Kantian Review


Autonomy and the Highest Good

Lara Denisa1

a1 Agnes Scott College

Kant conceives of moral agents as autonomous, capable of motivating themselves to act on a self-given rule of reason, independently of – and even against – their inclinations. Moreover, Kant's moral theory tells agents to realize their autonomy, by striving to do what is right for its own sake. It is because of Kant's emphasis on autonomy that his notion of the highest good has been a topic of controversy. From Kant's time onward, commentators have suspected that the highest good, which promises virtuous agents happiness proportionate to their goodness, introduces heteronomy into morality. The standard response to this concern is that critics have misunderstood the relationship of the highest good to the agent's will: it is an object, not a spring, of moral action. This is a valid response to some articulations of the objection. But it does not adequately address the version that interests me: the charge that belief in God as the guarantor of happiness proportionate to virtue plays an inappropriate motivational role in Kant's moral theory. Kant appears to say that without belief in a God who will make the virtuous happy we would not be motivated to act rightly. This sort of claim seems to conflict with Kant's notion of moral agents as beings who are capable of doing the right thing just because it is right. If this conflict cannot be resolved, Kantians face a dilemma: either weaken the notion of autonomy, or (more likely) weaken the claims about the moral importance of faith in God.