The calculating shopkeeper … [IMMANUEL KANT (MICHAEL J. SANDEL)] | Part B’

The calculating shopkeeper … [IMMANUEL KANT (MICHAEL J. SANDEL)] | Part B’

The moral misanthrope
Perhaps the hardest case for Kant’s view involves what he takes to be the duty to help others. Some people are altruistic. They feel compassion for others and take pleasure in helping them. But for Kant, doing good deeds out of compassion, “however right and however amiable it may be,” lacks moral worth. This may seem counterintuitive. Isn’t it good to be the kind of person who takes pleasure in helping others? Kant would say yes. He certainly doesn’t think there is anything wrong with acting out of compassion. But he distinguishes between this motive for helping others—that doing the good deed gives me pleasure—and the motive of duty. And he maintains that only the motive of duty confers moral worth on an action. The compassion of the altruist “deserves praise and encouragement, but not esteem.”

What, then, would it take for a good deed to have moral worth? Kant offers a scenario: Imagine that our altruist suffers a misfortune that extinguishes his love of humanity. He becomes a misanthrope who lacks all sympathy and compassion. But this cold-hearted soul tears himself out of his indifference and comes to the aid of his fellow human beings. Lacking any inclination to help, he does so “for the sake of duty alone.” Now, for the first time, his action has moral worth.

This seems in some ways an odd judgment. Does Kant mean to valorize misanthropes as moral exemplars? No, not exactly. Taking pleasure in doing the right thing does not necessarily undermine its moral worth. What matters, Kant tells us, is that the good deed be done because it’s the right thing to do—whether or not doing it gives us pleasure.

The spelling bee hero
Consider an episode that took place some years ago at the national spelling bee in Washington, D.C. A thirteen-year-old boy was asked to spell echolalia, a word that means a tendency to repeat whatever one hears. Although he misspelled the word, the judges misheard him, told him he had spelled the word right, and allowed him to advance. When the boy learned that he had misspelled the word, he went to the judges and told them. He was eliminated after all. Newspaper headlines the next day proclaimed the honest young man a “spelling bee hero,” and his photo appeared inThe New York Times. “The judges said I had a lot of integrity,” the boy told reporters. He added that part of his motive was, “I didn’t want to feel like a slime.”

When I read that quote from the spelling bee hero, I wondered what Kant would think. Not wanting to feel like a slime is an inclination, of course. So, if that was the boy’s motive for telling the truth, it would seem to undermine the moral worth of his act. But this seems too harsh. It would mean that only unfeeling people could ever perform morally worthy acts. I don’t think this is what Kant means.

If the only reason the boy told the truth was to avoid feeling guilty, or to avoid bad publicity should his error be discovered, then his truth-telling would lack moral worth. But if he told the truth because he knew it was the right thing to do, his act has moral worth regardless of the pleasure or satisfaction that might attend it. As long as he did the right thing for the right reason, feeling good about it doesn’t undermine its moral worth.

The same is true of Kant’s altruist. If he comes to the aid of other people simply for the pleasure it gives him, then his action lacks moral worth. But if he recognizes a duty to help one’s fellow human beings and acts out of that duty, then the pleasure he derives from it is not morally disqualifying.

In practice, of course, duty and inclination often coexist. It is often hard to sort out one’s own motives, let alone know for sure the motives of other people. Kant doesn’t deny this. Nor does he think that only a hardhearted misanthrope can perform morally worthy acts. The point of his misanthrope example is to isolate the motive of duty—to see it unclouded by sympathy or compassion. And once we glimpse the motive of duty, we can identify the feature of our good deeds that gives them their moral worth—namely, their principle, not their consequences.



Part B’: https://www.lecturesbureau.gr/1/the-calculating-shopkeeper-part-a-1761a/?lang=en



Michael J. Sandel



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