The good will is the will which acts from freedom and respect for the moral law.
I like Kant. I don’t agree entirely with his precepts, but I like them a lot overall. The moral law is an obligation that binds all people without exception. In other words, right and wrong is something outside of our individual standards and something that applies to all. From the perspective of a society, this does make sense. As a concept, this is referred to as the Categorical Imperative.
The Categorical Imperative really encompasses three major concepts: universalizability, human dignity, and reciprocity. Universalizability is similar to the “Do unto others” rule – you want to behave in a way that is conscious of the fact that others could act in the same way that you do. Human dignity involves the consciousness that you deal with other thinking, feeling people. When you engage in an act, to be moral, you should treat people as an End, not a Means. (This is most contrary to the John Stuart Mills view of the benefit of the many outweighs the benefit of the few utilitarianism.) Finally, reciprocity might similarly be labeled fairness; the idea of holding yourself to the same standards. You should be subject to being legislated as well as being legislator. In other words, we must recognize that in the same way we judge others, we are judged.
These ideas are rather compelling and both ethically and reasonably appealing. This philosophical ideal can be broken into three major premises.
First, we are all equal. We can’t hold ourselves to a different standard, because we are all human. We all have differences, but our ethics ought not deviate from individual to individual.
Second, the consequences of our actions are morally irrelevant. To make this clearer, the idea is that we are only morally responsible for what is in our control. The consequences of our actions are not something we control. Therefore we can only be responsible for our own actions. Ideally, this seems reasonable, but it is a basic syllogism which has inherent tendency to fallacy. Nabokov’s “I am not another” is brought to mind. From the legal perspective, the cry comes up, should you have no responsibility for foreseeable consequences, at the least? “If you cut me, do I not bleed?” Still, from an idealistic state of mind, this isn’t a wholly absurd premise.
Finally, your will is within your control so it is the proper basis of moral evaluation for your actions. Because we can control our will, in thinking before acting, we have that moral compass of should and shouldn’t. A philosophical sort of conscience.
It is notable that for Kant there is a distinction between intellectual thought and practical morality. There is much that is idealist in this, but a little idealism may make for a brighter day. The ethics and morality are a sweet relief from Plato’s absence of sentiment and eagerness for logical purity. Today is a good day to appreciate Kant, even where my legal mind rebels.