The Final Form of Kant’s Practical Philosophy

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Applying the moral law. The common picture of Kantian moral reasoning is one of agents fastidiously testing their maxims for universalizability and confining themselves to the straight and narrow path allowed them by a strict and demanding set of duties. In contrast to this picture, the Metaphysics of Morals is anything but a system of unexceptionable rules dictating a single determinate action on each occasion and forbidding all others. Kant even explicitly condemns any theory of that type, saying that it “would turn the government of virtue into a tyranny” (MS 6: 409). It would be equally misleading, however, to think of strict or narrow duties act as mere side-constraints on our pursuit of a set of private ends and projects with whose content morality has nothing to do. As Kant sees it, morality ought always to have a role in shaping our ends. Ethical duties are based on the principle that human ends ought to include both one’s own perfection and the happiness of others. Of course any given agent will specify these moral ends in ways which are suited to her individual situation, talents, resources, and temperament. If you are virtuous, the content of your life, the projects which give it meaning and direction, will prominently include the development of your particular capacities, talents or virtues, and the promotion of the ends of people you know or choose to help. The only limits here are that both these ends and the means chosen toward them should violate neither your perfect duties to yourself nor your duties of respect to others.8 Within these constraints, Kantian ethics encourages human beings to set their own ends and devise their own plan of life, commanding them only to include among their ends some whose pursuit is morally meritorious.

When we appreciate how broadly the ends of morality are conceived, we should find it highly implausible that a person could decently choose anything as what Bernard Williams calls a ‘ground project’ which would not fall somewhere within the scope of our ethical duties to promote our own perfection and the happiness of others. Kant’s ethical theory thus not only permits moral agents to pursue such projects, but it even underwrites that pursuit, claiming that it has moral merit. Of course the complexities of human life are such that sometimes our pursuit of ends which are meritorious in the abstract may involve us in a morally impermissible course. Leni Riefenstahl, for example, may have found that that in order to pursue her career as a filmmaker she had to put her talents at the service of an evil political regime, and even to become complicit in its crimes against humanity. We can agree that there is something tragic in a case where in order to comply with strict duties, an artist would have to abandon a career which constituted the meaning of her life. For there is nothing inherently evil about that career, and in less unlucky circumstances its pursuit would even constitute a determinate way of fulfilling the wide duties to promote her perfections and benefit others. Yet in the circumstances we are supposing, it would be far from evident that morality is subversive of personal integrity in any sense that ought to make us worry about the reasonableness of its demands. On the contrary, what should worry us are the theories (or antitheories) that seem to make it easier to rationalize complicity with evil on the ground that morality’s demands are too strict, and which suggest that we must sacrifice our integrity unless we are prepared to pursue our projects in defiance of morality.

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