Autonomy and the highest good

Kantian Review 10:33-59 (2005)

Lara Denis
Agnes Scott College
Kant’s ethics conceives of rational beings as autonomous–capable of legislating the moral law, and of motivating themselves to act out of respect for that law. Kant’s ethics also includes a notion of the highest good, the union of virtue with happiness proportional to, and consequent on, virtue. According to Kant, morality sets forth the highest good as an object of the totality of all things good as ends. Much about Kant’s conception of the highest good is controversial. This paper focuses on the apparent conflict between Kant’s claim that we are autonomous, and passages in which he seems to suggest that we require belief in the possibility of the highest good to motivate moral action. I distinguish three distinct versions of these problematic claims that seem to be present in Kant’s texts: that the highest good serves as (1) a motivational supplement to respect for the moral law, (2) a fundamental spring of right action, and (3) a condition of the bindingness of moral requirements. I argue that the texts are better interpreted to yield alternatives to (2) and (3) that do not conflict with our autonomy. I also argue that, properly understood, (1) does not conflict with our autonomy. In arguing for the last claim, I explore Kant’s notion of radical evil and its implications for human agency and virtue.
Keywords Kantian ethics  autonomy  highest good  moral motivation
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DOI 10.1017/S1369415400002120
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References found in this work BETA

Kant’s Ethical Thought.Allen W. Wood - 1999 - Cambridge University Press.
The Practice of Moral Judgment.Barbara Herman - 1993 - Ethics 106 (2):404-423.
The Practice of Moral Judgment.Barbara Herman - 1985 - Journal of Philosophy 82 (8):414-436.
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Citations of this work BETA

Restoring Kant's Conception of the Highest Good.Lawrence Pasternack - 2017 - Journal of the History of Philosophy 55 (3):435-468.
Why Does Kant Think We Must Believe in the Immortal Soul?Jessica Tizzard - 2020 - Canadian Journal of Philosophy 50 (1):114-129.
The Concept of the Highest Good in Kierkegaard and Kant.Roe Fremstedal - 2011 - International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 69 (3):155-171.

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