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Why Study Kant’s Ethics 89

Kant never denied the importance of happiness. He criticized the Stoics

for thinking that the pleasure of self-approval arising from awareness of

living a virtuous life was happiness enough for human beings. Happiness is

the satisfaction of desire, he held, and he insisted that finite beings such as

we are need to have our desires satisfied. He held it to be an important duty

for each of us to help others achieve happiness as they understood it. But he

denied that morality is simply the set of virtues or directives that lead to

happiness, either our own or that of everyone affected. He held that moral-

ity has a different role in our lives. Morality’s function is to set the limits

within which it is permissible for us to seek our own happiness and to help

others pursue theirs.

Kant had several reasons for rejecting a morality of happiness. One of

them is this. We have little if any control over what desires we have. To say

that what we ought to do is determined by what people want is to subordi-

nate ourselves to our causally determined nature. It is, in other words, to

abandon our autonomy. But the moral law forbids us to do so. More gener-

ally, Kant thinks that we cannot accept any morality holding that the goods

relevant to deciding what to do are made good, and can be known to be

good, without any appeal to what is morally right or obligatory. Kant holds,

against this, that only pleasures and pains that are allowed by the moral law

are morally relevant. In order for a pleasure to count as relevant in deciding

what to do, it must be one that can be obtained by a morally permissible act.

So there must be a way of determining what acts are permissible or imper-

missible prior to knowing what goods in the situation are morally relevant.

And Kant thought, of course, that there is such a way. The categorical

imperative tells us whether or not we may act on any plan of action, and

from this we can learn what acts we may or may not do.

Kantianism is thus an alternative to utilitarianism. It is not the only one.

Various forms of intuitionism hold that we can grasp a number of self-

evident moral truths by which to guide our actions. One of these truths tells

us to be benevolent, or to help others attain happiness, but that is not the

only principle. We are also to tell the truth, keep promises, and be just.

Principles like these may come into conflict with the principle that tells us

to increase the happiness of others. And it is far from self-evident that in

cases of such conflict benevolence ought always to win out.

Intuitionism often seems to be the best account available of the com-

monsense morality that most of us share. We don’t come to philosophy with

some single universal principle that we use to get answers to all our moral

questions. And we do seem to think that it’s just obvious that we should

keep promises, tell the truth, help others in need, be just, and so on. Yet

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