KRISTI SWEET | Kant on Practical Life: From Duty to History | Cambridge University Press 2013


By Kate Moran

Kristi Sweet’s aim in Kant on Practical Life: From Duty to History is to provide a rich and comprehensive account of Kantian moral life—one that extends beyond Kant’s alleged formalism into matters of virtue, political society, and culture (to take just a few examples). Her strategy in this endeavour is to appeal to the Kantian idea of reason seeking the unconditioned—in this case, pure practical reason seeking the unconditioned. A detailed account of Kantian practical life emerges, according to Sweet, when we attend to the demands that pure practical reason makes in seeking the unconditioned. Sweet argues that such an approach to Kant’s practical philosophy more accurately represents the depth and complexity of Kant’s moral thought than interpretations that emphasize duty and the categorical imperative procedure. Further, Sweet argues, her approach emphasizes the important role of community, culture, and history in Kant’s practical philosophy—themes that can often be overlooked in more formalistic descriptions of Kant’s practical philosophy and its demands.

Sweet’s book is impressive in its scope and, I think, largely correct in its conclusions. In particular, I am largely sympathetic to many of the ways that Sweet describes Kantian moral life in its ideal. In this commentary, I will be focusing mainly on the arguments that Sweet uses to arrive at this account, specifically her appeal to the notion of practical reason seeking the unconditioned.

1. Kantian teleology

A first step toward describing the demands of Kantian ethical life, on Sweet’s account, is to observe that Kant’s moral philosophy admits of (indeed, demands) certain teleological elements. Sweet rightly acknowledges that thinking in terms of a distinction between ‘deontology’ and ‘teleology’ can often obscure the subtlety of a philosophical viewpoint and is, moreover, anachronistically applied in an analysis of Kant’s moral philosophy. Still, we can get a helpful sense of Sweet’s starting point and method if we begin, as she does, by making the provisional distinction. Taken by itself, the ‘deontological’ model (at least in its caricature) is formalistic, and perhaps even curiously self-oriented in its concern with how one’s own actions measure up to a standard. The teleological model, in offering an aim toward which agents ought to strive, admits of a more detailed and outward-looking account of moral life. Of course, neither of these is a necessary feature of a teleological theory. Various forms of perfectionism, for example, might be as formalistic and self-oriented as the ‘deontological’ caricature. Still, the driving point in Sweet’s appeal to teleology seems to be that allowing for the possibility of ends that ought to be pursued seems also to allow for a more detailed and rich description of our duties as moral agents.

It may be useful to make a distinction at this stage. A moral theory might, in the first instance, be teleological if it specifies an independent locus of goodness or value and that ought to be pursued. Various forms of utilitarianism and perfectionism fit this description. Obviously this could never be Kant’s view, since this would clearly undermine the necessity of the moral law. Of course, a theory might also be ‘teleological’ if it specifies ends that are not independently valuable, but which the moral law tells us we ought to pursue. This, I think, is an apt description of Kant’s moral philosophy in many respects, and I think Sweet and others who have argued for this claim are absolutely right to make this observation.

Sweet’s foundational and—as far as I know—unique claim in this text has to do with how Kant argues for these ends that ought to be pursued, that is, how he derives these ends from the moral law itself. Sweet argues that these ends are in some sense required or demanded by pure practical reason’s seeking the unconditioned. My commentary in what follows examines this demand.

2. Reason seeking the unconditioned: The highest good

There is at least one moment in Kant’s practical philosophy in which practical reason obviously and explicitly seeks the unconditioned, and this is Kant’s recurring concern with and discussion of the highest good. In the Dialectic of the Critique of Practical Reason, Kant puts the matter plainly:

[P]ure practical reason […] seeks the unconditioned for the practically conditioned (which rests on inclinations and natural needs), not indeed as the determining ground of the will, but even when this is given (in the moral law), it seeks the unconditioned totality of the object of pure practical reason, under the name of the highest good. (AA 5:108)

Appropriately, then, Sweet’s discussion of the highest good (Chapter 3) serves, to use a Kantian metaphor, as a kind of keystone of her project.

In the broadest of terms, Kant’s notion of the highest good brings together the otherwise disparate spheres of virtue and happiness. Though we derive a certain contentment from the knowledge that we have acted virtuously, virtue itself is no guarantee of happiness. Indeed, the virtuous often suffer all the more for their virtue.  But Kant is no Stoic: a world or universe in which virtue is not, somehow, accompanied by (indeed, the cause of) happiness is anathema to practical reason. Thus, as Sweet repeatedly notes, the highest good—or at least its possibility—is a demand that practical reason makes in seeking the unconditioned. Interestingly, however, it seems to me that Sweet almost understates the force of this demand in her discussion of the highest good. The demand that practical reason makes with regard to the highest good is a demand to resolve the antinomy, or apparent contradiction, between freedom (virtue) and nature (happiness). Crucially, if this demand cannot be met, Kant thinks we would have to close up shop on the whole moral enterprise:

[S]ince the promotion of the highest good, which contains this connection in its concept, is an a priori necessary object of our will and inseparably bound up with the moral law, the impossibility of the first must also prove the falsity of the second. If, therefore, the highest good is impossible in accordance with practical rules, the moral law, which commands us to promote it, must be fantastic and directed to empty imaginary ends and must therefore in itself be false. (AA 5:114)

This passage appears in the Critique of Practical Reason. At this stage in his writing, Kant has already painstakingly outlined the content of the moral law in the Groundwork, and he has provided two apparently separate arguments for why the moral law applies to rational beings like us in the Groundwork and Critique of Practical Reason. And yet here Kant suddenly asserts that failing to resolve the apparent and troubling contradiction between virtue and happiness would undermine his whole moral project by showing that it is “directed to empty imaginary ends” and therefore “false”. Of course, the moral law seems never to be in any real danger: ultimately its necessity serves as a premise in Kant’s transcendental argument for the postulates of pure practical reason. The point I wish to emphasize here is simply that, when it comes to the highest good, the moral law itself depends upon satisfying the demand that practical reason makes in seeking the unconditioned. Failing to respond to these demands adequately would be enough to undermine the entire moral project.

What, precisely, is the demand that pure practical reason makes with respect to the highest good? On Sweet’s account, as I read it, practical reason demands a guarantee of efficacy, or a guarantee that the moral law will come to something in a world that can otherwise seem hostile to the influence of morality.[1] Such a demand is captured nicely in a passage from the Religion that Sweet cites approvingly, in which Kant notes that “it cannot be a matter of indifference to reason how to answer the question, What is then the result of this right conduct of ours?” (AA 6:5) Pure practical reason thus demands, in a sense, that the moral law described in the Groundwork and the Analytic of the Critique of Practical Reason will extend itself and have some influence on the empirical world, specifically on the happiness of the rational agents who live there. To underscore this point, Sweet offers a compelling and convincing account of how the duty to pursue the highest good can be derived from the various formulations of the categorical imperative found in the Groundwork. Ultimately, this interpretation leads Sweet to adopt what many would call a ‘secular’ interpretation of the highest good, according to which agents have a duty to strive to achieve a kind of moral world that will satisfy practical reason’s demand for the unconditioned in the highest good.[2] Notably, Sweet emphasizes the extent to which the duty to strive for such an end is a shared venture, demanding, for example, that we become members of an ethical community (Chapter 5).

I agree with Sweet that, at the very least, practical reason demands a reasonable belief in the efficacy of the moral law in the empirical world. (Indeed, I admit that I used to think that this was all that practical reason could reasonably demand.) But I wonder if reason might not have further demands when it comes to the highest good. In what follows, I will briefly outline my reasons for this question. I will then conclude this section and the discussion of the highest good with some questions about how—if at all—these questions about the highest good intersect with Sweet’s account of Kantian moral life.

There is some suggestion in Kant’s texts and lectures that practical reason demands something more than a reasonable belief that the moral law will extend itself into the world. In particular, practical reason seems, at times, to demand at least a hope for personal happiness. Sweet acknowledges such moments in Kant’s discussions of the highest good in her discussion of the ‘individualist’ account of the highest good, according to which practical reason seeks a guarantee that individual happiness will accord with individual virtue. However, Sweet seems to bracket this account of the highest good as a view that is not wholly consistent with Kant’s overarching commitment to the idea that virtue somehow causes happiness (i.e., that happiness is not simply a reward doled out according to virtue) (p. 120). And on the face of things, there is good reason to so bracket the individualist account. After all, this account is closely associated with a kind of motivational argument concerning the moral law and the highest good: a moral agent might be incapable of moral motivation if she knew that she would not be rewarded for her virtue. Of course, any appeal ‘reward’ when it comes to moral motivation is heteronomous, and stands in express contradiction to the account of moral willing and moral motivation that Kant so famously puts forward in the Groundwork and the works on moral philosophy that come later. The ‘individualist’ account, on the other hand, appears in the first Critique and so does not necessarily impugn Kant’s later insistence upon autonomy, since the first edition of that work appeared before the Groundwork, and the section of the work that discusses the highest good was never revised.

But I wonder if we can shelve the ‘individualist’ strand of the highest good so easily. For better or for worse, Kant doesn’t seem to have completely abandoned this line of thinking, even later in his career. In fact, some of the most vivid examples of ‘individualist’ concern appear in lectures that Kant was giving just as he was sending the Groundwork—and its discussion of autonomy—to press. In the following passage from the second set of Mrongovius lectures, Kant is careful to distinguish “motivating grounds” from “confirmatory grounds”. If we think of our own happiness as a motivating ground, then, of course, we have slipped into heteronomy. Nevertheless, pure practical reason seems to still demand at least some reasonable hope of happiness if morality is to be anything but a “chimera”.

Rewards must not be represented as motivating grounds, or else it is merely prudent conduct, but as confirmatory grounds for the correctness and truth of moral laws. Even the most virtuous person, if he inhabited a world in which he were the more unhappy the more virtuous he was, would not lack motivating grounds, but confirmatory grounds (Bestätigungs Gründen). Otherwise I do not know whether my morality is a chimera (an ideal of the creative imagination). If there were no reward that would indeed be a great objection against moral principles. The certainty of the principle is seen 1. a priori, and 2. it can be confirmed from the consequence a posteriori.—God has not arranged things in the world to the effect that virtue is rewarded because then everything would be done from self-interest. Morality also needs confirmation and we must be able to think rewards at least possible.—If not, morality would never be anything but a chimera if there were no grounds for me to think and hope that there is a reward. (AA 29:637)[3]

Here, just as in the passage from the Dialectic of the Critique of Practical Reason cited above, Kant insists that failing to satisfy practical reason’s demand for the unconditioned would be to prove that morality is a mere fiction. And in this passage, Kant suggests that practical reason makes a demand for “confirmatory grounds”—understood as the hope, at least, that one’s own virtue will result in one’s own happiness.[4]

Hints of this line of thinking appear in later published works, too—for example, when Kant remarks in the Critique of Practical Reason that “to need happiness, to be also worthy of it, and yet not to participate in it cannot be consistent with the perfect volition of a rational being that would at the same time have all power” (AA 5:110). And perhaps the most poetic and vivid instances of this line of thinking appear in the Critique of the Power of Judgement. For example:

He does not demand any advantage for himself from his conformity to this law, whether in this or in another world; […] Deceit, violence, and envy will always surround him, even though he is himself honest, peaceable, and benevolent; […] The end, therefore, which this well-intentioned person had and should have had before his eyes in his conformity to the moral law, he would certainly have to give up as impossible; or, if he would remain attached to the appeal of his moral inner vocation and not weaken the respect, by which the moral law immediately influences him to obedience […], then he must assume the existence of a moral author of the world, i.e., of God, from a practical point of view […]. (AA 5:452–3)

In this passage, just as in the passage from the Mrongovius lecture, Kant suggests that the despondency that results when a virtuous agent is constantly met with unhappiness is enough to undermine the moral law, or make it “impossible”. Again, the point does not seem to be a motivational one. Nor, however, does it seem to be a point (in the first instance) about bringing about a moral world.

Whatever we make of these passages, I don’t think that we can set them aside as examples of Kant’s early thought. Still, they are certainly curious claims, and I wonder what Sweet makes of them, in light of her larger project. Is the demand or need of reason described in these passages different from the demand for a “moral world” that she describes in Chapter 4? And even if it is different, might the “moral world” satisfy the demand described in these passages nonetheless? Might, for example, the possibility of a “moral world” provide just enough hope to the potentially despondent agent to provide him with “confirmatory grounds”? Finally, do any new ends or obligations arise from acknowledging, perhaps, that this is a real concern for Kant?

3. Ransom notes and wish lists

I’d like to turn now from the discussion of the highest good to a discussion of the other ways in which, according to Sweet, practical reason demands the unconditioned. Again, Sweet’s argument, in broad strokes, is that in seeking the unconditioned, pure practical reason makes various demands. These demands, in turn, point to ends that moral agents have a duty to pursue. Thus, Kant’s moral philosophy admits of teleology in ways often not acknowledged by commentators. Sweet argues that practical reason makes demands concerning virtue (Chapter 2) and participation in political society (Chapter 4), to take just two examples. Although it is clear that Kant thinks we have a duty to pursue some of these ends, I have a few doubts and questions about Sweet’s claim that we can derive them from practical reason’s seeking the unconditioned.

The source of my doubts has to do with what I take to be a clear difference between the sense in which pure practical reason seeks the unconditioned with respect to the highest good and the way in which it seeks the unconditioned (if it does) in the other cases that Sweet discusses. To my knowledge, Kant only uses the language of practical reason’s seeking the unconditioned in relation to the highest good. Textual evidence aside, however, it is clear that even if reason seeks the unconditioned with respect to virtue, culture, or political society, this demand differs not in degree, but in kind, from the demand concerning the highest good and the resolution of the antinomy of practical reason. This is because in none of these other cases does a failure to accommodate reason’s seeking of the unconditioned threaten to undermine the moral law, or prove the moral law false. Even if we grant that reason seeking the unconditioned generates a ‘demand’ for a stable, strong, moral character; culture; or political society, if these demands cannot be met, the moral project goes on, albeit perhaps imperfectly. If practical reason’s seeking the unconditioned generates demands of this second variety (e.g., with regard to virtue, culture, and political society), these demands will be more something like a wish list, rather than a ransom note.

This distinction between the ransom note associated with reason’s demand to resolve the antinomy of pure practical reason and the wish list associated with (for example) practical reason’s demand for a strong, stable, and reliable moral character has, to my mind, some important philosophical consequences. I will discuss these in what follows.

A. Conditions and conditioning

First, it seems to me that by equating practical reason’s ransom note with its wish list, we risk muddying the waters with respect to the dependency relationships in Kant’s moral philosophy. Resolving the antinomy of pure practical reason is, according to Kant, a condition of morality. It thus stands to reason that Kant would insist that we have a duty to pursue the highest good if, like Sweet and others, we think that the highest good is a state of affairs that is achievable within human history and as part of an ethical community. Kant’s claim that we have a duty to pursue the highest good would then be tantamount to the claim that we have a duty to pursue, to the best of our abilities, the conditions under which morality is possible at all. However important other components of Kant’s moral system are, it seems to me that they do not share this conditioning relationship with morality or moral action. To elaborate on this point, I will largely refer to Sweet’s discussion of virtue and character in Chapter 2, though my questions extend to some of her other discussions, too.

Sweet bases her account of Kantian virtue on the observation that discreet moral actions are, in a sense, not enough for practical reason as it seeks the unconditioned. As she puts it:

While duty and the good will that it realizes embody the form of the unconditioned causality of a free will in individual actions, reason’s striving for the unconditioned requires more than this. Namely, reason requires that we aim at holiness, or “the complete conformity of dispositions with the moral law” (AA 5:122). (p. 75)

Sweet thus glosses virtue in terms of practical reason’s requirement or demand for a “consistent, necessary, and unconditional commitment to acting from duty” (ibid.).

As an aside, I am somewhat hesitant to go along with Sweet in (what I take to be) her claim that the ‘virtue’ that Kant refers to in this passage of the Critique of Practical Reason (“complete conformity of dispositions with the moral law”) is the same as the ‘virtue’ that Kant discusses at length in the Doctrine of Virtue, where it is glossed more in terms of a strength of will or character. The former, to me, seems just to describe a perfectly good will; whereas the latter admits of a discussion of the habits and dispositions that sensible agents ought to develop in order to come closer to perfect moral willing. For the purposes of our discussion here, however, I think this is only a small point. It is clear that developing one’s strength of character and moral fortitude is, for rational and sensible agents like us, an important part of striving for a “consistent, necessary, and unconditional commitment to acting from duty”.

But—to return the matter at hand—what of the relationship between virtue and moral willing? Here, Sweet makes a striking claim. On her account, “[t]he possibility of acting from duty at all […] is conditioned first by one’s character, or virtue” (p. 78). I want to explore this claim a bit more in what follows, but first, it is interesting to note that this is precisely the relationship between virtue and moral willing that we would expect if (a) virtue were something that practical reason required in its seeking of the unconditioned and (b) if this requirement had the same status as the “ransom note” that practical reason issues in the face of the antinomy of pure practical reason. In that case, morality (acting form duty) would be impossible without first satisfying reason’s demand or requirement for the unconditioned (virtue). However, it seems to me that the practical reason’s requirement in this case does not have the same status as the demand to resolve the antinomy of pure practical reason.

With these observations in mind, I would like to hear Sweet elaborate on this conditioning relationship between acting from duty and virtue. In what sense is the “possibility of acting from duty at all […] conditioned” by character or virtue? It would certainly seem that acting from duty is more probable in those agents who have developed a strong character. And there is no question that agents who have devoted effort to developing such a character would in all likelihood have less fractured moral lives. But I am not sure that either of these rises to the level of a conditioning relation between virtue and acting from duty. Indeed, if anything, it would almost seem as though developing a character would be conditioned by acting from duty, since, presumably, we are motivated by duty to develop our virtue.

Then there are questions about the possibility of virtue, as Sweet seems to understand it. Again, Sweet describes Kantian virtue in terms of an answer to practical reason’s demand for a kind of guarantee:

Even while actions from duty realize reason’s demand for the unconditioned, they do so only contingently each time. Reason, though, requires a thoroughgoing unconditionality in our will, and thus places on us the need to undo the contingency that is otherwise present as a result of nature’s influence on us. (p. 79)

I am curious about how Sweet understands reason’s “require[ment]” for “thoroughgoing unconditionality in our will”. What are the consequences if this requirement cannot be met? The question strikes me as important, since—as Sweet herself acknowledges later in the chapter—this “thoroughgoing unconditionality” is something that rational and sensible agents can never have. Insofar as practical reason makes this demand for non-contingency, it is bound to be frustrated. Even the most virtuous moral character is always subject to the anxiety that he may not live up to the demands of morality in the future, simply because he is sensibly-affected. Acknowledging this fact, Sweet offers a detailed and compelling account of how moral agents might, as she puts it, “meliorate” the dialectic between morality and inclination (see esp. pp. 96–7). But, as Sweet herself seems ready to admit, none of these suggestions will ever provide the basis for the guarantee of unconditionality that practical reason seeks, on her view. Since this is the case, I am again left to wonder about the status of reason’s demand for unconditionality—especially if such unconditionality conditions the “possibility of acting from duty at all”.

In sum, then, I think we may arrive at counter-intuitive results about what depends on what if we follow Sweet in thinking that practical reason’s seeking the unconditioned generates ends that we have a duty to pursue. To take another example, Sweet sometimes suggests that acting from duty and moral goodness depend on, for example, participating in a political community and securing property rights (see, e.g. p. 148). But I wonder about the sense in which moral goodness can ‘depend’ on these other matters. It certainly can’t be the case that morality or moral goodness is only possible if these conditions are fulfilled. Rather, I suspect that Sweet wants to claim that morality only reaches its fullest expression under these conditions. So, for example, she argues that “in order to realize my moral goodness, I must not only enter into a civil society. In finding myself already in one, I must take part in the collective willing of a sovereign people” (p. 157). But if practical reason seeks the unconditioned not in securing necessary conditions, but also in finding its fullest expression, then I wonder about the kinds of demands that practical reason makes in pursuing its fullest expression.

B. Normativity and demandingness

I’d like to begin this section of the discussion by pointing to one point on which I agree with Sweet about the demands generated by practical reason seeking the unconditioned. If we think of the pursuit (or possibly the accomplishment) of the highest good as necessary to diffuse the antinomy of practical reason, then our duty to pursue the highest good will be a duty upon which morality itself rests. Further, any duty that can be derived from the duty to pursue the highest good will, indirectly, acquire this normative status. Sweet argues in Chapter 5 that we have a duty to join an ethical community (understood as a kind of church) because this is a necessary condition of creating the moral world described (on her interpretation) by the highest good. If this is right, then the duty to join the ethical community plausibly derives a special normative status from the associated duty to pursue the highest good.

But, again, the moral object described by the highest good is—for better or for worse—part of practical reason’s ransom note. But I think we can and should ask a separate question about the normative status of the ends on practical reason’s wish list. Is the demand to achieve or pursue these things the same as the demand to achieve or pursue the highest good?

As it happens, Kant does in fact say that we have a duty to pursue many of the ends (virtue, political society) that Sweet discusses, so her claims are certainly plausible on their face. But Kant gives independent arguments for these duties; they don’t seem to derive their normative status from reason seeking the unconditioned. Kant’s argument that we ought to enter into political society, for example, is based on the observation that property rights, and thus in a sense our freedom to act, are purely provisional before we enter into such a society. There is, I think, no question that these claims can be traced back to the demands of the moral law, or to claims about the optimal conditions for human freedom. In this sense, I suspect, any disagreement I have with Sweet may be small in the end. Still, I worry that if we describe the derivation of these ends and duties in terms of reason’s demand for the unconditioned, we risk describing Kantian moral life as a kind of relentless, maximizing pursuit of these moral objects. Kantian moral life would then seem to be even more demanding than even the most strident promoter of imperfect duty would have imagined. Interestingly, Sweet seems to admit—and embrace—as much:

The demands of moral life are seen, then, to be remarkably steep. They are so steep, in fact, that Kant believes that they exceed what each of us can do on our own, and even insofar as we join with others in their pursuit, they require the long arc of history to achieve. (p. 208)

I’m less concerned than some might be with the claim that fulfilling the demands of moral life might be a shared endeavour that might take generations. That claim need not run afoul of the principle that ought implies can. Our own duties with respect to moral life might, in this case, simply be described as duties to do all that we can to bring about these ends. But I do wonder whether we should describe these duties as obligations demanded or required by practical reason’s ongoing seeking of the unconditioned—especially since there seems to be a real question about whether practical reason can ever be fully satisfied in its seeking of the unconditioned in these other (i.e., wish list) cases.

Perhaps, then, I will end with a question about the nature of these requirements, specifically, just how demanding Sweet takes these requirements of reason to be. Is there a kind of ‘checklist’ of ends—for example participation in political community, culture, freedom of speech and expression—that reason demands we pursue to some degree or another? Or does reason in its seeking of the unconditioned require that we maximize these ends, or pursue them whenever possible? From the point of view of reason seeking the unconditioned, am I doing something wrong or blameworthy if, instead of exercising or cultivating my capacity for free expression, I choose to watch a movie with limited cultural value instead?


[1] The notion of a ‘guarantee’ may, in fact, be too strong here. It may satisfy practical reason’s demand simply to be assured that the highest good is possible. These are important questions, but I fear a discussion of modalities and doxastic attitudes (i.e., whether practical reason demands belief, knowledge, or simply hope) might take us too far into the weeds of the highest good.

[2] Sweet emphasizes Kant’s appeal to the notion of a ‘moral world’ (e.g., A809/B837) in order to help make this point. However others have argued that Kant should not be taken literally when he mentions the moral world, since this may simply be a way of referring to the moral universe. See , for example, L. Pasternack, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Kant’s Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason (New York and London: Routledge, 2013), p. 34, who points out that Kant uses the term to refer to the “absolute totality of the sum total of existing things” (A419/B447).

[3] Provisional translation by J. Timmermann (Oxford: Oxford UP, forthcoming).

[4] It is noteworthy, however, that Kant does not make any claims about proportionality in this passage. Rather, agents seem simply to require some hope that virtue will not make them increasingly unhappy.

© Kate Moran, 2015.

Kate Moran obtained her Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania. She is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Brandeis University, Massachusetts. Her research focuses primarily on Immanuel Kant’s practical philosophy. Her monograph Community and Progress in Kant’s Moral Philosophy came out with Catholic University of America Press in 2012. She also published ‘Delusions of Virtue: Kant on Self-Conceit‘, Kantian Review (2014) and ‘Much Obliged: Kantian Gratitude Reconsidered’, Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie (forthcoming).