Cultivating Virtue: Moral Progress and the Kantian State

Kantian Review 12 (1):90-112 (2007)
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Abstract
After examining the ethical and political writings of Immanuel Kant, one finds an apparent paradox in his philosophy as his perfectionist moral teachings appear to be linked to his anti-perfectionist political theory. Specifically, he writes that the perfection of moral character can only take place for an individual who is inside of civil society, a condition where no laws may legitimately be implemented expressly for the purpose of trying to make individuals moral. Kant believes that living in civil society is a necessary condition for an individual to refine his talents and reason completely, a process required by morality. I believe, however, that the connection between his moral and political theory runs much deeper than simply facilitating the refinement of talents. Kant's moral theory focuses on an individual's cultivation of virtue, but this cultivation cannot be most satisfactorily completed unless that individual is a member of civil society. Put differently, civil society plays a necessary role in cultivating an individual's character so that he is able to act from maxims consistent with the moral law, out of the respect for the law itself. However, because he believes that civic laws primarily intended to encourage moral cultivation cannot be implemented legitimately, it seems curious that this condition should play such a significant role in Kant's moral philosophy. Through this examination of Kant's moral and political theory, it will be shown that Kant's political society establishes a condition necessary for an individual's complete cultivation of virtue, not by implementing laws that make men moral but by weakening the forces of heteronomy, thereby removing barriers to moral action.
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