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The Capacity for Duty: Kant’s Teleological Theory of Virtue

9 May 2012

Immanuel Kant

While Kant’s ethics, particularly as they are presented in his most famous and well-read ethical work, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, are generally thought to be so strictly categorical that the term ‘Kantian’ is nearly a byword for ‘categoricalist’ and Kantian deontology dominates most categoricalist ethical thinking, Kant’s larger corpus of ethical works reveals a deeper well of thought that makes virtue[1] a primary element of moral living. Though even in his thought on virtue Kant remains grounded in the imperative of the moral law he places virtue at the centre of human endeavours to uphold that law. The development of virtue, for Kant, is the means by which human beings can overcome natural inclinations and act in accordance with the duty to the moral law. There are two distinct, but not discrete, streams of virtue ethical reflection in Kant’s thought: a moral psychology of virtue and a deontological ethic of virtue. The former is developed in Book I of Religion within the Bounds of Mere Reason and the latter in “The Doctrine of Virtue” in Kant’s last ethical work, The Metaphysics of Morals. A surface reading of these texts may suggest that the two understandings of virtue are irreconcilable and one may be tempted to suggest that the later supplants the former and that the psychological account of virtue in Religion is superseded by the philosophical account in “Virtue.” A deeper reading of Kant’s two streams of virtue thinking reveals that not only are they fundamentally compatible but together their form a coherent system of aretaic thought.

Kant’s moral psychology of virtue is presented within the framework of his exposition original sin, or, as he terms, the “radical evil of human nature.” Human beings are, says Kant, corrupted by a fundamental evil which turns our actions inexorably away from the moral law. However, Kant does not locate this fundamental evil in human nature as such, since were the evil inherent to being human then humans could not be held morally responsible for it, or, to employ Kant’s terminology, it could not imputed to human beings, which Kant insists is the case. Therefore he locates it instead in human freedom, in the choosing of our fundamental moral maxim.[2] The human being, says Kant, is aware of the moral law but has failed to incorporate it into his or her maxim, and is thus fundamentally evil.[3] Thus the human being is evil qua his or her humanity but not because of the nature of that humanity, rather because of universal and free choice. Kant insists that it is impossible to know the ultimate source of humanity’s radical evil, since, as a product of free choice, it resides in the unknowable realm of the noumenal but that this corruption, equally necessarily, not fundamental to human nature, not overriding the first-order human predisposition to the good, but rather a result of falling through temptation. Thus, says Kant, there remains for the human being, since we possess a corrupted heart but still a good will, the possibility of returning to the good.[4]

In Religion Kant defines virtue as “…the firmly grounded disposition to fulfill one’s duty strictly.”[5] Thus Kant does not admit of a multiplicity of virtues, individual characteristics which can, in theory, be developed independently because this would allow for the possibility that one should be virtuous in one respect but vicious in another. Rather, virtue is a holistic temper to act in a certain manner with regards to the law. Kant also does not allow that virtue can be learned, it is instead a matter of choice with regards to one’s fundamental maxim of actions.[6] Kant draws an important but understated distinction between a change of heart and a change of mores,[7] of which only the former is necessary to attain to the formal state of virtue. The change of mores is the conforming of one’s actions to the moral law, not necessarily out of the proper motivation of respect of the law itself, but conceivably in acting upon merely hypothetical maxims. A human being, says Kant, considers him or herself virtuous when he or she finds him or herself stable in his or her maxims of observance of duty, rather than by virtue of the supreme ground of all maxims themselves, the moral law and the duty thereto. Thus virtue possesses the character of lawful actions, if not lawful maxims.[8] The change of heart is necessary to truly overcome the radical evil of human nature and act upon the original human predisposition to the good, and it is a necessarily revolutionary, rather than reformative or progressive, change. However the attainment of this end, of the radical change of the fundamental moral maxim, or ‘putting on of the new man,’ as Kant describes it, is possible only as a process of progression toward holiness and the original purity of moral maxims.[9]

The putting on of the new man, the remaking of the self into a subject sensitive to the good, is, says Kant, a constant and endless process of labouring and becoming, beginning with the adoption of the pure principle of duty as the supreme ground of one’s power of choice, in virtue of the unique stability of which one can find oneself upon the narrow path of moral progress.[10] Kant defends the possibility of moral progress by appeal to the necessity of moral progress. Since the moral law requires that human beings progress from the state of radical evil the possibility that human beings can achieve this lofty end must exist.[11] But, continues Kant, since moral progression, returning to the original purity of the supreme ground of free choice, is a progression into infinity, this fundamental reconstitution of one’s evil predisposition as a good one consists entirely in the changing of the supreme inner ground of the adoption of one’s maxims such that they come to be in accordance with the moral law. Kant adds that this new, changed human being is so far from the old as to be now unchangeable, having been irreversibly redeemed. Crucially, it is not possible to know that one has achieved this transformed state, one can only hope, in virtue of the stability of one’s maxim and the evidence of one’s own actions, that one has attained to the road that leads to redemption of one’s being.[12]

This emphasis on personal moral development seems, prima facie, to conflict with Kant’s other ethical thought, particularly his descriptions of the unique moral worth of the good will in the Groundwork. However the theistic perspective of Religion addresses this apparent contradiction by contrasting the limited temporal perspective of the human being with the atemporal perspective of the divine will which Kant posits. Since, for Kant, the radical evil of human nature does not override the original predisposition of human nature toward the good but is merely the result of a freely-chosen maxim it lies within the purview of the autonomous will to overcome the radical evil that characterises it by choosing a new maxim.[13] Kant characterises this as a revolutionary rather than reformative movement in the disposition of the person, since he or she is taking one a new first-order maxim of actions in line with the law. However, even in taking on this new pure principle of action the human being can only achieve the good through a constant labouring after it, and thus the turn toward the good, however revolutionary it may be in the adoption of the new maxim, is, from human perspective, a process of development in virtue. The divine perspective, however, sees the entirety of a human life as a unity, rather than as a progression in time, and so understands the process as a revolution. From the divine perspective the adoption of the new pure maxim is instantaneous.[14] Thus this moral psychology of virtue, the earlier of Kant’s two presentations of the subject, does not contradict Kant’s earlier, foundational moral philosophy in the Groundwork. Rather Section I of Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, where this moral psychology is presented, provides the psychological framework for the attainment of the famously rigorous moral demands of the Groundwork. Added to this psychological framework of virtue is a more expressly philosophical presentation of virtue, which rests upon the psychology laid in Religion, in Kant’s last major ethical work, The Metaphysics of Morals.

Kant’s moral philosophy of virtue is presented principally in “The Doctine of Virtue,” one of the major divisions of Kant’s The Metaphysics of Morals. The definition of virtue which Kant employs in The Metaphysics of Morals is different from that which he puts forward in Religion. Here Kant introduces a distinction between the concepts of ‘virtue’ and ‘right,’ assigning the latter, which he discusses in the earlier section of The Metaphysics of Morals, to the realm of external obligations and the former to the realm of interior obligations, making it equivalent to ‘ethics’ as a whole.[15] Both virtue and right are related fundamentally to duty. Kant explicates ‘duty’ as a constraint of free choice through the law which can be either external, as in the case of right, or internal, as in the case of virtue.[16] Virtue, in The Metaphysics of Morals, consists of the capacity to overcome the inclinations, inherent to rational natural beings, which oppose the interior moral disposition, by inclining ourselves toward the ends which are required of us by the moral law.[17] Virtue is, within this conception, an obligation incumbent upon rational agents, since virtue consists entirely in respect for the moral law.[18] Virtue is also, within this conception, a capacity[19] of self-restraint. It consists in the capacity of a rational being to choose, over and against his or her inclinations, an end which is also (and of its very nature) a duty.[20]

This concept, of an end that is also a duty, is central to Kant’s doctrine of virtue in The Metaphysics of Morals and it reflects a surprisingly teleological orientation for the famously categoricalist Kant. Since virtue, or ethics, since Kant here considers the two to be identical, is, on contrast with right, prescribes for the human beings the maxims which he or she is to adopt, whereas right prescribes external constraints upon his or her action, within it the concept of duty must lead one to ends and must establish maxims which human beings ought to set for themselves, grounding them in accordance with moral principles.[21] Thus duties which correspond to the realm of virtue, rather than the realm of right, must correspond also to ends. Ends are, to Kant’s conception, the objects of free choice to which free human actions are oriented. All actions have ends and all ends are selected freely, in a manner not determined by nature, by the person taking the action. These ends acquire a categorical character because the acts which determine them are practical principles prescribing the ends themselves, rather than the means to them. By virtue of the categorical character of the ends which are also duties is incumbent upon all rational agents to assimilate them into their own maxims of choice and make these ends their own.[22] It is helpful to pause at this point in the explication of Kant’s moral philosophy of virtue to draw attention back to his psychology of the same in order to clarify the not-immediately apparent concord of the two. The moral imperative of virtue being described here, far from superseding the psychological character of virtue, adds flesh to the bare bones presentation which Kant made in Religion. The frequent exhortations for the rational agent to radically alter his or her fundamental maxim of choice were never, in Religion, given sufficient content. That is to say that the content of the new moral maxim itself was never made clear. It is only in The Metaphysics of Morals that Kant explains the nature of this radical new maxim, the topic which has just been under discussion, and its contents and, crucially, its relation to other areas of ethics, to which this discussion will now turn.

Those ends which are simultaneously duties are, according to Kant, one’s own perfection and the happiness of other.[23] The teleological character of Kant’s virtue thinking once again becomes somewhat forcefully apparent. Both of these ends that are also duties are ones which can only be satisfied at the end of the process of the total refurbishment of the fundamental moral maxim. The former end, of one’s own perfection, is the very end of Kantian virtue, the conformity of the agent to the demands of the moral law, or, more particularly the disposition to make one’s object, the principle upon which one acts, every given end which is also a duty.[24] The latter end, the happiness of others, consists of making the ends of others one’s own ends as well, thus enabling their happiness. Kant distinguishes here between natural and moral happiness. The moral happiness of others is entirely and can only be their own concern, since it consists in their own perfection, the knowledge of the attainment of which is a source of great happiness, as well as a duty, to every rational agent. The duty to the end of the happiness of others relates only to their natural happiness, the merely hypothetical ends of which they must set before they can be adopted by another rational agent.[25] These ends do not provide laws for specific actions, which is the domain of right rather than virtue or ethics, but rather define the nature of the maxims which every rational agent ought to adopt as his or her own by subordinating the subjective end, which all agents have, to the objective end, which all agents ought to make their own. This remains a matter of free choice: there can be no external constraints upon the content of an agent’s maxims; they are subject only to the constraints of the universal moral law and the capacity of a natural rational agent to conform thereto.[26]

The development of this capacity is a matter, says Kant, of cultivation.[27] Kant introduces a hierarchy of types of cultivation, with natural perfection, the cultivation of any capacities for furthering ends established by reason, sitting below moral perfection, the cultivation of the capacity to do one’s duty from duty. The former is a distinguishing characteristic of humanity, as opposed to animality, but is what Kant classifies as a merely ‘wide duty,’ one which lacks specific content and allows a great latitude of free choice in its fulfillment. One ought to go about the cultivation of natural perfection in order to realise whatever merely hypothetical ends one might encounter in life.[28] The latter, also a wide duty, since it constrains maxims rather than actions, is a necessary element of morality because no natural rational agent can know the true motives of his or her actions and cannot know how truly moral he or she is. Thus the constant cultivation of moral perfection is necessary if one is have hope of ever achieving moral perfection: the conformity of one’s fundamental moral maxim to the universal moral law.[29] This explication of the need to cultivate moral perfection lends clarity to definition of virtue, often rephrased, which Kant provides in The Metaphysics of Morals: “[v]irtue is the strength of a human being’s maxims in fulfilling his duty.”[30] As previously remarked (see note 1) Kant employs numerous illustrations of the nature of virtue which employ analogies to physical strength, a perfectly natural image since the German word for virtue is etymologically and readily related to the semantic field of strength and fitness. Kant’s choice of image also provides a great insight into his understanding of virtue itself: virtue must be practised and earned and can only be recognised by its ability to overcome obstacles. In the case of virtue those obstacles take the case of conflict between natural inclinations and moral resolutions, making virtue an entirely interior struggle. One does not cultivate virtue through encountering moral problematics but by overcoming one’s own natural predispositions (toward evil) through the strength of one’s maxims (toward good).[31] Perhaps the final point which needs be made to define virtue in The Metaphysics of Morals is that “[v]irtue itself, or possession of it, is not a duty… rather, it commands and accompanies its command with a moral constraint… But because this constraint is to be irresistible, strength is required…”[32] Virtue itself is not a matter of duty, is not commanded by the moral law. Rather, virtue furnishes those who cultivate it with the capacity to overcome inclination and act out of duty. Thus when one thinks of the multiplicity of virtues one is in fact misapplying the name of ‘a virtue’ to the various moral objects to which the virtuous agent is directed by the singular capacity of virtue.[33]

The practice of virtue is the development of one’s will such that it acts out the love for the law, acting upon such ends as are also duties. The cultivation of virtue might then be thought of as the development of the goodwill, a notion made famous by Kant’s encomium to it in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.[34] The seemingly sharp contrast once again to be found between any notion of character development such as that presented in The Metaphysics of Morals and the absolutist character of the ethics propounded in the Groundwork is addressed in Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason. The unique philosophical theism which Kant proposes in Religion mediates the continuous nature of character development with the moral necessity of the revolutionarily good maxim through Kant’s notion of the ‘divine perspective.’ Since, says Kant, the divine perspective views the entirety of a human life as a unity, whereas the human being him or herself views it only in time, what is to the human perspective a process of development in moving toward acting only out of the love of the law is to the divine perspective an immediate and revolutionary change in one’s moral maxims.[35] Thus it is clear that the coherence of the ‘Kantian theory of virtue,’ if that term can be appropriately applied, turns fundamentally upon the philosophical theology of Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, and “The Doctrine of Virtue” cannot stand properly in relation to the rest of Kant’s ethical thought without the foundation laid in the philosophical theism of Kant’s earlier work.

The feature of the ‘Kantian theory of virtue’ that keeps it a mere theory and not a full-fledged ethic is the particular use which Kant envisages for virtue itself: what might be termed the instrumentalisation of virtue to the moral law. Virtue is, ironically, a means to an end. The moral law and the duty of rational agents thereto remain, for Kant, the summus of ethics. Virtue is the means by which this summus is mounted. The consistent teleological character observed in Kant’s treatments of virtue is once again apparent. While the moral law is a categoricalist ethical imperative the human achievement of respect for the law, of the capacity to act out of the law, is a telos for which human beings must strive and labour. Thus human beings, as natural rational agents, must seek constantly to cultivate within themselves the capacity to overcome their natural inclinations and act instead upon moral resolutions made in conformity with the universal moral law. Virtue, then, is the capacity for duty, the subjective potential of a moral agent to conform his or her maxims, and thus his or her actions, to the objective end of the universal moral law.

Kant leaves the precise nature of this process of cultivation somewhat ill-defined, though it can be inferred from his discussion of the testing of virtue through overcoming the internal obstacles of natural inclination and the accompanying metaphors of strength and fitness to describe the capacity of virtue that it is this very practice, of overcoming one’s natural inclinations through the strength of one’s moral resolutions, that one cultivates the virtuous capacity further. Kant’s teleological theory of virtue might then be summed up thusly. The agent who would be moral, stricken as he or she is with a radical evil infecting his or her fundamental maxim of free choice and wishing to return to the moral purity of his or her own original disposition toward the good, must set as his or her goal the observance of duty for duty’s own sake and strive to incorporate his or her duty into his or her moral maxims. Taking duty as his or her sole motivation the agent must adopt as his or her sole ends for acting his or her own moral perfection and the happiness of others. Eventually the agent’s new maxims will run up against that radical evil in the form of a natural inclination which will be opposed to the objective ends which the agent has adopted as his or her own, inclinations which can and must be overcome by the strength of the individual’s maxim, through which overcoming the maxims themselves will be strengthened. Thus will the agent be set upon the long road from bad to better, the unknowable path that will lead to the original purity of the agent’s maxims. The agent will never be able to know the state of his or her own progress, or even whether he or she is truly set upon the path, but the God who sees into the depths of the agents will judge that agent’s moral worth and the agent can hope, by virtue of the strength of his or her own maxims and the evidence of his or her past actions, that the judgement will be a good one.

Notes and Bibliography


[1] ‘Tugend,’ the German translated into English as ‘virtue’ is a native Germanic term rather than a Latin loanword, as in the case of its English cognate. It derives from a semantic field relating to ‘strength’ and ‘fitness’ and Kant employs numerous allusions and metaphors to these concepts in his descriptions of virtue. However ‘Tugend’ has only moral connotations and should not be taken to connote strength in a physical sense.

[2] Religion within the Bounds of Mere Reason (henceforth cited as ‘Rel’) 6:31

[3] Rel 6:32

[4] Rel 6:44

[5] Rel 6:23, footnote marked by the dagger

[6] Rel 6:25, footnote marked by the asterisk

[7] The German word here translated as ‘mores,’ ‘Sitten,’ is the same word used in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals and The Metaphysics of Morals. The German ‘Sitte’ refers to manners and customs rather than ‘morals’ in the ethical sense. ‘Mores’ is a thus a more appropriate translations of ‘Sitten’ than is ‘morals.’

[8] Rel 6:47

[9] Rel 6:46-47

[10] Rel 6:48

[11] Rel 6:50

[12] Rel 6:50-51

[13] Rel 6:47

[14] Rel 6:48

[15] The Metaphysics of Morals (henceforth cited as ‘MS’) 6:379.

[16] MS 6:380

[17] MS 6:379-381

[18] Guyer, Paul, “The Obligation to be Virtuous: Kant’s Conception of the Tugendferlichtung,” Social Philosophy and Policy 27:211.

[19] German ‘Vermögen‘

[20] MS 6:380-381

[21] MS 6:382

[22] MS 6:385

[23] MS 6:385

[24] MS 6:387

[25] MS 6:388

[26] MS 6:398

[27] German ‘Anbau”

[28] MS 6:392

[29] MS 6:392-393

[30] MS 6:394

[31] MS 6:394

[32] MS 6:405

[33] MS 6:406

[34] Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (Henceforth cited as ‘Gr’) 4:393-394

[35] Rel 6:48

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