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  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: December 2010

3 - Virtue, human nature, and moral health: Kant's dispute with Schiller


In his famous epigram, Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805), the great German poet, dramatist, and philosopher, captures what many readers have found counterintuitive about Kant's account of moral motivation in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, when he suggests that the Kantian moral agent must try to despise her friends and help them from duty alone, if her beneficence is to have genuine moral worth and express a good will. These joking lines, which we considered in Chapter 1, represent one natural line of criticism of Kant's account of acting from duty as it appears in Section I of the Groundwork. It would be unfortunate, however, if Schiller's well-known satire were mistaken for his considered interpretation and assessment of Kant's ethics. In “On Grace and Dignity,” his lengthy essay of 1793 that blends aesthetic and moral themes in novel ways, Schiller sets out a more subtle, far-reaching challenge to Kant, when he argues that genuine virtue requires cultivating sensibility to harmonize with reason and that the fully virtuous person takes pleasure in moral action, without experiencing moral laws as categorical imperatives. As Schiller sees it, sensibility must play a necessary, constructive role in virtue, and he takes this to imply that the good-willed Kantian agent, the person who does her duty from duty without wanting to act as morality dictates, fails to demonstrate all that is required for a truly good moral character.

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