Friday, January 25, 2008

Do You Have To Do Something To Do Something Good?

Whenever I teach ethics, one point in Kant's discussion that always gives rise to an interesting conversation is his claim that for an act to be of moral worth, it cannot serve any positive purpose for the person who does it. Even if it just makes you feel good, that's enough to to say that the act is selfish and not of moral worth.

"Suppose then the mind of this friend of mankind to be clouded over with his own sorrow so that all sympathy with the lot of others is extinguished, and suppose him still to have the power to benefit others in distress, even though he is not touched by their trouble because he is sufficiently absorbed with his own; and now suppose that, even though no inclination moves him,any longer, he nevertheless tears himself from this deadly insensibility and performs the action without any inclination at all, but solely from duty -- then for the first time his action has genuine moral worth."
Moral worth, to Kant, requires your being pathologically unable to experience empathy and yet have an anal retentive attachment to duty. O.k., sure, a bit over the top.

But we could more charitably interpret the point (and, of course, there is reason in the text to do so) such that if there is possible gain, we may be glad the person does it and we may encourage them to do it, but it is only when there is sacrifice that we truly know the person deserves praise for doing something morally good.

So, this brings up a question I was asked by a student yesterday. Suppose we think not of acts that bring some benefit to the person who does them, but also acts that require no sacrifice. For example, my long distance service, Working Assets, donates a portion of their proceeds to good causes. I make no more long distance phone calls than I would have, I do nothing I wasn't going to do anyway. But I am in some way benefiting the world. It is a desirable act, it is an act worth encouraging, but is it a good act?

Similarly with recycling. We still consume the same amount. We still throw it into a can. We just throw it into the blue can on the left. We've done nothing different, yet we made a small difference. Is that act, therefore, deserving of moral praise? Do you have to do some thing to have done something morally good?