By Jill Hernandez

Jill Hernandez, Stephen F. Austin State University


Kantian ethicists typically classify actions in three ways: morally permissible acts (whose maxim and its contrary do not contradict the moral law), morally obligatory acts (whose contrary maxim conflicts with the moral law), and morally forbidden acts (whose maxim contradicts the moral law). Acts that have moral worth, on this picture, are right acts done from the best possible motive, that of duty or the moral law. Recent scholarship, however, suggests that Kant ignores another logically possible class of actions that could have moral worth; namely, acts that are done from the motive of duty but are not in accordance with duty. The omission can be explained either by saying that these sorts of acts are irrelevant to Kant’s moral theory, or that Kant could not consistently maintain both his overall theory of moral worth and the view that there are impermissible, morally worthy acts.

Samuel Kerstein, in his recent project supporting the latter view,1 argues that an asymmetry in Kant’s work between motives and maxims for acting prevents Kant from recognizing forbidden acts done from duty. Kerstein believes that the asymmetry can be remedied, however, in a way that Kantians could consistently recognize the logically possible category of impermissible, morally worthy acts. The philosophical benefit from Kerstein’s argument is that actions performed conscientiously from the motive of duty would have moral worth (even if they are morally impermissible), since “moral worth” characterizes acts that are normatively motivated by an agent’s judgment that the act is required by the moral law.

Surprisingly, Kerstein’s thesis has been largely ignored, even though Kerstein was not the first to point out that Kant does not talk about the possibility of acts that are against duty, done from the motive of duty.2 Certainly, Kantians have given us much about why the category of morally worthy acts is narrow,3 about how moral worth is related to a pattern of good willing by rational agents,4 and about the esteem of morally worthy actions are tied to an agent’s moral responsibility to respect persons.5 But, a Kantian response to Kerstein’s project is needed—if for any reason, because an asymmetry in Kant’s ethical theory would allow agents to be wrong about what is required by the moral law and yet be motivated by it. This prospect would mean that actions that undermine morality (as impermissible acts do) would be predicated with moral worth.

In this project, I contend that there is no true benefit to Kerstein’s argument, because it assumes that an agent can act from the basis of an epistemological error about the requirement of the moral law, yet still be motivated from the moral law. I take on Kerstein’s contention that there is an asymmetry in Kant’s works between right actions and morally worthy actions, with the result that if an agent performs a morally impermissible act from a false belief about what is required of her, the agent cannot be said to be acting from the moral law at all. Even sincere agents make mistakes about duty, but when they do, they get something wrong about the nature of the moral law, and so they are not acting from it. Agents who act on a false belief about the moral law do not act from the best possible motive and so their action cannot have moral worth. If my critique of Kerstein is successful, I will show that Kant’s work need not be “remedied” to provide for a class of morally impermissible, worthy acts and indeed that Kant cannot consistently maintain that impermissible acts have moral worth. The result is that there must be a constraint on actions, such that, for an action to have moral worth, the agent must have a true belief about what is morally required. Since my epistemic constraint will ensure that there cannot be a class of actions done from duty but not in accordance with duty, I will conclude that the motive of duty is not arbitrarily morally significant.

Kerstein’s View

In chapter six of his book, Kerstein observes that there seem to be actions that are done from duty, but not in accordance with duty. Further, since Kantians consider moral worth to qualify actions that are done from the motive of duty, Kerstein contends that some impermissible acts can have moral worth, if they are performed solely from the motive of duty. Such a view would be inconsistent with a traditional Kantian reading, however, in which morally worthy acts are rights acts done from the best possible motive. Kerstein believes that the traditional view is flawed because it is based on an asymmetry in Kant’s work. If it is possible to fix the asymmetry, Kerstein continues, Kantians will then be able to accept the logically possible class of actions that are impermissible and yet have moral worth.

The Asymmetry Problem

Kant cannot consistently maintain both that morally worthy actions are right acts done from the highest possible motive and that some impermissible acts could have moral worth. The Kantian commitment to the rightness of morally worthy actions seems problematic, however, in view of the role circumstances play in permissibility and moral worth. On one hand, Kant argues that the moral worth of an act is directly linked to an agent’s motivation for acting. So, if an agent acts on a correct maxim and does so only from the motive that the moral law requires her to act, then her action has moral worth—even if circumstances intervene unluckily so that she doesn’t achieve the end of her action. On the other hand, the moral permissibility of an action is directly linked to an agent’s maxim for acting. So, if an agent attempts to formulate a correct (permissible) maxim for action, but circumstances unluckily intervene so that she mistakenly judges an incorrect (impermissible) action for a correct one, the action cannot have moral worth. In the first case, circumstances did not effect the moral worth of an action (even if the action failed), but in the second case, circumstances directly mitigate against the action having moral worth.

Kerstein suggests that by considering the two instances together, we discover a difficulty with the traditional Kantian model of moral worth. In the first case, since moral worth is directly linked to moral motivation (and not moral permissibility), whether or not the agent acts from a correct maxim has no import on the moral worth of her action. Similarly, in the second case, since moral permissibility is directly linked to a correct maxim for acting (and not moral motivation), whether the agent acts from a correct maxim also has no import on the moral worth of her action. To prove a relationship between moral rightness and moral worth successfully, Kant must smuggle a “correct maxim” into the equation of acts that are done from the best possible motive. It is only by engaging in philosophical Olympics, then, that Kant is able to avoid the possibility of morally impermissible, yet worthy, acts.

Kerstein thinks the two cases together show an asymmetry in Kant’s works.6 The asymmetry goes something like this: For Kant, the moral worth of an action has nothing to do with the agent’s success in accomplishing the end of the action. Moral worth results only from the principle of volition that serves as the basis for determination of the agent’s maxim. So, on Kant’s view,an act can have moral worth “even if it does not bring about its intended results.”7 Butthatan action could have moral worth independent of the action realizing its object is asymmetrical, says Kerstein, with Kant’s notion that failing to correctly judge whether one’s action is morally permissible disqualifies it from having moral worth. To be symmetrical, we might say that when an agent makes a mistake in evaluating the moral permissibility of her act, the act cannot have moral worth, and so too, that when acts fail to achieve the end of their action, they should be exempt from having moral worth.

Of course, if “moral worth” for Kant relates to the motive for acting, rather than to the achievement of an action’s goal, then Kant cannot say that acts that fail to achieve their end are exempt from having moral worth. Rather, since “moral worth” indicates the special quality of acts that are done from the best possible motive, whether an agent fails to accomplish what the action intended is not relevant to moral worth. A desirable symmetry for Kant, then, cannot come by negating there are morally worthy acts. Instead, since actions can have moral worth even if, for some reason, they do not achieve their end, so too, actions that turn out to be impermissible should be candidates for having moral worth if the act is done solely because the agent believes it is required.

Assessing the Asymmetry Problem

The success of Kerstein’s claim that a Kantian can consistently maintain a class of action that is impermissible, yet morally worthy, hinges on whether there is a Kantian asymmetry between correct maxims for action and moral worth. Yet, upon further evaluating the relationship between formulating correct maxims, moral worth, and circumstances for Kant, the possibility of an asymmetry problem seems to fade.

Judgment about the permissibility of an action falls within the control of an agent’s practical reason. Making mistakes, then, about whether an action is right or wrong is often a problem of moral judgment. Consequently, when an agent acts on an immoral maxim, we consider her mistake in judgment to be one that she could control, and so one for which she is responsible. Since impermissible actions are the result of poor moral judgment, they cannot qualify as indicating the special type of action that elicits moral esteem.8

Conversely, if an action does not achieve its object, it is often because there were factors outside of the agent’s control that adversely affected the end of action. In these cases, circumstances intercept the intended goal of the maxim, and although there are instances in which agents might be held morally blamable for not having proper foresight in evaluating circumstances that affected the outcome of her action, even then it is recognized that the agent suffered from bad luck, and (if the action intended was morally permissible) not poor moral judgment. When agents perform a morally permissible action, and yet circumstances intervene so that the intended end for action cannot be realized, if the normative motive for acting was the best possible motive, we would still say the action qualifies for moral worth.

Of course, a word must be said concerning the possibility that maxims that are never acted upon could have moral worth. It could be argued that since what is important to moral worth is the best motivation of a correct motive, then perhaps merely good deliberation should have moral worth. The notion of setting ends is empty, however, if there never is an attempt to achieve the ends. There cannot be “action” without acting. Good willing, even more, is about setting ends that best reflect the moral law, and so best reflect the humanity of our selves and of others. At G400, Kant recognizes that as rational agents all of our willing is towards an end, and further more, as agents we tend towards the object of our maxim. Kant underscores that rational agents are distinctive as end-setters, and so, willing is always in view of striving to meet those ends, especially if the ends are moral ends.9

The difference, then, in the relationship between correct maxim-making, moral worth, and circumstances is that circumstances do not (on the Kantian perspective) function to interfere with moral judgment in a way that mitigates against the agent’s control in choosing the permissible action, but since moral worth is not related to the successful achievement of an action’s end, circumstances can interfere with an action’s goal, and yet still have moral worth. Kerstein contends, however, that Kant mistakes the relationship between circumstances and the formulation of maxims. There are times, Kerstein argues, when factors beyond the agent’s control weigh into the ability of the agent to judge the moral permissibility of an action. He writes, “Instead of a question of succumbing to inclination, however, might not whether one succeeds in adopting a principle of action that is in accordance with Kant’s standard of morality be a matter of one’s circumstances, upbringing, or cognitive abilities?”10 Just as the agent is not morally culpable for when the object of action is thwarted for reasons outside of the agent’s determination, so too if an agent acts against inclination, and from what he takes to be the moral law, his action should not be disqualified from having moral worth when his powers of judgment are thrown off, independent of his control.

There are at least two responses that can be made to Kerstein’s claim. The first, and perhaps least satisfying, is to suggest that even if there is an asymmetry in Kant’s notions of moral worth and the impact of circumstances on achieving the end of action, a Kantian still cannot consistently recognize the logically possible class of impermissible actions that have moral worth. We value actions for lots of reasons, but moral worth is a unique predicate of right actions that are done from the best possible motive. It is not through Herculean philosophical efforts that Kant proves morally worthy actions to be in accordance with the moral law. Rather, since moral worth indicates the rare quality of actions esteemed by common rational cognition, morally worthy actions stand apart from most actions, even actions that are morally obligatory. Impermissible actions simply do not elicit moral esteem, and even if circumstances affect the agent’s practical reason so that the agent acts (against inclination) on an impermissible maxim, such actions cannot have the same type of worth that qualifies permissible actions that are done (against inclination) from the motive of the moral law.

The second way to respond is to counter directly Kerstein’s contention that there is an asymmetry in Kant’s work by appealing to a proper understanding of Kant’s view that circumstances do not factor in judging the moral permissibility of an action in the same way as circumstances can affect the outcome of actions. Indeed, circumstances external to the agent are related to moral deliberation in an altogether different way than whether the agent fulfills the object of an act. There is a common rational cognition (G4:392), a common moral sense (G4:393) that is shared by all rational agents, independent of (what might considered) different vital life experiences. All individuals have varying degrees of cognitive abilities and wildly diverse upbringings, but since for Kant, morality is rooted in the authorship of the moral law by rational agents, all rational agents have epistemic access to the requirements of morality, and so all rational agents can rightly determine how one ought to act. Rational agents have practical reason, then, and so act on maxims that are decided upon through a process of moral deliberation that is not left to chance.

Problems Kerstein’s Argument Creates

Considering the possibility that impermissible actions could have moral worth is troubling, not just for Kantian ethics, but for any ethical theory that privileges morally worthy actions as those right actions that are uniquely motivated. At the most basic level, conferring moral worth on actions that are morally forbidden trivializes in a certain sense a moral theory’s conception of right. Agents need not be especially concerned with following the moral law, but with making sure that they believe that they ought to do a particular action. In a similar fashion, allowing motives other than the moral law to have moral worth minimizes the special, absolute quality of moral worth that many moral theories typically reserve for actions that are done on the sole basis of the moral law requiring it.

Further, in narrowing the scope of Kerstein’s claims to Kantian ethics, his arguments prove even more disconcerting, especially when juxtaposed against Kant’s dual notions that only actions done from the requirement of the categorical imperative have moral worth (G400-401) and that only acts that are done in accordance with the moral law have this special, absolute moral worth (G397). Instead, the reason moral worth is only conferred on actions that are consistent with the moral law, and that are done because the moral law requires it, is because only these types of actions necessarily reflect a respect for the moral law that absolutely guarantees that an agent will have an interest in doing what is right for every instance of acting on the morally worthy maxim. Only the motive of duty necessitates that in every instantiation of the action’s being performed from this motive, the action will always have moral worth. The moral law, then, differs from an individual’s feeling of obligation to perform a particular act, because it will guarantee the moral worth of the actions that it requires, whereas the feeling of obligation cannot necessarily guarantee an agent’s interest in the moral law, nor the moral worth of her action.

Not only does Kerstein’s thesis undermine a moral theory’s concept of right, and specifically run counter to Kant’s view that moral worth will guarantee the agent’s interest in doing right, but it also seems to result in an inconsistency for morality. Right actions, for Kant, are those that respect the dignity of humanity. Good actions, or those that have moral worth, are actions that appropriately value the intrinsic worth of humanity and are done solely from the motive of acting so to appropriately value the intrinsic value of the human person. If an impermissible act is morally worthy, then, it would have to be performed because it is required. But, actions that are required are those that respect the dignity of humanity, and impermissible acts are those (on a Kantian view) that do not respect the dignity of humanity. Kerstein’s claim is inconsistent, since it makes impermissible acts (those that do not respect humanity) morally worthy on the basis that the impermissible acts are done from the best possible reason (namely, that the moral law requires it—and only acts that respect humanity are morally required).

I cannot, of course, dismiss Kerstein’s interpretive attempt on the mere basis that it flies in the face of traditional understanding of Kant’s conception of moral worth. Rather, I think his main conclusions (namely, that there are actions that have moral worth but are impermissible, and that motives other than duty can ground moral worth of an action) are both founded in a fundamental error Kerstein makes about the relationship between moral worth and the moral law. Kerstein equates moral worth with being motivated by a sincere belief that one is doing what is morally required, and so Kerstein must accept a class of actions that are impermissible, yet have moral worth. The problem with Kerstein’s linking moral worth to a deliberative process which includes sincere beliefs, however, is that the agents can be sincerely (and fatally, from a moral perspective) wrong about the nature of duty, and so about the nature of the moral law. In attributing moral worth to their action, we morally praise the false belief about the moral law that serves as their normative reason for acting.

There is, then, an inherent problem in Kerstein’s argument that there could be actions which are impermissible and yet have moral worth. The foundation for Kerstein’s claim is that there is an asymmetry in Kant’s discussion of moral worth, exemplified in Kant’s dual notions that an action can have moral worth even if the object of the action is not obtained but that an action is devoid of moral worth if the circumstances peripherally involved with the agent’s willing lead the agent to an error in judgment about duty. I have shown that Kerstein’s asymmetrical problem is based on a flawed interpretation. Kerstein reads Kant to say that the reason an act can have moral worth regardless of whether the end of the action is obtained is because the agent willed according to the moral law. Kerstein is right that moral worth is related indeed to the principle of volition alone which motivates the agent to act. Kerstein makes a mistake, however, in not recognizing the proper connection between willing and acting. Kant is not saying that willing apart from acting has moral worth. Instead, willing to act on the basis of the moral law has moral worth. If bad luck would have it, and the agent’s action ends up not resulting in the positive obtainment of the end hoped for, the agent still could have moral worth because she actually acted upon a maxim from the moral law. There is, then, no difficulty in Kant’s denial of moral worth to actions that, for circumstantial reasons, cause the agent to make an error in willing. Impermissible acts, further, cannot be said to have moral worth for two fundamental reasons: there is an epistemic constraint on moral worth, and morally impermissible acts necessarily disvalue the intrinsic worth of humanity.



Works Cited

Hardwig, John. “Acts from Duty but Not in Accord with Duty.” Ethics 93:2 (January 1983): 283-290.

Herman, Barbara. “On the Value of Acting from the Motive of Duty.” The Philosophical Review 90:3 (July 1981): 359-382.

Hill, Thomas E., Jr. Human Welfare and Moral Worth. New York: Oxford UP, 2002.

Kerstein, Samuel J. Kant’s Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality. Cambridge UP, 1996 and revised edition, May 2006.

Wood, Allen. “Kantianism, Moral Worth and Human Welfare.” Philosophical Quarterly 53:213 (October 2003): 587-595.

Wood, Allen. Kant’s Ethical Thought. New York: Cambridge UP, 1999.

  1. Samuel J. Kerstein, Kant’s Search for the Supreme Principle of Morality (Cambridge, 1996 and revised edition, May 2006).
  2. See, for example, John Hardwig, “Acts from Duty but Not in Accord with Duty,” Ethics 93, no. 2 (January 1983): 283-290. Although Hardwig does not discuss the ramifications of predicating moral worth to these actions, he believes that there are actions that are done from duty but not in accord with duty, but that every action of this type commits one of the three epistemological errors I am about to explain.
  3. Barbara Herman, “On the Value of Acting from the Motive of Duty,” The Philosophical Review, vol. 90, no. 3 (July 1981): 362 and 366, contends that morally worthy actions guarantee that other acts done from the same motive will have the same worth.
  4. Thomas E. Hill, Jr., Human Welfare and Moral Worth, New York: Oxford UP, 2002.
  5. Allen Wood, “Kantianism, Moral Worth and Human Welfare,” Philosophical Quarterly 53, no. 213 (October 2003): 587-595.
  6. Kerstein, section 6.5.
  7. Kerstein, 120.
  8. Allen Wood, Kant’s Ethical Thought (Cambridge: 1999), 27ff, is helpful in his discussion of moral esteem (Hochschätzung).
  9. Let’s suppose, however, that an agent decides, for whatever reason, to not act upon the maxim that she previously willed. She changes her mind to act on a formerly permissible maxim. Since her willing did not result in an action, there is no moral worth of the maxim. The point, then, is not that an agent’s action actually achieves the object of its goal, but that her rational willing results in action. Notice that if agents fail to act, they fail to produce anything worthy of moral praise. Of course on the other hand, upon acting, agents may achieve the ends they were hoping for. If so, there is no moral worth in merely attaining the object of one’s action. Instead, Kant emphasizes that an agent has moral worth because she exercises her agency from the motive of the moral law. Moral worth resides in the fact that I will an end that is moral, and so I act in such a way that I reflect the moral law, regardless of the outcome of my action.
  10. Kerstein, 121.

Jill Hernandez

Jill Graper Hernandez is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas. She successfully defended her doctoral dissertation, “Impermissibility, Moral Worth, and the Normative Sources of Action,” at the University of Memphis in May 2006. She has published articles in ethics and early modern philosophy. [email protected]