Kant’s Moral Theory and Demandingness


In this paper, I sketch a Kantian account of duties of rescue, which I take to be compatible with Kant’s theory. I argue that there is in fact no “trumping relation” between imperfect and perfect duties but merely that “latitude shrinks away” in certain circumstances. Against possible demandingness objections, I explain why Kant thought that imperfect duty must allow latitude for choice and argue that we must understand the necessary space for pursuing one’s own happiness as entailed by Kant’s justification of one’s duty to promote other’s happiness. Nevertheless, becoming worthy of happiness has always priority over one’s own happiness, even when circumstances are such that we cannot secure our own happiness without seriously neglecting more pressing needs of other persons. I conclude that Kant’s moral theory calls for complementation by the political and juridical domain. Implementing just political institutions and creating satisfactorily well-ordered societies create an external world which is friendlier to our attempts to reconcile moral integrity and a happy human life.

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  1. 1.

    Kant’s writings are cited according to the volume: page number of the Prussian Academy Edition of Kant’s Complete Works (1900-, Gesammelte Schriften, Ausgabe der Preußischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter). Unless otherwise stated, all translations have been taken from the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant, edited by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (Cambridge University Press, 1992-).

    I use the following abbreviations for the individual works cited:

    • -GMS Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (The Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals)

    • -KpV Kritik der praktischen Vernunft (Critique of Practical Reason).

    • -MS Die Metaphysik der Sitten (The Metaphysics of Morals)

  2. 2.

    The exception is wide duties of right, which cannot be externally enforced. See MS VI: 233.

  3. 3.

    See Mary Gregor 1963 p. 97.

  4. 4.

    Another way of talking about the adoption of a morally required end is to talk about the adoption of a maxim of promoting obligatory ends (as opposed to a maxim of indifference or of neglect of one’s natural talents). This is the way Kant formulates the first principle of ethics: act according to a maxim of ends (Maxime der Zwecke) which it can be a universal law for everyone to have (MS VI: 395). The maxim of ends of ethics is contrasted to the maxim of actions characteristic of the domain of right (Recht, cf. VI: 230 ll. 29–30).

  5. 5.

    Depending on the existing laws of a society I may be legally sanctioned for violating private property or contracts, even if addressing emergency situations.

  6. 6.

    I thank an anonymous referee for the BSET for this point.

  7. 7.

    For a discussion of the tension between positive laws and equity judgments in Kant’s legal theory see my “When the strictest Right is the greatest Wrong: Kant on Fairness”. Forthcoming in Estudos Kantianos, 1/2015.

  8. 8.

    H. J. Paton, The Categorical Imperative. A study in Kant’s Moral Philosophy, Mary Gregor, Laws of Freedom, Blackwell, 1963, and more recently Thomas E. Hill, “Meeting Needs and Doing Favours” In: Human Welfare and Moral Worth, Kantian Perspectives. Oxford University Press, 2002

  9. 9.

    Marcia Baron, Kantian Ethics almost without Apology, p. 37

  10. 10.

    Jens Timmermann, “Good but Not Required? Assessing the Demands of Kantian Ethics”. Journal of Moral Philosophy 2.1, 2005.

  11. 11.

    Timmermann, op. cit., p.23.

  12. 12.

    Marcia Baron, op. cit. p. 93.

  13. 13.

    Marcia Baron, op. cit. p. 100.

  14. 14.

    Cf. Thomas E. Hill, “Meeting Needs and Doing Favours” In: Human Welfare and Moral Worth, Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 209–210.

  15. 15.

    It can be argued that one’s happiness could coincide with the happiness of others. I would be pursuing my happiness in that I adopt the happiness of others as my end. Although this is possible, it is certainly not the case that one can completely reduce one’s own happiness to the happiness of others. This would mean either that the happiness of others would coincide with my conception of happiness or that my happiness could be reduced to mere moral self-approval. Kant seems to rule out the first option as a conceptual impossibility: if I pursue the happiness of others as my own conception of happiness, I am not adopting the moral end of beneficence, but merely taking the means to my own happiness. As for the second, Kant explicitly rules out the plausibility of reducing human happiness to mere moral self-approval (KpV V: 88).

  16. 16.

    Contra Hill, who assumed that by doing a certain amount of beneficent acts, the agent would accumulate a kind of moral “bonus” after which certain acts falling under the duty of beneficence would be considered supererogatory (although in a weak sense). The problem I see with this view is the assumption that one can reach the point of “having done enough”, even if temporarily. Thomas E. Hill, “Kant on imperfect duty and supererogation.” Kant Studien, 62 Vo. 1, 1971.

  17. 17.

    Barbara Herman, “The Scope of Moral Requirement.” In: Moral Literacy, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2007, p.221.

  18. 18.

    Kant is by no means saying that we should not care about our prudential interests when these do not collide with morality. Often, morality allows us to reconcile duty and prudential interests. For a discussion of the relationship between morality and prudence, see Pinheiro Walla (2013).

  19. 19.

    See Barbara Herman, 'Morality and Everyday Life’. Proceedings and Addresses of The American Philosophical Association 74:2 (2000), pp.29–45.


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  12. Walla AP (2013) “Wide duties of virtue and prudence in a footnote of the doctrine of virtue (VI: 433n.)” Annual Review of Law and Ethics / Jahrbuch für Recht und Ethik, Bd. 21

  13. Wilson C (1993) “On some alleged limitations to moral endeavor”. J Philos 90

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Previous versions of this paper have been presented at the workshop “The Limits of Duty”, University of Cambridge, Royal Institute of Philosophy annual conference on Supererogation, University College Dublin, Society for Applied Philosophy (SAP) annual conference and British Society for Ethical Theory Conference (BSET). I would like to thank my audiences in these conferences for their very helpful feedback, especially Claire Ben, Brian McElwee, David Heyd, David Miller and Fiona Woollard. I am immensely indebted to Marcia Baron’s very insightful comments on a draft of this paper.

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Correspondence to Alice Pinheiro Walla.

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Walla, A.P. Kant’s Moral Theory and Demandingness. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 18, 731–743 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10677-015-9600-x

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  • Immanuel kant
  • Imperfect duties
  • Beneficence
  • Perfect duties
  • Demandingness