As I understand it, in the Groundwork, Kant suggests the fundamental principle of morality can be expressed as (this is quoted second hand since I lost my copy):

"Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law".

At least in contemporary English, this is a pretty unusual use of the word "will". Can someone explain what is meant by it and how it is different than more common words like "want"? Perhaps it is something like "would want if they really thought it through" so as to distinguish from an impulsive desire?

I realize this is translated from 18th century German. Was this perhaps translated at a time when "will" was more commonly used to mean what we now call "want" and then future translators just stuck with it?

(Since I am now seeing some controversy by people in the comments and I'm not in a great position to evaluate, I'm going to refrain from upvoting on this question though I did cast one)

  • The "will" in Kant's categorical imperative is based on good will, which is defined by duty, not desire. This is addressed in the Wikipedia article "Kantian ethics".
    – Brian Z
    Apr 29 '20 at 15:50
  • @BrianZ Wikipedia is - as it is often regarding philosophy - coming short of the truth of the matter up to the point of being plainly false here. The use of will in the categorical imperative cannot be the good will since the good will always and necessarily already wills what the categorical imperative commands. The whole point of the need for an imperative is that our will is not necessarily good.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Apr 29 '20 at 16:23
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    Fair enough. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says "For Kant, willing an end involves more than desiring; it requires actively choosing or committing to the end rather than merely finding oneself with a passive desire for it." My point is, this question seems to lack basic research.
    – Brian Z
    Apr 29 '20 at 17:34

Kant developed his moral psychology with reference to a distinction between Wille and Willkür, which might be both translated just as will, but which should not be so translated. Now neither of these ought to be translated as want, though, either. Willing is active whereas wanting is passive. Or, in Kant's words, will is spontaneous and want is affected:

Now man really finds in himself a faculty by which he distinguishes himself from everything else, even from himself as affected by objects, and that is Reason. This being pure spontaneity is even elevated above the understanding. For although the latter is a spontaneity and does not, like sense, merely contain intuitions that arise when we are affected by things (and are therefore passive), yet it cannot produce from its activity any other conceptions than those which merely serve to bring the intuitions of sense under rules and, thereby, to unite them in one consciousness, and without this use of the sensibility it could not think at all; whereas, on the contrary, Reason shows so pure a spontaneity in the case of what I call Ideas [Ideal Conceptions] that it thereby far transcends everything that the sensibility can give it, and exhibits its most important function in distinguishing the world of sense from that of understanding, and thereby prescribing the limits of the understanding itself. [Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, "Of the Interest Attaching to the Ideas of Morality"]

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    It is not quite that easy, though. As Timmermann made clear, there are at least two uses of Wille in German, that of (pure) practical reason - the instance giving practical laws or objective rules of willing and that which is equal between finite beings and God/angels - and the whole of this instance plus Willkür, the instance which gives the subjective rules of willing, the maxims. This also makes much clearer how that which is willed ought to contain an accordance between both instances, as it were. This reading makes it easier to understand the third section as well.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Apr 29 '20 at 16:18

Without getting into the issues of translation (which I'm not qualified to address), it's clear to me that the term 'will' is being used here in the somewhat archaic and literary sense of:

make or try to make (someone) do something or (something) happen by the exercise of mental powers

What Kant is saying is that we should imagine ourselves in a position where we could dictate a universal law into existence, merely by willing it to be so, and then act only in those ways that we are willing to accept the resulting universal law that all people act that way. It's an attempt to avoid self-serving biases: e.g., insisting that others be punished in ways that one would consider unjust if applied to one's self or loved ones.

'Wanting' and 'wishing' are passive, powerless activities. I might want or wish that a million dollars fall out of nowhere and land at my feet, but I accept that this is unlikely to happen and there's nothing much I can do to make it happen. But if I will that a million dollars fall out of nowhere and land at my feet, I have to work from the standpoint that willing it to be so makes it so. Then morally I have to will that the same thing happen to every person, everywhere. For instance, that act of will might take the form of robbing an armored car; I'd either have to except the universal rule that everyone is allowed to rob armored cars (which is clearly unfeasible) or the universal rule that everyone can be rightfully punished for robbing an armored car (including myself, which is clearly undesirable). Since there is no universal rule for this act of will that would have a satisfactory outcome, it is not an act I should undertake.

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