[It] is a duty to preserve one’s life; and, in addition, everyone has also a direct inclination to do so. But on this account the often anxious care which most men take for it has no intrinsic worth , and their maxim has no moral import. They preserve their life as duty requires, no doubt, but not because duty requires. On the other hand, if adversity and hopeless sorrow have completely taken away the relish for life, if the unfortunate one, strong in mind, indignant at his fate rather than desponding or dejected, wishes for death, and yet preserves his own life without loving it — not from inclination or fear, but from duty — then this maxim has a moral worth.
To be beneficent when one can is a duty; and besides this, there are many minds so sympathetically constituted that, without any other motive of vanity or self-interest, they find a pleasure in spreading joy around them, and can take delight in the satisfaction of others so far as it is their own work. But I maintain that in such a case an action of this kind, however proper, however amiable it may be, has nevertheless no true moral worth, but is on a level with other inclinations, for example the inclination to honor, which, if it is happily directed to that which is in fact the public utility and accordant with duty, and consequently honorable, deserves praise and encouragement, but not esteem. For the maxim lacks the moral import, namely, that such actions be done from duty, not from inclination.
(Metaphysic of Morals p 15)
We’ve begun reading Kant’s Metaphysic of Morals for tutorial, and while I understand little and agree with less, it’s fairly interesting, because while the standard way of looking at duty’s place in ethics (at least among those I’ve known) is that we may do things our of duty if we can’t bring ourselves to do them out of gratitude, or joy, or love, or even inclination, but that doing anything merely out of duty is inferior, Kant takes the exact opposite position. The only way to tell that a person is really moral is to see what he does when a moral action has nothing but duty to recommend it.
Aristotle took what seems to be a more reasonable approach: there are two basic manners in which to be virtuous, he said – on the one hand is “moral strength,” which means fighting against strong destructive passions and winning (like St Augustine after his conversion), or on the other hand is temperance, which means not particularly wanting to do wrong to begin with. They are both virtues, but different ones, so that it may be possible to begin with moral strength and eventually grow into temperance (the reverse seems unlikely), but it is not possible to have both at the same time. Aristotle seems to consider temperance to be the better of the two, but as simply not available to some people, or to most people at some times of life.
What I take Kant to mean is that temperance isn’t really a virtue at all – or rather that it’s very difficult to tell if a temperate person is virtuous, whereas a morally strong person is exercising virtue all the time. But I think I made a mistake there, because Kant doesn’t speak of “virtue,” but of “morality” – and while I do not know the German he used, I am nearly certain it is not the same thing as aretē – virtue as excellence. Indeed, Kant begins with a statement apparently derived from his practical reason that is very peculiar indeed: “Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good without qualification, except a good will. He goes on to explain himself – I hope we talk about it in class tomorrow, because I cannot follow him at all. Apparently because anything, even specific virtues, can be made to advance bad causes, therefore they are not themselves good – as if a person were to use the virtue of prudence in order to be a more successful criminal, or courage to advance an unjust war. I suppose if you can’t gall God good, it’s pretty difficult to find anything that’s good in an unqualified sense. Plato said that somewhere out there is a form of The Good; Aristotle in the Ethics mostly concerned himself with keeping various relative goods in balance. If you’re intent on not referring to the divine it seems to be a more reasonable approach than to try to assign intrinsic goodness to something as amorphous as a “good will.”