What is Moral?

How to Cultivate a Good Will to Live a Good Life

One way to become a more ethical person is to cultivate a good will.

(Note: This post is part of a series about developing your own moral and ethical code. You can find links to the other posts in this series at the end of this post. Each of these posts gives you important information about different moral systems, but each post also gives you an exercise(s) you can do to help you figure out how to apply the system to your life practically.)

A Scenario to Spark Your Moral Imagination

To help you understand this, I would like you to imagine the following scenario, which I will call The Struggling Older Lady Scenario (or SOLS). In this scenario, I would like you to imagine that an older woman has just purchased groceries. She is trying to cross a street, carrying her groceries, to reach her car on the other side of the street. She is struggling greatly and clearly needs help.

Now I would like you to imagine three different versions of SOLS:

Version One: A girl sees the struggling older woman. She loves older people. She thinks they are so cute, and she loves to help them. So she goes to help the older woman safely carry her groceries to the other side of the street.

Version Two: A girl sees the struggling older woman. She looks around and notices that there are quite a few people in the general vicinity, and many of them are also looking at the older woman. The community is small, and the girl knows that if she helps the older woman, it will improve her reputation in many people’s eyes, and they will be impressed with her character. So, she goes to help the older woman.

Version Three: A girl sees the struggling older woman. The girl is having a bad day and is annoyed with everything. To top it all off, she is late to her dentist appointment. She doesn’t want to help the older woman at all, but she knows it is the right thing to do. So she does it.

Which Girl is the Most Moral?

All three versions of SOLS show a girl helping the same struggling older woman but for different reasons. Please take a moment and think of the answer to these questions:

In which of the above versions of SOLS is the girl most moral? Is it Version One, Version Two, or Version Three? Why do you think this?

SOLS and the Most Moral Girl

If you are a like a lot of people, you probably think that the girl in version three is the most moral of the three. This might be your reasoning: The girl in version one and two of SOLS help the older woman for selfish or self-focused reasons. She does it because it makes her happy (version one). Or she does it because she hopes to improve her reputation by helping the older lady (version three).

In version three, however, the girl does the right thing, not for any benefit to herself, but simply because it is the right thing. Therefore, since doing the right thing is her primary motive, it seems that she is the most moral girl.

Doing the Right Thing Because It is the Right Thing

If you said that the girl in version three was the most moral and provided a reason somewhat like the one I gave above, you have a lot in common with the philosopher Immanuel Kant.

Kant is very concerned with finding a ground or foundation for morality that is universal–that can apply to everyone. His concern makes a lot of sense because when we think that something is immoral–say murdering or stealing–we think it is immoral for everyone. For instance, we don’t think murder is immoral for Tom and Jessalyn but moral for Carlos and Paul.

We recognize that for a moral system to be a true moral system, it needs to apply to everyone. So what could be the ground, or foundation, or basic governing principle for a moral system that applies to everyone? (I will call it ground of morality from here on out.)

Well, first, let’s look at what the ground of morality cannot be.

Kant thinks we cannot ground morality in empirical matters, which are matters that pertain to our individual situation or to our physical existence. For example, our empirical matters pertain to matters particular to us like our upbringing, our religion, our economic and educational background, our body, our physical existence, and living conditions. Empirical matters also pertain to our particular emotions or wishes or desires or passions.

Because all these things are so unique and particular to us, Kant believes they cannot be the ground of morality because they are not universal.

So what is the universal ground of morality? Whatever the ground is, it has to pertain to human beings. That is because, Kant argues, only human beings are sensitive and beholden to the moral law.

The Universal Ground for Morality

So what is universal about human beings that can serve as a ground for morality?

Kant thinks it is our reason. There are certain aspects of our reason that are universally shared by all human beings.  Here is an example. Let’s say that I presented you with this rather silly argument that requires you to fill in the last word of the argument:

All hink-pinks are roley-poley.
Bob is a hink-pink.
Therefore, Bob is ____________.

What word goes in the blank? Read the argument again. You’ll figure it out.

If you guessed “roley-poley”, which I am sure you did, you are right. Think a minute about how interesting it is that you could fill in the blank with the word roley-poley, even though you have no idea what I mean by hink-pink or roley-poley. And futhermore, you have no idea who Bob is.

You were able to fill in the blank because of logical operations of your reason. And all human beings of a certain age have this reasoning. It is universal. (If you want to practice another argument like this, see the one at the end of this post.*)

Now, Kant doesn’t think that morality is a matter of filling in the blank of a silly argument about hink-pinks and roley-polies and Bob. But he does think that we can find the universal ground for morality in our reason.

How do we find it?

Well, Kant thinks that if we take the concept of the moral law and empty it of all empirical matters (like particular laws**), then all we are left with is the basic form or idea of moral law. Namely, we are left with the concept of universality. The moral law applies to everyone, universally.

If we turn the idea of universality into a rule for action, it becomes a command. Only act on the maxim (the rule for acting) that you could will everyone to act on universally.

This rule is known as Kant’s categorical imperative. An imperative is a command to do something. And if it is a categorical command, that means it holds in all situations.  So, Kant thinks that in every situation, we are to act on the maxim which we could will everyone to act on universally.

Another way of saying this is “Don’t make yourself to the exception to the law.”

The Practical Application of the Categorical Imperative

Kant’s  categorical imperative may sound abstract, but it can serve as an excellent guide for conduct.

For example, consider a scenario in which you are texting while driving, and you crash into your neighbor’s car. You think about lying about it your neighbor (“Hey, someone ran into your car!) in order to avoid trouble. Kant asks you to consider if you could will everyone to act on your maxim of lying to avoid trouble.

If we consider the issue, we will soon realize that we cannot will lying to be universalized. If everyone lied, not only would communication break down and distrust dramatically increase, we actually can’t lie anymore once lying is universalized. Lying only works when everyone else tells the truth, and you make yourself the exception the the rule.

As another example, consider a scenario in which you drive to the movie theater to watch a newly-released movie. The line is extremely long, and you consider cutting in line. Kant asks you to consider if you could will everyone to act on your maxim of cutting in line when you don’t feel like waiting.

If we consider the issue, we realize we cannot will the maxim of cutting in line to be universalized. If everyone cut in line, chaos would ensue. And we would never get to where we are headed (like to the movie we want to see). Not only that, if everyone cut in line, there would be no more lines. And there would be no more cutting in line, for that matter. Cutting in line only works when everyone stays in the line and you make yourself the exception to the rule.

Free and Rational

When we follow the categorical imperative and only do actions we could will everyone else to do universally, Kant believes we are autonomous. This means that we give ourselves the law. (Auto = self, and nomos = law). We follow the categorical imperative because we recognize that it is the right thing to do, and we do it no matter what–even if it isn’t particularly pleasant at the time.

Think back to the girl at the beginning of this post who helped the struggling older woman across the street. Remember, she did it, even though she didn’t want to, because she knew it was the right thing to do. She did not base her moral action on empirical matters such as whether or not it made her happy (like the girl in version one above). Nor did she based her action on whether it improved her reputation (like the girl in version two above).

Kant would say that she is autonomous. She gives herself the law. And because of this, she is free and rational, which is the most humane way to live. She has a good will (because it conforms with the moral law) and is a life worthy of happiness.

On the other hand, let’s say that someone only does the moral thing if it makes her happy or gets her something, like wealth and reputation. Kant would say that a person like this is heteronomous. This means that she is ruled by other forces outside of her. (Heteros = other, and nomos = law).

Kant argues that a heteronomous person is not in charge of herself, and she is not free. Rather, she is controlled by conflicting forces like changing emotions, other people’s opinions, and desire for gain. She becomes a slave to these forces. And Kant believes this is an irrational way to live. It’s not a good human way to live.

So for Kant, having a good will and doing the right thing  is equivalent to being free, rational, and living the most human life possible.

Try it Out

You don’t have to take Kant’s word for it because you can try it yourself.

Assignment: For a week or a month or however long you like, work on only acting on principles actions that you could will everyone to act on universally. Don’t make yourself the exception to the rule.

At the end of your experiment, reflect on how it went. Did you feel more in control of yourself? And did you feel like you were the boss of yourself and that you commanded the moral law for yourself? Did you find yourself less controlled by outside forces like other people’s opinions or changing emotions?

Note to the Reader: The ideas from Kant’s philosophy in this post can be found in his Groundwork for Metaphysics of Morals and his Metaphysics of Morals.


If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it on social media.

Here are two other posts in this series:

How to Develop Your Own Moral and Ethical System (and Why You Would Want to)

Also: How to Flourish by Cultivating Virtues

And here’s the next post in the series: How to Maximize Happiness and Minimize Pain


If you found this post helpful, please consider sharing on social media.

You can read Kant’s philosophy here: Groundwork for Metaphysics of Morals


*Here is another argument to try:

All flim-flams are kablink.
Sam is a flim-flam.
Therefore, Sam is _____________.

What goes in the blank?

(If you said, “kablink”, you are right.)

**Particular laws would be things like traffic laws, tax laws, the ten commandments, or any other particular law you can think of.


14 thoughts on “How to Cultivate a Good Will to Live a Good Life”

  1. Hi.

    In point of view, the Version One was the most moral.

    If I were the old lady, I would prefer for someone to help me because they are willing to, rather than forcing themselves to do something they don’t really want to do out of a sense of duty.

    In the first case there is a real emotional connection between the helper and the helped. In the other, just a calculated act of kindness dictated by a moral code.

    I think spontaneity is important in a real act of kindness. Acting because we want do the right thing, for me, is similar to acting because we want to look good: It is not driven by a legitimate care/emotional connection to the other person. The focus is somewhere else instead.

    It does not feel good to be helped if you know that the other person thinks you are a burden to them and only helps because they think they “must”.

    1. Hi Ivan: Thank you for reading and for your thoughtful comment. Your concern is a good one and very Aristotelian. You note, and rightly so, that there is something very good about someone who acts spontaneously from a heart of kindness. I think the ideal is that we do the right thing and that we love doing the right thing. I think Aristotle would argue that this is the best scenario–someone who does the right thing at the right time with the right attitude.

      Nevertheless, it is important to consider that there are times that morality requires us to do things that are incredibly hard to do and in which it is extremely hard to find pleasure. For example, treating an enemy with dignity (when we have a chance to hurt the enemy), although we are solely tempted to bring down vengeance on their head. We might say that the ideal moral person is still the kind of person who joyfully treats his or her enemy with dignity. And perhaps that is so. But I think Kant’s philosophy rightly points out that there are times when it is extremely hard to do the right thing and that doing the right thing because it is our duty is a more stable and moral reason for acting than acting just because we happen to find something pleasurable. There is nothing wrong with finding moral action pleasurable, but if it is our only motive for behaving well, we will stop acting morally when it is no longer pleasurable.
      Thanks again for your comment.

      1. I understand that it is not always possible to have the best attitude, after all we are human and not perfect, and that doing the right thing for the wrong reasons is really better than not doing the right thing at all.

        But I also believe that we should strive to connect with our emotions, and too much rationalization and deliberation may make us lose touch with our human side. We may convince ourselves that we are doing something “for the greater good”, when in fact we are blind to the damage we are causing others, because we are so used to ignoring the very emotions that would impede us from harming them in first place.

        1. Ivan, your concern is an excellent one. It may help to know that this post is one post in a series about developing your own moral code. I am an ethics professor, and so I am covering all the classic moral codes so people can choose which one (or ones) they believe are best. In later posts, I am going to discuss an ethical system that is grounded in the practical expression of love. In addition, I am going to write a post later that addresses the possible limitations of each moral code, and I will certainly address the concern you have above. Also, I should note that I had to cover Kant’s ethical system very briefly in this post. He is very concerned about how we relate to other people. Another way he words his categorical imperative is this: treat people as an end in themselves, not merely a means to your end. I will probably add a note to that effect in my post.

          Thanks again for your thoughtful comments.

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