Good but not required?—assessing the demands of Kantian ethics

Journal of Moral Philosophy 2 (1):9-27 (2005)
Abstract
There seems to be a strong sentiment in pre-philosophical moral thought that actions can be morally valuable without at the same time being morally required. Yet Kant, who takes great pride in developing an ethical system firmly grounded in common moral thought, makes no provision for any such extraordinary acts of virtue. Rather, he supports a classification of actions as either obligatory, permissible or prohibited, which in the eyes of his critics makes it totally inadequate to the facts of morality. The related idea of uncommonly grand and noble deeds is frequently dismissed by Kant as high-.own emotional nonsense. Such considerations give rise to the fear that actions intuitively classed as morally commendable but not required must be re-classified as commands of duty by Kant, making his ethical theory as unbearably demanding as direct utilitarianism. The paper divides into three sections: (1) an examination of the nature of moral goodness from a meta-ethical angle that introduces some passages from Kant's writings presenting strong theoretical evidence against the case for supererogatory action; (2) a critique of Thomas Hill's suggestion that within the category of wide duty we can accommodate some of the main features of actions classified as supererogatory in other ethical systems; concluding that, contra Hill, there are no actions of wide duty that can be so characterized in any significant sense; and (3) a final discussion of the problem of how demanding the requirements of Kantian ethical theory really are.
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