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Rhetoric and Moral Progress in Kant's Ethical Community

From: Philosophy and Rhetoric
Volume 38, Number 4, 2005
pp. 328-354 | 10.1353/par.2006.0003

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Rhetoric and Moral Progress in Kant’s Ethical Community

One of Kant's earliest critical characterizations of the ideal community of moral agents comes in the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (GMM, 1785)1 as a system of agents holding ends that are in harmony with those of each other. This is the ideal situation of a multitude of moral agents acting in accord with duty from the internal incentive of duty itself (i.e., from respect for the moral law), and is called here the "Kingdom [Reich] of Ends" (GMM 4:433). While Kant explains the nature and derivation of the criterion of morality in the GMM, he does little to explain how one is to encourage the using of the idea of duty as incentive by other agents. Thus, similar to his earlier pronouncement in the Critique of Pure Reason (CPR, 1781/1787, A810/B838),2 Kant makes the tentative claim in the GMM that the kingdom of ends would result if all were to act from respect for the moral law, but that such universal compliance is not to be expected or forced (4:438). How does this community of morally cultivated humans come about? That question perplexed Kant, and is one he tried to address in a variety of ways in his later ethical, aesthetic, and political writings. The fundamental dilemma he faces, of course, is grounded on the fact that such uniform moral development cannot be forced from the outside (by other agents), since this would violate a key notion of his conception of autonomy—that an agent's perfection integrally involves her choosing such perfection. This is a point he makes with clarity in the Metaphysics of Morals (MM, 1797),3 where he argues that forcing an agent to "freely" set an end of perfecting her will is an open contradiction (MM 6:386–87), and cannot be a morally satisfactory way of acting for the improvement of a fellow moral agent. Thus, Kant seems caught between a mere hope that agents will individually choose to improve themselves and the realization that force cannot be applied to the "self" perfection of agents. The fundamental question becomes, is there a role for community in the process of creating [End Page 328] an aggregate of ideally virtuous agents, or is it merely consigned to the endpoint of practical activity?

I will argue that Kant does have a role for community (and rhetorical practice within it) to play in the development of individuals as moral agents. A cursory reading of Kant's political philosophy shows that he does specify the utility and moral worth of certain forms of association, but the more difficult part will be enunciating a rich notion that highlights the "forces" at work in encouraging individuals to moral development. While external force is applicable in regard to the merely external use of freedom of individuals, it remains to be seen how other types of force can be brought to bear without violating the Kantian strictures of autonomous individual development and action. I will argue here that an important tool that Kant intimates for this is rhetoric, and elsewhere I have argued for similar employments of aesthetic and ritual means to help individuals along the path to moral cultivation (Stroud 2003; 2005). All of these ways are methods by which individuals interact in a community to further convince themselves and others of their moral vocation—willing maxims in a way harmonious with the ends and maxims of others. This is the ultimate point of Kant's idea of the Kingdom of Ends, and I will argue that a Kantian notion of rhetoric, through its use of morally imbued religious subject matter, is a key means to instantiate conditions that come closer to such an ideal community.

Interestingly enough, Robert J. Dostal's examination of rhetoric in Kant's system highlights the problems Kant has with rhetoric qua manipulation, and ends by claiming that Kant's "hope for politics is a moral citizenry," one that "cannot be answered in the politics or history—in the polis" (Dostal 1980, 239). He invokes a quotation from Kant's Religion within the Boundaries of mere...