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


By Kristi Sweet

I would first like to thank the two commentators who painstakingly and thoughtfully engaged my book. I am humbled by the amount of care they each put into crafting their responses. I will attempt here to match their care in developing my own answers to their questions and criticisms. I apologize in advance for falling short in adequately addressing all the concerns raised, points made, and questions asked. In an effort to keep this response to a reasonable length, I will certainly fail to do their critiques justice. Before addressing their comments, which I will take in turn, I would like to say a little about what motivated me to write this book, and what its point of departure is.

If one were to state the core idea of Kant’s practical philosophy, it might be this: we are responsible to take things as they are, and make them into what they ought to be. That is, the space that Kant identifies between what is and what ought to be, is where he locates the duty of human beings. The ought is what obliges, what weighs and presses on us to bring it into being. While Kant focuses on the philosophical—and therefore sometimes abstract and certainly always theoretical—development of this idea, its existential force is unmistakable. We all find ourselves belonging to an imperfect world, recognizing that it ought to be otherwise, that it should be better. Indeed, the world in which we find ourselves is not only indifferent to perfection, but seems actively and perhaps even intractably unjust and corrupt. At the same time, we find ourselves to be far from how we ought to be as well. We want things we should not want, and are continually tempted to pursue our own interests over the good. What is so compelling about Kant’s practical philosophy is that it speaks to how we find ourselves in the world.

Kant addresses this gap, and seeks to articulate from where the ought comes and what it demands of us—both with regard to our own moral being as well as the world around us. What compelled me initially about Kant’s thought in this vein was his view of world history and moral progress. Kant insists that human beings have an obligation to bring about a cosmopolitan world order constituted by justice; the world ought to be wholly perfect, just, and moral. With this, he promotes the idea that despite what evidence there is to the contrary, we must take a morally progressive view of history so that we do not despair and thereby undermine our commitment to make things better. The force of reason to bring about a world as it ought to be—what Kant calls the moral world in his earlier writings and which I link to the highest good and the kingdom of ends in my book—is matched only, perhaps, by the force of the way things resist being made better. Over and over again in Kant’s practical philosophy one discerns this movement: a moral demand for the absolutely good with an accompanying commitment to its impossibility.

The argument of my book rests on what I believe is a simple insight about Kant. Kant’s characterization of reason is that it demands the absolutely good—which I develop along Kant’s own lines of the unconditioned—yet in its very structure it cannot reach what it demands. This insight constitutes the thematic focus and narrative of my book, wherein I trace the arc of this demand from duty and virtue—the subjective demands for absolute goodness—to the demand for us to work to make the world better—the objective demands for absolute goodness. Crucially, my book argues that these demands are co-constitutive, and are born of the same need that reason has to pursue the unconditioned.

Response to Moran

Moran’s comments gave me much food for thought—they pose interesting and potentially productive challenges to the book. I will address her comments here in the order she has presented them.

Moran’s first question centers on the emphasis my book places on the highest good as the union of virtue and happiness in the world. In this, I take the moral demand to bring about the highest good as the locus of Kant’s idea that the human being must promote and engage in a moral community. Thus it is not a surprise that Moran begins here—her own work artfully and persuasively suggests the importance of community in Kant’s thought. In my book, I argue that the demand to bring about the highest good requires the creation of a world in which the virtue of all is what leads to the happiness of all (at least, this is Kant’s first, and most ideal conception of it). In the course of this argument, Moran is right to note, I shift the concern away from an interest in personal happiness. She is also right to note that Kant does not disavow the moral legitimacy for an individual to care about his or her own happiness; indeed, the same concern we have for the moral progress of the species appears here. If we find no connection between our own personal moral standing and whether or not we are happy, we may despair and thereby undermine our commitment to the good. I am quite happy with this friendly amendment, and think that if I were to write the book again, I would certainly incorporate the individual’s relation to the union of virtue of happiness.

Moran’s deeper concern about what is actually required to avoid despair—is reasonable belief in the union of virtue and happiness enough?—is one I share. I think that Kant may actually come to revise his views on this score. While in the Second Critique the postulates give us “reasonable belief” I think that a significant motivating factor for the Third Critique is a need for something like evidence that our wills can be efficacious and that nature will conform to the demands of reason.[1] I think this is also Kant’s concern in developing the idea of a “sign” of history in the Conflict of the Faculties.

I am particularly appreciative for Moran’s next line of inquiry, in which she develops a really wonderful distinction: the “ransom notes” and “wish lists” that reason issues. Reason’s ransom note refers to Kant’s insistence that if the moral law cannot give rise to the highest good, then the moral law proves false. The stakes of the ransom note are high—if its demands are not met, the consequences are disastrous; the entire moral enterprise falls apart. Reason’s wish list refers not to things that reason demands with such severity, but rather what it wishes for. Moran’s view is that the only thing on the “ransom note” is the highest good—the resolution of the antinomy between virtue and happiness. Virtue itself, as well as culture, civil society, the ethical community, etc. are all on the wish list.

Rather than reiterate here at length the arguments I make in the book for why I take Kant to believe that virtue, civil society, and an ethical community are indeed on the ransom note, I will just note one thing before addressing the deeper issue Moran’s inquiry highlights, and with which I think she is principally concerned. Since on my reading the realization of the highest good is only met when individuals are virtuous, when political justice is realized, and an ethical community is established, then insofar as the highest good is on the ransom note, so are these. Without these, I would ask Moran how she believes the highest good is actually realized? What must be in place for virtue and happiness to accord with one another? However, the deeper question I believe that Moran is asking in this section though is this: What does it mean if the very demands that reason places on us are unreachable? That is, what if the ought required by reason is not possible? What then of the moral enterprise? She writes: “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.” Moran’s concern is with the ‘dependency’ I argue moral goodness has with respect to things that we are not likely ever to achieve fully (virtue, justice, ethical community). Or, I suspect lingering in the background here too, a concern that those who live in morally poor conditions can’t be good.

The upshot of this line of questioning is, in my view, no small matter. It strikes directly at the heart of one of the most interesting, difficult, and fruitful themes that Kant takes up in his moral philosophy. One thing I attempt to draw out in my book is Kant’s persistent attentiveness to the finite character of human existence and the shape it gives to our moral lives (hence, the painting on the cover, depicting the fall of Icarus, who was constitutionally unable to reach the heights that beckoned him). Moran’s concern can be distilled to the question this attentiveness engenders: if the dependency relations between moral goodness are as I suggest in the book, can we really ever be good? If we live in corrupt contexts or morally bankrupt times, what are our prospects for being good? What, then, is the real measure of moral goodness? I think this is a question that most ethical theorists do not take seriously enough; yet, I believe that our own experiences of the tension between wanting to be good and finding ourselves in situations where perhaps we cannot effect something for the better confirms for us that this question is existentially central to living well. I am reminded of the example many professors use in teaching Kant in an introductory level ethics course. If a parent is impoverished, is it morally good for them to steal a loaf of bread to feed their children? The answer is no; stealing is a clear moral wrong. It is the case that their situation is such that they cannot effect the good. Indeed, it is not even clear what it would mean to will the good in this instance, insofar as the will must be determined to act in order for us to say one has willed at all.

Kant may be the first truly modern thinker in this sense—he worries very much that if the world is a bad place, it threatens our very moral goodness. This is the unforeseen upshot of the ‘Lutheran turn’ in Western thought. On the one hand the measure of moral goodness is an inward one having to do with the form of the will. On the other hand, without a central measure that is something like Aristotelian fittingness, if the world itself does not attain the measure of moral goodness, then we ourselves may fail to reach this measure as well. We find ourselves, then, in a world that does not suit us (again, we can here think of the Third Critique as preoccupied with just this problem). In this, Kant may be the unlikely intellectual predecessor of authors like Franz Kafka, who explored in depth the existential stakes of finding oneself in a world ruled by indifference to our ends. Kant certainly does not go nearly as far as Kafka. Kant’s questions on this matter, though, are what lead me to, after tracing the tragic thread of finitude throughout the book, ending the book with a short excursus on what may be seen to be practical reason’s own ‘peculiar fate’.

Response to Bacin

I will now turn to some concerns raised by Bacin. My responses here will focus less on speculative matters than on clarificatory ones; Bacin’s comments will largely provide the opportunity to explain further—and expand upon—what I argue in the book.

The first question Bacin poses is about the rationale that underpins my account of Kant’s practical philosophy. The book argues that reason, for Kant, is constituted by a striving for the unconditioned and that we can trace how this striving takes shape in reason’s practical use throughout his moral, political, historical, and religious writings. My point of departure here is the end of the First Critique, where Kant suggests that while reason in its theoretical use remains dissatisfied with its aim of attaining the unconditioned, in its practical use it will find satisfaction. Bacin’s criticisms stem from being unconvinced that Kant himself understands the unconditioned substantively, and not simply adjectivally. I’d like to say a few things about this.

First, the distinction I invoke between the unconditioned (substantive) and unconditional (as adjective) is done in a very specific context. I do this in order to understand Kant’s claim about the unconditional goodness of the good will. However, there is something to Bacin’s observation that I do remain committed to the substantive use of the term throughout the project. This does not, however, preclude the adjectival use. On the contrary, I think that the different elements of moral life that I portray in the book are all about the unconditional character of the demands that reason places on us as well as those things that are unconditionally good (virtue, justice, ethical community). I would then not go so far as to say that Kant understands the unconditioned only adjectivally rather than substantively, as Bacin suggests. Rather, Kant uses it both ways. The unconditioned (as substantive) is what reason strives for. With this, freedom has an unconditional value (adjectival), we are unconditionally obliged by the moral law, etc. Kant’s own language confirms this, as he employs the term regularly in each idiom, and in both theoretical and practical contexts. Further, I think Bacin’s note that the practically unconditioned is the moral law is correct—I devote a good part of one chapter articulating how the demand for the unconditioned can be seen in the different formulations of the moral law—and think that with this, realizing the unconditioned means nothing other than acting from duty, that is, out of one’s freedom. In fact, I go so far as to claim that the unconditioned character of the moral law—that it is not something we can reason our way to, but rather is something to which we find ourselves subject—is a profound and often unacknowledged form of finitude that Kant believes constitutes human beings.

In this vein, Bacin further suggests that I overlook Kant’s commitment to there being two different domains of reason. On the contrary, my project takes its origin precisely to be the domain of the practical, and the peculiar shape the demand for the unconditioned takes in this domain. I do not then suggest that the unconditioned itself is identical in these two domains, only that the characteristic striving of reason constitutes its practical use as it does the theoretical. (If Bacin is unconvinced by Kant’s own assertions about there only being one reason with two different domains, then indeed, he will be unconvinced by my point of departure. And, given the scope of the book, I do not defend the unity of reason claim on Kant’s behalf.) I would like to propose to Bacin, then, this question: does he believe that there is not, for Kant, one reason that is constituted by the striving for the unconditioned? Does only theoretical reason strive for the unconditioned? Can such a view be justified on textual grounds? What then, for Kant, does practical reason look like?

Bacin’s second main line of criticism of my project is that Kant is not concerned with the efficacy of the moral law; or, at least, that Kant is not as concerned as I suggest. He is correct to note that the efficacy of the moral law and the transformation of the world in which we find ourselves is one of the central themes of my book. While I am familiar with the trajectory of Kant scholarship that has largely deemphasized this aspect of Kant’s moral philosophy, I confess I do not understand what this interpretative heritage thinks Kant means by ‘will’, the determination of a will, and ‘practical reason’ if efficacy is not of the highest import. Bacin’s criticisms come out most clearly when he invokes a supposed distinction between the will as having effects and the determination of the will. This distinction implies that one can determine the will to do something, but not actually do it. For example, if I make a promise to someone but do not follow through on it, I do not believe that we could say that I have actually determined my will to keep my promise. I may wish (in the Aristotelian sense) to keep my promise, but in not actually keeping the promise, I don’t see how one can consistently hold that one has determined one’s will to keep the promise. Even more simply: can I say I have determined my will to raise my hand if I do not raise my hand? Indeed, I think that if we believe that Kant somehow holds that there is such a possibility as determining the will without effecting the end, we are left with an incoherent solipsism. I would ask Bacin, then, what he believes the measure or mark is of a will determined to act.

Even if one does not think that Kant believes what I suggest here about what a will is, we cannot ignore Kant’s repeated, consistent, and very strong claims about the necessity of the will being effective. As Moran emphasizes in her line of inquiry, Kant himself suggests that the moral law itself is proved false if the highest good cannot be realized. Kant names the will and pure practical reason “the faculty of ends” (AA 5:58–9; 6:395, respectively). While there is textual evidence that Kant believes the will to be oriented by ends, perhaps the fullest evidence that he is concerned with the efficacy of the will is found in the postulates of practical reason, his theory of history, and ultimately in the Third Critique. In each of these spheres of Kant’s writing we find a philosopher deeply motivated by the worry that because of nature’s indifference to us, our ends may not be realizable. In the postulates then, we are able to think the possibility of transforming nature into something rational (both internally with regard to virtue and externally with regard to the world); in history and in culture we find that nature is not so indifferent to us after all—perhaps she even works to further reason’s ends; and the Third Critique is announced as offering a transition between the domains of freedom and nature, with the express concern that freedom be able to be effective in the natural order.

I will turn next to Bacin’s last line of commentary, as my response to it draws from what I have just outlined above. In his last set of criticisms, Bacin suggests that I “accentuate the opposition between virtue and duty,” and that I have a “negative view of duty.” It is unclear to me from where he derives these interpretations; he seems to believe that in arguing that the supposed ‘deontological’ and ‘teleological’ aspects of Kant’s thought are mutually entailing that I somehow downplay the importance of duty. So, I will take the opportunity here to reiterate what the view I hold in the book is. My project seeks at every turn to portray the inner unity of these two features of Kant’s practical philosophy without prioritizing one over the other. Indeed, one aim of my reading of Kant is to demonstrate how I believe that these two aspects of moral life are co-constitutive on Kant’s view. With regard to duty, I argue that it contains the “germ of the whole of [Kant’s] practical opus; it is the way that finite rational beings enact the freedom demanded of them by reason” (p. 36). Duty, I believe, is the way human beings fulfill reason’s need to be an unconditioned causality. When we act from duty, we act in an unconditionally free way, and whatever we effect from this free will is an effect of freedom. Moreover, I defend what has become for many an unappealing aspect of Kant’s vision of duty, namely, that acting from duty involves only being moved by the idea of the good and cannot involve any concern for how we feel.

In this I believe that virtue, far from “balancing” the deontological moment in Kant’s articulation of moral life, is a deepening of it. Virtue is the name we give to the disposition of the person who has committed him or herself always to following the moral law. This is at once a prior commitment we have made about who we are and the strength we need continually to enact this commitment. As I suggest, “while virtue involves having made a decision to follow the moral law, it also is enacted only each and every time we make good on that commitment” (p. 85). Moreover, Bacin’s suggestion that I imply that “Kant understands free agency […] as happening on a case-by-case basis” is something I explicitly reject, and indeed, argue against. My reconstruction of the relation between duty and virtue puts virtue at the heart of Kant’s theory of moral agency.

Virtue, as I develop Kant’s account in Chapter 2, is what human beings get because we cannot be holy. One of the things I find so compelling about Kant’s theory of virtue is its humanity: virtue is the perpetual struggle to be good. We ought to aim for holiness; we ought to aim for a will that acts on the moral law each and every time. I think Kant is clear that this is the moral ideal of absolute goodness (what else can it mean to be unconditionally good?) that reason holds before us, and to which we are obliged. However, Kant is clear that since our involvement in the natural order precludes us from being necessitated by the good in the way a holy will is, we must be virtuous; we must perpetually will the good and choose it for ourselves in an attempt to be holy. In this, I am grateful for the passage that Bacin points out where Kant elevates virtue above holiness—it demonstrates precisely the humanity in Kant’s vision and his affirmation of the human condition. But I do not see how Bacin concludes that holiness and virtue are “mutually exclusive”. How does Bacin reconcile this with all of the claims Kant does make about how we must aim at holiness? And, with this, what might being unconditionally good look like?

I’d like to address directly here a question Bacin asks pointedly: “Would it, for instance, ultimately mean that a subject needs to be virtuous in order to act from duty?” This is a really great question. In fact, I think the answer to the question, based on Kant’s moral psychology, is yes. Virtue answers to the question of who we are. Have you committed to being good, or to being happy? If you have committed yourself to acting on the principle of self-love, then happiness will be your guiding horizon and the basis upon which you act. Acting on one’s conscience takes work—an openness to the demand of the moral law and the strength of character to follow through. Now, I concede, perhaps in certain circumstances someone pursuing happiness may be compelled enough by the claim of the moral law that they act from duty. But given Kant’s rigorism (which I defend) and the difficulty he believes we have in maintaining our commitment to the good (which is how I believe he understands moral strength), I think he would find it unlikely that someone who is not virtuous would act from duty.

Lastly, I will turn briefly to Bacin’s second line of criticisms. The question of unity seems a fitting place to end this response and give some final thoughts. I found this line of inquiry to be really fruitful. It is true that in the book I simply ask the question about unity, but do not really motivate it; I am grateful to be given the opportunity further to reflect on this part of the project. In part, I think the question of the unity of Kant’s practical philosophy is motivated by Kant himself. He clearly thinks of politics, history, religion, and culture under the auspices of our moral lives. How exactly these fit into the sphere of moral life for Kant, then, became for me a pressing question. More broadly, though, I think the issue of unity in Kant’s practical thought has to do principally with what we are and how we ought to live. I turn to Kant’s notion of the striving for the unconditioned to really understand what it means to have practical reason, i.e., a will. What reason wants is, in the end, what we want. Or, at the very least, it is what we ought to want. In this, then, what it is to be a human being is to be subject to the demand to bring about—and ultimately hope for the possibility of—a better world. Our obligations, as I see it and as I outline in the book, are infinite; we are obliged to absolute goodness of the will and absolute goodness in the world. What we ought to do is transform the world around us so that it is suited to free, rational beings such as ourselves. Whether or not we can make such a home for ourselves remains always in doubt and always outstanding.


[1] See my ‘The Moral Import of the Critique of Judgment‘, in P. Muchnik (ed.), Rethinking Kant, vol. 2 (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010), pp. 222–36.

© Kristi Sweet, 2015.

Kristi Sweet is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Texas A & M University. Her primary area of interest is Kant’s practical philosophy. She has published in, among others, Kantian Review, Epoche: A Journal for the History of Philosophy, and Idealistic Studies. A new article ‘Kant and the Liberal Arts: A Defense’ is forthcoming in the Journal of Aesthetic Education. She currently works on a book focusing on Kant’s Critique of Judgement.