Community as the Gateway to the Development of Moral Character: A Kantian Perspective & Its Shortcomings

 It is the aim of this paper to offer a brief exegesis of Kant’s understanding of the “good will” as entirely separate from the pursuit of the “good life”. Yet, as Sherman has already argued in her book Making Virtue a Necessity, Kant was certainly neither negligent nor ignorant of the views of ancient aretic philosophers, in particular Aristotle and the Stoics. Aristotle in particular aligns “the good will” with “the good life” or “happiness” and the pursuit and development of all those activities which constitute such a life. In works following the Groundwork for a Metaphysics of Morals Kant is sensitive to both the circumstances making up the experiences of the empirical self as well as important aspects beyond an understanding of the rational legislative will for the inclusion of states of habituation or character development that may be more receptive to bending the capricious desires of man to the rational Will from which moral choice must and should spring. The views of Aristotle will be posited in order to highlight the distinctiveness of Kantian virtue ethics mostly derived from his (moral anthropology) Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View and Doctrine of Morals. I will reserve concluding remarks for a sketch of how I perceive the relationship between Kantian and Aristotelian ethics, emphasizing mostly what they have in common.

Section I: Early Kantian Ethics

 In his Groundwork on the Metaphysics of Morals Kant says,

A good will is good not because of what it performs or effects, not by its aptness for the attainment of some proposed end, but simply by virtue of the volition; that is, it is good in itself, and considered by itself is to be esteemed much higher than all that can be brought about by it in favor of any inclination, nay even of the sum total of all inclinations. Even if it should happen that, owing to special disfavor of fortune, or the niggardly provision of a step-motherly nature, this will should wholly lack power to accomplish its purpose, if with its greatest efforts it should yet achieve nothing, and there should remain only the good will (not, to be sure, a mere wish, but the summoning of all means in our power), then, like a jewel, it would still shine by its own light, as a thing which has its whole value in itself. Its usefulness or fruitfulness can neither add nor take away anything from this value. (my italics)[1]

In the above extract, Kant puts forth two points: firstly, virtue is not susceptible to the trials and misfortunes of life circumstances, inborn or otherwise, and secondly, virtue is self-contained and complete. Virtue is then «hit-or-miss»—either you possess it or you do not—and it does not admit of varying degrees. This brings to mind the image of the impoverished woman deprived of any measure of decency standing tall against the weight of her servitude and resorting to no matters of wickedness or acts of cruelty. Blind to the extrinsic circumstances from which the burden of moral choice is brought to bear, one might claim that the author of this passage must be a privileged, heartless ignoramus who is oblivious to the destitute born out of moments of utter indignation that erodes the virtue of any individual. Indeed, what would Kant reply to the beggar born into the poverty stricken Ethiopia who stole from the insufferable giants of aristocratic prosperity? What would he say to the once accomplished banker who rights a wrong? Is there dignity in suffering the wrongs of others or enduring contingencies brought upon us? Indeed even Kant remarks,  There is, however, something so strange in this idea of the absolute value of the mere will, in which no account is taken of its utility[2],  but continues yet a suspicion must arise that it may perhaps really be the product of mere high-flown fancy, and that we may have misunderstood the purpose of nature in assigning reason as the governor of our will[3].  Kant unequivocally calls attention to the objective of his undertaking in the preface of his Groundwork, narrowing, as he says, his purpose to the ‘construction of a pure moral philosophy which is completely free from everything which may be only empirical and thus belongs to anthropology’[4]. This undertaking is a self-evident prerequisite for any further moral inquiry since, as everyone would admit, a law, to the extent that it stands morally, must imply absolute necessity. Grounding obligation can not be sought either in the «nature of man» or the «circumstances that comprise his life» but in the concepts of pure reason. The point is that if morality were merely a matter of responding to the given conditions, laws making up those conditions, etc., and the study of morality were a matter for the observation of mankind abiding by such choices manifest out of such conditions and circumstances, moral inquiry would be no more than a descriptive exercise belonging to the science of anthropology. In order to get «behind» such choices, an inquiry into the a priori concepts and principles must be outlined to ground these.  Defending the indispensability of moral inquiry, Kant argues that metaphysics is the foundation or the “ground” from which any moral dialogue must proceed. Short of the principles upon which morals can be grounded and their correct estimation substantiated, they are subject to all varieties of corruption. He contends:  …it is not sufficient to that which is morally good that it conform to the law; it must be done for the sake of the law. Otherwise its conformity is merely contingent and spurious because, though the unmoral ground may now and then produce lawful actions, more often it brings forth unlawful ones.[5]

In other words, though it is certainly possible that morals are often times attained and obeyed, their attainment is susceptible to folly and regress when they are lacking in “rational subservience” and performed blindly out of “fear”, “compulsion”, “conformity”, “convenience”, in short, for reasons that fall outside of the “law” itself.

Kant defends three propositions for morality:

  1. To have genuine moral worth an action must be done from
  2. An action done from duty does not have its moral worth in the purpose which is to be achieved through it but in the maxim whereby it is determined.
  3. Duty is the necessity to do an action from respect for law.[6]

To illustrate the first proposition, Kant calls attention to the case of a shop keeper who does not overcharge his inexperienced customers because he estimates that his trustworthiness will guarantee a loyal clientele. Such a man does not act from duty but from selfishness. In fact, even though kindness and the preservation of life are virtues to uphold, acts in accord with these would be entirely lacking in moral esteem if they were adopted either from inclination or emotion (of like kind).  He who is «good natured», for instance, who, motivated neither from vanity nor selfishness, finds «inner satisfaction» from spreading joy, is no more worthy than he who so happens to be inclined to adopt actions in accord with honor.[7] In fact, he who out of his «dead insensibility»—a man whose «heart puts little sympathy into the heart of man» and «by temperament is cold and indifferent to the sufferings of others»—is kind, Kant describes as having higher moral worth than she who just so happens to be kind by nature. Of course, he is not saying that one should aim at diminishing caring sensibilities; rather, his point is that when one acts from some natural disposition that he does so is a mere contingency that may or may not manifest itself and could be subject to change. So though this is behavior that one would aim to encourage, moral worth is not defined by it.

Actions, inclinations, and emotions, even when in accord with the moral law or duty, can not ground moral worth. What then, of the products of these? A defense of the second proposition rests on reasoning analogous to the former.  An action done from duty could not derive its force from any reference to intended or foreseeable results since this would imply that an ulterior criterion of focus generates one’s commitment to the act and hence one would act from a motive parasitic on its expected effect. Therefore, it is in willing the act which resides in this duty that moral worth is genuinely captured. Finally, having factored out all empirical and contingent references all that remains to determine objectively the will is the law. In turn, all that remains subjectively in terms of the motives from which the moral agent enacts on duties of such determination is pure respect for this practical law. It is for all these reasons that Kant then must assert that despair can no more absolve the absence of moral integrity or worth than good naturedness can define it.

From this, it follows that whatever ensues from this will is universally valid. Not only would it be binding upon all rational beings, it would also be true trans-culturally, and/or trans-historically. Unlike nonrational beings that merely abide by laws (of nature) or act in accordance with laws, rational beings have the capacity to act according to the conception of laws or principles.  Moreover, since reason is the seat from which the formulation of any duty is defined, such that action is the willful expression of such duties, it follows that such actions are recognized as both objectively and subjectively necessary. However, because in the case of imperfect rational beings—here Kant distinguishes the imperfect will of the humankind form the divine or holy will—reason itself does not sufficiently determine the will because subjective conditions manifestly disrupt this possibility, it follows that actions embraced in accordance to one’s objective conceptualization of the law would be a constraint placed upon the will (from within).  A constraint upon the will thus conceived, Kant refers to as an imperative. That is, as something that one “ought” to do, but given that it is indeed incongruous to the subjective, is simultaneously recognized as an imposition upon the will. Still, it has already been expressed that the laws from which actions are willfully put into effect are determined by reason and therefore are voluntarily chosen.[8]  Imperatives of this kind would be categorical[9]; that is, they would apply unconditionally; valid and hence binding as such for all rational beings. Finally, since the law ‘contains no condition to which it is restricted, all that remains is the universality of the law to which the maxim[10] should conform. By implication there can be only one such categorical imperative:

Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will to become a universal law.[11]

Kant offers four examples—suicide, breaking promises, cultivation of “natural” talents, welfare of others—to illustrate duties formulated from this categorical imperative. In all four examples Kant speaks of one who “has enough conscience” to properly pose the moral question with regards to the rightfulness of the proposed action. That is, though it is the contingency of circumstances that has placed the burden of moral inquiry upon one, this person is not “reduced to a state of despair” and “is still in possession of her reason” such that he is not overcome with desire, inclination and emotion. Once the moral question is posed with the awareness of the circumstances that would thrust one into despair over concern for what is right above what is merely advantageous, convenient, desirable and so on, one has already removed the importance by which she aims to define her choice from the contingencies of her empirical self. That is, because the rational being can separate herself from the empirical and contingent, she simultaneously acknowledges her capacity to affect the duties by which her life is governed. This marks a choice between merely heteronymously subjugating the will to the contingencies of extraneous measures, or autonomously defining the will in reference to the legislative duties defined a priori by reason alone.[12] It is therefore not surprising that this person could consider the morality of ‘making empty promises to repay money borrowed’ when she has no intention of doing so—whether from need and/or desperation or desire—since she has already separated herself from the empirical whys governing the actions of the natural items making up the causal network of the experiential world. Removed thus she is “free” to contemplate the grounding of “empty promises”. “Making empty promises” could not possibly become a universal law since it necessarily contradicts itself. The claim, “anyone in need can promise anything with no intention of fulfilling it’ contradicts the meaning of the said duty encrypted in the meaning of “making a promise”. This can be demonstrated by a simple thought experiment: consider the impact of actually universalizing the law—it is permissible to make promises without the intention of keeping them. No one could possibly take any such assertions seriously since they would never be believed, consequently such claims would become mere pretense.

Section II: An Interlude for the Ancient Greeks The Platonic Socrates has taken issue with overlapping moral propositions over two centuries earlier. Socrates, to whom many great thinkers in the history of philosophy have made revered reference, is heralded as the ‘jewel of martyrdom’ when Plato depicts him as the gadfly of Athens and has him say,

O my friend, why do you who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all? Are you not ashamed? …I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue money and every other good of man, public as well as private, is good for you.[13] (Plato’s Apology )

The view that material possessions, honors and reputation are negligent and add nothing to the value of a “good will” finds Socrates and Kant in agreement. Yet, Socrates does not separate virtue from the attainment of such goods altogether. Instead, he warns against the mere accumulation of such goods short of the cultivation and preservation of virtue, whereas Kant’s position is impervious to such endeavors. The accumulation of material possessions, for instance, all by itself does not necessarily lead to the “good life” as a plethora of examples of affluent persons who are miserable, troubled, and so on attest to. However, even in those cases where the prosperous are not deplete in any of the aforementioned ways, it still stands that her state of well-being is subject to extraction and hence not an enduring state under the auspice of her own control. As a result, this person is not truly in a state of well-being. Amongst a cluster of related moral doctrines attributed to Socrates is the view that “a better man can not be harmed by a worse man” because—as was true of himself—the better man’s state of well-being is self-contained and hence insusceptible to the contingencies making up the empirical context of his life. In spite of the desperateness of the circumstances surrounding Socrates’ execution[14], Socrates asserts that “the unexamined life is not worth living”, that ‘he will uphold the rule and law of no great authority than his Reason permits’, and finally in the Crito, where his associates implore him to escape this injustice, that ‘he will adopt whichever action holds up under the scrutiny of reason’. Socrates’ death comes as a mere consequence of the moral duty which dictates that he must surrender his will to the laws of the city-state because any other recourse would undermined the foundation of lawfulness altogether. He abides by the laws of the state for the sake of this moral duty. Ultimately, there is no moral worth in a life measured vis-à-vis their social or cultural acceptability where the tenets residing in these do not stand under the dialectical scrutiny of the Socratic elenchus.

From this Socrates and Kant seemingly also converge with regards to their poor estimation of the state of heteronomy. For Socrates it could be argued that a life devoid of moral inquiry finds one passively immersed in the moral values relative to her culture. Though Socrates is no where found offering an anthropological assessment of descriptive cultural relativism, one could infer (as Mill has) that values adopted relative to culture suffers the ills of conventionalism and tend to be adopted “blindly”, “mechanically”, “unthinkingly” through the subtle process of “socialization” and are “dead dogma” until the likes of a Socrates exposes the inconsistencies amongst a host of such values in combination. Following exposed inconsistency, Socrates’ interlocutors famously found themselves publicly humiliated, forced to admit that they do not possess moral knowledge. ‘An unexamined life would not be worth living’ because the values from which human activity draws meaning and purpose are henceforth perceived as an extrinsic imposition upon the moral agent such that she is heteronymously defined. Where a rift in the commitment to a moral tenet is introduced thus, one is exposed to a variety of potentially compromising circumstances. It was thus that Socrates claimed “a better man can not be harmed by a worse man”; i.e. virtue is self-contained. Still Socrates was not thoroughly Kantian in his assessment of the grounding from which moral discourse and fulfillment resides. Socratic moral discourse is communal and the object of good moral standing is pursued in action. Something akin to the spirit of the hero suitably illustrates the meaning. Heroic behavior is marked not by mere intention, principled on the objective necessity of a moral law, but also by one’s steadfast emotional valor in the pursuit of its final material realization.

In his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle offers a more systematic development of the aretic philosophy of Socrates and begins the search for the ultimate end at which all human activity aims. Prefacing this, Aristotle, like Kant, clearly states the aim of moral inquiry. However, the grounding of a Kantian variety would, according to Aristotle, stand for theoretical inquiry sought in demonstrative proof. Whereas, Aristotle was of the mind that practical inquiries, under which moral inquiry falls, involves practical reasoning that admits of varying degrees of truth that he offers (merely) as an outline of morality.[15] He says all human activity is goal-directed. So,

If, [then,] there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good.

The chief good must be both final or ‘complete without qualification’ and self-sufficient or ‘makes life desirable and lacking in nothing’[16]. Aristotle argues that the chief good at which all human activity ultimately aims is “happiness” or more appropriately “human flourishing” or “well-being”. Posited in this way, anthropological observations and assessments of the human condition and the circumstances conducive to rich, fulfilling human living can be anticipated. When contemplating the good of a flute player clearly excellent sensory-motor skills and musicality would be essential; whilst when contemplating the good of a gymnast, flexibility and supple muscle development would be essential. In the same way, the good of any thing that has a ‘function or activity’ would be parasitic on its essential or definitive nature. To be uniquely human is to exercise the activity of the ‘soul in accordance with a rational principle’[17].  The activities conducive to the proper development or actualization of mankind’s potential would then elicit the virtues or excellences that should mark the pursuit of all her activities. “Human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with excellence…in a complete life.”[18]

Aristotle does not arbitrarily rest virtuous conduct on some empirical a posteriori observation of human conduct but rather in his initial consideration of this practical inquiry into morality, he considers what the ultimate or chief good or end of human activity would be. In answering this question he appeals to the kind of being that the humankind is. This surely is a sensible and commonplace beginning since it is clear that when considering the activities of a dog alongside those of a crocodile or human the excellences or virtuous that would manifest in one category would not appear in the other. Indeed, it is because the dog is different in kind from the crocodile that submersion in water for the first would endanger the dog and not the other. It is in the pursuit of manipulating or bending circumstances to the human will that would be fitting for the humankind and not to the former two. The humankind is distinct in her rational and social capacity and as such her activities must conform to her conscious understanding or rational deliberation. Systematically frustrated effort whereby the activities of a physically impoverished and frail woman in the pursuit of, say swimming, over years would not mark the activity of a virtuous person in the fullest sense. The reason for this is that activities aim at human flourishing in the broad sense and development of individually recognizable potentialities within a set of conducive social circumstances. So when one chooses to dedicated years of determined training to an activity for which one is not suited or for which there are no realizable circumstances (I will return to this point), it would pull her in a direction opposed to her long term life projects that together lead to the fulfillment or actualization of her natural or potential dispositions. Adopting activity of this kind would be the result of ignorance, folly, inclination and the like.

Marking a further feature of Aristotle’s ethics that would keep Kant’s at bay, he says,

Besides what we have said, the man who does not rejoice in noble actions is not good at all; for no one would call a man just who did not enjoy acting justly, nor any man liberal who did not enjoy liberal actions, and similarly in all other cases. If this is so, excellent actions must be in themselves pleasant (my italics).[19]

Kant opposed this position because emotions were presented as landing flatly outside of the act of willing. Still, Aristotle’s point should not be exaggerated to the exclusion of rational choice. Cashing in on the presupposition of choice Aristotle says,

Excellence, [then], is a state concerned with choice, lying in a mean relative to us, thus being determined by reason and in the way in which the man of practical wisdom would determine it.[20]

Moral choice must spring from reason, that in turn aims to tame the emotions and desires and bend circumstances to conform with the activities that promote individual human flourishing. So though Aristotle does not factor out the empirical and contingent altogether, he certainly does argue that the humankind runs the risk of maiming herself when she acts on the basis of mere fancy or ignorance. Moral choice involves actions that arise out of something that resides in the person[21] which is also the product of conscious deliberation with regards to matters that fall within our powers and can actually be implemented.[22] Aristotle seems to be making the point that anything that falls outside of the powers of the human intellect to comprehend and determine by her reason, and which can not be put into effect, also falls outside of the domain of possible choices. That is, the imperative that ensues from practical reason is premised on what effectively can be derived from the ontological category of the humankind. From the universal premise with regards to the human condition, certain excellences or virtues can be defined. The form that these virtues will materially take on will, of course, invite an assessment of the empirical and contingent both with regards to the particularity of the subject and the circumstances of her life. In effect, this is a practical moral syllogism consisting of a major, more general, premise (the most general corresponding to the ultimate end of all human activity, namely happiness), and a minor practical and empirically attested premise.

For instance, in the example of incontinence, Aristotle makes reference to the practical syllogism in order to show that empirical mistakes premised on the knowledge of basic universals may lead to vice. In particular, the incontinent person—acting against one’s judgment due to a weakness of the will—is described as possessing knowledge of a universal or general normative premise, but does not exercise this knowledge as a result of her poor assessment of the practical or particular situation or its circumstances. So for instance, she may know that “it is wrong to belittle others” but with regards to the assessment of a practical moral situation not recognize, in fact, that an act of public humiliation is an instance of this claim. This person is blameworthy since Aristotle would reason that she is responsible—at least in her matured state—for her present condition.

Aristotle distinguishes between four character types—virtuous, continent, incontinent, evil (come back to this). The continent person marks that person who acts from knowledge of what is good—both the knowledge of the universal and practical—but lacks the emotions appropriate to the act of moral choice, i.e. this person might refrain from lying begrudgingly. This person will adopt the actions of the virtuous person for the sake of the good but his emotional perplexity indicates that this person does not act from fixed character and is susceptible to the temptation of the passions in a way that the virtuous person is not. Knowledge of the good, and choosing it for its sake is the source from which the virtuous person draws pleasure, so that emotions are perfectly aligned with practical wisdom. A good will would thus be defined as the systematic actualization of mankind’s potential that is adopted for the sake of the good which stems from her deliberative choice and emotions relative and proportionate to the actions or activities thereby prescribed. It is therefore the virtuous person who possesses practical wisdom.

Kant and Aristotle are agreed, therefore, that a man merely acting from good habit or good naturedness is of lower moral esteem compared to one who chooses the good for its own sake at the end of rational deliberation. However, Aristotle adds emotional alignment, whereas Kant takes this to by an instance of “good naturedness” or “good habit”, both of which are contingent. The obvious point of divergence between Kantian and Aristotelian ethics is clearly Kant’s aim to show that grounding the “good will” in “human nature” and/or “the intended effects of human activity where this might be labeled “human happiness”. Kant reasoned that duty is a “practical unconditional necessity of action” whereas any reference to the human constitution could, at best, give rise to valid maxims. Yet, maxims in that they spring from the subjective may issue principles according to which a rational being aligns her actions only in the case that she so happens to have the propensity or inclination to do so. Such a maxim could not hold in case that natural tendencies, etc. were opposed to it which is precisely the aim of the objective principle that is recognized by the rational will as a valid constraint upon her actions.[23] His meaning is expressed earlier in the Groundwork[24] when he argues that the pursuit of happiness is an actual end to which all rational beings are disposed. Though this is an end that the humankind has “by a necessity of nature” the means by which this may be promoted is an assertorical imperative. That is, imperatives of this kind adopt the form, “if one is in x circumstances, is of y natural endowment, and so on, then the means which she is obliged to adopt are such and such”. This imperative is, therefore, only hypothetical since it is not commanded absolutely but only as a means to another end in view. Practical reasoning is an essential aspect of moral virtue that clearly embodies this hypothetical formulation.

The second point of divergence follows as a corollary and concerns Kant’s esteemed reference to the intrinsic value of “the good will” where like a jewel it will shine by its own light even if it should be rendered completely incapacitated to bring any of her pursuits to fruition. Built into Aristotle’s notion of moral choice—deliberation regarding matters that can be implemented—and his understanding of the human condition—the humankind is both a rational and social being—is the necessity of material realization. Indeed, this idea can be traced to Aristotle’s metaphysics, in particular, the substantive ontological category of all things as comprised of both form and matter. Applied, Aristotle would claim that (unformed) matter is sheer potentiality—a slab of marble—it is not yet anything in particular. Indeed, it is not until it receives a form that it can be said to take on an identity as something definite at all. Or to take an example from plant life to underscore the dynamic process of growth and completeness which is relevant to the morality of the humankind: a seed contains all the formal ingredients denoting the potential of the seed to grow to completion when placed in circumstances conducive to plant growth—viable soil, sunlight and water. Using the analogy for moral virtue, man is born yet «unfinished», with the disposition and the faculties for her completion as a fully form individual human being. Placed in appropriate (social and physical) circumstances (where the opportunities for personal growth and fulfillment within a network of social offering for their material completion are available) the human individual will come to cultivate his moral sense of identity, or otherwise take on a distinctive form. Aristotle’s ethics for Kant would be hypothetical and contingent, whereas Kant’s ethics for Aristotle would be devoid of value from which human purpose derives meaning.

Section III: Later Kantian Ethics[25]

Thus far the exegesis of Kantian ethics has remained within the parameters of his metaphysics of morals. In this regard, the harsh and austere nature of his maxims are consistent with the description of the impoverished women visited in the opening remarks of this paper. This has been shown to follow from his formulation of the categorical imperative in the following way. The foundation of morals is derived from reason a priori, and yet as a finite rational being one acknowledges herself as susceptible to forces other than that of the duty derived therefrom. Recall that Kant situates the moral agent and makes qualifying references like, «“has enough conscience”, «is not reduced to a state of despair” and “is still in possession of her reason”. Hence, a maxim functions as an imperative that imposes moral action upon her. Concerned with the apparent paradoxical nature of the moral imperative—where one is both the sovereign master as well as obedience servant of the will—in his Doctrine of Virtue, he distinguishes between two parts of the humankind: the humankind as sensible being—homo phenomenon—and the humankind as rational and autonomous being—homo noumenon.[26] The legislative rational will objectively defines the moral law which the sensible or empirical self formulates as a maxim that subjectively turns unto itself in the form of a moral imperative. By implication, humankind acknowledges herself as the kind of being that requires constraints upon her will. Therefore, a “good will” necessarily exemplifies fortitude; that is, inner strength in the form of self-control.[27] This is reflected, as Kant contends in his Anthropology, in the commonplace usage of the term “character”, in its moral sense, where it is unconditionally applied: so it is said that “man has character” tout court.[28] She is admired precisely because she is unwavering in her commitment to moral actions that are, irrevocably, prescribed by her own reason. As such she is endowed with freedom—she is one from whom we know what to expect—since she acts not from instinct but will. «It is not a question, here, of what nature makes of mankind, but what mankind makes of herself[29] Indeed, «character is originality of thinking»—i.e. originates in conscious deliberation. Character is acquired through a conscious, deliberative and willful act which is «like a rebirth» and involves a certain kind of «ceremony of making a vow to oneself». The transformation that takes place is unforgettable and is like the «beginning of a new epoch».

Fortitude is a virtue of “character” because the finite rational being that is human recognizes herself as a vulnerable, empirically situated person who is exposed and disposed to action from inclination. So what makes up the scenery to which human appetite is susceptible? What forces are at work that threatens the execution of maxims that spring from a self-defining will? When and how can extrinsic (i.e. External to the act of willing itself) determinants be placed under one’s control? How does the externalization of mankind’s will “show up” in the material or empirical world? Kant occupies himself with questions of this sort and offers a consortium of observations that clearly reveal his sensitivity to i) how the execution of moral principles rely on empirical resources, and ii) that the character that mankind takes on is, in effect, the outward expression of the moral principles to which she has been habituated, which involves a strong emotive component.

Though answers to these questions would require a paper in itself, here I may humbly offer only an example as a sketch for how Kant would take up answering them. I will take an example from the Doctrine of Virtue: «the duty to one’s own perfection» which seems the easiest to confuse with virtue ethics of an Aristotelian variety. Firstly, a «duty» can only be understood as an «end» when an end is the object of choice expressed in action, and this presupposes a free rational agent. So the end follows not as the «effects of nature» but as the result of active material choice. Since this action is the product of choice in the strictest sense, for every end there is a categorical imperative that connects it more generally to the concept of duty. Perfection must be something for which mankind can assume a duty and therefore must be something that falls under the auspice of her control. Perfection in this regard can not then refer to the quantitative and physical perfection of the humankind since this is something that would simply come to pass as the endowment of nature (and this is one). However, the teleological determination of mankind’s perfection such that she can be made responsible for the cultivation and preservation that defines her in virtue of her humanity does fall squarely within her control. The end would be directed at the perfection belonging to the humankind per se which consists in the cultivation of her faculties of understanding, including the cultivation of her will. The transformation that mankind undergoes involves the duty to raise herself from the crude state of her animal nature towards that of her humanity whereby she alone would come to set her ends. Kant here bridles duty upon the ontological category of the humankind and lands himself, thereby, in extracting maxims that are intimately tied up with the cultivation of human excellences, as did Aristotle before him. It is not surprising in this regards to see Kant characterizing the person in his Anthropology by taking up a consideration of what «can be made of man» (the moral consideration of his character concerns what man can make of himself) given his nature . Characterizations are meticulously crafted portraits that aim to zero in on aspects relevant to the outward «appearances» that persons of certain types assume.  So, he says of the «sanguine person» that «he is carefree and full of hope, he attaches great importance to each thing for the moment….He is a goods companion, jocular and high-spirited….»[30].

Kant is adamant that this duty derived from the teleological perfection of mankind not be confused with Aristotelian ethics. At rock bottom hsi point is that the grounding of his metaphysics of morals is irrevocably defined by the legislative Will but that he certainly admits that when a thoughtful person acknowledges herself as having overcome temptation for the sake of her «often bitter duty» that she finds herself is a state of human happiness or contentment. However, she does not first set herself the task of cultivating her happiness via various means and thus way comes to achieve it. This eudaemonist perspective is both circular and self-contradictory. The circularity for one can only hope to be happy is she conscious of having fulfilled her duty, but she is only moved to fulfill this duty if she foresees this very state of happiness. It is contradictory for to fulfill this duty—as Kant would demands—requires that one adopt a duty short of considering expected effects, and yet, she can only recognize a duty to the extent that it involves the attainment of this state of happiness.[31]


  • Aristotle. 1987. A New Aristotle Reader, J.L. Ackrill (ed.). Princeton University Press.
  • Flanagan, Owen, Rorty, Amelie Oksenberg (eds.). 1997. Identity, Character and Morality, MIT Press.
  • Kant, Immanuel. 1996. The Metaphysics of Morals, Mary Gregor (ed.), Cambridge University Press.

—1997. Foundation of the Metaphysics of Morals, 2nd edition, trans. Lewis White Beck, Prentice-Hall Inc.

—1974. Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, trans. Mary Gregor, , The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

  • Sherman, Nancy. 1997. Making a Necessity of Virtue, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[1] Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals, 393.

[2] Ibid., 394-395

[3] Ibid., 395

[4] Ibid., preface, 389.

[5] Ibid., 390.

[6] Ibid., 400-401.

[7] Ibid., 398-399.

[8] Kant distinguishes between hypothetical and categorical imperatives. The former are conditional upon a preceding desire and/or expected consequent and take the following form, “if__, then I ought to __”. The latter are unconditional and take the form, “I ought to __”. Groundwork, 413-417.

[9] The categorically imperative is formulated by Kant in 5 variant ways so there is some debate about its proper formulation as well as the relationship between the variant forms it takes in the literature. However, he clearly states that unlike the technical (pertaining to rules of skill) and pragmatic (pertaining to rules prudence) imperatives, the moral law is: unconditional (416-417), leaves no freedom to the will to choose its opposite (420), is an a priori sythetical practical proposition (420) and is a law in the strictest sense, applying thus to all rational beings.

[10] The maxim is the subjective principle of acting which is a practical rule formulated by reason but accords to the conditions of the subject which may be inclination or ignorance.

[11] Groundwork, 421.  An alternative formulation is offered 10 lines down: “Act as though the maxim of your action were by your will to become a universal law of nature”.

[12] Kant was aware that the notion of personal moral autonomy is internally incoherent.

[13] M. F. Burnyeat says in his paper on the Apology 30b 2-4, “The framework of this paper is a defence of Burnet’s construal of Apology 30b 2-4.  Socrates does not claim, as he is standardly translated, that virtue makes you rich, but that virtue makes money and everything else good for you.  This view of the relation between virtue and wealth is paralleled in dialogues of every period, and a sophisticated development of it appears in Aristotle.”

[14] I refer to the matter of the «trumped up charges» and the power of execution that the members of the jury who lacking in objective purpose have over deciding his fate. Whether these circumstances were actually desperate to Socrates is, however, a matter of serious debate.

[15] Nicomachean Ethics, Ch. 3, 1094b13-1095a.

[16] Ibid., Bk. I., ch. 7.

[17] Nicomachean Ethics, 1098a8.

[18] Nicomachean Ethics, 1098a15.

[19] Nicomachean Ethics, Book I, Ch. 8, 1099a15-18.

[20] Ibid. BkII, Ch. 6, 1106b36-8.

[21] Aristotle calls that which is involuntary ‘anything that arises from ignorance and compulsion’ for in such cases there is ‘nothing that resides in the person that who acts or is acted upon’. This he compares to ‘the wind carrying something away’ or ‘men capable—with the power—of carrying others away’. Adopting the duties encrypted in social norms out the fear of expulsion would certainly be a case in point—to which Socrates’ will did not surrender.

[22] Aristotle contends that acting from reason of anger or appetite would not be involuntary, pointing out that by implication the action of children, nonhuman animals, and all acts that simply do not conform to virtue would be involuntary. This he flatly rejects. However, children and nonhuman animals act voluntarily but not from choice; hence voluntariness is not the same as choice, though the latter includes the former.

[23] Groundwork, 425-426.

[24] Ibid., 416.

[25] Both The Metaphysics of Morals as well as Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View were written after the Groundwork. Indeed, the latter is basically a compilation of lecture notes resulting from a thirty year period where Kant taught the course Anthropology at the University of Königsberg (footnote that appears in Kant’s Preface to his Athropology), to a diverse audience from nonphilosophical backgrounds. So this manual was put together not as a rigorous piece of philosophical inquiry which Kant clearly must have used prior to his Groundwork. The material of the Anthropology involves situating the humankind in the empirical world of social civility in order to address the mechanics at play with regards to the growth or development of the human species towards, what would seem to be, some culminating point found in achieved moral practices. The Doctrine of Virtue (DV)—Part II of The Metaphysics of Morals—prescribes practical duties that can and should be put into effect in the particular. In the Introduction to her translation of the Anthropology Mary Gregor contends that in “The Metaphysics of Morals …we are, so to speak, working from the individual’s moral principles to his external social conduct. The same theme is prominent in the Anthropology; but there we are working up from the natural development of the human race to its final end in morality”, p.

[26] The Metaphysics of Moral, Part II, The Doctrine of Virtue, 417-419.

[27] DV, 380-381. 17 years following the Groundwork, Kant maintains that there are «obstacles within one’s mind to his fulfillment of duty and forces opposing it, which he must judge that he is capable of resisting and conquering by reason…he must judge that he can do what the law tells him unconditionally that he ought to do». This capacity he calls fortitude and he defines it as «resolve to withstand a strong but unjust opponent». Virtue, he calls the inner strength to stand up against what opposes the moral disposition that is within us». I have used fortitude here as Aristotle would to denote the same inner resolve or strength of character not to fold under temptation.

[28] Anthropology, Book II.

[29] Anthropology, p. 157

[30] Athropology, 288.

[31] Doctrine of Virtues, 377-378.


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