Middle Theory, Inner Freedom, and Moral Health

History of Philosophy Quarterly 24 (4):393 - 413 (2007)
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In her influential book, The Practice of Moral Judgment, Barbara Herman argues that Kantian ethics requires a “middle theory” applying formal rational constraints on willing to the particular circumstances and nature of human existence. I claim that a promising beginning to such a theory can be found in Kant’s discussion of duties of virtue in The Metaphysics of Morals. I argue that Kant’s distinction between perfect and imperfect duties of virtue should be understood as a distinction between duties concerned with respect for necessary conditions of moral health and moral prosperity in sensibly affected human agents who realize their moral nature only through the development and continuing exercise of inner freedom. Thus understood, perfect duties prohibiting self-deception, miserly avarice, and humility are oriented around concerns with the conditions of rational self-constraint in human agents and are contrasted with imperfect duties requiring the development of our talents and the perfection of our moral disposition concerned with the effective exercise of this kind of inner freedom in choice and action. Generalizing this account, I claim that it allows us to accommodate the range of duties that Kant discusses here including perfect duties owed to others prohibiting arrogance, defamation, and ridicule and imperfect duties enjoining gratitude and beneficence and suggests a much more subtle and promising account of moral duty than those typically associated with Kant’s view.

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Donald Wilson
Kansas State University


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