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Video transcript

(intro music) I'm Chris Surprenant, and I teach in the department of philosophy at the University of New Orleans. This video is part of my series on human well-being and the good life, and it examines Immanuel Kant's account of well-being in his moral, political, and religious writings. For Kant, the highest good for human beings is attaining both complete virtue and happiness at the same time. But not only is there no necessary connection between the two, frequently it is the case that doing what is right is in opposition to doing what would make us happy. Of these two components of the highest good, Kant's focus in his moral and political writings is on virtue and what individuals must do to cultivate a virtuous character. For Kant, virtue is the strength possessed by individuals to resist bodily inclinations and do what is right simply because it is the right thing to do. This capacity for virtue is unique to human beings, because human wills are affected, but not determined, by bodily desires. This characteristic places our wills between those of non-rational animals, whose wills are determined by bodily desires, and those of divine beings, whose wills are determined by reason. Kant claims that the true vocation of human reason is not to help us to become happy, but rather to make us worthy of happiness by assisting us in becoming virtuous. Kant closely associates morality, reason, and freedom. One necessary condition of morally praiseworthy actions is that they are performed freely. But here, Kant's understanding of freedom may be a bit different than what we are used to. An individual's action is free if his own reason generated the maxim, or principle, from which that action was performed. That means that if an individual was motivated by a bodily desire, like hunger or lust, or he was coerced or habituated into adopting certain principles, then his actions are not free and he would not be morally praiseworthy, even if he did the right thing. But to be morally praiseworthy, it is not enough simply to adopt principles of action freely. They must be the right principles, or ones that are consistent with the moral law. Kant connects the moral law directly with reason as well, and he argues that reason dictates that individuals should "act only in accordance with that maxim which you can "at the same time will that it can become a universal law." This, for Kant, is the Categorical Imperative, and all principles of action can be tested against the categorical imperative to see if they pass, are consistent with the demands of morality and can be acted on, or fail, and should be discarded. The challenge for the virtuous person is two-fold. Not only must he developed his reasons, so that he can identify what principles are consistent with the categorical imperative, but he must also act on those appropriate principles. Kant claims that this development of reason comes about through education, and as a result, can occur only for an individual who is a member of a civil community. Living in civil society has the added benefit of helping to secure the external conditions necessary for an individual to become virtuous. An individual who lives in constant fear of sudden and violent death, or is starving and does not know where his next meal will come from, cannot act virtuously, because he lacks the necessary degree of external freedom. After an individual has developed the appropriate degree of reason to identify principles upon which he should act, the last step is actually acting on those principles. Here, Kant introduces the concept of self-respect argues that the motivation to act appropriately must be internal, and claims that the greatest punishment for bad behavior is that an individual feels worthless and contemptible in his own eyes. The virtuous person, therefore, possesses the strength and self-respect to not given in to bodily inclinations, adopts good principles of action freely, and then acts on these good principles. But virtue is only half of the highest good. The other half is happiness, and Kant's religious writings give us insight into how he believes an individual can hope to become both virtuous and happy, even though it appears as if these two ends are in tension. His solution is that attaining the highest good is possible only if there is a supreme creator who is able to guarantee the coexistence of virtue and happiness. Since we ought to realize the highest good, that we ought to realize it implies that we can realize it, and that we can realize it is possible only if God exists and can unite virtue and happiness. It is reasonable to have faith in the existence of a supreme creator. Whether or not we buy Kant's argument for how virtue and happiness get united, his understanding of the highest good for human beings is connected to our nature of being both rational and sensible. Reason, which is developed by living in civil society, allows us both to generate the moral law and to determine which principles of the action are consistent with it. The strength to set aside our desires and act on these principles comes from within as well. Subtitles by the Amara.org community