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§3. The Highest Good as Object of the Moral Law

§3. The Highest Good as Object of the Moral Law

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Kant also uses a variant of this conception of the highest good, and the

two are distinct.

This variation may be seen as the highest good of a particular social

world. Consider in sequence the members of a social world and assign to

each an appropriate measure of achieved moral worth. Then the highest

good for this particular world is given by a sequence of degrees of happiness,

each degree of which is paired with the assigned measure of moral worth

of the corresponding member. In this conception, the principle of proportionality is still not specified, for we haven’t yet said how the measure of

happiness is determined. In addition, any such principle must be justified

within Kant’s framework.

Leaving aside how this can be done, we see that with this variation

there are as many different highest goods as there are possible sequences

of degrees of moral worth in particular social worlds. Since as reasonable

persons we have the power of free choice, the particular highest good of

our world is still to be determined, unless we believe with Origen that God

will somehow, in ways unknown to us but compatible with our freedom,

see to it that in due time everyone achieves a completely good will. Otherwise, the highest good of a world depends on what free persons actually

do and on the degree of moral worth they actually achieve.

. The relevance of these remarks is that both conceptions of the highest

good just noted—the full highest good and the highest good of a particular

social world—are, I think, inconsistent with Kant’s account of the moral

law. Kant doesn’t even try to show how these conceptions of the highest

good result from the moral law, and thus how either can be the a priori

object of a pure will. This omission is particularly noticeable in the case of

the highest good of a particular world, for here the principle of proportionality seems analogous to the idea of divine rewards and punishments, bringing

us into the realm of his Pietist theology.

This suggests that Kant has in mind an altogether different conception

of the basis of the highest good. I believe that section V of the Dialectic tells

us what it is, for it is here that he explains the grounds of the proportionality

between virtue and happiness. Kant says (KP :f.):

If we inquire into God’s final end in creating the world, we must not

name the happiness of rational beings in the world but the highest good,

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which adds a further condition to the wish of rational beings to be

happy, that is, the condition of being worthy of happiness, that is, the

morality of these beings; for this alone contains the standard by which

they can hope to participate in happiness at the hand of a wise creator.

For since wisdom . . . means the knowledge of the highest good, and practically, the suitability of the will to the highest good, one cannot ascribe to

a supreme independent wisdom an end based merely on benevolence.

For we cannot conceive the action of this [supreme] benevolence (with

respect to the happiness of rational beings) except as conformable to

the restrictive conditions of harmony with the holiness of His will as

the highest original good.

This passage tells us two things: first, that the highest good is God’s

final purpose in creating the world; and second, that the requirement that

happiness be proportional to virtue is necessary to make that highest good

fully harmonious with the holiness of God’s will as the highest source of


. Earlier in this section, Kant says the following (KP :): “The worth

of character completely in accordance with the moral law is infinite, because

all possible happiness in the judgment of a wise and omnipotent dispenser

[Austeiler] of happiness has no other limit than the lack of fitness of rational

beings to their duty.” This passage introduces a third idea: that God dispenses the greatest happiness to creatures as limited only by their virtue.

And this idea connects with a fourth idea met with before: namely, that

an impartial reason recommends that virtue be accompanied by happiness.

He says (KP :) that for the highest good “happiness is also required, and

indeed not merely in the partial eyes of a person who makes himself

his end but even in the judgment of an impartial reason, which impartially regards persons in the world as ends in themselves. For to be in

need of happiness and also worthy of it and yet not to partake of it

could not be in accordance with the complete volition of an omnipotent


Now we understand why happiness is to be proportioned to virtue in

the highest good. Since this good is the final end of God in creating the

world, it must contain as much happiness as the virtue of persons permits,

since God is good; yet it must not contain more, since God is holy and any

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greater happiness would not be in harmony with the holiness of God’s

will. We could say that, subject to virtue as a constraint, God as dispenser

maximizes happiness.1 So understood, the highest good is to the greatest

glory of God, for (KP :) “nothing glorifies God more than . . . the most

estimable thing in the world, namely, respect for His command, the observance of sacred duty which His law imposes on us, when there is added

to that [respect and observance] His glorious plan of crowning such an

excellent order with corresponding happiness.”

. The problem with this idea of the highest good is that the idea of

impartial reason is foreign to Kant’s constructivism. Further, the highest

good is incompatible with the idea of the realm of ends as the constructed

object of the moral law: it cannot be that constructed object, for there

is nothing in the CI-procedure that can generate precepts requiring us to

proportion happiness to virtue. Here I simply state this without argument.

Certainly that procedure, if at all adequate, will authorize penalties and

punishments of various kinds, as these are necessary, let’s assume, for a

stable social world. But it is another matter entirely for us to try to dispense

happiness in proportion to virtue.

For one thing, as Kant recognizes, it is simply not our business to judge

the overall moral character of others or to try to estimate their worthiness.

Moreover, given the great obscurity of our motives, which he also recognizes (Gr II:– [–]), a maxim at step () that presupposed such

knowledge, and led to the generalized precept to match happiness with

virtue, would not be rational (and so could not even start through the CIprocedure, much less be accepted): its rationality requires more knowledge

than we could ever expect to have. Only God can know these things, as

Kant implies in his argument for God’s existence as a necessary condition

of the possibility of the highest good (KP :f.). Recall also his saying there

that we cannot make perfectly just judgments of merit or guilt, since we

cannot know how much of a person’s empirical character is the effect of

freedom (KR Bn.). Matching happiness with virtue cannot, then, be part

1. I do not say that Kant consciously derived the idea of the highest good in this way, even

though it seems explicit in the cited passages. Had he done so, he would have seen that it is incompatible with the fact that the moral law is given first and the postulate of God is needed rather to

guarantee the possibility of its a priori object, which is already given prior to and independent of

the idea of God and cannot be derived from this idea.

[  ]

   

of the moral law as it applies to us by way of the categorical imperative

and the CI-procedure that interprets it for us.

It is for these reasons that, in my presentation of Kant’s doctrine, I use

the secular ideal of a possible realm of ends that can be (in good part)

realized in the natural world. I view the idea of the highest good as a Leibnizian element in Kant’s philosophical theology (as he recognizes [KR B])

which he never reworked so as to make it consistent with his moral philosophy. I call it Leibnizian since it rests on the idea that God would be acting

imperfectly if God’s object in creating the world was not the most perfect,

or the highest good as Kant defines it. Any other object would be incompatible with God’s goodness or with God’s holiness. The highest good is the

perfect maximum object identified by those two moral perfections.

§. The Postulates of Vernunftglaube

. I have reviewed the two conceptions of the a priori object of the moral

law since Kant does not expressly comment on the difference between

them. But which conception we use is of first importance because the postulates (the content) of Vernunftglaube depend on what that object is.2 In the

Dialectic, there are three such postulates: the beliefs in freedom, in God,

and in immortality. Kant thinks of them as theoretical positions inseparably

connected with the principles of pure practical reason (KP :). The inseparable connection arises because the postulates simply assert that the object

of the moral law is possible in the world. These beliefs we must affirm

when we act from the practical point of view; for unless we do, Kant thinks,

we cannot sensibly engage in practical reasoning or sustain over the course

of a complete life our devotion to the moral law. The reason is that doing

so presupposes that we believe that its a priori object can be realized, that

the conditions of its possibility actually obtain in the world. In his lectures

on religion, Kant says (Gesammelte Schriften :), “Without God I must

be either a scoundrel or a visionary.” What he means is that unless I believe

2. The main discussions of practical faith are these: first Critique, the Canon of Pure Reason,

B–; second Critique, the Dialectic, §§–; third Critique, §§–, –; “Was Heisst: Sich im

Denken Orientieren?” (); The Conflict of the Faculties (), Part I and the Appendix. See also

two letters to Lavater of April , in Zweig, Philosophical Correspondence, pp. –.

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in God (whose existence is a necessary condition of the highest good), either

I must abandon the moral law as hopelessly impracticable, in which case

I am a scoundrel, or else I persist in following the law anyway, in which

case I am a utopian visionary. Since reason excludes both, I must believe

in God. We affirm the beliefs necessary to hold law’s object before us as

a possible object of our devoted endeavor. Thus KR B: “Since the moral

precept is . . . my maxim (reason prescribing that it should be so), I inevitably believe in the existence of God and in a future life, and I am certain

that nothing can shake this belief, since my moral principles would thereby

be themselves overthrown, and I cannot disclaim them without becoming

abhorrent in my own eyes.”

. Now, if the object of the moral law is indeed the highest good, then

the postulate of God’s existence has a certain plausibility, whatever other

difficulties it may raise. (The postulate of immortality is more problematic

and I leave it aside here.) Kant’s view is that our human reason can conceive

of no other way by which the proportionality between virtue and happiness

can come about except as the work of an omniscient and omnipotent, and

morally perfect, author of the world. For it is God alone who can fully

discern our hearts and minds to the bottom and who can adjust our happiness accordingly.

Kant doesn’t claim that there is no other way in which this proportionality is possible; there well may be. But to sustain our devotion to the moral

law, we need to form a conception that we can understand of how the

highest good is possible. At this point, the need of our human reason can

decide the case, provided, as always, that theoretical reason has nothing to

say against it (KP :f., f.).

When the object of the moral law is the secular ideal of a possible realm

of ends, the basis for the postulates of God and immortality is far weaker.

However, the grounds for the postulate of transcendental freedom are the

same as before. We saw earlier (in Kant VIII §.) that this postulate has

a special place. For it is different from the beliefs in God and immortality,

as these beliefs guarantee the possibility of the object of the moral law when

that object is the highest good and ensure that we can fulfill that law’s


But the belief in freedom is more fundamental: it is a belief in the freedom, in the absolute spontaneity, of reason itself. It is the belief that reason

[  ]

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§3. The Highest Good as Object of the Moral Law

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