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Social Theory and Practice

Volume 41, Issue 3, July 2015

Eric Entrican Wilson
Pages 377-402
DOI: 10.5840/soctheorpract201541321

Kant and the Selfish Hypothesis

One of the major debates of early modern philosophy concerned what David Hume called “the selfish hypothesis.” According to this view, all human conduct is motivated by self-love. Influential versions can be found in the writings of Hobbes, Mandeville, the Jansenists, and La Rochefoucauld. Important critics of this view included Butler, Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Rousseau, Hume, and Smith. My essay argues that we should add Kant to this list of critics. I propose that Kant knew about this important debate and responded to it. More specifically, I propose that he responded at two different levels. At one level, Kant sided with the critics, arguing for the reality of genuine fellow feeling. At another level, he concluded that everyone was arguing about the wrong thing. All the critics of the selfish hypothesis seek to vindicate common morality, but Kant thought this required establishing the possibility of human freedom. He believed that instead of arguing about whether we are capable of responding in a genuinely compassionate or sympathetic way to other people, we should be arguing about whether we are capable of responding in a nonmechanical way to the demands of morality. Looking at Kant’s practical philosophy from this underexplored perspective sheds new light on his doctrines of respect and moral worth. It renders both more interesting and intelligible, and it illuminates the direct connection between these doctrines and the fundamental concerns of his entire critical project.