Skip to main content Accessibility help

Individual and Collective Flourishing in Kant's Philosophy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 March 2011

Lara Denis
Agnes Scott College, Decatur


In ‘Happiness and Human Flourishing’, Thomas E. Hill, Jr, contrasts Kant's notion of happiness with that of human flourishing, explains the role of happiness in Kant's ethics, and suggests some reasons why Kant portrays happiness rather than flourishing as the non-moral good of the individual. While there is much I agree with in Hill's essay, I disagree with Hill on how best to conceive of human flourishing in Kant's philosophy, and on the importance of human flourishing in Kant's ethics. Comparing my views with Hill's is not what chiefly interests me, however. After section 1, I make little explicit reference to ‘Happiness and Human Flourishing’. Instead, I seek to expand the discussion begun there by Hill of ‘how happiness and human flourishing are (or are not) relevant to [Kantian] ethics’ (HHF 164).

Copyright © Kantian Review 2008

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below.


1 Chapter 6 of Human Welfare and Moral Worth: Kantian Perspectives (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), abbreviated as ‘HHF’.Google Scholar

2 As I explain in section 4, although all duties within Kant's system are relevant in this regard, duties to oneself are most important.

3 Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Terence Irwin (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1999, 2nd edn), abbreviated as ‘NE’. There is divergence among scholars regarding whether ‘human flourishing’ or ‘happiness’ is the preferable translation of eudaimonia. See, for example, Cooper, John, Reason and the Human Good in Aristotle (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975), chapter 3, esp. pp. 8990Google Scholar, n. 1; and Annas, Julia, The Morality of Happiness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 453.1Google Scholar translate eudaimonia as ‘human flourishing’ mainly because it aligns better with the Kantian conceptions of human flourishing I am developing than with Kant's notion of happiness (Glückseligkeit).

4 I use the following translations and abbreviations. Page numbers for Ant, C, G, KpV, KU, M, MS, SF, TP, Wh, V, VpR and ZeF refer to the Prussian Academy Edition of Kant's works (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1902–)Google Scholar and are presented in volume:page format; page numbers for KrV are presented in A (first edition page number)/B (second edition page number) format; and page numbers for Conj, Ed, Idea and RH refer to the English translation listed below. Ant: Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, trans, and ed. Gregor, Mary J. (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1974)Google Scholar; C: Collins lecture notes in Lectures on Ethics, ed. Heath, Peter and Schneewind, J. B., trans. Peter Heath (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)Google Scholar; Conj: ‘Conjectures on the beginning of human history’, in Political Writings, trans. Nisbet, H. B., ed. Reiss, Hans (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, 2nd edn)Google Scholar; Ed: Education, trans. Churton, Annette (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960)Google Scholar; G: Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, in Practical Philosophy, trans, and ed. Gregor, Mary J. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)Google Scholar; Idea: ‘Idea for a universal history with a cosmopolitan purpose’, in Political Writings; KpV: Critique of Practical Reason, in Practical Philosophy; KrV: Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Smith, Norman Kemp (London: Macmillan and Company, 1963)Google Scholar; KU: The Critique of Judgment, trans. Pluhar, Werner S. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987)Google Scholar; M: Mrongovius lecture notes, in Lectures on Ethics; MS: Metaphysics of Morals, in Practical Philosophy; Rel.: Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, in Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason and Other Writings, ed. and trans. Wood, Allen and Giovanni, George di (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)Google Scholar; RH: ‘Reviews of Herder's ideas on the philosophy of the history of mankind’, in Practical Philosophy; SF: The Conflict of the Faculties, trans. Gregor, Mary J. and Anchor, Robert, in Religion and Rational Theology, ed. Wood, Allen W. and Geovani, George di (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)Google Scholar; TP: ‘On the common saying: That may be correct in theory, but it is of no use in practice’, in Practical Philosophy; Wh: ‘What does it mean to orient oneself in thinking?’, in Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason and Other Writings; V: Vigilantius lecture notes in Lectures on Ethics; VpR: ‘Lectures on the philosophical doctrine of religion’, trans. Allen W. Wood, in Religion and Rational Theology; and ZeF: ‘Toward perpetual peace’, in Practical Philosophy.

5 Of course, Kant has plenty of critical things to say about eudaimonistic ethics (e.g. KpV 5: 24–25, 126–27). See Irwin, T. H., ‘Kant's criticisms of eudaemonism’, in Engstrom, Stephen and Whiting, Jennifer (eds), Aristotle, Kant, and the Stoics: Rethinking Happiness and Duty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). I say more about Kant's ethics and Aristotelian eudaimonism in ‘A Kantian conception of human flourishing’ (forthcoming in Perfecting Virtue: New Essays on Kantian Ethics and Virtue Ethics, ed. Lawrence Jost and Julian Wuerth).Google Scholar

6 Hill also says, ‘it is an open question whether our having a Kantian good will is conducive to human flourishing’ (HHF 192). It is unobjectionable, prior to seeing what Kant has to say about human perfection or self-development, not to assume that having a good will is conducive to human flourishing. But Hill assumes that ideals of human flourishing in Kant must be non-moral.

7 Hill mentions this conception very briefly at the end of his essay (HHF 200).

8 Some important discussions of the highest good are Eckart Förster, Kant's Final Synthesis: An Essay on the Opus Postumum (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000)Google Scholar, esp. chapter 5; Guyer, , Kant's System of Nature and Freedom: Selected Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)Google Scholar, esp. chapter 11; Engstrom, Stephen, ‘The concept of the highest good in Kant's moral theoryrsquo;, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 52 (4) (1992), 749–80Google Scholar; and Reath, Andrews, ‘Two conceptions of the highest good in Kant’, Journal of the History of Philosophy, 26 (4) (1988), 593619.Google Scholar

9 As I explain in section 3, the realization of the highest good in a person is best understood as occurring within the realization of the highest good of a possible world.

10 By contrast, Kant often describes virtue as a power or capacity, e.g. as ‘the moral strength of a human being's will in fulfilling his duty’ (MS 6: 405). For more on the various strands of Kant's account of virtue, see my ‘Kant's conception of virtue’, in The Cambridge Companion to Kant and Modern Philosophy, ed. Guyer, Paul (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), esp. pp. 510–13.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

11 The reshaping of happiness within the highest good helps explain why happiness as part of the highest good is not an end that reason is poorly suited to pursue or that we cannot rationally seek within nature (as Kant suggests regarding personal conceptions of happiness in, for example, G 4: 395–96 and KU 5: 430). Also helpful is that the happiness we pursue within the highest good of a possible world is universal happiness, within which our own happiness is shaped so as to harmonize with permissible ends of others, is advanced as part of universal happiness, and is pursued not only through our own agency but also through that of others. Guyer discusses apparent tensions within the third Critique between claims about personal happiness and happiness within the highest good in Kant's System of Nature and Freedom, pp. 334–5.

12 Some of these suggestions raise questions about the nature and limits of moral motivation in human agents. I discuss some of these questions in Autonomy and the highest good’, Kantian Review, 10 (2005), 3359.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

13 See ‘Happiness and the highest good in Aristotle and Kant’, in Aristotle, Kant, and the Stoics, esp. pp. 127–8.

14 I thank an anonymous referee for the Kantian Review for raising this objection.

15 On the highest good and Kant's postulates, see Wood, Allen, Kant's Moral Religion (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1970).Google Scholar For concerns about Kant's use of holiness in his argument for the postulate of immortality, see Guyer, , Kant on Freedom, Law, and Happiness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) esp. pp. 350–2.Google Scholar

16 On the ideal of holiness, see Allison, Henry E., Kant's Theory of Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), esp. pp. 171–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

17 Only God can accurately and fully judge the purity of our disposition, let alone make the world such that we enjoy happiness proportionate to it as a consequence of it (KpV 5: 123–6; MS 6: 392–3; Rel. 6: 51, 66–7). Moreover, to deprive ourselves of permissible happiness on account of a sense of unworthiness is contrary to self-respect as well as to rational self-love; the proper response is to enjoy it and to strive for greater moral self-improvement (KpV5: 73; Rel. 6: 23–4 n; MS 6: 441, 447).

18 This is a theme in Guyer, Kant's System of Nature and Freedom, esp. chapter 11.

19 See, for example, Garve, Christian, Versuche über verschiedene Gegenstände aus der Moral und Literatur (Breslau, 1792), part 1, pp. 111–16Google Scholar; and Beck, Lewis White, A Commentary on Kant's “Critique of Practical Reason” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), esp. pp. 242–4.Google Scholar

20 See Guyer, , Kant on Freedom, Law, and Happiness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), chapters 10 and 11, especially pp. 339–45 and 383–8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

21 Kant often suggests that our promotion of the highest good through moral conduct does not necessitate adopting the highest good as a distinct end. See KU 5: 451; Rel. 6: 5; cf. Rel. 6: 97–98, 151; TP 8: 279.

22 Kant describes as ‘a symbolic representation aimed merely at stimulating greater hope and courage in achieving [the highest good as the Kingdom of God o n earth]’ the highest good in so far as it and its realization are depicted within the Christian prophecy of the earth's transformation upon the second coming of Jesus Christ (Rel. 6: 134). Kant states:

This representation in a historical narrative of the future world, which is not itself in history, is a beautiful ideal of the moral world-epoch brought about by the introduction of the true universal religion and foreseen in faith in its completion - one which we do not see directly in the manner of an empirical completion but have a glimpse of in the continuous advance and approximation towards the highest good possible on earth (in this there is nothing mystical but everything proceeds naturally in a moral way), i.e., we can make preparation for it. (Rel. 6: 135–6).

Thus, even in his most specifically Christian depictions of the highest good, which give Jesus Christ a significant role to play in the full realization of it, Kant says that we can approximate and promote t he highest good through how we live now. On symbolic representation, see Bielefeldt, Heiner, Symbolic Representation in Kant's Practical Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)Google Scholar; parts six and seven pertain to symbolic representation in Kant's philosophy of nature, history and religion. On the highest good as an end to be fully realized on the earth as transformed by God at the second coming, see Beiser, Frederick C., ‘Moral faith and the highest good’, in The Cambridge Companion to Kant and Modem Philosophy, ed. Guyer, Paul (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), esp. pp. 599604.Google Scholar

23 One of the few places in which Kant attaches the label ‘eudaimonistic’ to a view towards which he is friendly is in The Conflict of the Faculties, ‘an old question raised again: is the human race constantly progressing?’, where Kant contrasts ‘the eudaimonistic manner of representing human history’, according to which the human race is progressing from worse to better, with both the ‘terroristic manner’, according to which it is deteriorating, and the ‘abderitist hypothesis’, according to which it perpetually cycles from worse to better to worse again (SF 7: 81–2). Kant argues that the human race is progressing, but denies both that this progress entails an increase in our basic moral capacities and that we can prove such progress empirically.

24 Thanks to Allen Wood for urging me to clarify this point. For discussion of human nature, human capacities and human progress, see Wood, , Kant's Ethical Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)Google Scholar, chapters 6 and 7; Wood, ‘Kant and the problem of human nature’, in Jacobs, Brian and Kain, Patrick (eds), Essays on Kant's Anthropology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)Google Scholar; and Lindstedt, David, ‘Kant: Progress in universal history as a postulate of practical reason’, Kant-Studien, 90 (1999), 129–47.Google Scholar

25 Sharon Anderson-Gold makes the point that, in terms of understanding history alone, it is only a reflective ideal, not a regulative one, because it does not guide practice. See Unnecessary Evil: History and Moral Progress in the Philosophy of lmmanuel Kant (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2001), p. 74.Google Scholar

26 Kant initially identifies the final end with the good will, the freedom of the human being's power of desire, or the human being under moral laws (KU 5: 443–5,448–9 n), but goes on to identify it with the most comprehensive end towards which morality points and of which morality is the primary constituent, the highest good (KU 5: 450, 451, 453; and see KpV 5: 109–10).

27 My interpretation here roughly follows that of Wood in Kant's Ethical Thought, pp. 309–11. For a compelling interpretation according to which the culture of discipline is the ultimate end of nature see Guyer, , Kant (New York: Routledge, 2006), pp. 349–54.Google Scholar

28 He also says that our nature is such that our path to social concord is social discord (including inequalities within societies and wars between nations); see Idea pp. 47–9; TP 8: 310–12; ZeF 8: 360–2, 365; KU 5: 432–3.

29 Indeed, Kant depicts much of human progress as resulting from nature or providence rather than human choice - let alone morally motivated human choice (see, for example, TP 8: 309).

30 I consider apparently troubling aspects of this in section 4.2.

31 Hill acknowledges in a footnote that, through duties to oneself, Kant ‘makes room in his moral theory to affirm aspects of [the ideal of human flourishing] as requirements of reason’ (HHF 194, n 60).

32 Hill remarks that, through perfect duties t o oneself, ‘Kant treats certain aspects of “human flourishing” as matters that it is morally impermissible to ignore or neglect’ (HHF 194, n 60).

33 Moreover, in describing the duty to cultivate our powers, faculties, capacities, and natural predispositions, Kant says, ‘the highest [of these] is understanding, the faculty of concepts and so too of those concepts that have to do with duty’ (MS 6: 387).

34 There has been much debate regarding how to interpret the claims in NE X in which Aristotle appears not merely to give study a dominant role within human flourishing, but rather to identify study with flourishing. See Kraut, Richard, Aristotle on the Human Good (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989)Google Scholar; Lear, Gabriel Richardson, Happy Lives and the Highest Good: An Essay on Aristotle's “Nicomachean Ethics” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004)Google Scholar; Cooper, Reason and the Human Good in Aristotle, chapters 2–3; and Whiting, Jennifer, ‘Human nature and intellectualism in Aristotle’, Archiv fur Geschichte der Philosophic, 68 (1986), 70–95.Google Scholar

35 Some other ways that we can put others in a good position to flourish are through education (Ed pp. 1–8, 20; G 4: 415), just political frameworks (Idea p. 45–9; TP 8: 289–90; ZeF 8: 349–51, 354, 385–6), and moral friendship (MS 6: 469–72; C 27: 429; V 27: 675, 680).

36 See my Moral Self-Regard: Duties to Oneself in Kant's Moral Theory (New York: Garland Publishing, 2001).Google Scholar

37 In some of Kant's discussions of these issues he emphasizes the conflict between animality and humanity (and prudence) rather than animality and personality (and morality). Kant also suggests that failure to discipline our animal nature and to rationally govern our pursuit of the ends we associate with its impulses, feelings and drives can lead to the frustration of those impulses, feelings and drives rather than to their satisfaction. See, for example, his discussion of the affects of anger and shame in Ant 7: 260.

38 Indeed, while recognizing the risks of self-degradation associated with the sexual impulse, Kant remarks: ‘a person who did not have this impulse would be an imperfect individual, in that one would have to believe that he lacked the necessary organs, which would be an imperfection on his part as a human being’ (V 27: 385).

39 Kant, however, expresses frustration with the slow pace of this progress - that is, with the brevity of human life, and with the fact that each member of succeeding generations must learn so much of what is already known before he can move beyond it. See Conj p. 228; C 27: 461–2.

40 There are other considerations that help to ease the tension but that do not pertain so directly to duties to oneself. See Guyer, Kant on Freedom, Law, and Happiness, chapter 11. Guyer argues that the ‘idea that our efforts at morality might bring more happiness to future generations than to ourselves is …certainly not incompatible with Kant's moral philosophy, but is a natural consequence of a synchronic interpretation of his ideas of a kingdom of ends and its realization in the form of the highest good’ (p. 380). Guyer reminds us that ‘the highest good is an ideal, a goal to which we must seek to make the sensible world conform, to which it must therefore be possible for the sensible world to conform, but to which the sensible world would actually conform only under ideal circumstances’ (p. 392).

41 Also see Anderson-Gold, Unnecessary Evil, pp. 48, 65.

42 Thanks to Roger Wertheimer, Allen Wood and anonymous referees for the Kantian Review for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper. This article began as a paper for a 2005 conference at the University of Minnesota in honour of Thomas E. Hill, Jr. I would like to thank Sarah Williams Holtman and Valerie Tiberius for inviting me to participate in that conference, and everyone who participated in the discussion period following my talk.

Full text views

Full text views reflects PDF downloads, PDFs sent to Google Drive, Dropbox and Kindle and HTML full text views.

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 88 *
View data table for this chart

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 25th January 2021. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Hostname: page-component-76cb886bbf-2crfx Total loading time: 0.27 Render date: 2021-01-25T04:50:37.891Z Query parameters: { "hasAccess": "0", "openAccess": "0", "isLogged": "0", "lang": "en" } Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "metricsAbstractViews": false, "figures": false, "newCiteModal": false }

Send article to Kindle

To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Individual and Collective Flourishing in Kant's Philosophy
Available formats

Send article to Dropbox

To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

Individual and Collective Flourishing in Kant's Philosophy
Available formats

Send article to Google Drive

To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

Individual and Collective Flourishing in Kant's Philosophy
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Your details

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *