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Kant’s coherent theory of the highest good


In the second Critique, Kant argues that for the highest good to be possible we need to postulate the existence of God and the immortality of the soul in a future world. In his other writings, however, he suggests that the highest good is attainable through mere human agency in this world. Based on the apparent incoherence between these texts, Andrews Reath, among others, argues that Kant’s texts reveal two competing conceptions of the highest good, namely a secular and a theological conception. In this paper, I argue that Kant has a coherent conception of the highest good which applies to two different domains, namely the domain of the individual humans and the domain of the human species.

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  1. I have used the translations in the Cambridge Editions of the Works of Immanuel Kant in Translation. The abbreviations of Kant’s works are as follows: CPR: Critique of Pure Reason; CPrR: Critique of Practical Reason; CJ: Critique of the Power of Judgment; G: Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals; LE: Lecture on Ethics; MM: Metaphysics of Morals.

  2. Lewis White Beck defends the deflationary account of the highest good. Following Beck, Thomas Auxter, Jeffrie Murphy, Yirmiyahu Yovel, Lance Simmons and Eckart Förster, also argue that Kant’s conception of the highest good is problematic for the following reasons: (1) it leads to heteronomy; (2) given that we cannot know who is truly virtuous we and that happiness is a relative matter, we cannot really promote the highest good; (3) it does not stipulate any new duties, therefore it is not really relevant to ethical considerations and dispensable.

  3. John R. Silber, John Rawls and Andrews Reath attempt to dissolve the inconsistency this way.

  4. Reath is not the only commentator who attributes two senses to Kant’s conception of the highest good. In his influential paper, ‘Kant’s Conception of the Highest Good as Immanent and Transcendent,’ John Silber also argues Kant’s conception of the highest good has both the immanent and the transcendent use. On Silber’s account, the highest good is immanent in that we are morally obligated to promote it as far as it lies within our power to do so (1959, p. 478). Hence, when Kant talks about the immanent sense of the highest good, he is talking about promoting the highest good in this world through the collaboration of people acting freely. According to Silber, since human capacity is not sufficient to bring about happiness proportionate to the worthiness to be happy, we cannot fully attain the highest good in this world. In this regard, the idea of the highest good or moral world is transcendent. For Silber, the transcendent highest good is a regulative ideal that sets a model or goal for our moral conduct (1959, p. 491). In Silber’s account, we are not morally obligated to attain the transcendent highest good (or moral world) in full, but only to promote it as much as we can. Others who argue that Kant’s conception of the highest good is not attainable, rather it can only be promoted include Jacqueline Mariña (2009), Roe Fremstedal (2011) and Ralf Bader (2015).

  5. Those who defend some version of a secular conception of the highest good include Thomas Auxter (1988), Rawls (2000), Gerald Barnes (1971), Steven G. Smith (1984), Andrews Reath (1988), Harry van der Linden (1988), Onora O’Neill (1997), John Rawls (2000) and Pauline Kleingeld (1995, 2016), Paul Guyer (2003, 2005). Contra the secularizers, those either completely deny the possibility of the secular conception of the highest good or argue for centrality of the theological conception of the highest good for Kant include Jacqueline Mariña (2009), Roe Fremstedal (2011), O’Connell (2012), Ralf Bader (2015).

  6. Like Reath, John Rawls argues that the apparent conflict in Kant’s texts arises from the conflation of the moral world and the highest good, which are, on his view, two distinct objects of the moral law. On Rawls’ reading, the idea of a moral world is a secular idea that is attainable in this world through the common will of the rational agents acting freely under the moral law (Lectures, p. 312). The conception of the highest good, on the other hand, which requires that happiness should be proportionate to virtue, according to Rawls, requires an omnipotent Will, so that it establishes causality between nature and morality.

  7. Kant makes the same point in the Groundwork (G, 4:438).

  8. For Kant’s account of transcendental freedom please refer to CPR A446/B474.

  9. According to O’Connell, the proportionality thesis means that people ought to be happy to the degree that they are virtuous and unhappy to the degree that they are vicious (O’Connell 2012, p. 258). Contra O’Connell, we should read the thesis to point out the causal connection between virtue and happiness only.

  10. As will be clear, while the moral law commands the individuals to act in a way that promotes the highest good in the world, it commands the human species (or the mankind [Menscheit]) to realize the highest good in the world.

  11. In the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant distinguishes two kinds of happiness, namely natural and moral happiness (MM 387). Based on the paralel distinction in the Lectures on Ethics (LE, 27:644), Fremstedal distinguishes happiness as a concept of nature [Glück] from bliss [Seligkeit] as a concept of freedom. Glückseligkeit, on his reading, is a bridge between nature and freedom (Fremstedal, 160). On his reading moral happiness or Glückseligkeit becomes identical with the highest good. Contra Fremstedal, I take the term Glückseligkeit to signify mere physical and sensual satisfaction and at best to mean a long lasting happiness as opposed to a mere gratification [Glück].

  12. The relevant part of the text in German reads as follows: “wie das Bewusstein dieses Vermögens einer reinen praktischen Vernunft durch Tat (die Tugend).”

  13. According to Ralf Bader, the requirement of there being a necessary connection between virtue and happiness undermines the secular accounts of the highest good, such as the one proposed by Reath (1988). Bader argues that in secular accounts of the highest good, the realization of the highest good is accidental and contingent. (Bader 2015, p. 5) That is why, he advocates the theological conception of the highest good and argues that the highest good is realized at the individual level not at the species level (Bader 2015, p. 6 footnote 9). Bader also thinks that the secular conception of the highest good is impossible.

  14. According to Henry Allison, one might think that “Gesinnung refers to the enduring character or disposition of an agent, which underlies and is reflected in particular choices” (Allison 1990, p. 136). In fact, one might equate it with the innate intelligible (noumenal) character that is responsible from our phenomenal actions. (Allison 1990, p. 137-38) However, as Allison points out this conception of an enduring and fixed (noumenal) character which determines the phenomenal actions is incompatible with Kant’s claims that (i) Gesinnung is freely chosen and (ii) Gesinnung can change. That is why Allison argues that by Gesinnung Kant means “an agent’s fundamental maxim with respect to the moral law”, which is both freely chosen and can change in time (Allison 1990, p. 140).

  15. For the purposes of this paper, it suffices to claim that reading of “Gesinnung as the entire set of an agent’s free actions is valid for Kant’s discussion in the second Critique only. I do not claim that Kant has a uniform conception of Gesinnung. In her paper “Kant’s Gesinnung” Julia Peters offers a reading that overlaps with mine. However, rather than the second Critique, she focuses on the passages from the Religion (Peters 2018, p. 511).

  16. Although he does not mention infinitesimals, Ralf Bader also explains how the endless progress of our immortal souls can achieve holiness in a similar fashion. For a detailed account of his explanation, see “Kant’s Theory of the Highest Good” in The Highest Good in Aristotle and Kant (2015).

  17. As Kant states in the Groundwork, while teleology allows us to judge nature as a system of ends and by doing so explains why certain contingent things exist, morality allows us to think of an ideal world which can be realized in the empirical world through human conduct (G, 4:436 n).

  18. When judged as individual organisms, objects have internal purposiveness; when judged to be a part of nature as an organism, however, each object has relative purposiveness (CJ, 20:251).

  19. In ‘The Concept of the Highest Good in Kant’s Moral Theory,’ Stephen Engstrom distinguishes two different standpoints to the highest good, namely the standpoint of an individual and the standpoint of a community. He argues that the difference between these standpoints “is due to the fact that, whereas individual morality leads to the idea of the highest good as its consequence, social morality takes this idea as its foundation’ (Engstrom, p. 777).


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I would like to thank Samuel Fleischacker, Daniel Sutherland, Sally Sedgwick, Julia Jorati, Krista Thomason, Brian Hutler, Charles Goldhaber, Jack Woods, Sandy Berkovski, Roxanne Jones, Caroline McKusick, Erturk Demirel and Berk Ozcangiller for their valuable comments on the earlier versions of this paper. Different versions of this paper was presented at Bilkent University, Bogazici University, METU, the Eastern APA and Kant Kongress in Oslo and I would like to thank the audience in these presentations for their helpful feedback.

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Correspondence to Saniye Vatansever.

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Vatansever, S. Kant’s coherent theory of the highest good. Int J Philos Relig 89, 263–283 (2021).

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  • Kant
  • The highest good
  • The moral world
  • God
  • Immortality of the soul
  • Freedom