Kant calls moral values the only values that are ‘good without qualification,’ and thereby states something very profound about morality. Let us read his great text in which he expresses many insights into eternal and absolute truths about morality, forgetting as it were his whole epistemology in the Critique of Pure Reason which would have forbidden him to make such statements valid “outside the world of appearance.” Only an objectivist epistemology and therefore only a critique of Kant can justify these insights:
It is impossible to conceive anything at all in the world, or even out of it, which can be taken as good without qualification, except a good will. Intelligence, wit, …, and any other talents of the mind . . . or courage . . . and constancy of purpose, as qualities of temperament are without doubt good and desirable in many respects; but they can also be extremely bad and hurtful when the will is not good which has to make use of these gifts of nature . . . Power, wealth, honour, even health and that complete well-being and contentment with one’s state which goes by the name of ‘happiness’, produce . . . often over-boldness . . . , unless a good will is present. . . . Moderation in affections and passions, self-control and sober reflection . . . may even seem to constitute part of the inner worth of a person. Yet they are far from being properly described as good without qualification (however unconditionally they have been commended by the ancients). For without the principles of a good will they may become exceedingly bad; and the very coolness of a scoundrel makes him, not merely more dangerous, but also immediately more abominable in our eyes than we should have taken him without it.
Kant describes – with some explanations added – moral values as ‘good without qualification.’ But what does this ‘goodness without qualification’ mean? Only by a return to ‘things themselves’ – to the moral data themselves – can this question be answered adequately. Let us therefore interpret Kant by a critical return to moral data and things themselves which alone can provide criteria to judge Kant’s assertions.
1. Moral goodness is first of all good without qualification inasmuch as this goodness does not depend on the subjective judgment about it. Kant sees that the goodness of moral values is not relative to, not dependent on, anybody’s judgment. Moral goodness is not just good according to some person’s opinion. It is not just the purely intentional correlate of a judgment. It is of course possible that a Pharisee who is in reality very evil is judged to be morally good by someone, or that some good deeds evoke in a person subjectively bad feelings so that he or she judges the deed to be bad; but this never constitutes moral goodness or evilness themselves. Moral goodness, when it is really found in a person, is thus not just good in relationship to the judgement of a person but ‘in itself.’ Neither David Hume nor C.L. Stevenson and A.J. Ayer have seen this point. John L. Mackie in his Inventing Right and Wrong recognizes the inherent claim of moral judgments to assert some objective qualities not relative to our judgment in ethical propositions but holds that these claims are illusory. Kant sees: if moral qualities were not properties of a will independent of anyone’s judgment, they would not be morally good nor could they be ‘good without qualification.’
2. ‘Good’ in the context of moral goodness is understood as ‘good without qualification’ also in the sense of intrinsic goodness, i.e., as that which is not merely subjectively satisfying or relative to our inclinations in its importance. This unconditional goodness in the sense of the intrinsic preciousness of a thing signifies also that which is not just good for an individual who has certain interests. This objectivity of value “which is not relative to our inclinations” (which is neither exclusively subjectively satisfying for our inclinations nor exclusively an objective good for the person, we may interpret), is clearly stated by Kant as an essential feature of moral and of morally relevant values, namely of the person’s dignity which is of “absolute value” and from which moral imperatives proceed:
But suppose there were something the existence of which had itself absolute worth, something which, as an end in itself, could be a ground of definite laws. In it and only in it could lie the ground of a possible categorical imperative, i.e., of a practical law.Now, I say, man and, in general, every rational being exists as an end in himself and not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will…All objects of inclinations have only a conditional worth, for if the inclinations and the needs founded on them did not exist, their object would be without worth.
This meaning of ‘unrestricted goodness’, the objectivity of moral values which is inseparable from their character of intrinsic value-importance and goodness, is absolutely decisive for understanding ethics. Many persons regard moral values as subjective and therefore relativistic physicians will carry out patient’s wishes thinking that the patient’s morals are just as well as their own and that they therefore have to willfully carry out what the patient wishes. But this treats moral values or disvalues not as objective and intrinsic positive or negative importance of human acts but along the lines of the merely subjectively satisfying.
3. ‘Good without qualification’ can also be interpreted in the sense that moral values are values in a higher sense which express more purely the idea of value and goodness. If we say that cows or horses are good, we realize that we use the term ‘good’ in a relatively poor analogous sense compared with the manner in which we use it in reference to moral values. Similarly, the concept of evil, when applied to diseases, does not mean ‘evil’ in any similarly powerful way as the moral sense of ‘evil.’ Moral goodness is good in a new and higher sense of goodness than extramoral goods, and moral evil is evil in a more terrible sense of evil than any extramoral evil. In German, two different words (schlecht and böse, das Übel and ‘das Böse’) indicate this difference which is so great that one might claim that between the two senses of good and evil (the moral and the extramoral one) there is not even analogy properly speaking but that we find in moral goodness a radically new sense of this term.
Also this profound truth, and the new and higher sense of goodness found in moral goodness, is frequently overlooked. One forgets that, while human life is morally relevant and imposes moral obligations on us, it is nevertheless not as high a good as the moral goodness of the acts in which we relate properly to life. For this reason, we should rather die than commit a morally evil act. A proper ethics can only be built on this insight into the absolute primacy and higher meaning of goodness in the case of moral goodness when compared to saving a life or curing a patient.
4. Good without qualification can also be understood in the sense that moral goodness cannot be ‘abused’ like other talents which turn terrible when abused. This involves a new and more pure sense of goodness found in moral goodness, which is that which is good unconditionally speaking and not only good depending on how it is used (such as wit, courage, self-control, etc.). While one could challenge this element of Kant’s intuition posing the question whether not phariseism or proud humiliation of others constitute a form of ‘abuse’ of moral values even at a deeper level than the abuses of intelligence, one could reply in the following way:
Moral qualities in the person change through this abuse in a very different way from that in which intelligence is vitiated by moral evil. Intelligence does not cease to be intelligence by its abuse per se (even though it may become affected and perverted by the stupidity resulting from pride), whereas the moral value in the person is changed immediately into evil by the abuse of phariseism. The ‘abused moral value’ does not remain morally good or continue to bestow moral goodness on the subject. Thus as long as the morally good quality and intention (Gesinnung) remain in the person, they cannot be abused as such.