Book III: The Moral Ideal and Moral Progress.

Chapter I: Good and Moral Good.


The statement that the distinction between the good and bad will must lie at the basis of any system of Ethics, and the further statement that this distinction itself must depend on the nature of the objects willed, would in some sense or other be accepted by all recognised schools of moralists, but they would be accepted in very different senses. On the one side the modern Utilitarian would only accept the former statement in the sense that, unless an action is done intentionally, it is not the subject of moral predicates. The action, in his view, derives its moral quality not from the motive or character which it expresses, but from the effects which it produces. Those effects, indeed, do not entitle the act to be reckoned morally good or bad, unless it is one which the agent intends or wills to do; but, given the intentional act, it is not on the motive which leads to its being intended, but on its effects in the way of pleasure or pain, that its morality depends. This is very plainly put by J. S. Mill: The morality of the action depends entirely upon the intention—that is, upon what the agent wills to do. But the motive, that is, the feeling which makes him will so to do, when it makes no difference in the act, makes none in the morality: though it makes a great difference in our moral estimation of the agent, especially if it indicates a good or bad habitual disposition—a bent of character from which useful or from which hurtful actions are likely to arise. In other words, while there are two distinct objects of moral approbation or disapprobation, or two objects which admit of the designation morally good or bad, (a) intentional action, (b) the motive or character of an agent, the latter is only to be judged relatively to its effects as producing pleasure or pain. The motive or character is morally good, if likely on the whole to issue in intentional actions which are good in the sense of producing on the whole, one person taken with another and one time with another, an excess of pleasure over pain. (§155 ¶1)

Clearly, upon this view, our statement that Ethics is founded on the distinction between the good and the bad will could only be accepted under the proviso that by good and bad will is understood good and bad intentional action, and further that intentional action is understood to be good or bad according to its relation to an ultimate good and evil, which are constituted not by any kind of action, intention, or character, but by pleasure and pain. The other statement that the distinction between the good and bad will must depend on the nature of the objects willed would be subjected by the Utilitarian to a similar qualification. He could accept it if by will is understood intention, and if by the objects willed are understood the effects of the intentional act in the way of producing pleasure and pain. If by will is meant habitual disposition, and by objects willed motives, he could only accept the statement on the understanding that the nature of the objects willed is itself taken to depend on the tendency of the motives to issue in actions productive of a preponderance of pleasure or pain as the case may be. (§155 ¶2)

It is in a precisely opposite sense that the propositions in question would have to be understood, in order to be approved by a strict follower of Kant. With him an act of will would never be understood merely of an intention to do a certain deed, in abstraction from the motive or object for the sake of which the deed is done; and with him again the good will is good, not in virtue of any effects extrinsic to it, but in virtue of what it is in itself, not as a means, but as an absolute end. The first of the above statements, therefore, he would accept in the sense which it naturally bears. In the second he might see a loophole for error. To say that a will is good in virtue of the nature of the objects willed, does not exclude the notion that it may be good in virtue of desired effects other than its own goodness, or as directed to objects which are willed otherwise than for the reason of their being prescribed by a universal practical law. So far as the statement in question is understood according to any such notion as this, Kant—at any rate if interpreted according to the reiterated letter of his doctrine—would reckon it fundamentally erroneous. (§155 ¶3)