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§3. The Highest Good as Object of the Moral Law
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,
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
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 Bn.). 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. –.
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