The blog of Dr Glenn Andrew Peoples on Theology, Philosophy, and Social Issues

Kant: There is no such thing as coincidental righteousness


A short, sweet lesson: Being a morally good person involves doing your moral duty. If you don’t at least accept that, then I think you’re basically mistaken about morality in theory (I say “in theory” because I’m comforted by the fact that you probably live as though I’m right).

But how does being morally good involve doing your moral duty? Here’s is where Kant has something important to tell you. Being a moral person is not just acting in accordance with your moral duty. You might live your whole life in accordance with your moral duty and yet in some really important sense still not be a morally good person. How so? Here;s how: It could be a very unlikely coincidence that your life is lived in accordance with your moral duty. Or maybe you are doing what you do because you’re getting paid to do it, and you don’t really reflect on what your moral duty is. Or maybe you, perversely, think that what you’re doing is really contrary to your moral duty and yet you desire to do it anyway. Or maybe you have some other motivation – you might not take advantage of a woman because you fear that it will harm your reputation with women, for example.

This is what Kant tells us, and he is right: Doing the morally right thing  is where you act, not just in accordance with your moral duty, but you also act out of duty. Nobody is worthy of moral esteem for doing a thing that, as it turns out, is in fact morally right. You are only worthy of moral esteem for doing the right thing, whatever that might turn out to be.

And that is the gift that Kant has given you today!

Glenn Peoples


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Jesus: The Cold Case


  1. That was very generous of him.

  2. Deane

    Funny name, “Kant”. Sounds a bit like you know what.

  3. Nathan

    I’m interested to know what Kant would say about the moral argument for God.

  4. Nathan, Kant himself gave a couple of moral arguments for theism. They’re too big for a comment, so I’ll blog on them.

  5. Glenn, would love to hear your feedback on a quick and dirty argument I just came up with relating to moral freedom in heaven. I’m sure there are some flaws with my argument, but sometimes another pair of eyes finds them more quickly. 🙂

  6. Nathan

    Look forward to it, thanks Glenn.

  7. sam g

    if your motivation is your reputation, you fail kants test?

    so, would you still do something you thought was good if you knew that your friends and social circles would never be able to find out? would you still sponsor a child in africa if you couldn’t put a photo on your fridge for your visitors to see, or even tell anyone that you were doing it, and if not you fail kants test? this is why charities give you stickers or badges to wear when you give them a donation, firstly so you can show others what a good person you are, and secondly so that others see you wearing it with pride and want the same recognition.

    kind of related: study on recent freakenomics podcast by some economists about ‘conspicuous conservation’ (kind of like conspicuous consumption where you only by a porche for its status symbol). in areas where environmental concern was fashionable, people buying environmentally friendly vehicles preferred toyota prius over other hybrids because it looks so unique and is instantly recognisable; they purchased them because they wanted recognition from their peers. (south park does a piss-take calling them ‘pious’ instead of prius)

    i think lots of ‘good’ things we do are just us projecting a desired image of ourselves to our social groups. good old evolutionary instinct being misconstrued as morality. poster-boy dawkins in tgd talks about some birds which share their food with others as a means of demonstrating their superiority, to the point where if a lowly ranked bird tries to share food with a higher ranked bird, they are attacked and punished. our group instinct (think chimpanzee troops) even influences our behaviour when there are only PICTURES of eyes watching us (, hence the use of eyes in religions (think big watchful calf-eyes of jesus gazing down on you from the walls, you not wanting a picture of your mother looking at you from the bedside dresser when you’re doing something you know she wouldn’t approve of, and possibly the use of faces on currency).

    if kant is looking at motivation like this, i think people often kid themselves about how moral they actually are.

  8. CPE Gaebler

    “so, would you still do something you thought was good if you knew that your friends and social circles would never be able to find out? would you still sponsor a child in africa if you couldn’t put a photo on your fridge for your visitors to see, or even tell anyone that you were doing it, and if not you fail kants test?”

    Well, there are other possible motivations FOR being public about one’s charitable sponsorship – if one thinks the cause is worth supporting, then one may wish to spread the word to get other people involved in supporting it.

    But yes, if knowing that you would receive no acclaim would cause you to choose not to perform some act that you have a moral duty to perform, then evidentally you are motivated by acclaim and not by duty and thus would fail “kant’s test.” Although it doesn’t look like it IS a “test.” More a statement that being morally laudatory depends not only on actions but on intent.

    As for your comment about people kidding themselves about how moral they actually are… That is likely. Which is why the Good Book needs to remind us to behave rightly irrespective of public praise.

  9. Of course Jesus condemned men who did “acts of righteousness” from a deceitful heart

  10. Sam – it’s true that if you give to charity out of the motivation to receive recognition then yes, you would fail Kant’s test.

    But that certainly doesn’t mean it is wrong to let people know what you’ve done. After all, doing so may itself contribute to the meeting of some duty – like encouraging other people to perform similar moral actions.

  11. Kant seems to be making the case for a Christian understanding of morality without mentioning Christ. Not konwing anything about Kant, does that make him a Christian Inclusivist (“no one does good, no not one”), or something else (non-Christian moralist?)?

  12. Roy

    “The desire to be happy is a proper motive for every good deed, and if you abandon the pursuit of your own joy you cannot love man or please God”. John Piper.

    Shame Kant is dead and (pardon the pun) can’t respond.

  13. Jeremy

    @ Roy, i would be in two minds about that comment. Sam g asked the right question and it can be applied here as well. Would you still do something good even if it didnt contribute to your happiness? I suggest that if the answer is “no” then you would also fail Kant’s test. Jesus never promised happines, infact promised lots of unhappiness. Blessed are you when men persecute you for my names sake.

  14. Oh dear, so do I pass if when faced with the same moral choice as I was faced with 5 years ago this time I choose the other option because I’ve reflected and reached a different conclusion ?

  15. Jeremy

    Maybe this time you reflected more on the needs of/ impact on others and less on simply indulging personal desire? Motive counts.

  16. Roy

    @ Jeremy … what do you mean by ‘Blessed’ in ‘Blessed are you when men persecute you ….’?

  17. sam g

    next question: conscious or subconscious?

    a lot of people may not actually aware of the real reasons they do something: as in the example of the eyes above the honesty box or the greenies buying toyota prius’ (priai?), statistical analysis points clearly to a motivation that most individuals would deny if you were ever to suggest it to them.

    maslow listed needs that motivate us, and “On the whole, however, in the average person, they are more often unconscious rather than conscious.” (

    and i don’t really know much about this, but freud thought we were motivated largely by our subconscience, right? is that still accepted?

    so is it possible to do something for self-esteem or respect of others without actually consciously knowing that that is why we are doing it, and possibly convincing ourselves of some other motivation all together? if so kants test will be almost impossible to apply to all but the most clear cut cases. there are even overlapping motivations with varying degrees of influence, is it all far to complex for kant to be of any widespread use?

  18. I wonder if Christ is describing this difficulty of distinguishing motives in the parable of the wheat and tares (

    I know the traditional view of this passage sees the wheat as believers and the tares as unbelievers, but maybe (seeing as the bible seems to have a fractal structure in its symbolism) this also can be a way of seeing our own layers of belief (true moral motivation) and unbelief (self-centred motivations) within our own soul…(I think you can be a physicalist and still view the soul as having “parts”, just like a nation is one entity with many parts)

  19. “(I think you can be a physicalist and still view the soul as having “parts”, just like a nation is one entity with many parts)”

    Of course. In fact, only the physicalist can think of the soul as having parts in the sense of components. Dualists think of the soul as simple and therefore indivisible. But that’s a whole other issue.

  20. sam g

    subconscious motivation would also make jesus’ statement that ‘the lord looks at the heart’ pretty useless too. “the lord looks at your heart, but you don’t know for sure what he actually sees there”. yay for perpetual potential guilt.

  21. matt

    Sam, I’m not sure that perpetual guilt would follow even if we were to grant the existence of a subconscious. I’m not terribly familiar with Freud, but I also don’t think that he thought the subconscious was completely inaccessible (I’m pretty sure the point of psychoanalysis is to uncover those hidden motivations). It’s not as if you would be forced to remain at its whims or that it could not be “purified” somehow. Still, what you suggest sounds a little bit like the affects of sin. It would be trivially true, and scriptural as well I believe, to say that we sin in ways that we are not aware of. While it certainly is a hard thing to pass Kant’s test, that would hardly go against its truth.

  22. CPE Gaebler

    Christianity isn’t exactly big on piling on guilt for CONSCIOUS sins, even. What with the whole “forgiveness” thing we got going on.

  23. sam g

    matt you’re quite right, i wasn’t questioning the truth of kants test, just it’s usefulness.

    gaebler, christianity needs guilt BECAUSE of it’s emphasis on forgiveness: without guilt, what is there to forgive? it only has meaningful definition in the presence of guilt. without guilt, jesus would have had no reason to die.

    this is why i said ‘yay’ sarcastically. perpetual guilt is a good thing for christianity because it means people keep feeling like they need forgiveness. an analogy would be a pharmaceutical company patenting a cure for a contagious disease of their own making, or an electronics company designing appliances to break down and need replacing every few years. any 101 marketing course will tell you that you need a problem before you can sell a solution.

    matt i understand it is a bit of a jump from the existence of a subconscious motivations to perpetual guilt, hence the word ‘potential’ in there. i guess my main reasoning would be that there is always room for doubt about quite how good you actually are. for example “i helped someone else and now i feel good about myself. was i altruistic or did i act selfishly because i wanted to feel good about myself?”

  24. matt

    I guess, Sam, the question would be, how good do you think YOU are? It’s all well and good to talk about the political usefulness of guilt for the Christian institutional machine, but, again, what does that have to do with the truth or usefulness of Kants test? It’s not at all good to hide behind your adjectives either. You essentially concede the weakness of your original point while trying to maintain the appearance of disagreeing. Finally, as CPE pointed out, guilt is not in this dojo, and while it may be wielded by various churches who are concerned with enlarging their membership, we would all agree that such a hypothetical group would be obnoxious.

  25. phil_style

    Sam, 23 “without guilt, Jesus would have had no reason to die.”
    That relies on a particular theory of what the atonement was about though.

    With respect to conscious or subconscious morality. I think the issue is rather moot. Conscious decision making can inform sub-conscious “programming”. Force of habit and discipline shapes or neural pathways. So, I can modify the “moral” structure of my subconsciousness, by making conscious decisions now to build behavioral norms (i.e. strong, habitual neural pathways) in my brain.

    In some respects you might conclude that I’m not responsible for what I do now (it’s hard wired in my brain), but I can be held to account now, for what I might do in 5 years time – ergo the “me” of five years ago is partly responsible for what I do now. That’s of we’re in the business of proportioning causal blame. I prefer to think of justice as being about repairing people so they become “better”.

  26. sam g


    ok, lets take this one unrelated point at a time:

    1) bethyada (9) pointed out that jesus condemned men who did ‘acts of rightousness’ out of a deceitful heart, which essentially is kants test. like dave (11) observed, kant seemed to be making the case for a christian understanding of morality. as i’ve already mentioned, apparently god looks at the heart, which would include the motivations of your apparently good deeds.

    2) i asked how kants test could be applied if not even the individual themselves was immediately aware of their own motivation, with comparisons and examples. i suggested that lots of ‘good’ things we do are just us projecting a desired image of ourselves to our social groups, which would fail kants test. i later suggested you could also be motivated by wanting to feel good about yourself (possibly convincing yourself of your position in society, in that you are the one who can give to others, not the one that needs help). all these can be dominant motivations with out a person being aware of them.

    you say that it is certainly hard to pass kants test (21), but in light of the apparent complexities of human motivation, and short of asking your shrink, how can you be sure you have actually even applied it correctly in the first place?

    phil, you give the impression of knowing what you’re talking about. can we actually program and modify things like maslows non-physiological needs?

    3) yes, a church that wielded guilt to enlarge membership would be obnoxious, but i still hold that it is a crucial part of all christianity: to clarify, i’m saying the concept of guilt in general is crucial to all of christianity, not specifically guilt over false motivation but this is getting a bit sidetracked, so leave it there?

    i know i haven’t answered the crux of your question yet, but just want to check points 1 and 2 first.

  27. phil_style

    Sam, g, firstly I don’t really know what I’m talking about, not in the way a behavioral psychologist, or neuro-psychologist might. I’m not, and make no claim to be, an expert in this area. I would hope that the data I’ve managed to garner from reading in this area, and my interpretations of the writings of those who might be “experts” is reasonably accurate..

    Interesting question about some of the fundamental/basic needs (ala Maslow). There certainly are examples of humans who, by “choice” (however one wants to define choice) are able to deny themselves at least the achievement of some desires which others might assume to be fundamental human needs (Buddhist monks temporarily using mind discipline, in order to stimulate circulatory systems which can overcome the effects of extreme cold) . But whether or not we can turn ALL physicological or non-physicological needs on and off by force of habit.. I would have my doubts. I suppose it depends on how complex and elastic the circuitry is that results in said needs. The physiological needs such as the need for air, for example, is reinforced by some VERY strong neural systems and coupled to large muscular reflexes. I think overcoming this would be not only impossible mentally, but obviously fatal. :{

    There is plenty of neurological evidence to suggest that many of our behaviors are informed by a cocktail of environmental influence and the hard wiring of our brains (genetics included). And there is a difference between behavior, need and perceived need, especially when we are discussion non-physiological things.Let’s take mirror neurons as an example. These circuits basically encourage us very strongly to mimic the perceived wants of other people. So, by isolating ourselves from certain persons, and “hanging around” with other persons, we can make some changes to the way these neurons influence our own desires.

    This is where, perhaps, I might be able to make room for Kants “sense of duty”. If I decide, out of “the good for society” to pursue my life without excessive alcohol consumption, I might then put in place various disciplines, habits which will result in the “future me” being able to maintain the behaviors associated with the “sense of duty” I feel now.
    However, I’m not sure Kant is off the hook. After all, the future me will act out of habit – so, is the future me coincidentally moral? What if the “now me” has good intentions, but is unable as yet to produce the behaviors associated with the “sense of duty”.

    pls excuse the mix of american and UK spelling.. browser…

  28. phil, acting out of the motivation of bettering society fails Kant’s test.

  29. matt

    As far as 1 goes, so what? I’m confused as to whether or not you think this is a problem for Christianity and why.

    As for 2, I see no problem with social pressure serving some epistemic purpose in moral decision making. If your social appearance was your only reason for “being good” then it seems to go without saying that would be disingenuous. More to the point, do you really think that considering the public and subjective benefit of righteous behavior before engaging in it would mean that those things then were your motivation? I am struggling to understand why your 2 points work as objections at all, but maybe you just mean to ask questions about practically applying Kants test? If so, I’m sorry for taking so defensive a posture. On a practical level, Kants test does seem to demonstrate how thorough our need for forgiveness and reconciliation to God and one another is.

    If you do mean to object, though, I honestly don’t understand what you are objecting to. It sounds like you are saying something like, “because everest is so tall and so few people have been able to climb it, it shouldn’t count in conversations about mountain climbing.”

  30. phil_style

    28, Glenn. Ohhh.. I was equating a desire to “better society” with Kant’s “moral duty”. I suppose if one assumes there is no divine moral obligation, would that not be a fair comparison? I’m happy to be corrected, I don’t really read much philosophy.

  31. Well phil, even setting aside the issue of divine commands (which Kant, of course, believed in), Kant would reject the idea that you should do something because it has some instrumental benefit – like bettering society. In that case you’re doing something as a means. Kant’s demand was a very strong one: You do something because you recognise it as a moral obligation – it is part of the moral law.

    But to be honest, it’s very hard to separate Kant’s moral theory from God, so I think whatever parallels we try to come up with will likely fall short of what Kant intended if we swap his worldview for another.

  32. What about this situation?:

    Mat 25:35‘For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; 36naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ 37“Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? 38‘And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? 39‘When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ 40“The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’

    I’m just wondering (trying to relate this to Kant), did these people act out of moral duty? I think it would be safe to say that Jesus is considering their acts as at least moral. Is he also considering their actions as demonstrating “faith in Christ”? To me this seems to be the opposite case of the people that do moral things for the wrong reasons but not realizing they’re the wrong reasons: these are doing the moral things, apparently for no reason (at least no stated reason) at all, i.e. not necessarily “out of duty”, but it is moral none-the-less. Or do you suppose it should be assumed they were still acting out of duty (passing Kants test) and Jesus was elevating it to a higher level?

  33. Michael Baldwin

    Well, to be fair, there’s been a huge amount of literature written on this issue, stemming mostly from Nagel’s and Williams’ articles on the topic of moral luck. I take it you disagree with them both?

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