- The Virtues of Kantian Ethics
While many philosophers still know Kant’s ethics primarily from Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, and perhaps the Critique of Practical Reason, recent scholarship has shown that to truly understand his moral philosophy we must widen our perspective to include the full range of his ethical writings, including the Metaphysics of Morals, the Religionschrift, his lectures on ethics, and various essays on politics and history (e.g., “Conjectures on the Beginning of Human History”). A new monograph by Anne Margaret Baxley and a new collection of essays edited by Lara Denis show, in different ways, the philosophical value of expanding and [End Page 312] enriching our understanding of Kant as a moral philosopher.
In the first section of Groundwork Kant distinguishes between actions done in conformity with the moral law [pflichtmässig] and actions motivated by recognition that they are required by the moral law [aus Pflicht], claiming that only actions of the latter kind have “moral worth.” It might seem, then, that for Kant the moral ideal for human beings is to be unencumbered by any affective or emotional states that might interfere with direct motivation by respect for the moral law itself, an implausibly austere conception of human moral life. This austerity is thrown into sharp relief by contrasting Kant’s conception with the Aristotelian view. Kant’s ideal moral agent—motivated solely by the moral law, rather than by sensible inclinations that pull him in the opposite direction—seems to correspond to what Aristotle calls the “continent” person in Book 7 of the Nicomachean Ethics, one who faces significant temptation to perform nonvirtuous action but resists it. For Aristotle, the continent person is second best compared to the virtuous person, in whom the rational and nonrational parts of the soul are in harmony. Surely, goes the objection, it would be better to have full Aristotelian virtue than mere Kantian continence.
In her new book Anne Margaret Baxley convincingly answers this objection by uncovering Kant’s true theory of virtue and showing that it is morally superior to mere continence. In the first chapter, Baxley lays out a clear and convincing interpretation of the first section of the Groundwork that highlights the apparent problems in Kant’s theory. She then discusses several objections to Kant’s theory that have been raised in contemporary normative ethics, and successfully dispatches them. However, she acknowledges that one final objection—the neo-Aristotelian objection that Kant’s ideal moral agent is merely continent rather than fully virtuous—requires a more extensive defense, which constitutes the remainder of the book.
In the second chapter Baxley begins her defense of Kant by outlining his theory of virtue as “autocracy,” a state she defines as “a form of moral self-rule or self-governance in accordance with reason over sensibility, a self-governance presupposing an ability to control and limit the influence on the will of feelings and inclinations that conflict with moral concerns” (53). The virtuous Kantian agent has the stable disposition to be motivated by pure practical reason: when his sympathetic feelings push him in the same direction as practical reason, they are simply an additional motivational state that can serve as a back-up system in case practical reason fails to motivate; but when they push him in the direction of morally incorrect action, the virtuous agent has sufficient self-governance to be motivated by practical reason rather than his sympathetic feelings. Kantian virtue does not require the extirpation of one’s feelings, but their governance by reason.
Perhaps the most famous version of the neo-Aristotelian accusation that Kant undervalues virtue in comparison to continence is that of Friedrich Schiller. In his 1793 essay Über Anmut und Würde Schiller argues that, while Kant has given the correct account of “dignity” (Aristotle’s “continence”), the ethical ideal for human life should aim higher, at what Schiller calls “grace.” Schiller...