Welcome again to the Prosblogion Virtual Colloquium! This week’s paper is “Proportionality, Maximization, and the Highest Good” by Craig E. Bacon. Bacon is a PhD candidate at the University of South Carolina. His dissertation is entitled The Life of Virtue: Moral Progress and Kant’s Idea of the Highest Good, and is scheduled to be defended in May. While the dissertation itself answers a variety of problems in the scholarship on the highest good and works out a coherent account of the role played by the religious postulates, Bacon also maintains research interests in the relationship between happiness and morality in the Early Modern period, and in contemporary Kantian approaches to the intersection of ethics, philosophy of religion, and civil life.
Proportionality, Maximization, and the Highest Good
Craig E. Bacon
In this paper, I argue that the contemporary scholarship on Kant’s highest good has mistakenly framed the discussion in a way that confuses the true content of this idea and obscures the role of the religious postulates of God and immortality. I suggest an alternate framework that begins with Kant’s own thought experiment from the Critique of Practical Reason and the First Preface to Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason (and, more subtly, in the Critique of Pure Reason). In this thought experiment, the context for thinking about the highest good centers on a morally committed agent who takes on the viewpoint of an omnipotent world creator. This context establishes the content of the idea of the highest good, and the religious postulates arise in connection to this idea.
Beginning with Andrews Reath’s influential 1988 paper, much of the scholarship on Kant’s idea of the highest good has focused on the assertion that Kant has both a “secular” and a “theological” conception of the highest good, where the theological conception considers the postulates of God and immortality to be essential to the realization of the highest good, but the secular conception either sidesteps the postulates or at least finds Kant’s commitment to them waning. This distinction largely (but not without exception) maps onto another division in the literature between a “maximization” thesis and a “proportionality” thesis. The maximization thesis claims that the highest good consists in the concurrent maximization of happiness and virtue–whatever that maximum might be–whereas the proportionality thesis understands the highest good as a state of affairs in which happiness appropriately matches virtue, i.e., whatever one’s level of virtue, one’s enjoyment of happiness occurs proportionately. Both theses ‘hedge’ on the highest good as ideal, since less-than-complete happiness and/or less-than-complete virtue comprise the ideal. The common assumption is that the religious postulates (and most importantly for this paper, the postulation of God as an author of nature) arise from the proportionality thesis but not from the maximization thesis. The further common assumption is that God’s role is to actively ‘set’ the proportion between happiness and virtue, i.e., that divine agency supersedes human efforts to bring about the highest good.
I argue that (1) these common assumptions are mistaken and (2) that secular/theological and maximization/proportionality dichotomies exist because scholars have taken these mistaken assumptions about the religious postulates and ‘read them back’ into the content of the idea of the highest good. That is, the scholarship has assumed an interpretation of the religious postulates’ role as more or less obvious, and has interpreted the highest good accordingly. To correct this mistake, I argue that we should turn things around: the content of the idea of the highest good must be set first, then we can understand how the religious postulates support the realization of the highest good.
In the Second Critique and in the Religion, Kant introduces his discussions of the highest good with a question: what kind of world can I will? The thought experiment assumes an agent who is already committed to the moral law; as such, this agent would choose a world in which everyone is committed to the moral law and does what they should. But this fidelity to the moral law (‘virtue,’ for the purposes of this paper) is what constitutes worthiness to be happy, since happiness itself is only conditionally good while moral goodness fulfills this condition. Therefore, Kant’s idea of the highest good consists in truly universal happiness proportioned to truly universal virtue. Lesser degrees of happiness or virtue are inconsistent with this ideal.
My argument in this paper is a slice of a dissertation chapter that argues for an understanding of ‘proportionality’ as ‘conditionality’ rather than as a calculable, mathematical apparatus. This chapter also situates Kant’s use of proportionality against the background principle of ‘ought implies can,’ and sets up later chapters on the role of the postulates of God and immortality in relation to the highest good. Most interestingly for my future research, I think my argument here has important implications for Kant’s claim that morality expands into religion through the highest good. Any lesser ideal than what I argue for here does not generate the same (subjective) need for God that results in religion as a way of conceiving of/representing “all our duties” as divine commands.
The complete paper is available here. Comments welcome below.