I only know a bit about Kant from one college course, and I was wondering about Kant's approach to the question of what defines a good action. I know he rejected the consequentialist approach, and emphasized the importance of good intentions. However, it seems like he held certain types of actions to be objectively right or wrong (e.g. lying). But what about doing the wrong thing for the right reasons? If someone lies with the intention of doing good, what is the value of that action, according to Kant? (Note that I do not want to provoke a general discussion of what makes an action good or bad, I only want to understand Kant's answer to that question.)

The Wikipedia page on deontology has the following synopsis of Kant's beliefs, which I find confusing:

[T]he only absolutely good thing is a good will, and so the single determining factor of whether an action is morally right is the will, or motive of the person doing it. If they are acting on a bad maxim, e.g. 'I will lie', then their action is wrong, even if some good consequences come of it."

This seems contradictory, since the first sentence states that "good will" determines the rightness of an action, while the second sentence implies that "good maxims" determine which actions are right or wrong. Is this an accurate reflection of Kant's views? If so, how does he resolve this apparent contradiction?


The quotation is generally speaking accurate as an interpretation of Kant's account. At 4:393, Kant explicitly says nothing is good except a good will. There's a problem in Kant interpretation (I can find the papers if need be) that centers around the fact Kant never gives a clear definition of "maxim," but along a major interpretive line you add together the following details:

(1) Kant defines a maxim as a "subjective principle of volition" (4:401). The problem is that this defines basically nothing.

(2) Nearby Kant speaks of the maxim of the will. And describes this as the reason one acts. Note that we may be tempted to uses the word motive instead but this would be mistaken with Kant's moral psychology. Here, Kant considers what are on most interpretations four possibilities (on some only three) at 4:397:

a) one chooses to act in a way that cannot be universalized. this lacks moral worth as it fails the test. b) one chooses to act in a way that mirrors what is good but a reason that is bad. This lacks moral worth. c) one chooses to act in the right way for the reason of being a good businessman (i.e., not cheating one's customers to get them to return) but with awareness that one's action can be universalized. On the list of 4 interpretation, this lacks moral worth. d) one chooses to act in the right way but is emotionally cold / contrary to the action he chooses. This has moral worth.

[The question is whether (c) and (d) are to be understood as different or merely two descriptions of the same person.]

Immediately after that Kant explains that actions are moral based on their purpose (4:399) which is their principle of volition.

(3) In the formula of universal law articulation of the Categorical Imperative, Kant states act such that maxim of your action could become a universal law for all rational beings.

The interpretive problem is how to (1), (2), and (3) to play nicely. The usual answer is not far from the wikipedia entry you quote though it elides the mechanics. A maxim is understood as I [as a rational being] chose to do X for reason Y. This maxim is the universalized to all rational beings choose to do X for reason Y, and this is tested for whether it is internally incoherent or compatible with a world. The missing piece is how to universalize maxims (i.e. what stays and goes from a maxim like "I will play tennis on Sunday mornings while my neighbors are at church and the courts are full OR I will tell a lie to a woman named Herbert on February 2nd at 3pm" (both examples from Allen Wood -- though I may have the details wrong on the second one)


  • Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.
  • Korsgaard, Christine. Creating the Kingdom of Ends (1996)
  • Wood, Allen. Kant's Ethical Theory (Cambridge University Press 1999)
  • It sounds like good will is held to be a necessary but not sufficient requirement for good actions, where universality of motives is the other needed component. Do I understand you correctly?
    – augurar
    Feb 4 '14 at 6:51
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    Having a good will for Kant is identical with a will that wills the universal and necessary. So the good will is both necessary and sufficient. But good will is for Kant expressly different from well-wishing.
    – virmaior
    Feb 4 '14 at 7:03
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    Ah, so "good will" means the will to do what is actually good, not merely the desire to do the right thing... yes? I guess that answers my question, though it's not a very satisfying answer.
    – augurar
    Feb 4 '14 at 7:20
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    That's how many undergraduate students feel after reading Kant. There are some pretty valiant attempts to redeem Kant's project such as work by Christine Korsgaard (often called a constructivist approach) and also Nancy Sherman (who compares Kant and Aristotle in Making a Necessity out of Virtue) and others. On these interpretations, there's a lot more room inside what counts as willing the good. But Kant interpretation has changed a lot over time and the neo-Kantians of the 19th century were elated with the feature you find disappointing.
    – virmaior
    Feb 4 '14 at 8:00
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    @PhilipKlöcking will leave this tab open and try to do so soon. Was going back and adding reference sections to my old answers to try to standardize things a bit.
    – virmaior
    May 29 '19 at 23:05

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