Community and Progress in Kant's Moral Philosophy

Community and Progress in Kant's Moral Philosophy

by Kate A. Moran


Want it by Friday, November 16 Order now and choose Expedited Shipping during checkout.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780813219523
Publisher: Catholic University of America Press
Publication date: 03/14/2012
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt


By Kate A. Moran

The Catholic University of America Press

Copyright © 2012 The Catholic University of America Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8132-1952-3

Chapter One


* * *

We have seen that many critics charge Kant with having an atomistic, ahistorical, and undesirably individualistic moral theory. However, when we take into account the fact that Kant's moral theory places value upon agents who set and pursue ends for themselves, it becomes clear that Kant's moral theory is one that has the foundational apparatus for an account of moral life that is both goal directed and connected to the projects of others. Kant makes this point most strongly—though perhaps just as obscurely—with his concept of the highest (derived) good. Kant defines the highest good as that state which obtains when the greatest possible virtue occurs in conjunction with the greatest possible happiness consistent with that virtue. This definition and much of the conceptual framework of Kant's idea of the highest good remain unchanged over the course of his writing. However, I argue with other commentators that over the course of his life and writing, Kant significantly revises his position on how the highest good is to be achieved. And when we consider Kant's sketch of the highest good in what is its final and most complete form, we are presented with new insight into Kant's moral philosophy. Specifically, we are presented with a moral system that has as its goal a kind of moral community whose members are governed by the moral law. And this fact, in turn, leads us to several other conclusions. First, we come to see the crucial role that various institutions play in helping us to progress more effectively toward this goal. Second, and more theoretically, we come to see not just that Kant's moral theory is one that has as its goal a kind of moral community, but also that it is one that includes this goal of the moral community as part of its very justification of moral action.

This chapter sketches the conceptual foundations of Kant's idea of the highest good, as well as the changes that this concept undergoes with respect to Kant's description of how it is to be realized. The first section introduces Kant's idea of the highest good and pays close attention to Kant's claim that the highest good is the object of moral action. This claim might seem, at first, to be a problematic one—on the face of things, a theory about the goal or state of affairs that a moral theory strives toward seems to depart from the well-known Kantian imperative to act for the sake of duty itself, and not for the sake of imagined outcomes. Nevertheless, careful examination of Kant's theory demonstrates that Kant's claims about the object of moral action are perfectly consistent with a non-consequentialist theory and, indeed, stem from the requirements of practical reason.

The second section of the chapter examines Kant's changing views about how the highest good can and ought to be realized. This section begins with a discussion of the more individualistic and theological account that appears in earlier works, most notably the Critique of Practical Reason, and concludes with an examination of Kant's account of the ethical community in his Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone. In this section, I argue that Kant's most considered conception of the highest good is one that views this object of morality as a shared goal that moral agents ought to strive to accomplish on earth, over the course of history.

The third section of this chapter considers how the interpretation of the highest good that I argue for affects Kant's views about so-called radical evil. I argue that the account of the highest good argued for in the second section of the chapter actually provides a plausible solution to the worries posed by the problem of radical evil. However, recognizing this solution requires us to reconceive some of the ways that we think of moral agency, especially with respect to moral improvement.

The final section of this book also investigates the extent to which Kant's theory of the highest good—and his ultimate conclusions about how the highest good is to be accomplished—make his moral philosophy importantly social. I argue that, at the very least, we should see Kant's moral philosophy as concerned with a social end (the ethical community) and that we should also recognize our obligations to work toward this end as a community. But I also argue that Kant's theory of the highest good tells us something crucial about the justification for moral action. Specifically, it tells us that when we are considering a proposed course of action, the object of moral action should already be in our sights as part of the justification for that action. And since this object is best understood as a kind of ethical community, part of the Kantian justification for moral action will be that an action contributes to the achievement of such a community.

An Overview of Kant's Concept of the Highest Good

The highest good—or the object of moral action—is achieved, for Kant, when maximal virtue and the maximal happiness consistent with such virtue exist together in a specific kind of relationship. In the discussion of the highest good in the Critique of Practical Reason, Kant begins by describing two ways in which such a relationship between virtue and happiness could be understood. The first, he says, is an analytic relationship between the two, and this is the kind of relationship that the Stoics and Epicureans presented when they attempted to demonstrate a connection between virtue and happiness. For the Epicureans, according to Kant, "the concept of virtue was already present in the maxim of promoting one's own happiness." In other words, what Kant calls prudence, or the ability to attain the sources of one's own happiness, also constituted morality and virtue for the Epicureans. For them, Kant explains, "happiness was the whole highest good." The Stoic approach to uniting virtue and happiness was similarly analytic, but, of course, focused not on the attainment of happiness, but rather on the perfection of one's virtue. For the Stoics, simply "to be conscious of one's virtue [was] happiness." For them "the feeling of happiness was already contained in the conciousness of one's virtue."

Thus, in both the Epicurean and Stoic views, the relationship between virtue and happiness was one of identity, and thus analytic. We might, at first, be tempted to think that Kant, too, takes the view that the relationship between virtue and happiness is an analytic one. Though it is clear that Kant could never adopt the Epicurean view that happiness is "the whole highest good," we might be tempted to think that Kant could have had something like a Stoic view in mind, in which virtue (or at least the knowledge of one's virtue) constitutes the greatest happiness that can be achieved. Indeed, Kant does think that we experience a sense of "contentment" from knowing that we have acted from respect for the moral law, and we might equate this sense of contentment with the sense of happiness that the Stoic receives from awareness of his virtue. However, for Kant, the sense of contentment that arises from doing one's duty is not the kind of happiness that constitutes part of the highest good. Rather, the kind of happiness that Kant has in mind in the context of the highest good is one that probably aligns itself more closely with the kind of happiness we have in mind when we use the term in our everyday speech—it is the feeling one gets when things go according to one's wishes, or, as Kant defines it, "the state of a rational being in the world in the whole of whose existence everything goes according to his wish and will." So, while Kant shares with the Stoics the view that some kind of contentment arises from being virtuous, he departs from them in his claim that there is more than an analytic connection between virtue and happiness. Rather, he thinks, there is a synthetic relationship between virtue and happiness in which one actually causes the other. And since it is clear that, for Kant, happiness cannot cause virtue, we are left with one remaining option—that virtue causes happiness. How, exactly, virtue causes happiness will be a question for the second section of this chapter, since Kant's views about the answer to this question appear to change over the course of his writings. But for the time being, it is important only to keep in mind that Kant thinks that virtue and happiness exist together in this kind of causal relationship. We cannot, as it were, will a moral action without also willing (directly or indirectly) some amount of happiness, be it our own or someone else's.

One observation that may immediately come to mind upon hearing this description of Kant's account of the highest good is that it seems at odds with an understanding of Kantian morality in which our interests in happiness have no value, and the only thing of any value is autonomous agency, or a morally good will (take, for example, Kant's famous opening statement of the Groundwork). Indeed, at one point in the Groundwork, Kant comes very close to denigrating inclination and happiness when he claims that "it must ... be the universal wish of every rational being to be altogether free from [inclination]." This apparent contradiction causes Lewis White Beck, in his commentary on the Critique of Practical Reason, to charge Kant with surrendering the key component of his moral theory—autonomy itself: "Kant simply cannot have it both ways. He cannot say that the highest good is a motive for the pure will, and then say that it is so only under the human limitation that man must have an object which is not exclusively moral.... It is clear that to admit the latter human—all-too-human—fact into the determination of conduct in accord with moral norms is to surrender autonomy." On the one hand, Beck argues here, Kant has at no point changed his view about the imperative to act, not for the sake of some expected outcome, but rather for the sake of duty. This imperative, Beck correctly observes, is closely linked to central notions of freedom and autonomy. While a will that is not free is necessitated to act in response to natural causes, an autonomous will is one that is not subject to such necessitation, and is one that can guide its actions according to the moral law that it gives to itself. This is the idea behind Kant's numerous assertions that the moral law is the causal law of a morally free will and what scholars have dubbed the "reciprocity thesis," the idea that an agent's freedom and her being bound by the moral law mutually imply one another.

One the other hand, Beck argues, with Kant's theory of the highest good, we have what seems to be a sudden shift away from these central ideas. Kant seems now to allow inclination and sensibility to play an important—indeed necessary—role in his moral theory. After all, even if the highest good and the satisfaction of select inclinations is only part of the object of moral action, it is still a necessary component of moral action. Kant is clear on this point—given the requirements of practical reason, we simply could not act from duty if we did not have in mind an object that combined the totality of virtue with the greatest amount of happiness consistent with such a totality. To admit such a factor into Kant's moral theory is, according to Beck, to strip it of its focus on autonomy entirely.

But despite Kant's strong stance in the Groundwork passages cited above, and despite Lewis White Beck's worries, there is room in Kant's moral theory for his insistence that happiness be part of the highest good. Specifically, when we examine our capacity for humanity, the capacity that Kant takes to have ultimate moral value, we see that the highest good is already, in some sense, built into Kant's fundamental claims about the value of humanity.

In the Groundwork, Kant's famous formula of humanity charges us to act in such a way that uses humanity "always at the same time as an end, [and] never merely as a means." We have this obligation, Kant says, because "rational nature exists as an end it itself." This rational nature, then, is what Kant understands when he uses the term humanity. But, of course, our rational nature as sensible beings is not limited to pondering analytic truths and thinking about the moral law. Rather, as rational and sensible beings, we set ends for ourselves and seek ways of pursuing those ends. Thus, in the "Doctrine of Virtue," Kant says that humanity is "characterized" by "the capacity to set oneself an end—any end whatsoever." The fact that our capacity to set and pursue ends exists as an end in itself has, in turn, important implications for the role of inclination and happiness in Kant's moral philosophy. This is for the simple reason that inclination provides the "material" with which our rational nature sets ends. Of course, I must decide which ends to pursue; I must order my preferences and make various sacrifices for the sake of my chosen ends. And, of course, I can pursue these ends morally only if I first check my inclinations and the ends suggested by them against what the moral law requires of me, or against the ends of others. But assuming that my ends are consistent with the moral law, I am free to pursue the goals suggested by inclination with impunity. And this is not just a concession on Kant's part. In a sense, our capacity to pursue the ends suggested by inclination, in conjunction with our capacity to restrain those ends when required by pure practical reason (morality), is precisely what makes us worthy of moral consideration in the first place.

Kant's emphasis on humanity also has important implications for how we conceive of the role of happiness within his system. Far from being something that we must always deny ourselves in order to be virtuous, happiness is intimately connected with the very capacity to set and pursue ends that makes us worthy of moral consideration. As noted earlier, Kant tells us that happiness is just that state we are in when things go according to our "wish and will." In other words, we are happy when the ends that we set for ourselves are fulfilled. Our desire for happiness is thus a natural consequence of the fact that we are rational and yet sensible beings. Indeed, Kant tells us that "to be happy is necessarily the demand of every rational but finite being and therefore an unavoidable determining ground of its faculty of desire."

In addition, there is a second reason for thinking that there need not be any contradiction in Kant's thinking that morality and happiness are somehow connected, and this has to do with the way we think of the relationship between inclination and freedom in Kant's system. Broadly speaking, there are two ways one can think about this relationship. Depending on which view we adopt, the idea that happiness is part of the object of morality may seem more or less palatable. First, one might think that Kant's account suggests a deep opposition between inclination and freedom. Such an interpretation is suggested, as we saw earlier, by the opposition between freedom and inclination that Kant sometimes sets up in the Groundwork. There, it seems, to act freely just is to act morally, and to act immorally is to be guided by natural impulse rather that by a freely chosen maxim. This interpretation motivates Henry Sidgwick's famous objection that, for Kant, one can essentially never be responsible for moral wrongdoing, since immorality occurs in just those moments when one is not free and could not have acted otherwise. A free will, on such an account, could not choose anything but the right course of action, since the moral law is the causal law of a free will. This suggests that when we "choose" the wrong course of action, we are not choosing at all, but rather simply being determined by our sensible nature.

Of course, given what I have already said about the connection between material principles and the principles of morality, we can see that this is not an entirely accurate portrayal of the relationship between inclination and morality in Kant. And it bears keeping in mind that Kant's stated aim in the Groundwork is to abstract from practical anthropology in order to locate the supreme principle of morality. The problem is not, in other words, that inclination always leads us afoul of the moral law, but rather that inclination cannot serve as the ground for a necessary and universal principle of morality. A second interpretation that reflects this observation argues that the formal principle of morality serves more or less as a kind of check on our inclinations; this interpretation acknowledges that we are constantly affected by our inclinations, and are, ideally at least, constantly comparing these against what the moral law requires of us. As Allen Wood puts it, "even when we act from sensuous motives, we do so as having the capacity to be moved by the a priori law of reason.... If our actions were sensuously necessitated, as by natural determinism, then it would follow that they are all performed from sensuous motives. The converse of this does not hold, however. Not every action performed from sensuous motives must be naturally necessitated." Such an interpretation is closely connected to Kant's later account of moral choice in the Religion, where he argues that instead of a series of choices between inclination and morality, moral agents actually make a fundamental choice to subordinate self-love to the moral law (or vice versa). Not only does this later account make sense of how it is possible for an agent to freely choose immorality, it also allows for a more plausible relationship of priority between freedom and inclination, as opposed to the relationship of opposition suggested by the first account.

All of this points to an important observation about Kant's account of human happiness—namely, that there is nothing in Kant's account to suggest that virtue and happiness are necessarily opposed to one another. Indeed, far from their being opposed to one another, we can begin to see just how closely the two are linked. It is our ability to set ends for ourselves that makes us worthy of moral consideration, and it is in fulfilling those ends that we are happy. Of course, we are by no means entitled to any end whatsoever, and it is our duty to revise our ends so that they can be consistent with the moral law. So as Kant puts it, the "distinction of the principle of happiness from that of morality is not, for this reason, at once an opposition between them, and pure practical reason does not require that one should renounce claims to happiness but only that as soon as duty is in question once should take no account of them."


Excerpted from COMMUNITY and PROGRESS IN KANT'S MORAL PHILOSOPHY by Kate A. Moran Copyright © 2012 by The Catholic University of America Press. Excerpted by permission of The Catholic University of America Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. Kant's Concept of the Highest Good....................25
2. Moral Action and Moral Development: The Mechanisms of Progress....................98
3. Moral Education and Moral Progress....................127
4. Friendship and Moral Improvement....................168
5. Civil Society and the Highest Good....................204
Concluding Remarks....................241

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews