Why does Kant equate "conservation" with "happiness" near the start of "Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals"?

These seem like very different things (especially looking through an evolutionary lens). I would agree that reasons doesn't promote a purpose in promoting happiness, but is quite useful in promoting conservation.

1 Answer 1


It took me a little while to understand what you are asking here; it appears that your question is based on the Abbott translation, which is almost a century old now.

The passage in question does not equate "conservation" with "happiness". Let us look more closely:

Now in a being which has reason and a will, if the proper object of nature were its conservation, its welfare, in a word, its happiness, then nature would have hit upon a very bad arrangement in selecting the reason of the creature to carry out this purpose.

What is spoken of here is not conservation in the abstract, but of a being's conservation of itself, i.e., self-preservation. Furthermore, happiness is not being equated with self-preservation; rather, it is the notion of self-preservation plus the welfare of the being. Finally, all of this is appearing within a counterfactual.

This is all made more clear by looking at the same passage in a more recent (and more informal) translation, by Bennett:

Now suppose that nature’s real purpose for you, a being with reason and will, were that you should survive, thrive, and be happy—in that case nature would have hit upon a very poor arrangement in appointing your reason to carry out this purpose!

I suggest that you consult some other translations if you run into future difficulties.

  • "conservation" as "self preservation" is how I interpreted it. While it makes sense to say that reason is not useful for happiness, it is certainly useful for self preservation. Thus grouping happiness and self preservation as a single concept (which seems to occur in both translations) seems to undermine the broader argument that there must be some "other" role for reason when self preservation or "conservation" is sufficient.
    – dj444
    Commented Apr 28, 2012 at 16:28

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