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Sellars on Kant

When Kant insists that we ought to act from a sense of duty he is not making the absurd mistakes which have often been attributed to him. He is simply repeating the point with which he opens the argument of the Fundamental Principles of Metaphysic of Morals, that the only unconditional good is a good will. By this he means that the only state of a person which is unconditionally good from a moral point of view is the disposition to act from a sense of duty. He has two points in mind: (a) Whereas action from any motive can have bad results, the sense of duty alone is such that only by virtue of ignorance does it have bad results. Action from other motives even where ignorance is absent can lead to bad results. Thus the sense of duty is the only motive which has a direct conceptual tie to the categorically valid end of moral conduct. In this sense a good will is a categorical ought-to-be. (b) Although the general welfare is also an end in itself, a categorical ought-to-be, the ought-to-be of the happiness of any given individual is, Kant believes, conditional on his having a good will.

Wilfrid Sellars, Form and Content in Ethical Theory

It’s still hard for me to see how this is not question-begging or even circular. Sellars wants to bring in specificity to the data on which the good will acts, but this poses the problem of whether the good will obtains its disposition from this data (in which case the will is not unconditioned), or whether the disposition is innate and/or noumenal, in which case the will still has the capacity to act in a state of complete ignorance and still be acting from the sense of duty.

It was Sellars’s goal to merge scientific reality with phenomenological experience by offering a constructivist account of how our conceptual knowledge of the latter emerges without appealing to any pie-in-the-sky Platonism. Since Sellars’s problem was not with a priori knowledge in the Kantian sense per se (whether he would term this knowledge is a different question entirely), he would not have to necessarily be opposed to a naturalistic conception of morality, i.e., one that could fit within the scientific image. This is why he can say that for Kant, “The fallibility of moral philosophy is not the fallibility of empirical induction,” because morality need not be obtained from empirical induction. Consequently, Kant ends up doing a bit of Sellars’s work for him if Sellars can accept that the good will obtained in such a way fulfills the criteria required for a moral authority.


  1. Got a little lost in the anaphoras.

  2. I’m not seeing (in this quotation) where he wants to bring in the specificity. I mean he wants to as a matter of morality (I suppose the good will should desire not to be ignorant since ignorance could make it misfire and it doesn’t want to misfire). But (like Plato, Kantified) he wants to say that the good will can make mistakes, but won’t do evil unless through a mistake, right? This may be question-begging, but I don’t think it’s circular.

  3. Sellars is really hard to excerpt. Elsewhere in the essay he tries to endorse a Peirce-ish approach of using scientific thinking to approximate ever more closely the form a good will can take. But my problem is that the concepts of “good” and “evil” still forever remain in the Platonic realm, which for Sellars is a no-no. If the concepts themselves of good and evil are acquired phenomenally/consequentially, Kant can’t have a workable moral theory because universal categorical laws can’t plausibly be obtained. I.e., I still don’t see how the chasm from phenomenal specificity to noumenal universality is to be crossed. Sellars wants to bring reason and science and experimentation to the rescue.

    The circularity seems to lie in Sellars’ desire to have a good will that informs the assessment of situation and leads to the induction of categoriality, while seeming to demand that that will arise purely from nominalistic experiences. I don’t see how the good will can be bootstrapped in that case.

  4. I’ll have to read it. I wonder if James on the will might help. His stress on the importance of believing that the feeling of effort (a phenomenon) corresponds to something real (the freedom of the will and the effort it can therefore undertake to overcome predilection). We should believe that effort is real, that the feeling addresses something real, and this way we get to something noumenal through the phenomenal, and thus to the 2nd Critique.

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