Autonomy and the highest good

Kantian Review 10:33-59 (2005)


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.

Download options


    Upload a copy of this work     Papers currently archived: 72,856

External links

Setup an account with your affiliations in order to access resources via your University's proxy server

Through your library


Added to PP

258 (#44,010)

6 months
2 (#257,750)

Historical graph of downloads
How can I increase my downloads?

Author's Profile

Lara Denis
Agnes Scott College

Citations of this work

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.
How a Kantian Ideal Can Be Practical.Alexander T. Englert - 2022 - Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 65.
The Concept of the Highest Good in Kierkegaard and Kant.Roe Fremstedal - 2011 - International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 69 (3):155-171.
The Highest Good and Kant's Proof(s) of God's Existence.Courtney Fugate - 2014 - History of Philosophy Quarterly 31 (2).

View all 11 citations / Add more citations

Similar books and articles