My main issue is not the understanding of the text in question, it really is a question about his conception in general:

Kant defends the idea of God by hypothising a "supreme (original) good", including both moral and sensual satisfaction (in "heaven"). It seems at various points as if he would both state that respect for the moral law is the only motivation needed for moral behaviour (so that it is a suficcient condition) and this moral motivation would suffer if there was no highest good and therefore sensual satisfaction thought with it. I think this to be contradictional in some sense, but seems to rest in his very concept of rational beings.

One reference linking obligation by reason directly (and nessessarily) with the ideas of God and a future life from the Critique of Pure Reason, A 810|B839:

I term the idea of an intelligence in which the morally most perfect will, united with supreme blessedness, is the cause of all happiness in the world, so far as happiness stands in strict relation to morality (as the worthiness of being happy), the ideal of the supreme Good. It is only, then, in the ideal of the supreme original good, that pure reason can find the ground of the practically necessary connection of both elements of the highest derivative good, and accordingly of an intelligible, that is, moral world. Now since we are necessitated by reason to conceive ourselves as belonging to such a world, while the senses present to us nothing but a world of phenomena, we must assume the former as a consequence of our conduct in the world of sense (since the world of sense gives us no hint of it), and therefore as future in relation to us. Thus God and a future life are two hypotheses which, according to the principles of pure reason, are inseparable from the obligation which this reason imposes upon us.

The problem is nicely put in this article, too.

To put it another way: In the Critique of Practical Reason Kant writes that respect for the moral law is the only moral motivation (V:71-89), but later writes, that this respect for the moral law has its aim ("Absicht") in the supreme good as the highest end (V:132). Therefore, while the principle and the motivation of moral acts is the moral law itself, the end of them (as all acting must rely on ends) is the supreme good. But I think what happens then is that the moral law itself becomes the maxim, because if it was respect for the moral law and accordance of a maxim to it that suffices for moral acting, this maxim would by itself carry an end and the supreme good was no longer needed because there already is a additional motivation at hand that accounts for being finite (though it cannot be the actual subjective ground for acting in the will, that is in the rationalization of the act). Adding the supreme good is therefore some kind of overdoing it.

In Summary: Kant would not need the supreme good, but he actually conceptualizes it as part of finite rationality.

Question 1: Correct?

But then, what argumental function could it still carry so that Kant thinks he needs it beside dogmatism?

Question 2: Would it be correct to say that the supreme good helps to strenghthen what he calls "character" (Gesinnung, Denkungsart), but cannot be thought as motivational factor for moral acts?

Question 3: (more "common reason") Wouldn't it be correct to say that much more respect is earned if one seems to act on principles without needing a religious motivation? Or in a more harsh way: Isn't religious belief only needed for those who need to have a small rest of selfishness in every action to be motivated?

  • 3
    This is a rather complex question. It's one of the best written I've seen in a while. It may take me a while to compose an answer that's sufficient, but you're on the right track. Are you mainly asking for sources in Kant's text or for arguments to that effect built on the sources? To mention two of the tangles, there's the complete good vs. the highest good and the role of character in morality for Kant (both of which are involved in several contemporary debates)...
    – virmaior
    Oct 2, 2015 at 12:11
  • As for character there is an enlightening notion in Timmermann: Sittengesetz und Freiheit (2003), didn't find any English version. He there says that intelligible character would change the way the causation has effect, for example an impeller would react in another manner to impulse than a cylinder. My question rather aims at getting arguments and/or references that support the view that the supreme good isn't needed for moral necessitation.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Oct 2, 2015 at 13:06
  • To make the aim even more concrete, I do not look for arguments for the possibility of moral necessitation without the supreme good, as this is deducted in GMM as I understand it, but its "objective reality" as it is constituted by practical reason.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Oct 2, 2015 at 15:13
  • I find your last sentence unclear: what do you mean by a 'small rest of selfishness'? Oct 3, 2015 at 4:59
  • If the supreme good and therefore the belief in God and a future life is a motivational structure linked with, though not needed for moral necessitation, one idea could be that it is, compared to mere hedonism, a rather "good" motivation if your character is not strong enough to motivate by mere respect for the law. Therefore I wrote "small rest of selfishness" as a circumscription for that mechanism: If not moral, rather be religious than hedonistic. REAL respect for Kant is only earned by moral acting, though.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Oct 3, 2015 at 10:36

2 Answers 2


Like Jo, I'm going to start with your third question, because it has the clearest answer. In Religion within the Bounds of Reason Alone, Kant makes the very point you suggest in your second formulation of your third question, that those who need to believe the moral law comes from God are depending on a moral crutch and "fetish faith" (Religion 6:192-193) (There's also a similar discussion in the Lecture on Ethics compiled from student notes). Kant thinks this meets a particular need of human reason (Religion 6:98-100; Religion 6:5-7).

In that text, however, Kant specifies three roles for God (also in Lecture on Ethics): holy lawgiver, beneficient ruler, and just judge (Religion 6:139). But as lawgiver, God is just the personification of reason in the conclusions God reaches, God's rule is benificient as these rules agrees with reason, and God's judgment is just insofar as God metes out what is due each individual in terms of pure reason. A good summary is that “Each must [rather than depend on God] conduct himself as if everything depended on him” (Religion 6:101)

Suggested summary quote:

… on its own behalf morality in no way needs religion … but is rather self-sufficient by virtue of pure practical reason since its laws bind through the mere form of universal lawfulness as the highest condition (itself unconditional) of all ends, morality needs no material determining ground of the free power of choice (Religion 6:3).

For the first half of your third question, I'm not super comfortable with what appears to be quantifiable account of "respect." In fact, it seems based on Kant's conception of morality as the use of one's own pure reason that only when the self acts freely on the conclusion reached by his pure reason does it count as moral (but the picture is muddy as to whether it is immoral to do the right thing based on a command of God).

For your second question, Marcia Baron has an interesting paper that is in her book Kantian ethics almost without apology which suggests that "motivation" is not a good Kantian category to explain why we act. The Kantian term seems to be "basis" for our action.

Knowledge of the supreme good does seem on the basis both of CPR and the Metaphysical Principles of Virtue (second half of Metaphysics of Morals) to encourage us to the good, but it's not at all clear how this operates motivationally. Returning again to Religion, there's an interesting issue at the beginning which disagrees with some of Kant's earlier discussion of character. Looking at the Groundwork, it seems clear that Kant thinks any impure rational being has the ability to reason and freely choose the good at every instance. In Religion, it looks like Kant has found a place for conversion like experiences where the self has to choose the good there to be able to choose the good elsewhere. The account in MPV seems closer to the account in Religion. Based on this, I would say Kant at least after the Groundwork does see belief in the supreme good as motivating.

But even in Groundwork, it is also probably motivating but on simpler grounds. What we often call the proportionality thesis is a claim implicit in several of Kant's arguments about moral conduct, namely, that people should be happy to the proportion that they are moral. This of course does not obtain in this world, so one of the reasons God is a postulate of morality is to make sure that this obtains in eternity.

Regarding your first question, many contemporary Kantians make precisely the move you suggest -- ditching the necessity of God. The person teaching the Kant class I took in my PhD did exactly that, and a good percentage of the literature reaches similar conclusions to yours. But Kant believes in a just universe and he sees no way of guaranteeing that in the temporal and phenomenological world which contains patent injustices. Thus, he posits (in what to many 21st century readers seems a completely ad hoc way) that God guarantees this justice across eternity since he considers God to be a pure being that possesses pure reason but acts immediately on the good.

In the paragraph where you start "To put it another way:", there's several points that are unclear with respect to your use of maxim. Also, I would not put too much emphasis on the use of the term "supreme good" for God. That's confusing insofar as that term is not a major part of other texts where Kant talks about God, and that he distinguishes the "highest good" from the "complete good" in later texts arguing that the complete good includes ours happiness and that only God can make that happen (http://users.ox.ac.uk/~sfop0426/Highest%20good%20(R.%20Bader).pdf) but that we should pursue the highest good (which is when the maxim for our actions agrees with the moral law -- during which we can experience the objective feeling that occurs in respect for the moral law).

  • First, great answer! Will wait a bit before agreeing, though ;) Regarding "supreme (original!) good" I want to state two points: 1. the supreme (original) good is not God himself or anything like that, it is defined in the quote above as proportianality thesis. As I understand it, God is a necessary presupposition for it and therefore implicit to it. That's what I wanted to emphasize. 2. What you call "complete good" is named "highest derivative good" (eudaimonia) in the quote above. So the interesting part still is the transcendental status of the supreme good in moral acts.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Oct 3, 2015 at 10:03
  • By the way, I'm especially thankful for the references in Religion, they are great to show the inner tension of Kants ethical thoughts in regard to this position (God is not needed). All that is missed is the other part, although it essentially is demonstrated in the books I mentioned. By the way my definition of maxim of an act would be a subjectively, transcendantally free chosen principle including (i) revelancy in similar situations (ii) the rules of skill relevant to the situation (iii) an end (in short: end-mean-connection) and has not to be concious (see Timmermann for more input)
    – Philip Klöcking
    Oct 3, 2015 at 10:16

To start with your question no. 3 which I consider less difficult than the others: According to Kant, the only correct motivation to act morally is the respect for the moral law in the form of the categorical imperative. Any motivation different from rational understanding the categorical imperative is considered external and not ethical. In particular, Kant rejects any religious motivation as unethical, see Critic of Pure Reason, B849:

As far as practical reason is entitled to lead us, we shall not look upon actions as obligatory because they are commands of God, but look upon them as divine commands because we have an inner obligation to follow them.

Concerning your question no. 1: Kant takes over the concept of the supreme good from the philosophical tradition. Aristotle was the first who examined the idea of the supreme good from a philosophical viewpoint (Nicomachean Ethics). Aristotle equated the supreme good with eudaimonia and ranked the latter the goal of human life.

Kant takes up the concept in the passage from your quote. To link morality in the sense of being worth happiness on the one hand with obtaining happiness on the other hand, Kant employs a model of a rational world which is governed by a god, who provides eternal life for those who act morally. That’s my answer to question no.1. The answer is similar but not quite the same than your proposal of interpretation.

My answer to your question no. 2 is “No”. The supreme good comes a posteriori while the obligation to act morally is first. The supreme good is neither a reason nor a motivation to act morally. According to Kant: Who acts in accordance with the categorical imperative to obtain eudaimonia, does not act morally.

Let me add that I consider your post very interesting and challenging. I hope it was not the last time to discuss such questions.

  • The main input I can take from your answer is the notion of "divinity". Perhaps it could be said, that for Kant's time, the purity thought in moral behaviour is something that can only be named "divine", because if I call it divine, everyone has the correct concept of what is meant. But as notions underlie aequivocation, "divinity" does not have to be thought for an insight of the purity meant in moral acting anymore. But that would have great inpact on Kant's method and philosophy in total, because the necessity of judgements of reason would crumble to waste. Insofar, thanks for your answer.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Oct 3, 2015 at 11:15
  • In addition, I am aware of the fact that Kant liked Thomas of Aquinas and that the divinity of reason, as of having at least some divinity in all of us is a thought that plays its part here. But I have problems just saying "normal for the time and influences" if it is for critical philosophy. As for your answer to no. 2: Though it of course is later in time, I'm not so sure about it being later in logic, because the aiming of the moral law at the supreme good could mean that it is already thought within it, may it be as necessary presupposition or consequence, in some judgement a priori.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Oct 3, 2015 at 11:51
  • To correct myself: It should be "thought with it [...] in some synthetic judgement a priori"
    – Philip Klöcking
    Oct 3, 2015 at 12:26
  • @Philip Klöcking Wherefrom in my answer do you make associations with divinity = Gottheit? - I agree that later in time does not need to be later in logic. But in my opinion Kant does not link respect for the moral law with a teleological aspect. - Possibly a good companion to the whole passage is Section 19 Glaube(n) und Wissen in Tetens, Holm: Kants Kritik der Reinen Vernunft. Ein systematischer Kommentar. Reclam 2006 (in German)
    – Jo Wehler
    Oct 3, 2015 at 12:47
  • As for divinity=Gottheit it is out of your citation "commands of God" and "divine commands". As for the teleological aspect it is from the reference I gave above (Critique of Practical Reason V:132) where he wrotes about the "Absicht" (purpose) of the moral law and identifies it with the supreme good. Thanks for the reference.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Oct 3, 2015 at 15:31

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