Kant vs. Eudaimonism

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“Kant vs. Eudaimonism,” forthcoming in Predrag Cicovacki (ed.), Kant’s Legacy: Essays Dedicated to Lewis White Beck (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2000).
Kant vs. Eudaimonism

Allen W. Wood

Yale University

Kant was among the first1 to break decisively with the eudaimonistic tradition of classical ethics by declaring that the moral principle is entirely distinct and divergent from the principle of happiness (G 4:393, KpV 5:21-27).2 I am going to argue that what is at issue in Kant’s rejection of eudaimonism is not fundamentally any question of ethical value or the priority among values. On the contrary, on these matters Kant shares the views which led classical ethical theory from Socrates onward to embrace eudaimonism. Instead, where Kant breaks with classical ethics is in the conception of human nature. Kant’s conception of human nature so altered the application of moral principles that it forced a change in the way happiness was conceived, leading to a reversal of what had earlier been thought about the relation of the principle morality to the pursuit of happiness.

1. Classical eudaimonism
The classical ethical theories of Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics took it for granted that happiness (eudaimonia) is the encompassing human good, the final end of human life. As such, happiness (or at least its dominant component) is identified by the classical theories with either the possession or the exercise of moral virtue. A separate strand in the Western tradition, deriving from Eudoxus and Epicurus, identified happiness with pleasure; but it too took happiness to be the encompassing human good, and sought to find a place for the moral good within eudaimonism. It therefore identified moral virtue as the indispensable means of achieving happiness. Christian philosophers tended on the whole to follow the classical theories, especially those of Aristotle and the Stoics, but the Epicurean tradition made a strong comeback in the early modern period. The identification of happiness with pleasure (either in general or in its highest forms) is found in many moderns, among them Malebranche, Arnauld, Locke, Shaftesbury, Bentham, and the French lumières. Since Kant also identifies happiness with subjective satisfaction, and sometimes even with pleasure, he too belongs to this modern Epicurean tradition concerning what happiness consists in.

The classical tradition in ethics assumes that the human good (under the name of "happiness") can be represented as a single object of desire. Behind this assumption is an idea Kant shares, and would express by saying that reason seeks maximal unity under principles. The idea is that whatever desires, interests and aims we may have, we can sort out our priorities among them rationally, and the result will be a single end or good which we may represent as our final aim. This rationale is quite explicit, for example, in the opening sentences of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, where it is argued that all arts and goal-directed activities can be comprehended in a system directed at a single final end.3

Like Kant, classical ethics regards morality as having priority over other goods. Hence classical theories typically identify either happiness itself or its dominant component with either the possession or exercise of moral virtue. Suppose I find myself in a situation where I can increase my wealth, but only by performing a base action, of which I would be ashamed. Since the classical theories hold that avoiding shame takes priority over gaining wealth, they recommend that I abstain from the base action. They express the point by saying that to gain wealth in this way will not, all things considered, serve my interests; the honorable course of conduct is the one most conducive to my happiness. Because classical ethics supposes moral self-worth can be treated as part of the same system of evaluation as other goods, they treat it as an object that can be weighed against them -- and prevail against them -- in calculating what is best for us on the whole. This is what Socrates does, for example, when he decides that you are better off suffering injustice than doing it.4

2. Kant vs. Socrates
Kant parts company with this tradition because he denies that we can integrate moral self-worth into our picture of the good in this straightforward way. He distinguishes the worth of one's state or condition (Zustand) from the worth of one's person (KpV 5:60). Our state includes not only pleasure or pain, but also everything external to us that can cause them, and even those aspects of ourselves which are independent of our actions, such as our temperament or natural constitution (G 4:398; VA 7:285-292). Our person, by contrast, is the object of moral imputation (MS 6:223); it includes our actions and our character, both of which depend on and display our good or evil will (G 4:392-394, VA 7:285, 291-295). In a parallel way, Kant distinguishes the "moral" good sharply from the "natural" good. The two are entirely heterogeneous goods (KpV 5:59-60, VA 7:276-278). People feel "self-contentment" when they are conscious of having done their duty. Kant regards this kind of contentment as entirely distinct from their happiness, forming not the smallest part of it (MS 6:387; KpV 5:38, 88, 117, 156). He criticizes the ancients for identifying the two kinds of goods, and the moderns for confusing them (KpV 5:64-65).

The principal such confusion is the rationalist conception of "moral happiness", which is "contentment with one's person and one's own moral conduct," or the satisfaction you feel with yourself when you are aware of having done your duty (MS 6:387-88). Kant appears to countenance this notion only in one context: the moral-theological context in which the issue is whether well-disposed moral agents might require divine aid in order to insure their continued moral progress (R 6:67-68). But he regularly attacks the entire conception as a "misuse of the term 'happiness'" (MS 6:387-388) and even as a contradiction in terms, since it implies that the motive for doing one's duty is to achieve this sort of happiness, whereas self-contentment (contentment with one's person) depends on doing our duty for its own sake, and not in order to achieve any happiness by means of it (MS 6:377-378).

It is not that Kant considers the moral and natural goods incommensurable in the sense that there can be no ranking among them. In fact, he insists on a very definite ranking between them: the moral good is prior to the natural and constitutes the condition for its worth (G 4:393). This is how they are combined in the idea of the “highest good” (summum bonum), the highest end of all rational and moral striving (KpV 5:110-113). The fact that they can be so combined indicates that there is nothing inherently incommensurable about the moral and natural goods from the standpoint of reason. So in this sense Kant appears to agree with classical eudaimonism in holding that reason can combine all goods into a single final end.

It is in another sense that moral and natural good are incommensurable for Kant. In relation to our nature, they belong to entirely different (and incommensurable) systems of evaluation. They fall under different principles because we value them from two entirely different standpoints -- both of which, however, we inevitably adopt. For classical ethical theory, by contrast, rational deliberation ultimately takes place from a single standpoint, because however many "parts" the soul may have (three in Plato's theory, for instance), there is only one real self whose interests concern us, and that is the rational self.

Kant agrees, of course, that our real self is the rational self. But his theory reflects a distinctively modern conception of humanity, because he recognizes that the human self is inevitably disunited, conflicted, self-alienated, in a deeper sense than any of the ancient theories could admit.

Kant sometimes expresses this difference metaphysically, by contrasting the standpoint of nature or the empirical self with that of the free or noumenal self (G 4:457-458). But this formulation is misleading insofar as it gives the impression that Kant’s conception of human nature is grounded on his metaphysics. Nor can the difference in standpoints for Kant be merely a difference between natural desires and rational principles. For that difference was already part of classical eudaimonism. Least of all is there any disagreement over the question whether the standpoint of reason is superior to that of nature. On the contrary, that is precisely the reason why the classical theories say that since moral virtue is unconditionally prior in value to natural pleasures, we should always give it first preference in calculating our happiness.

Socrates assures us that we are better off (or happier) suffering injustice than doing it. Socrates' contemporaries obviously also found his thesis incredible. It was doubtless intended as a paradox -- a philosopher’s rejection of the standpoint of common sense. The "common sense" view here seems to be that suffering injustice is morally preferable to doing it, but that what is morally preferable might not be the thing that is best for me to do from the standpoint of my self-interest or happiness. This is the view of Polus, for instance, who thinks it is "finer" or "more admirable" to suffer injustice than to do it, but that the doer of injustice is nevertheless happier or better off than the sufferer.5 More recent moral philosophers may express Polus' opinion by saying that suffering injustice might be better from "the moral point of view" but from my point of view (the point of view of my happiness or self-interest), it would be better to do injustice (if I can do it with impunity).

The common sense position naively presupposes that the "moral point of view" must be different from my own point of view. But this naturally invites the question: "If it isn't in my interest to take the moral point of view, why should I take it at all?" It naturally leaves us with the suspicion that the moral point of view may be only a matter of conventional approval or disapproval, which, if I am sensible, I will ignore whenever it interferes with my self-interest. That, of course, is the position of Thrasymachus, who holds that such conventions are made by the strong in their best interests; a sensible man will do injustice whenever he can get away with it.6

Thrasymachus’ version of moral skepticism represents an essential advance over moral common sense because it faces up to the consequences of the common sense thought that my point of view is different from the moral point of view. Socrates' view represents an even more essential advance over common sense, however, by recognizing that there can be good reasons for taking the "moral point of view" as my point of view -- even more truly my point of view than the standpoint which either Polus’ common sense or Thrasymachus’ moral skepticism represents as mine. Socrates, like Kant, takes the standpoint of moral reason to be more truly my point of view than the standpoint of maximizing wealth or pleasure. Thus Socrates decides that the shamefulness involved in doing injustice is a greater threat to my self-interest than the disadvantages incurred in suffering injustice.

Since Kant agrees with Socrates rather than Polus here, his reasons for rejecting Socrates' position must be different from those of common sense. Kant thinks that we must represent the standpoint of morality as distinct from the standpoint of happiness because the human self necessarily has a divided standpoint. It takes standpoint of moral reason, but also a standpoint opposed to reason. Yet Kant’s view cannot be adequately represented in terms of the soul’s different "parts", tugging in different directions (which was already included in Socrates' position).7 Even worse would be the image of a tug of war between two "selves" (especially if they are thought of as denizens of entirely different worlds). For all conflicts of that kind could easily be reconciled with classical eudaimonism, as Socrates does, by identifying my real self-interest or happiness with the interest of my true self (which, as Kant agrees, is the self that takes the moral point of view). Kant’s position requires that the standpoint of self-interest should be one which is distinct from, even opposed to the rational standpoint of morality, and yet at the same time also in a sense rational standpoint too, which sums up my inclinations into a whole of happiness, and directs me toward this whole as an end distinct from and opposed to the ends of moral reason.

Kant's view is that the whole self simultaneously takes two conflicting standpoints. One standpoint is the “natural-social” standpoint; expressed through my natural inclinations as they appear under conditions of social life. The other is the moral standpoint, expressed through my lawgiving reason. The conflict between these two standpoints cannot be resolved in the Socratic way by preferring self-worth over wealth or pleasure because the conflict is not merely between two objects of desire. Instead, they represent two rival conceptions of what is valuable, and especially two rival conceptions of my self-worth. The natural-social standpoint conceives self-worth in terms of the worth of one's state rather than the worth of one’s will, and also comparatively or competitively, as ambition or an aspiration to achieve superiority over others. The pure rational or moral standpoint conceives self-worth absolutely and non-comparatively, as the dignity of self-legislating personality, hence as self-respect for the worth of humanity as an end in itself, which is absolute and therefore equal in every rational being. To comprehend Kant’s rejection of eudaimonism, we must understand why he sees human nature as torn between these two standpoints, and why he thinks the principle of one’s own happiness must be identified with the natural-social standpoint rather than standpoint of moral reason.

3. Happiness as pleasure
Kant identifies happiness with our well-being (Wohl) as natural creatures, or with imagined maximal satisfaction of our empirical inclinations. Of course it is an empirical, anthropological thesis that this constitutes a distinct kind of good which is in tension with our self-worth as rational beings. Kant has more than one way of presenting the tension, and this leads him to formulate the notion of happiness in different ways which are not obviously reconcilable, and some of which obscure his real views.

At times Kant contrasts happiness with morality by saying that it represents our "animal nature" or our "lower faculty of desire". Sometimes the view looks purely hedonistic, even strikingly Benthamite: Happiness consists of pleasure or agreeableness, and is measurable in terms of magnitude, duration, costliness and fecundity (KpV 5:23-24). Closely akin (in Kant's mind) to the idea that happiness is pleasure is a second idea, that happiness consists in a state of contentment with one’s state, together with the assurance that this state will last for the future (G 4:393; KpV 5:25; MS 6:387). This is a negative sense of happiness in that that it excludes discontent with one’s state, but adds an element of future assurance. A third formulation of Kant's hedonism is the identification of happiness with desire-satisfaction: "Happiness is the condition of a rational being in the world when everything goes according to its wish and will" (KpV 5:124).

These three accounts are not the same. We can be pleased without being contented with our state, and contented with our state without being pleased. Even getting what we wish and will may turn out neither to content us nor to please us.. Still, there need be no deep inconsistency here as long as we are thinking about what it would be like to be happy. We are not truly happy if we are discontented with our state, even if we experience pleasure and our desires are satisfied. Yet a life which is contented (in a hopeless, resigned sort of way) but lacks both pleasure and the satisfaction of important desires, is also not happy. From that standpoint, pleasure, contentment with one’s state and desire-satisfaction may be regarded as three different conditions which must be jointly satisfied if a person is to be completely happy.

The picture changes significantly, however, if we consider the different descriptions of happiness in light of a thesis Kant often insists on: "All human beings naturally have the strongest and deepest inclination to happiness" (G 4:399). On this ground, Kant even maintains that all empirical desires "fall under the principle of self-love or one's own happiness" (KpV 5:22), since he thinks it is rational to pursue instances of pleasure, desire-satisfaction or contentment with our state only insofar as they contribute to a “whole of satisfaction” which we call “happiness”.

Thus when we think of happiness as something to be pursued, the question is not: What does it take to be happy? but rather: What object is it that we all have the deepest inclination for? What is it that we desire when we desire happiness? These questions do force us to choose between Kant’s different ways of characterizing happiness, because the desire for pleasure is different from the desire to be in a contented state, and this again is different from the desire for a particular object. Of course when we do pursue happiness, we try to desire only what we think will content us with our state if we are lucky enough to get it; and we think of happiness as consisting of pleasures whose enjoyment tends to content us with our state But the differences between pleasure, contentment with our state and desire-satisfaction raise questions about why we would want to constrain our ends in these ways by seeking happiness rather than simply the satisfaction of particular desires, including those for pleasure and contentment with our state.

Kant may think that there is no great problem here, because his account of the empirical faculty of desire says that natural desires involve pleasure in the representation of their object, and an expected agreeableness if the object is achieved. Thus when he identifies happiness with pleasure, Kant may be thinking that all desires aim at happiness merely in the sense that there is a natural connection between desire and pleasure in the representation of the object. The proposition that all desires aim at happiness would then reduce to the triviality that our set of empirical desires (or, more accurately, pleasure-possibilities) is not empty. Every desire, it could be alleged, aims at its own satisfaction, which may be thought of as a state of pleasure or contentment with our state.8 Thus the desire for happiness is nothing but the generalized form of a desire necessarily involved in very inclination: desire that one should always be in such a state with the prospect of its lasting indefinitely. Perhaps Kant thinks that since every desire aims at its own satisfaction, desire in general aims at satisfaction in general, or maximal satisfaction. This line of thought appears to cohere with Kant’s stated reason for holding that "all human beings have the strongest and deepest inclination to happiness.” For this reason is given as the following: "For in this idea all inclinations are summed up" (G 4: 399).

This line of thinking is evident in many empiricist conceptions of happiness, but it is deeply unsatisfactory, and Kant himself is sometimes aware of what is wrong with it. For merely from the fact that we have desires, it does not follow that we have any conception of what it would be to maximize their total satisfaction, or even a conception of what such a maximum would be. From the fact that I have three different desires, for x, y and z, respectively, it certainly doesn't follow that I must have yet a fourth desire whose object is x, y, and z, taken together collectively. This is especially so when my desires threaten to conflict: For instance, if I have a desire to take a nap and also a desire to attend a philosophy lecture, it doesn't follow that I have a desire to sleep through the philosophy lecture. Even if my desires don't conflict, it does not follow that I must have the further desire whose object is the sum of their various objects. If it is maintained that I do have such a further desire, then some account of its content and even its rationale seems to be required.

4. Happiness as a sum of satisfaction
Kant acknowledges this point when he speaks of happiness as an "idea" of a "sum" or "maximum" of pleasure or desire-satisfaction, which is fashioned by our reason or imagination (G 4:399, 418-419). For the fashioning of such an idea involves a positive act of mine. It often requires me to forego the satisfaction of some desires because they conflict with the idea of a sum or whole of satisfaction. In order to come by a desire for happiness, I must calculate which set of compossible satisfactions practically achievable by me constitutes the maximal sum which it is rational for me to pursue. Further, I must have some reason to pursue this new and artificial object, which is something over and above the objects of my original and basic desires (some of which have even been excluded from it). Thus the apparently innocent step of introducing an "idea" of happiness actually involves Kant in a fundamentally new conception of happiness which is not at all the same as pleasure, a contented state or desire-satisfaction, and is quite incompatible with regarding the desire for happiness as proceeding merely from our animal nature. For the desire for happiness turns out to be a second-order desire, namely that a certain combination or subset of our first-order desires should be satisfied.

This makes it even clearer that it cannot be inferred simply from the fact that we have first order desires that we have a desire for happiness. It is one thing to say that each desire aims at a certain state, which counts as its own satisfaction. It would be quite another thing -- which Kant would not want to say -- that for every desire d, d must be accompanied by the second-order desire d’ whose object is that d should be satisfied. Kant recognizes the existence of desires we positively don't want to satisfy, desires such that we have the second order desire not to satisfy them.

Kant does want to claim, however, that all human beings have a desire for happiness, an object represented by "an idea in which all inclinations are summed up" (G 4:399; cf. KU 5:208). Happiness is described as an "ideal of imagination" (G 4:418), or a "system of inclinations brought into tolerable harmony" (KpV 5:73-76), and the pursuit of happiness is said to involve a "unity of maxims" imparted by reason, which "inclinations otherwise cannot have" (R 6:36-37/32). In forming our idea of happiness, we consider not only our various desires but also the means at our disposal (KpV 5:63). The resulting idea is our image of how we would like life to go for us.

The possibility of acting on second-order desires, however, depends on the negative freedom to refrain from acting on impulses which is necessary for practical reason. Brute animals, as Kant conceives of them, seek the satisfaction of their desires one by one. Because the brute will is “coerced by impulses”, such a will has no ability to suspend acting on an impulse so as to engage a larger conception of their general well-being. Only a being with negative freedom can choose against satisfying its desires (G 4: 446, KpV 5:28-30), and this is necessary for any effective pursuit of a maximum of satisfaction derived from a set of partly conflicting desires. A being lacking negative freedom might very well be pleased, satisfied or contented with its state, but it could not pursue happiness.

Kant sometimes explicitly recognizes that the concept of happiness is available only to rational beings, not to brutes: "The concept of happiness is not one that the human being perhaps abstracts from his instincts and hence gets from his animality; instead, it is a mere idea of a state, to which he tries to make that state adequate under empirical conditions" (KU 5:430). Thus from the fact that all human beings (along with other animals) tend to seek pleasure, satisfaction or contentment, it by no means follows that human beings have a desire for happiness.

This means that Kant needs some account of why human beings do sum up their desires into the idea of a whole of satisfaction. It would be viciously circular to explain the desire for happiness by anything like a desire to maximize pleasure or satisfaction, because that desire already presupposes the desire to make one's state adequate to the idea of a comprehensive whole of satisfaction, which was very desire to be explained. Nor can we argue that framing an idea of happiness is instrumentally valuable to a rational being by enabling it to avoid unnecessary conflicts between its desires and to use its resources for satisfying them more efficiently. For without presupposing an idea of happiness as a sum of satisfaction there could be no measure of overall efficiency in desire-satisfaction.

We could ask whether beings who form the idea of happiness and pursue it are generally more contented with their state than beings that do not. It is not self-evident that they would be. Forming a concept of happiness and disciplining oneself to pursue it expend scarce resources which might have been used more effectively in satisfying particular desires. This is what lies behind Kant’s remark that "a single inclination, definite as to what it promises and as to the time at which it can be satisfied, can easily outweigh a wavering idea" (G 4:399). Further, the process of deliberating about happiness itself might have side effects which are bad for overall satisfaction, such as creating new and artificial desires (including, of course, the desire to bring our state into harmony with our image of happiness itself) which make it harder to reach a contented state. As a matter of fact, Kant has an opinion on the question whether pursuing happiness is advantageous to us in terms of pleasure, desire-satisfaction and contentment with one’s state. He is quite certain that it is not. This is why he thinks the welfare of an animal would be better provided for by instinct than by rational faculties, and therefore that if reason has a natural purpose in human beings, it cannot consist in promoting their pursuit of happiness (G 4:395). Kant is not the first to notice that rationally pursuing happiness is not an especially efficient way of achieving it.

5. A wavering idea
Therefore, the most urgent question for us at this point is: Why do human beings pursue happiness? When Kant asks this question in the Critique of Practical Reason, he alludes to our animal nature and our finitude as beings of need. But this explains only why we have empirical desires, not why we have the tendency to sum them up in an idea of happiness and treat this idea as an object of rational pursuit. A more explicit account is given in the Religion, where he asserts that the desire for happiness, falling under our predisposition to humanity, calls for "a physical but comparative self-love (for which reason is required): namely, judging ourselves happy or unhappy only in comparison with others" (R 6:27). This answer locates the original motivation in human nature for the idea of happiness not in our natural but in our social condition, and the social meaning of natural desires. We consider ourselves happy as a way of thinking of ourselves as better than other people, and we think of ourselves as badly off only to the extent that we think of our condition as one which might cause others to despise us (R 6:94). This answer to the question is striking and even counterintuitive. For it implies that unlike many of the animal desires whose objects go to make up the idea of happiness, the desire for happiness is not a natural desire, but a product of reason. Moreover, it reveals this desire as by no means as innocent as eudaimonists would like to pretend.9 For it says in effect that our natural desire for happiness is a function of our competitive aspiration to see ourselves as superior to others – that is, to deny them the equal absolute worth to which all rational beings are entitled as ends in themselves.

This is the meaning of Kant's assertion in the opening paragraph of the Groundwork. People usually read right over this without appreciating its significance: "Power, riches, honor, even health, general well-being, and the contentment with one's condition called happiness, make for boldness (Mut) and even arrogance (Übermut) if there is not a good will to correct their influence on the mind" (G 4:393). We may suppose this means only that arrogance is one possible side-effect of thinking oneself happy. But Kant’s real view, far less innocuous, is that from the natural-social standpoint, arrogance is the entire rationale for our desire for happiness. It is our overriding need to confirm our self-conceit that makes us lay claim to happiness as a mark of superiority over others. We form the idea of a comprehensive whole of satisfaction in order to compare ourselves to others, always with the hope that the comparison will make us look good. The point of being happy is to feed our insatiable amour propre by seeing our state as one from which we may look down on other people, regarding them as our inferiors.

Kant’s theory that we seek happiness in order to confirm our self-conceit may be surprising, but it is far from being arbitrary or unmotivated within Kantian anthropology. Kant regards our rational capacities as arising through a natural process, stimulated by our entry into social relations with others. Natural teleology has arranged it that our species-powers develop through social competition or antagonism, and has arranged our inclinations so that they bring about this development (I 8:18-23). Kant maintains that our powerful natural inclination for happiness is only the most fundamental expression of the “unsociable sociability” which is fundamental to our nature as rational and social beings (I 8:20-22). Thus it is only to be expected that the motivation behind the most basic and comprehensive of our rational desires should be this competitive impulse.10

As Kant sees it, therefore, the standpoint of happiness or self-interest is originally that from which each human being seeks superiority over others. It stands opposed to the standpoint of moral reason, which regards the worth of all rational beings absolute, hence equal. From the moral standpoint, human beings are required to respect every rational person as having the dignity of an end in itself. They are to adopt only those maxims which they can rationally will to be universal laws for all others; they give themselves moral laws which, if observed, would do away with all competition between rational beings by systematically uniting their ends in an ideal rational community or realm of ends. Human nature is caught in a fundamental struggle between the natural-social standpoint, whose principle is one’s own happiness, and the pure rational standpoint, whose principle is the moral law.11

Kant’s views here are far stronger than anything which could be derived merely from our finitude or dependence on nature. Such considerations could justify at most the idea that our desire for happiness might contingently be at odds with the demands of morality. It could not justify Kant’s view that the principle of one’s own happiness is directly opposed to the principle of morality. Still less could our finitude as beings of need provide a ground for regarding the desire for happiness as a deeply irrational desire. It is not only irrational from the standpoint of morality, but even when judged from the standpoint of pleasure, contentment or the satisfaction of natural desires themselves.

Nature's purpose in giving us a desire for happiness is to employ our competitive impulses to develop all the predispositions of our species, including even the rational predisposition which reveals to us the irrationality and moral wrongness of all such competitiveness, and commands us to conduct ourselves according to the laws of a realm of ends in which all rational beings are respected as having equal worth. This natural origin of our desire for happiness sheds light on the tension we noticed earlier between Kant's conception of what happiness consists in when (or if) we get it and what we count as our happiness considered as an object of pursuit (an idea whose content depends on our comparison of our condition with that of others). This tension opens up the possibility that even if we achieve what is represented in the idea, we will still not be happy. Kant even thinks it is not a mere possibility, but a normal part of the human condition, that people are generally unhappy even when they get what they represent as their happiness.

In Kant's view; this is the way nature has arranged things. The natural purpose of unsociable sociability is to give people an incentive to develop the faculties of their species through competition. It is essential to this purpose that human beings should be prodded out of their natural laziness by being placed in a state of discontent (I 8:21/45). Looked at from the standpoint of natural teleology, therefore, we could say that our desire for happiness serves its natural purpose by making us unhappy. This is why Kant says that happiness is "the idea of a state to which we try to make our state adequate under empirical conditions (which is impossible)" (KU 5:430, emphasis added).

It clearly does not follow from the concept of a finite natural being in general that its natural needs are incapable of satisfaction in the system of nature as it exists, still less that its natural needs could not conceivably be satisfied in any system of nature. But precisely this is what Kant believes about human beings. The real barrier separating us from our happiness does not lie in a nature which is hostile to our desires but lies entirely within our own idea of happiness itself. Kant thinks that even if we were omnipotent in relation to nature, we would still not be happy: "Nature, even if it were subjected completely to human choice, still could not adopt a definite and fixed universal law which would harmonize it with that wavering concept and so with the purpose that each person chooses to set" (KU 5:430).

Kant maintains that although there are many "technical" imperatives ("imperatives of skill") telling people how to achieve arbitrary ends (in geometrical construction, for example, or the medical art, or other practical techniques), there are no general principles (or "pragmatic imperatives" or "imperatives of prudence") that one might follow with confidence in seeking happiness. "Counsels of prudence" (enjoining such policies as economy, courtesy and restraint) are only general rules, which never hold without exception. They tell us what has been found to promote an individual's welfare on the average (G 4:418). The reason Kant thinks we can't do better than this is not only that life is too complicated for there to be any unexceptionable rules telling us how to reach a fixed goal. The problem is rather that the goal itself is too indeterminate and variable for us even to begin setting out to achieve it in a systematic way. Not only do different individuals have different ideas of happiness, but the same person is constantly changing his idea of happiness and even at a single moment no individual ever manages a self-consistent idea of happiness (G 4:417-418).

The basic incoherence in everyone's idea of happiness is that everyone "wishes and wills" both to be pleased, satisfied or contented with their state, and also to achieve the objects represented delusively by "the deceiver" inclination (VA 7:151). Nature has so arranged it so that the things people want are such that when they get them, they will still be discontented with their state, hence motivated to exercise and develop the faculties of the species (G: 4:418).12 In short, it belongs to our nature always to be striving for happiness but never to be happy, and even to have an idea of happiness in terms of which we could not possibly be happy.13

Kant asserts that the idea of happiness is an ideal of imagination rather than of reason (G 4:418). He explains this more fully in his anthropology lectures:
“Happiness is the kind of ideal of which we can form no concept, in which we could posit it, if we understand by ‘happiness’ the greatest sum of joys, i.e. the complete satisfaction of all our inclinations. We cannot even represent the possibility of enjoying a life composed of sheer enjoyments. We can never produce a complete whole with which we could be wholly satisfied; hence this is an imagining to which no concept corresponds” (VA 25:1081).

The idea of happiness is therefore always a 'delusion' (Wahn), in Kant's technical sense of that term: it is a pure figment of our imagination which we treat as something real (a real possibility, toward which we can direct our efforts) (VA 7:274-275). The desire for happiness is also a delusion in the sense that it is premised on self-conceit – on the false and radically corrupt notion that I am worth more than others and that confirming my self worth involves gaining some superiority over them (in matters such as honor, power or wealth). In fact, however, the worth of every rational being is absolute, and there is no real superiority over others to be had even if I could realize my idea of happiness.

6. Morality vs. happiness
"When one's own happiness is made the determining ground of the will, the result is the direct opposite of the principle of morality" (KpV 5:35). No such statement as this could ever follow merely from the fact that we are finite beings with natural needs, since that fact leaves completely open the content of our needs, and with it the whole question of their harmony or disharmony with morality. But this statement does follow from the fact that the principle of morality is based on our non-comparative worth as rational beings, while the principle of happiness is based on the comparative conception of self-worth and the delusive ambition to achieve superiority over others.14

Now we are in a position to understand the Kantian explanation of what is wrong with Socrates' thesis that we are happier suffering injustice than doing it. Part of what is wrong is that Socrates wants to look at the difference between doing injustice and suffering it from the eudaimonistic standpoint. For from that standpoint, as Callicles points out to Socrates, the power to do injustice with impunity is seen as a mark of superiority, while suffering injustice is regarded as a humiliation15. It would take an entirely different standpoint, based on an entirely different notion of self-worth, to appreciate the loss of self-worth involved in doing injustice. And this standpoint would not be eudaimonistic.

The rest of what is wrong with Socrates' claim is that, true to its eudaimonism, it represents the loss of self-worth involved in doing injustice comparatively, as if the judgment common sense makes from the standpoint of happiness were merely the reverse of the truth – as if it were the just man, even in being wronged and mistreated, who has reason to lord it over another. Once we correctly grasp the standpoint from which we can appreciate the loss of self-worth involved in doing injustice, we see that it involves no comparison between different individuals and no possibility of gain on one person's part at the expense of the other. For the moral standpoint is one from which every rational being, strong or weak, rich or poor, honored or despised, good or bad, has absolute worth. The only comparison this standpoint involves is one between myself and the principles I give myself as a rational being. The loss of self-worth involved in the commission of injustice is simply the inner shame at failing to live up to one's dignity as a rational being. Kantian ethics does not think of moral virtue as giving me anything to feed my amour propre in comparison with others.
7. The Rational Pursuit of Happiness
The anti-eudaimonistic strain in Kant’s ethical thought is strong and it runs deep. But what I have said thus far runs the risk of exaggerating it. For alongside the original natural-social grounds for valuing our own happiness, which involve profound irrationality both from a moral and a non-moral point of view, there are also powerful reasons for making one’s own happiness an end which are entirely valid from the pure rational or moral point of view. Morality gives us positive grounds for valuing the permissible parts of happiness, both our own happiness and that of others. When rational beings make the permissible parts of their happiness their end, they thereby confer objective value on those ends, because the dignity of humanity is honored when human beings achieve the ends they set, and a human being's happiness is the sum of her nonmoral ends. When we frame and pursue our idea of happiness, we exercise our rational capacities. Thus when we promote the ends of a rational being, whether our own ends or those of others, we honor the rational nature which set those ends. To fail to value happiness, therefore, would be to show contempt for ourselves as rational beings.16 The moral law, in other words, permits the pursuit of happiness whenever it is not specifically contrary to duty. We have a direct duty to promote the happiness of others by way of showing respect for their humanity as an end in itself. We even have an indirect duty to promote our own happiness insofar as this promotion contributes to our perfection as rational beings and honors our rational nature (MS 6:388, G 4:399).

Accordingly, Kantian ethics is not against the pursuit of happiness. Kant regards the moral or religious opposition to happiness as a morbid and monkish attitude, which no one can adopt without hypocrisy and even a hidden hatred of the moral law (R 6:24-25). "This difference of the principle of happiness from that of morality is not therefore an opposition between them, and pure practical reason does not require that we should renounce the claims on happiness; it requires only that we should take no account of them whenever duty is in question" (KpV 5:93). That remark is entirely consistent with Kant’s claim, quoted earlier, that “when one’s own happiness is made the determining ground of the will, the result is the direct opposite of the principle of morality” (KpV 5:35). For the opposition refers only to the will’s motivation (its “determining ground”). To give the principle of morality motivational priority to the principle of one’s own happiness is not to exclude the possibility of acting in ways which are largely conducive to one’s own happiness. Kant’s view, in other words, is that we should not let the principle of our own happiness motivate us in any case where moral principles are at stake. But morality has nothing to say against our pursuing happiness as long as a dutiful disposition governs this pursuit, limiting our self-love by striking down our ambitious self-conceit (KpV 5:71-75). It is not pursuing happiness as such that contradicts the standpoint of morality, but only the principle of pursuing one's own happiness unconditionally, irrespective of the demands made on us by our own autonomy and the dignity of others.

To pursue happiness on these rational grounds, however, is different from pursuing it in the spirit of unsociable sociability that originally made the prospect of happiness so delicious to us. The point of morality is to honor human dignity, and when we see what our desire for happiness originally meant, we must acknowledge that this means that morality aims not at maximizing human happiness but constraining people to forgo enough of their happiness that their various ends, originally antagonistic to one another, can be brought into harmony under the laws of a realm of ends. The principles of morality will limit our pursuit of happiness, but because their ground is honoring our worth as rational beings, they will allow for what Kant sometimes calls a "rational self-love" (KpV 5:73, R 6:45n) -- that is, a pursuit of one's own happiness which is moderated enough to accord with duty and to allow for the moral claims of others, who are our equals as ends in themselves.17

If Kant’s theory about the natural psychology of our desire for happiness is correct, those who pursue happiness under the principle of “rational self-love” will not necessarily be less happy than those who pursue happiness on the basis of the natural-social principle of eudaimonism. Giving first priority to maximizing our own happiness is a policy that is likely to be self-defeating even in its own terms. Such a policy only encourages us to indulge the impossible dreams of sweet contentment that float before our eyes, always just beyond our reach, whose natural function is only to fuel our discontent (MA 8:122-123). Prudence itself, therefore, as well as moral wisdom, might advise us to abandon the delusion of perfect happiness, and limit our aspirations to those fragments of happiness we can expect to achieve when we regulate our lives by rational principles. Since nature did not put us on earth to be happy anyway, such a limited happiness is probably as much as our paradoxical condition can ever afford us.18


1  For the claim that Kant breaks with the previous tradition, See Allen Wood, Hegel's Ethical Thought (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 56-58. But the Cambridge Platonists, and Ralph Cudworth in particular, anticipated Kant by holding that it “would destroy all morality” to ground moral obligation on the agent’s own happiness, as Hobbes and Locke had done. See Stephen Darwall, The British Moralists and the Internal ‘Ought’ (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 145.

2 Kant's writings will be cited according to volume and page number in the Gesammelte Schriften, Ausgabe der preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1902-). For individual works, the following abbreviations will be used:
I Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerlicher

Absicht (1784)
G Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (1785)
MA Muthmasslicher Anfang der Menschengeschichte (1786)
KpV Kritik der praktischen Vernunft (1788)
KU Kritik der Urteilskraft (1790)
R Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der blossen Vernunft (1793-

MS Metaphysik der Sitten (1797-1798)

VA Anthropologie in pragmatischer Hinsicht (1798)

Vorlesungen über Anthropologie
VE Moralphilosophie Collins

3 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1:1 1094a.

4 Plato, Gorgias 472; Republic 354.

5 Plato, Gorgias 474.

6  Plato, Republic 343-347.

7  There may be more than an inkling of Kant’s views concerning the irrationality of desire in Plato’s discussions of desire and reason in the Phaedrus, Republic and Symposium. But neither the social dimension of these views, nor their specific application to the idea of happiness are present in Plato.

8 Perhaps it is tempting to think that if you are not content, then you must have some determinate desire which is still unsatisfied. But that thought is mistaken, as we can see from Kant's own discussion of what he calls "moody wishes". A moody wish is one which can't be satisfied because one doesn't know exactly what it is that one wants (VA § 73, 7:251).

9 This is made more explicit in Kant’s anthropology lectures:

“Nature cannot guarantee us anything but the convenience and sustenance that can be used only among other human beings; and all poor circumstances in regard to conveniences and sustenance are unbearable to us only insofar as we cannot have them in common with other human beings. We do not complain about nature itself in regard to our niggardly circumstances, but only because other human beings have it better than we do. If my every meal is bread and water, then this grieves me because I know that other human beings have it better” (VA 25:470, cf. 25: 1103,1324).

“A bad meal, which nevertheless satisfies our needs, does not make us unhappy. But to have torn clothing and to appear in society with this, this is unhappiness. One feels cut off from society and loses the respect of others. Such a person is not offended by the lack but from the low esteem he expects from others. Human beings are always ready -to despise him who is unhappy or destitute according to his estate in society. Hence clothing and external goods belong very much to the happiness of life” (VA 25:1504).

In these passages Kant sometimes cites either (Henry) Home (Lord Kames) or David Hume, but the only plausible source for what he says is from the writings of a different Scotsman:

“The Greeks and Romans lived, I suppose, very comfortably, though they had no linnen. But in present times, through the greater part of Europe, a creditable day-laborer would be ashamed to appear in publick without a linnen shirt, the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful degree of poverty, which, it is presumed, no body can well fall into without extreme bad conduct. Custom, in the same manner, has rendered leather shoes a necessary of life in England. The poorest person of either sex would be ashamed to appear in publick without them.” Adam Smith, The Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, The Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondences of Adam Smith, R. H. Campbell, A. S. Skinner, W. B. Todd (eds.) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976) 5.2.4., pp. 869-870.

10  For a fuller discussion, see “Unsociable Sociability: The Anthropological Basis of Kantian Ethics,” Philosophical Topics 19, 1 (1991).

11 We might think that Kant would allow some inequality between agents on moral grounds, since he holds that the worth of my person is greater if I have a good will than if I have an evil will. But Kant consistently maintains that moral self-worth is an "inner" worth, involving a comparison only between myself and the moral law, never a comparison between different people. When I am conscious of failing to do my duty, I regard myself with "self-contempt and inner abhorrence" (G 4:426), but I do not regard myself as lower than other people. And when I do my duty, my self-contentment is never a ground for feeling superior to them. "All human beings are equal to one another, and only he who is morally good has a superior inner worth" (VE 27:462). If this statement is not to be understood as some sort of Orwellian paradox, the morally good person's "superior inner worth" must be interpreted as involving comparison with the moral law, not with other people. As Kant also says: "Moral self-esteem, which is grounded in the worth of humanity, should not be derived from comparison with others, but from comparison with the moral law" (VE 27:349).

Kant does allow that I must feel respect for a humble plain man in whom I am aware of greater virtue than I find in myself, but he insists that this is really only a respect for the moral law, of which the humble man's conduct provides me with an example (KpV 5:76-77). At the same time, he makes it clear that respect for the moral merits of others is really no different from respect for their talents or learning, since (he claims) the real object of the latter is not the learned or talented person, but our own duty to develop our talents or improve our mind (KpV 5:76-77). Genuine moral humility (the awareness of our moral shortcomings) is never a matter of comparing ourselves with others, but is always grounded on our awareness of the dignity (absolute worth) worth) of rational nature in our person, which is an inner and incomparable worth (MS 6:435). Kant believes, of course, that justice requires the punishment external wrongdoing, in order to protect the right to external freedom. But he insists that forms of punishment must always respect the criminal's dignity as a human being, which can never be lost or forfeited (MS 6:463). And punishment is regarded by Kant as a form of coercion, which is therefore entirely out of place in moral (as opposed to legal) contexts. There is no place in Kantian ethics for looking down on others as morally inferior, just as there is no place in Kantian ethics for employing moral blame or disapproval as social sanctions for moral rules.

12  Kant does not, however, seem to hold the absurdly pessimistic view of Schopenhauer, that all desire satisfaction is a delusion, and that nothing of our happiness can ever be attained. When he discusses the way in which the pursuit of happiness inevitably leads to discontent, the idea seems rather to be that although we may satisfy our desires (for wealth, knowledge, health or long life), when we do so, the result is likely to be that there will arise further sources of discontent (wealth leads to care and suspicion, knowledge to our awareness of evils in life previously hidden from us, and so on) so that we continue to remain at a distance from the final contentment we represent in our idea of happiness (G 4:418-419 ).

13  The inherent discontent of the human condition is emphasized by Victoria S. Wike, Kant on Happiness in Ethics (Albany: SUNY Press, 1994). Her metaphysical explanation of this, however -- that it rests on Kant's distinction between the phenomenal and the noumenal, and destines us for happiness only in a future life -- seems to me to obscure the important anthropological theses (especially Kant's Rousseauian conception of human nature as it develops in the social condition) which lie behind Kantian doctrine on this point.

14 Given Kant's view of what our desire for happiness consists in and how it relates to what is really valuable, he would be quite justified in scoffing at the utilitarian idea that morality would be well served by a rational pursuit of the general happiness. For even a single individual's pursuit of happiness is riddled with irrationality. If we think of calculating the general happiness as a process of typing the utility functions of all individuals into a computer and then deriving a collective result through the right algorithm, then Kant's view is that our project cannot get off the ground, because none of the utility functions we feed into our database will meet even the most minimal conditions of self-consistency. Even if people's individual conceptions of happiness made sense, there would not be much room for maximizing happiness among them because the pursuit of happiness is basically a zero-sum game, in which any gain at all for one party will be at the expense of another. For the most part we can speak of agreement between what will make individuals happy only in the way that Francis I reported that there was agreement between himself and Emperor Charles V: "What my brother wants (Milan), that I want too" (KpV 5:29).

15  Plato, Gorgias 483-486.

16 From this point of view, in fact, what makes a person happiness objectively valuable is only the fact that a person has set it as an end. Hence one corollary of Kant's position is that there can be no moral ground at all for paternalistic conduct that foists some happiness on another which the other has not chosen to pursue.

17  This important concept in Kantian ethics, especially in relation to the conception of the highest good, is explored by Stephen Engstrom, "The Concept of the Highest Good in Kant's Moral Theory," Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 52 (1992).

18  Earlier versions of this paper were read at the meeting of the U. K. Kant Society in St. Andrews in September, 1996, and at a conference honoring the memory of Lewis White Beck at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. For helpful discussions on those occasions I wish especially to thank Henry Allison, Michael Friedman, Otfried Höffe, Onora O’Neill, Adrian Piper, Stanley Rosen and John Skorupski.

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