Volume 16, 2008
The Highest Good in the Dialectic of Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason
Kant’s moral philosophy is celebrated for its doctrines of the primacy of the good will, the categorical imperative, and the significance of autonomy. These themes are pursued in the section of the Critique of Practical Reason which Kant called the Analytic, as well as in less formal works such as The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. In his main work Kant added a Dialectic, which is less well studied but is still essential to understanding his whole project. The concept of the Highest Good, summum bonum, the ultimate goal in life, incorporates both an objective and a subjective element. It pronounces on what we ought to want and how we ought to want it: it bears on our happiness and on our virtue. The aim in the Dialectic is to highlight the tension that can result from these two
elements, so that the need for a rapprochement between them becomes better appreciated. This tension remains in contemporary moral philosophy, with its diverse approaches of virtue ethics, deontology, and consequentialism. Kant’s stance regarding this dialectical tension needs to be understood, by Kant scholars and by moral philosophers.