Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Does Kantian Virtue Amount to More Than Continence?

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Does Kantian Virtue Amount to More Than Continence?

Article excerpt

AS IS WELL KNOWN, in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant begins his analysis of what he takes to be our shared, prephilosophical understanding of morality by insisting that the good will is the only thing in this world (and even beyond this world) that is good without limitation (ohne Einschrankung). (1) In accounting for the goodness of this will, Kant draws a sharp contrast between duty and inclination as the two competing sources of motivation for the human will, and claims that only action from duty possesses moral worth. Given this connection between the good will and duty, the picture seems to be that having a good will amounts to doing one's duty for the sake of duty, not from emotion or inclination. Kant famously contrasts action done from duty and action done from inclination in his discussion of four kinds of conformity to duty. Neither the prudent shopkeeper, who treats his customers fairly out of self-interest, nor the man of sympathy, who helps others out of a sense of sympathy, displays moral worth. By contrast, Kant finds moral worth in both the person who performs beneficent action even though his own sorrows have extinguished natural sympathy for others and in the person who performs beneficent action despite what might be characterized as a wholesale indifference to the sufferings of others. These two characters seem to be grudging moralists whose sense of duty either is sufficient in the absence of natural emotions and inclinations or must overcome countervailing emotions and inclinations. (2)

This account of the good will has struck many readers as counterintuitive. Whereas Kant seems to think that the person in whom a sense of duty must overcome indifference or contrary inclination can and does display a good will, our intuitions about human goodness suggest that there is something deficient or lacking in the grudging agent. Aristotle, for example, would think that the grudging moralist displays continence, rather than virtue, because he thinks it is the mark of the virtuous person that he does not experience a conflict between the rational and nonrational parts of the soul and that his emotions and appetites harmonize with rational judgments.

Such doubts about the moral psychology of the Groundwork and the Critique of Practical Reason motivate and structure an examination of Kant's later and less familiar ethical texts, which appear to articulate a full conception of virtue and a more robust moral psychology. (3) Yet the prospect for reconstructing a Kantian account of virtue from these texts that assigns moral value to emotions and inclinations appears bleak when we see that Kant conceives of virtue as moral strength of will over recalcitrant inclinations and characterizes virtue in terms of the autocracy of pure practical reason. This conception of virtue in terms of self-rule over one's sensuous nature initially reinforces, rather than resolves, familiar criticisms of Kant's rationalism.

The aim of this paper is to show that the self-mastery constitutive of Kantian virtue requires not only the regulation, but also the cultivation, of one's sensible nature according to reason; this means that certain states rooted (at least in part) in the affective and conative side of human nature play an important role within Kant's account of virtue. The paper is divided into four sections. After analyzing Kant's conception of autocracy and its relation to autonomy (section 1), section 2 investigates the worry that autocracy is a repressive form of self-governance. Section 3 introduces the resources and subtleties in Kant's doctrines that make room for his positive account of the role emotions and appetites play within virtue. This constructive role sensibility plays within virtue is set out in (some) detail in section 4.


Kant's Conception of Virtue as Autocracy. Kant's most extended discussion of virtue as a character trait appears in The Doctrine of Virtue. …

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