Immanuel Kant: The ‘Good Will’ Philosopher

Table of Contents

Immanuel Kant: The ‘Good Will’ Philosopher 

Virtue and the pursuit of happiness in Kant’s Philosophy – For Immanuel Kant, the ideal human state, the “highest good,” involves achieving both complete moral virtue and personal happiness. However, there’s a catch: these two goals don’t always seem to go hand-in-hand. In fact, sometimes doing the right thing comes at the expense of our happiness.

Virtue: The Essence of Morality

Of these two components, Kant places greater emphasis on virtue in his moral and political writings. His focus is on what individuals can do to cultivate a strong moral character. For Kant, a virtuous person possesses the strength to resist natural desires and act morally simply because it’s the right thing to do. This capacity for virtue is unique to humans. Our wills are influenced, but not dictated, by our bodily urges. This places us between non-rational animals, whose actions are driven by desires, and divine beings, whose actions are guided solely by reason.

Kant argues that human reason’s true purpose isn’t to make us happy but rather to make us worthy of happiness by helping us become virtuous.

Reason, Freedom, and the Moral Law

Morality, reason, and freedom are closely intertwined in Kant’s philosophy. A key requirement for morally commendable actions is that they are done freely. However, Kant’s concept of freedom might differ slightly from what we’re used to. An action is considered free if it stems from a principle, or “maxim,” generated by one’s own reason. Imagine this: you see a limping dog on the street.

If you decide to help the dog purely out of habit or because you fear social judgment if you walk by, your action isn’t truly free according to Kant. But, if you use your reason and choose to help because you believe it’s the right thing to do, respecting the dog’s well-being, then your action is considered free. If an individual is motivated by bodily desires, coercion, or ingrained habits, their actions aren’t considered free, and they wouldn’t be considered morally praiseworthy, even if they did the right thing by chance. For instance, someone might donate to charity only because they feel pressured by a friend, not out of a reasoned sense of helping others.

But simply acting freely isn’t enough for moral worth. The principles guiding our actions must be “right” – consistent with the moral law. Kant connects reason directly to moral law, arguing that we should “act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” This principle, the Categorical Imperative, is the ultimate test for moral principles. Any principle that can’t be universally applied is rejected.


The Challenge of Virtue

The virtuous person faces a double challenge. They must not only develop their reason to identify principles aligned with the Categorical Imperative but also consistently act on those principles. Kant believes that this development of reason occurs through education, which necessitates being part of a civil society. Living in an organized community provides the external conditions needed for fostering virtue. An individual constantly fearing violence or struggling to survive cannot act virtuously due to a lack of external freedom.

Once an individual has developed the ability to identify the right principles, the final step is acting upon them.

Self-Respect: The Internal Compass

Here, Kant introduces the concept of self-respect. He argues that the motivation to act morally must be internal. The greatest punishment for bad behavior, according to him, is feeling worthless in one’s own eyes. Thus, a virtuous person possesses the strength and self-respect to resist desires, freely adopt good principles, and then consistently act on them.

Virtue and Happiness: A Paradoxical Relationship

While virtue is one half of the highest good, happiness forms the other. Kant’s religious writings offer insights into how individuals can achieve both despite the apparent tension between these goals. His solution proposes that attaining the highest good is only possible if there exists a supreme creator who can guarantee the coexistence of virtue and happiness. Since we ought to strive for the highest good, our obligation implies its attainability, which is only possible if God exists and unites virtue and happiness. While the argument for aligning virtue and happiness might not resonate with everyone, Kant’s concept of the highest good is deeply connected to our dual nature as rational and emotional beings. According to Kant, reason, developed through living in a society with laws and morals, helps us understand what’s right and wrong. This is where the “virtue” part comes in. But to actually do the right thing, even when it’s difficult, we need something more. That’s where our inner strength and self-respect come in – the emotional side. It’s this combination of reason and emotion that allows us to pursue the “highest good” – a life of virtue that ultimately leads to a deeper kind of happiness. – Richard Uzelac



Table of Contents

Blog Categories