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Kant’s ethics has played a prominent role in discussions about the nature and scope of morality, moral obligation, and moral rightness since the publication of its first systematic expression in Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals in 1785. Although eclipsed in popularity by the utilitarian moral theory that flourished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Kant’s views have remained a constant source of inspiration and debate for contemporary moral and political theorists. By highlighting some of the most significant developments in the field of Kantian ethics during the past seventy years, this chapter aims to reaffirm Kant’s pride of place as one of the most influential moral theorists in the history of philosophy.
Over the course of this book, we have seen that the moral psychology central to Kant's theory of virtue marks a significant development in his ethical theory. In his foundational works concerning practical reason, the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals and the Critique of Practical Reason, Kant tends to characterize sensible feelings and inclinations as potential obstacles to moral action, at one point depicting inclination as “a natural and unconquerable aversion” to duty (Gr 4: 399; 55). From the perspective of the works in which he sets out the foundations of his moral theory grounded in pure practical reason alone, the prospect that Kant could assign a well-developed sensible nature a constructive role in virtue appears doubtful. Indeed, in these works, it looks as if all that is strictly required for Kantian moral character is rational self-constraint in conformity with the moral law, or doing one's duty from duty in the face of opposition from inclination. Yet, in his later and less familiar ethical works, including The Metaphysic of Morals, Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, and the lectures on ethics, Kant recognizes certain aesthetic dispositions that are natural to us as crucial for moral character, and he identifies feelings, desires, and interests that are shaped by reason as important in a virtuous life. On the full Kantian account of virtue that we have uncovered from these texts, it is evident that Kant does not reduce virtue to mere continence, as a number of his critics have claimed.
Anne Margaret Baxley offers a systematic interpretation of Kant's theory of virtue, whose most distinctive features have not been properly understood. She explores the rich moral psychology in Kant's later and less widely read works on ethics, and argues that the key to understanding his account of virtue is the concept of autocracy, a form of moral self-government in which reason rules over sensibility. Although certain aspects of Kant's theory bear comparison to more familiar Aristotelian claims about virtue, Baxley contends that its most important aspects combine to produce something different - a distinctively modern, egalitarian conception of virtue which is an important and overlooked alternative to the more traditional Greek views which have dominated contemporary virtue ethics.
Although the works containing Kant's theory of virtue have received increased attention lately, this theory of virtue has yet to receive the systematic interpretation and assessment that have been given to the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals and the Critique of Practical Reason. If we are interested in understanding Kant's considered views about moral character and the role of sensibility within morality, we need to uncover the full account of virtue and more expansive moral psychology found in his later and less familiar works, especially The Metaphysics of Morals, Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, and the lectures on ethics. As commentators have pointed out, in his theory of virtue, Kant explicitly claims that there are feelings and inclinations, like sympathy and love, that are important for good character and part of a life lived in accordance with the dictates of pure practical reason.
Of course, drawing attention to the fact that Kant has an account of moral character in which certain feelings and inclinations have positive moral value is not sufficient for showing that Kant has his own distinctive theory of virtue that we should find appealing. For that, we first need a detailed analysis of how Kant understands virtue as a character trait (what we can think of as Kant's conception of virtue as such).
Kant's views about moral and non-moral motivation in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals and the Critique of Practical Reason have been the basis for some of the most familiar objections to Kantian rationalism. In reply to these texts, historical and contemporary critics have objected to Kant's rigid moral psychology, which appears to deny sensibility any role in moral agency and to understand moral activity as a matter of rational conscience, not character, virtue, emotion, and desire. As readers of the Groundwork will recall, Kant begins his analysis of morality in that work by proclaiming that the good will is the only thing that is good without limitation (Gr 4: 393; 49). In explicating the special mode of volition that makes the good will absolutely good, Kant draws a sharp contrast between duty and inclination as two opposing sources of motivation for the human will, and insists that only action motivated from a sense of duty possesses genuine moral worth. In light of the connection Kant insists on between the good will and duty, it looks as if having a good will amounts to doing one's duty for the sake of duty, not from emotion or inclination. Kant famously contrasts action done from duty and action done from inclination in his illustrations of four kinds of conformity to duty.
In his theory of virtue, Kant emphasizes the fact that finite rational beings with sensibility are affected by principles of practical reason, and he explicitly includes feelings, desires, and interests that are shaped by reason as important ingredients in virtue. Kant identifies moral feeling, conscience, love for humanity, and self-respect as “moral endowments” that lie at the very basis of morality, as subjective conditions of moral agency that make us receptive to moral obligations (MS 6: 399; 528). In addition, he contends that love and respect are duties that we are enjoined to adopt, and portrays love and respect as morally valuable feelings that facilitate our ability to fulfill our duties of virtue. Furthermore, Kant insists that sympathy is a feeling implanted in us by nature that enables us to do what the mere thought of duty alone may not be able to accomplish (MS 6: 456–7; 574–5). Sympathy is important for virtue, because sympathy makes us sensitive to the joy and pain of others, and thereby provides us with the moral insight and knowledge we need in order to alleviate the suffering of our fellow human beings and promote their happiness. If these claims were not sufficient to indicate that the moral psychology at the heart of Kant's considered account of moral character marks a significant development in his ethics, we should note that the temperament of Kantian virtue is not sullen and morose, for, as Kant describes her, the genuinely virtuous person desires to act as reason dictates and takes satisfaction and pleasure in virtuous activity.
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.
Kant's views about moral and non-moral motivation in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals and the Critique of Practical Reason have been the basis for some of the most familiar criticisms of Kant's rationalism. On the basis of these texts, historical and contemporary critics of Kant's ethics have objected to his rigid moral psychology, which appears to ground moral duty in a thin conception of rational agency, making moral activity a matter of rational conscience, rather than a matter of character, virtue, emotion, and desire. Given their role within the foundations of Kant's moral theory, these views about the good will, moral worth, and duty will be important components in any attempt to reconstruct a complete Kantian account of virtue. In addition to motivating and structuring an examination of Kant's later and less familiar texts, which articulate a theory of virtue that accords moral value to a range of feelings, desires, and dispositions connected with sensibility, these doctrines may also constrain the details of Kant's moral psychology as elaborated in his theory of virtue, at least on an interpretation that seeks to preserve consistency across Kant's texts. After looking at the details of Kant's account of the good will and his well-known examples of acting from duty in Groundwork I, we consider four distinct worries about Kant's rationalist moral psychology.
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