If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

The Good Life: Kant

Chris Surprenant (University of New Orleans) discusses the account of human well-being and the good life presented by Immanuel Kant in the his moral, political, and religious writings. He explains why Kant believes that the highest good for a human being is the conjunction of happiness and complete virtue and how it is possible for an individual to attain these two things at the same time.

Speaker: Dr. Chris Surprenant, Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of New Orleans.

Want to join the conversation?

  • leafers seed style avatar for user capgunMatt
    according to Kant, why ought we realize the highest good?

    is it not some sort of fallacy that since we ought to realise something that it implies that we can realise it? It seems plausible that if there was an ought, that there could be a scenario that we can't realise that thing.

    Why does Kant think it is reasonable to believe in God?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • male robot hal style avatar for user Makiaveli
      You seem to grasp Kant's ideas. I hope you also come to learn why collectivism is immoral.

      For example, if doing one's duty to society is good, then if the majority decided to kill you, turn your wife over to another man, and force your children to work themselves to death, then your duty would be to commit suicide so as to make it easy on society.

      PS: the above example presumes one has a duty to society, which no one does unless they chose to accept such a duty as with all other duties.
      (2 votes)
  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user Josh Brooks
    What is it about Kant that makes him noticeable more difficult to understand than other moral teachers?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • purple pi purple style avatar for user Cristian
      Well, as my teacher said, Kant was German and germans are people who tend to write in a very "complicated" and rational way. Kant was an example of that. If you try to read his texts you'll find that they're hard to understand because of the vocabulary that he uses. He never looked for simplicity. That's Kant.
      (1 vote)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Adam Lyke
    Explain the distinction between acting in accordance with duty and acting from duty.
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • ohnoes default style avatar for user Tejas
    Why do so many philosophers like to say that morality and selfishness are always in opposition? From what I've seen, they almost always go together, and so it is very rare for the moral choice to go against your own desires.
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • leafers ultimate style avatar for user pascal5
      An innocent man has been mistaken for you and will be condemned to a life of hard servitude. You come to learn of this and now have two choices:
      a: Reveal yourself and be condemned to a life of hard servitude
      b: Keep hidden and condemn an innocent man to a life of hard servitude
      Obviously, a life of hard servitude would minimize your own happiness rather effectively, and most people would say that choice b would be the selfish decision. Kant's point is that if you are a moral person you would feel awful and not be able to live with yourself if you took choice b and took choice a instead you would be both taking the unselfish option and, in a sense, maximizing your own happiness. Where this gets interesting is when you apply the form of enlightened Hedonism which says that what defines 'morally good' is that which maximizes happiness for the whole. In this example, you've reformed, started an entrepreneurial business that puts the workers first and you are just about to go save a little orphan girl from an awful life. In this case, choice b would be considered the morally good position, because one mans suffering doesn't outweigh the suffering of hundreds of people without jobs or homes and a sick orphan who will be thrown into the streets. Would this make revealing yourself the selfish option?
      More directly to your comment, under the first definition of morally good, fundamental rights and wrongs, you face the moral choice everyday. You don't shoplift a candy bar even if you know you wouldn't get caught because that's just wrong. If there was no combination of virtue and happiness--if virtue brought you no pleasure at all--taking the candy bar would be the clear choice. The fact that you have a purely moral incentive for not taking it proves something about the unification of virtue and happiness, and by Kant's extension, happiness and a divine being. . .
      (1 vote)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Holly Ho
    According to Kant, should all of us oblige to protect the rights of LGBT?

    I know that LGBT is a minority group.
    (0 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user

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