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Kant: virtue before happiness

30 Sep

Being in touch with our feelings may be important if we want to know whether we’re happy or not. But when it comes to distinguishing right from wrong, we have to rely on reason rather than feelings. This, at least, is what the  eighteenth century German philosopher Immanuel Kant argued.

According to Kant, happiness cannot form a basis for morality. Experience tells us that doing the right thing doesn’t always produce happiness – quite the contrary in some cases. Conversely, pursuing happiness may fly in  the face of virtue: the principle of happiness tells ‘viImmanuel_Kantrtue to her face that it is not her beauty but only our advantage that attaches us to her’ (The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy  91). If we base our values on personal happiness, then we are only virtuous when we think we have something to gain from it. A shopkeeper, for example, may be honest because he thinks a reputation for honesty will be good for his business. If he believed he could get away with it, the same consideration – his own advantage – would tell him to be dishonest and screw as much money as he could out of his customers. So morality and happiness are very uneasy bedfellows.

There’s another reason why the pursuit of happiness is so unsatisfactory when it comes to moral values. Although almost everyone feels that he or she wants to be happy, very few people know how to attain this state. For example, a person who imagines that knowledge is the thing that will make her happy may discover so many horrible things in the course of her studies that  on the contrary she becomes deeply miserable. Or take the example of wealth –  this is  notorious for its inability to make people happy. So how can something as unstable as the quest for happiness provide a sure foundation for morality?

Happiness for Kant means getting what we want (Cambridge Edition 240), and this is the reason why it is such a difficult project. We don’t really know what we want. In order to find this out we would need to be omniscient – but sadly we aren’t. ‘The problem of determining surely and universally which action would promote the happiness of a rational being is completely insoluble’ (Cambridge Edition 71).

So at a time when British utilitarian philosophers like Bentham were advocating ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’, Kant  was maintaining that this was a hopeless goal.  Even benevolence – giving other people what they want  – doesn’t work. Let’s imagine we’re dealing with a drunkard. We give him lots of wine – but that isn’t a good thing to do. Clearly, then, securing either for ourselves or for others what we or they want cannot be the basis for an unchanging and universal morality.

Kant has to admit that human beings do, naturally, seek happiness. And in certain circumstances achieving it is not inconsistent with leading a moral life. We must all the time try to do our duty, accepting that this will often prevent us from being happy. But sometimes happiness and duty will coincide. ‘When a thoughtful human being has overcome incentives to vice and is aware of having done his often bitter duty, he finds himself in a state that could well be called happiness, a state of contentment and peace of soul in which virtue is its own reward’ (Cambridge Edition  510-11). This doesn’t inevitably happen. If we think that virtue is the surest route to happiness,  there’s a good chance that we will be disappointed. But if virtue and happiness do coincide, this is the best thing that can possibly happen to us. ‘Virtue and happiness together constitute the position of the highest good in the person’ (Cambridge Edition 229).

None of this means that Kant saw God as the fount of moral law. We cannot possibly know whether God exists or not – such knowledge is too hard for us. To find virtue we must look, not to a higher authority, but to an inner authority –  to our own rationality. Reason is something that we share with all other human beings, and it is the sole source for our knowledge of what is right.

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