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What Does it Mean to be a Person of "Good Will?"

A Basic Duty to Yourself and Others 

What does it mean to be a person of “good will” and why is it important? These are the questions I look at in today’s blog.

An important part of Immanuel Kant’s theory of ethics is the Categorical Imperative. The Categorical Imperative determines the moral validity for a particular action: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” The “maxim” of our acts can be thought of as the reason behind our acts. This version of the Categorical Imperative establishes that our reasons need to be universal. In other words, they need to be those we would want others to have in similar situations for similar reasons. Kant_Portrait

The question becomes how is one’s reasons for acting determined. One aspect I find very important and often ignored in today’s discussions of ethics is the concept of “good will.”

Kant’s seminal work in The Metaphysics of Morals begins by saying: “Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good without qualification, except a good will.” In order for something to be good “without qualification” it must not be merely “good” as a means to an end but “bad” as a means to some other end. Kant’s point is that to be universally and absolutely good, something must be good in every instance of its occurrence.

To act of a “good will” means to act out of a sense of moral obligation or “duty.” In other words, the moral agent does a particular action not because of what it produces (its consequences) in terms of human experience, but because the agent recognizes by reasoning that it is the morally right thing to do and, consequently, there is a moral duty or obligation to do that action.

In today’s society, the notion that people consider moral duty as a reason for acting is a lost cause. The motivating factor for decisions is self-expression, self-indulgence and unmitigated self-interest. Notice the emphasis on the self. That means we have a narcissistic society. The mantra is: What’s in it for me?” This is true as a motivating force for Internet behavior and social media posts as well as greedy, self-serving behaviors.

Perhaps you disagree. Well, I would ask you to consider the following explanation of “Narcissistic Personality Disorder” in the DSM manual. I’ve selected the behaviors that I believe support my point of view.

1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance.
2. Has a sense of entitlement.
3. Lacksempathy: is unwilling [or unable] to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
4. Shows arrogant, haughty [rude and abusive] behaviors or attitudes.

We might say that rather than “good will,” the motivating factor of all too many people today is “bad will.” How else can we explain the increasingly irritating behavior of “trolls?” Trolls exhibit highly dysfunctional behavior (i.e., narcissistic) by targeting others using cyber harassment, internet defamation, online deception, and the like. Trolls hide behind their electronic devices, screen names and avatars when they go out trolling for trouble, and after their all done the target of their offensive behavior is left to pick up the pieces.

I know my analysis might sound depressing to some of my readers. Join the club!

Blog posted on June 21, 2017 by Steve Mintz, Professor Emeritus, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Steve blogs under the pseudonym, Ethics Sage. Check out my website at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/.