the greater the natural obstacles (of sensibility)” refers to our often wayward inclinations. They may incline us against duty, either a little bit or a lot (or perhaps not at all). We may really lust after, or, alternatively, just prefer, to do something other than what we ought. And the more inclined we are against doing “more in the way of duty”, the more meritorious it is that we do it. Hence, the rich person who gives a certain amount to charity is prima facie doing something of less merit than the person of more moderate means who gives the same amount, simply because it affects the material well-being of the latter person more than the former, and so there was a greater obstacle present.xxxi

“The less the moral obstacle (of duty)”, on the other hand, refers to the breadth of the duty. There is more of a “moral obstacle” to failing to perform a narrower duty than a wider one. There is a great moral obstacle to breaking a contract, but a small one to failing to help out at the soup kitchen on a particular day at a particular time. The former is not meritorious, since the moral obstacle to breaking a contract is large (i.e., we must keep every contract). The latter, however, presents a relatively small moral obstacle (i.e., we must only adopt a general policy of helping others). Hence, only the latter is meritorious.

Moreover, as we have seen, wide duties can be “more or less” wide, not only in the sense that they can leave more or less room for judgment in deciding when and what to do in order to fulfill them, but also in the sense that we may be more or less free to pursue our own interests rather than perform an action that would carry out a wide duty (depending on what the duty is, and only if in doing so we are not thereby rejecting a morally required policy).xxxii Thus duties of respect, for instance, may be wide in the sense that they require adopting an end and so do not specify in any particular degree or extent particular actions. Yet they do not allow the sort of latitude in performing actions that duties of self-development and of promoting the happiness of others allow--for instance, the freedom to allow exceptions in the interest of inclination.xxxiii Thus, while it is left to judgment both when to, and what will and will not, fulfill a duty of respect, we cannot forgo acting on a policy of respecting others in a particular case because we happen to have a strong inclination to, say, ridicule someone. Therefore, although they are both “wide duties”, duties of respect are narrower than duties of self-development and promoting the happiness of others, and so the latter are, to that degree, more meritorious.

In sum, then, the wider the duty, the less moral obstacle there is to forgoing a particular action in accordance with it, and so the more meritorious it is that one performs it. Combining this with the “natural obstacle” variable, we get the conclusion that the most meritorious actions are those one is least inclined to do or even inclined against doing, and would make the least moral difference if one did not do them in particular.xxxiv

The Kantian conception of meritorious action, then, concerns whether an agent has done more in the way of duty than can be rightfully coerced, the degree of wideness of the duty and the difficulty or ease in its performance. But it still might be objected that many actions which quite obviously are not meritorious will fulfill these conditions. For instance, suppose someone performs an act of charity to a stranger (a wide ethical duty) against powerful contrary inclinations (she is a misanthrope, perhaps), but does so out of principled spite (say, her principle is to do whatever it takes to make a rival in charity feel like a failure).xxxv Surely no one would count this as a meritorious action. But that is what the account so far requires that we do.

This objection can be met to a great extent by the condition that an action that goes beyond what can be coerced must do so “in the way of duty”. So one can perform a wide duty and struggle against contrary inclinations to do so, and so do more than can be coerced, without doing so “in the way of duty”. And acting according to ethical duties from spite, malice, vanity or other undesirable interests would surely seem to be a failure to do so “in the way of duty”, and so a failure to act meritoriously. The problem is how to show that this is a failure to act in the way of duty, yet at the same time allow that acting from other more desirable interests, such as compassion or love, is not a failure to act in the way of duty.

But Kant makes just such a distinction in speaking of the difference between acting from sympathy or honor and acting from duty in the Groundwork.A charitable act by a sympathetic person “without any further motive of vanity or self-interest...stands on the same footing as other inclinations---for example, the inclination for honor, which if fortunate enough to hit on something beneficial and right and consequently honourable, deserves praise and encouragement, but not esteem”.xxxvi This implicitly contrasts acting from “vanity or self-interest” and acting from honor or sympathy. Right actions from vanity and self-interest do not deserve “praise and encouragement”, but right actions from sympathy or honor do. If Kant’s account of meritorious actions is an account praiseworthy actions, as I think is it most natural to suppose, then whatever underlies the distinction between right actions from vanity and those from sympathy will explain why the charitable act from spite is not meritorious, while the same act from love or honor is.

What underlies the distinction, I think, is this: Actions from spiteful or vane interests embody attitudes that are morally forbidden, while actions from sympathy, honor or love do not. Kant holds that attitudes such as envy, ingratitude, malice, contempt, arrogance (which he specifically contrasts with the desire for “honor”) are morally forbidden.xxxvii Hence doing more than be coerced, even wide duties one has to struggle to perform, from spiteful or vane interests, is not doing so “in the way of duty”. For in doing so, one is being malicious, contemptuous or arrogant of another person. On the other hand, such actions from love, sympathy or honor are not actions from forbidden attitudes, even if they are not performed from duty. Thus, while meritorious actions are those that go beyond what can be rightfully coerced, they are only meritorious on the condition that they are not performed from morally forbidden attitudes.

Of course, this only shows that acting from love, sympathy or honor is not forbidden and that such actions can be morally meritorious. It does not show that it is meritorious to act from such motives over and above having simply performed a wide ethical duty. Yet many who object to the Kantian view do so not simply because they believe it is wrong to think that actions from duty are alone worthy of any positive evaluation, but because they believe that it is because helping and other actions are not performed from duty, but from sympathy or love, that they deserve positive evaluations.xxxviii However, at least this much can be said in defense of the Kantian view: Those who champion sympathy and love, for instance, often do so because these sentiments reflect a concern for the good of another.xxxix It is thus this concern that is the source of their merit. But ethical duties require that we adopt obligatory ends, most generally, our own perfection and the good of others. So in doing more in the way of duty than can be rightfully coerced, as Kant conceives this, we are also concerned with the good of others. And this is so, as I have already emphasized, regardless of the source of this concern--whether it is an emotional or purely rational concern (and, as we have just seen, as long is it is not a morally forbidden attitude).xl It is true that a Kantian may well not regard the fact that the source of this concern is emotional as of additional moral significance. But it is at least not obvious that this is wildly counter-intuitive.


Consider now the merit in acting from duty. Acting from duty is adopting the “maxim of obeying the [moral] law even to the detriment of all my inclinations”.xli Since no one can be coerced to adopt a particular maxim, no one can be coerced to act from duty, and consequently all actions from duty are meritorious. Indeed, Kant holds that it would not be permissible for any law to require that we follow it for the sake of duty. For “when one’s aim is not to teach virtue but only to set forth what is right,” Kant states, “one may not and should not represent that law of Right as itself the incentive to action”.xlii

Since juridical duties do not require the adoption of ends, but only specifiable external actions consistent with the Universal Principle of Right, they all can be rightfully be coerced and so merely conforming to juridical duties is not meritorious. But although “there is nothing meritorious in the conformity of one’s actions with right” Kant says, “the conformity with Right of one’s maxims of such actions, as duties, that is,

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