11 May The calculating shopkeeper … [IMMANUEL KANT (MICHAEL J. SANDEL)] | Part Α’
What matters is the motive
What’s Moral? Look for the Motive
According to Kant, the moral worth of an action consists not in the consequences that flow from it, but in the intention from which the act is done. What matters is the motive, and the motive must be of a certain kind. What matters is doing the right thing because it’s right, not for some ulterior motive.
“A good will is not good because of what it effects or accomplishes,” Kant writes. It is good in itself, whether or not it prevails. “Even if . . . this will is entirely lacking in power to carry out its intentions; if by its utmost effort it still accomplishes nothing . . . even then it would still shine like a jewel for its own sake as something which has its full value in itself.”
For any action to be morally good, “it is not enough that it should conform to the moral law—it must also be done for the sake of the moral law.” And the motive that confers moral worth on an action is the motive of duty, by which Kant means doing the right thing for the right reason.
In saying that only the motive of duty confers moral worth on an action, Kant is not yet saying what particular duties we have. He is not yet telling us what the supreme principle of morality commands. He’s simply observing that, when we assess the moral worth of an action, we assess the motive from which it’s done, not the consequences it produces.
If we act out of some motive other than duty, such as self-interest, for example, our action lacks moral worth. This is true, Kant maintains, not only for self-interest but for any and all attempts to satisfy our wants, desires, preferences, and appetites. Kant contrasts motives such as these—he calls them “motives of inclination”—with the motive of duty. And he insists that only actions done out of the motive of duty have moral worth.
The calculating shopkeeper and the Better Business Bureau
Kant offers several examples that bring out the difference between duty and inclination. The first involves a prudent shopkeeper. An inexperienced customer, say, a child, goes into a grocery store to buy a loaf of bread. The grocer could overcharge him—charge him more than the usual price for a loaf of bread—and the child would not know. But the grocer realizes that, if others discovered he took advantage of the child in this way, word might spread and hurt his business. For this reason, he decides not to overcharge the child. He charges him the usual price. So the shopkeeper does the right thing, but for the wrong reason. The only reason he deals honestly with the child is to protect his reputation. The shopkeeper acts honestly only for the sake of self-interest; the shopkeeper’s action lacks moral worth.
A modern-day parallel to Kant’s prudent shopkeeper can be found in the recruiting campaign of the Better Business Bureau of New York. Seeking to enlist new members, the BBB sometimes runs a full-page ad in the New York Times with the headline “Honesty is the best policy. It’s also the most profitable.” The text of the ad leaves no mistake about the motive being appealed to.
Honesty. It’s as important as any other asset. Because a business that deals in truth, openness, and fair value cannot help but do well. It is toward this end [that] we support the Better Business Bureau. Come join us. And profit from it.
Kant would not condemn the Better Business Bureau; promoting honest business dealing is commendable. But there is an important moral difference between honesty for its own sake and honesty for the sake of the bottom line. The first is a principled position, the second a prudential one. Kant argues that only the principled position is in line with the motive of duty, the only motive that confers moral worth on an action.
Or consider this example: Some years ago, the University of Maryland sought to combat a widespread cheating problem by asking students to sign pledges not to cheat. As an inducement, students who took the pledge were offered a discount card good for savings of 10 to 25 percent at local shops. No one knows how many students promised not to cheat for the sake of a discount at the local pizza place. But most of us would agree that bought honesty lacks moral worth. (The discounts might or might not succeed in reducing the incidence of cheating; the moral question, however, is whether honesty motivated by the desire for a discount or a monetary reward has moral worth. Kant would say no.)
These cases bring out the plausibility of Kant’s claim that only the motive of duty—doing something because it’s right, not because it’s useful or convenient—confers moral worth on an action. But two further examples bring out a complexity in Kant’s claim.
Michael J. Sandel