What makes us good – our actions, or our intentions?

Kant and Sartre – Actions and Intentions

For the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, whenever we act we are acting in a legislative way for the rest of humanity. This is because our actions are freely chosen, and so each time we choose to act in this or that way, we are accompanied by the weighty responsibility of forming both our own moral character and the moral character of humanity as a whole.

The goodness of humanity as a whole and the goodness of the individual are interdependent, hence the evaluative question – am I, is she or he good, – is answered with another question: if everyone were to act in the way that they do, would humanity as a whole be better or worse for it?

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This has obvious Kantian overtones: Kant’s categorical imperative tells us to act only in the way that you can at the same time will to become a universal law – i.e. only tell that lie if you can will that everyone else tell that lie. The purpose of the categorical imperative is to provide us with a rule for moral action: if we cannot rationally justify the prescribing of lying as a universal law, then it follows that we cannot justify the telling of of a lie; therefore, lying is wrong.

For Kant, whether an individual is good or not depends on whether their intentions for action were good or not. The evaluation isn’t in the action, but in the space of rational deliberation that precedes action, in the forming of intention. The only good actions are the ones that are produced by good intentions. And good intentions can only be formed once a correct understanding of the concept of goodness has been ascertained.

Giving money to charity is good if and only if your intention to give is formed by your correct understanding of the concept of goodness. Understood correctly, you give money to charity because it is good to do so, not because, for example, you will feel better for doing so, or because your religion tells you that it is good to do. A correct understanding of the concept of goodness bounds us to the right action as a duty: we could not act in any other way.

So for Kant, whether or not I am good depends on what motivates me to act. Only good intentions can cause good actions. Under this conception of goodness, it is conceivable that somebody we see as good by virtue of their actions – somebody who gives to charity, cares for others etc, – is not really good at all. They are good only if they have good intentions – irrespective of the output of their actions. He says:

…The aims we may have in actions, and their effects, as ends and incentives of the will, can impart to the actions no unconditioned and moral worth. In what, then, can this worth lie, if it is not supposed to exist in the will, in the relation of the actions to the effect hoped for? It can lie nowhere else than in the principle of the will, without regard to the ends that can be effected through such action…

When compared to Sartre’s evaluation of individual goodness, we see a difference emerge: for Sartre, moral evaluation takes place looking in from the outside, in a kind of God’s eye-view at the whole of humanity; for Kant, moral evaluation takes place from the inside, at the rational thought process that takes place before action takes place. The concept of goodness itself changes with this: is it a property of action (good actions are consistent with bad intentions – therefore what makes an action good is something about the action itself), or a motivating force (one which, properly understood, we would only ever act in accordance with it)?

Which one of these we assent to commits us to a particular conclusion about what constitutes individual goodness: either I am good because of my actions, or because of my intentions. And so we begin to see the divide between Sartre and Kant’s ethics: both Kant and Sartre ask us to act in ways that we could will the rest of humanity to act, but what makes an individual good diverges at the point at which the action is chosen.

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3 thoughts on “What makes us good – our actions, or our intentions?”

      1. I thought so. I remember him talking about inclination and reason and how both are beneficial. I just wasn’t sure if inclination would include having a good will or be used synonymously with it, in terms of ethics. The same with reason and actions. Thanks for answering!

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