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The Irreducible Importance of Religious Hope in Kant's Conception of the Highest Good

  • Christopher Insole (a1)

Kant is clear that the concept of the ‘highest good’ involves both a demand, that we follow the moral law, as well as a promise, that happiness will be the outcome of being moral. The latter element of the highest good has troubled commentators, who tend to find it metaphysically extravagant, involving, as it does, belief in God and an afterlife. Furthermore, it seems to threaten the moral purity that Kant demands: that we obey the moral law for its own sake, not out of interest in the consequences. Those commentators brave enough to tackle the issue look to the concept of the highest good either to add content to the moral law (Silber), or to provide rational motivation, in a way that does not violate moral purity (Beiser and Wood). I argue that such interpretations, although they may be plausible reconstructions, are unable to account for certain conceptual and textual problems. By placing Kant's thought against the background of medieval theology, I argue that the hope for the summum bonum is irreducibly important for Kant, even where its function is not that of providing the content or motivational force of the moral law. Kant is not only concerned with the shape of our duties and motivations, but the shape of the universe within which these emerge.

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1 Kant , Critique of Practical Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 92, 5:110. I give the reference to the standard German edition of Kant's works (volume and page number), which –except for the Critique of Pure Reason- is that issued by der Deutschen (formerly Koniglichen Preussichen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 29 vols. (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1902). The standard method of citing The Critique of Pure Reason is according to the page numbers of the first (A) and second (B) edition.

6 Kant , ‘Lectures on the Philosophical Doctrine of Religion’, pp.341451 in (trans.) and (ed.) Wood Allen W. and di Giovanni George, Religion and Rational Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 415–6, 28:1083–4.

9 For approaches that extricate or secularize Kant's conception of the highest good, see Rawls John, ‘Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory’, in The Journal of Philosophy 77 (1980), pp. 515–72; O'Neill OnoraKant on Reason and ReligionTanner Lectures on Human Values 18 (1997), pp. 267308; Velkley Richard, Freedom and the End of Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), pp. 152–3; Reath Andrew, ‘Two Conceptions of the Highest Good in Kant’, Journal of the History of Philosophy 26 (1988), pp. 593619, and Pogge Thomas, ‘Kant on Ends and the Meaning of Life’ in (eds.) Reath Andrew, Herman Barbara, and Korsgaard ChristineReclaiming the History of Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 361–87.

10 For Silber's thesis see: ‘The Importance of the Highest Good in Kant's Ethics’, Ethics 73 (1963), pp. 179–95; ‘The Copernican Revolution in Ethics: the Good Re-examined’, Kant-Studien 51 (1959), pp. 85–101, and ‘Kant's Conception of the Highest Good as Immanent and Transcendent’, The Philosophical Review, vol. 68, No.4 (October 1959), pp. 469–492. For the most recent contributions to this controversy see Marina Jacqueline, ‘Making Sense of Kant's Highest Good’, Kant-Studien 91 (2000), pp. 329–55, and Friedman R.Z., ‘The Importance and Function of Kant's Highest Good’, Journal of the History of Philosophy 22 (1984), pp. 325–42.

11 Beck Lewis White, A Commentary on Kant's Critique of Practical Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, Phoenix Books, 1960), p. 244–5. Beck's position is critiqued by Zeldin Mary-Barbara, ‘The Summum Bonum, the Moral Law and the Existence of God’, Kant-Studien 62 (1972), pp. 4354.

12 Auxter Thomas, ‘The Unimportance of Kant's Highest Good’, Journal of the History of Philosophy 17 (1979), pp. 121–34.

13 Murphy Jeffrie G., ‘The Highest Good as Content for Kant's Ethical Formalism’, Kant-Studien 56 (1966), pp. 102–10.

14 Ibid., p. 102.

15 Kant , ‘Lectures on the Philosophical Doctrine of Religion’, pp. 348–9, 28:1002.

17 Kant , Critique of Pure Reason, (trans.) and (ed.) Guyer Paul and Wood Allen W., (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), A813/B841, p. 681

18 Ibid., A805/B833, p. 677.

20 Ibid., A812/B840, p. 681.

21 Kant , ‘Moral Philosophy: Collins's lecture notes’, in (trans.) Heath Peter and (eds.) Heath Peter and Schneewind J.B., (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 37222, p. 65–6, 27:274.

22 Ibid., p. 97, 27:308.

25 Ibid., p. 117, 27:334.

26 Ibid., p. 99, 27:311.

28 Ibid., p. 103, 27:316.

29 Ibid., p. 99, 27:311.

30 Ibid., p. 100, 27:312.

32 Beiser Frederick, ‘Moral Faith and the Highest Good’ in (ed.) Guyer Paul, The Cambridge Companion to Kant and Modern Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 588629, p. 615.

33 Kant , Critique of Practical Reason, (ed.) Gregor Mary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 95, 5:113.

34 Ibid., p. 91, 5:109.

35 Ibid., p. 92, 5:109.

36 Ibid., p. 96, 5:115.

37 Ibid., p. 95, 5:114,

38 See Wood Allen, Kant's Moral Religion (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1970), chs. 1&5.

39 Kant , ‘Lectures on the Philosophical Doctrine of Religion’, p. 415, 28:1083.

40 Wood Allen, Kant's Moral Religion, p. 29.

43 Kant , Critique of Practical Reason, p. 119, 5:144.

45 Kant , ‘Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason’, (trans.) in Religion and Rational Theology, pp. 57216, p. 177n, 6:154.

46 Beiser , ‘Moral faith and the highest good’, p. 611, and Wood , ‘Rational Theology, moral faith, and religion’ in (ed.) Guyer Paul, The Cambridge Companion to Kant (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 394416, p. 405.

47 Kant , ‘Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason’, p. 57, 6:3–4.

48 Kant , Critique of the Power of Judgment, (ed.) Guyer Paul, (trans.) Guyer Paul and Matthews Eric, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 316–7, 5:451.

49 Ibid, p. 319, 5:453.

51 Kant , ‘Lectures on the philosophical doctrine of religion’, 28:1002–3, p. 349.

52 Freidman R.Z., ‘The Importance and Function of Kant's Highest Good’, p. 333.

53 Beiser , ‘Moral faith and the highest good’, pp. 607–8.

54 In broad terms this would be true of the most impressive contemporary Anglophone Kantian ethics: Korsgaard Christine, The Sources of Normativity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) and Creating the Kingdom of Ends (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); O'Neill Onora, Constructions of Reason: Explorations of Kant's Practical Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) and Allison Henry, Kant's Theory of Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

55 Aquinas , Summa Theologiae (henceforth ST); I use the Blackfriars edition (London: Eyre and Spottiswood, 1963–1969). All the references from the Summa Theologicae in this paper are from vol. 16 (Ia2ae. 1–5) (ed.) T. Gilby O.P (1968), and vol. 31 (2a2ae.1–7), (trans.) T.C. O'Brien. This reference is Ia2ae. 1,5.

56 ST, Ia2ae. 1,6.

57 ST, Ia2ae. 2,7.

58 ST, Ia2ae. 4,1.

59 ST, Ia2ae. 4,1.

60 Aquinas , Summa Contra Gentiles (SCG) (trans.) Bourke Vernon J., (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002), III.2, ch. 153.5, p. 239.

61 Kant , ‘Lectures on the philosophical doctrine of religion’, 28:1002–3, p. 349.

62 Kant's apparent equivocation about Spinoza in the Critique of Judgment, on the one hand praising his character, whilst on the hand giving warnings about the dangers of atheism, is one of the things that so irritates R.Z. Friedman about Kant's ‘inconsistent’ back-peddling from the necessity of belief in the highest good to moral motivation, ‘The Importance and Function of Kant's Highest Good’, pp. 331–335.

63 Beiser makes a similar effort to place Kant's concept in an appropriately theological context, in ‘Moral faith and the highest good’. Although Beiser's instinct is absolutely correct, I would suggest that his choice of the ‘Augustinian tradition’ (p. 599) is a less enriching vein to explore than the Thomistic-scholastic tradition, which Kant with his scholastic-rationalist background would have been closer to.

64 Kant , Critique of Practical Reason, p. 94, 5:112.

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