Local Desire Satisfaction and Long Term Wellbeing: Revisiting the Gout Sufferer of Kant’s Groundwork

Belgrade Philosophical Annual (2015)
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In this paper, I analyze the least discussed of Kant’s four examples of duty in the first section of his Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals: the gout sufferer who is no longer motivated by natural interest in his long-term wellbeing, and is thus in a unique position to secure his own happiness from duty. This example has long been wrongly interpreted as a failure of prudential rationality, as recently illustrated by Allen Wood’s reading of that example. I argue that the gout sufferer example is meant to illustrate a violation of a duty to the self and should not be confused with mere prudential failure. The example also helps us understand the line between prudential reason and duties to the self. I show that given Kant’s conception of happiness as an indeterminate concept and his hedonistic account of non-moral ends, it can sometimes be more rational from the perspective of empirical practical reason to choose short term over long-term wellbeing when long term wellbeing seems uncertain in regard to expected pleasure. In other words: Kant’s account of empirical practical reason does not rule out as irrational choosing short term pleasure at the expense of long-term wellbeing. However, this is precisely why the gout sufferer’s long-term happiness can be directly morally required and so becomes the content of a duty to the self. To explain how there can be a direct duty to promote our own happiness under certain circumstances I also elucidate Kant’s distinction between direct and indirect duties.
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