Kant begins the First Section of the Groundwork with a statement that is one of the most memorable in all his writings: “There is nothing it is possible to think of anywhere in the world, or indeed anything at all outside it, that can be held to be good without limitation, excepting only a good will” (Ak 4:393).1 Due to the textual prominence of this claim, readers of the Groundwork have usually proceeded to read that work, and Kant’s other ethical works as well, on the assumption that the truth of that assertion, and therefore the conception of the good will, both occupy a fundamental place in Kantian ethics. The assumption, however, becomes increasingly hard to sustain as we gain more familiarity with Kant’s ethical writings and better understanding of his ethical theory.2 As for the concept of the good will, Kant does avow the intention of “developing” it (Ak 4:397), and he goes on to thematize concepts that he thinks of as related to the good will (the moral worth of an action, acting from duty). But he never provides an explicit account of what he takes a ‘good will’ to be.3
In the pivotal passage in the Second Section of the Groundwork where Kant formulates the principle of morality as a system of the three formulas he has derived, he does return to the concept of the good will, proposing to “end at the place from which we set out at the beginning, namely with the concept of an unconditionally good will”, and declaring that the principle he has derived expresses the principle of such a will (Ak 4:437). This remark treats the principle of morality as explicating the concept of the good will, but it does not treat the concept of the good will as fundamental to deriving the principle sought for in the Groundwork. In other ethical writings, the good will is occasionally mentioned, but Kant highlights other concepts far more: that of a categorical imperative, a formal principle of volition, of moral virtue, of a duty of virtue. The good will or its value is never used as a starting point for the derivation or explanation of any of these concepts, and expository attempts to present Kant’s ethical theory as if the value of the good will has such a role in the theory, though fairly common in the literature, are also distorting and misleading.
Kant says that the good will is the only thing “good without limitation” (ohne Einschränkung). By this he obviously does not mean that it is the only thing that is good, since he goes on to list and classify other goods whose goodness is not without limitation. What he means is that considered in itself the good will is something entirely good and in no respect bad. He explains this last point by saying that the good will is the only good thing whose goodness is not diminished by its combination with anything else – even with all the evil things that may be found in conjunction with it.
A good will, Kant says, often fails to achieve the good ends at which it aims. But its own proper goodness is not diminished by this failure, or even by bad results that might flow from it (contrary to its volitions). Even if the good will achieved nothing good -- even if it were combined with all manner of other evils -- “it would shine like a jewel for itself, as something having its full worth in itself” (Ak 4:394). Kant does not say whether, on the whole, we should prefer the combination of a good will with bad consequences or other evils to the combination of a bad will with good results. But he does think that the goodness of the good will itself is undiminished by such combinations, whereas the goodness of all other goods (talents of the mind, desirable qualities of temperament, power, wealth, honor, health, even happiness) is very much diminished (or even transformed from good to bad) when these are combined with a will that is not good (Ak 4:393-394). So while all other goods are limited in their goodness by their combination with bad things, the goodness of the good will is unique among goods in that it remains untarnished by such combinations.