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The Highest Good and The Happy Ending

 The Justification of the moral 'ought'

According to Kant, the justification for the obligatory force of the moral ought is straightforward: I ought to do the right thing simply because it is right-but what does 'simply' mean here? My recognition of the rightness of the action is a function of the fact that when I test the principle to see "what would happen if everyone did that" I recognize the principle to be universalizable. Because I recognize its universality I ipso facto recognize that it applies to me and that therefore-as a rational being- I ought to do act upon it on pain of logical self-contradiction. Thus the 'simply' part of the formula-'simply because it is right'-relates to the fact that I cannot fail-logically-to recognize the simple relationship between the universal principle in question and the particular obligation I feel. If I should fail to see this simple relationship someone will draw it to my attention by saying "Who do you think you are, anyway?" So I certainly understand why I ought to obey the moral law: it is a simple matter of seeing that I-as a particular agent-necessarily fall under the scope of the law that applies to everyone.

The Justification of the happy ending 'ought'

Now there is another 'ought' that crops up in the Critique of Practical Reason and in life. It is the idea that the virtuous ought to enjoy happiness and that the wicked should not prosper. It is the idea that people ought to get what they deserve-the idea of justice being done. Kant introduces it as follows: "for to be in need of happiness and also worthy of it and yet not to partake in it could not be in accordance with the complete volition of an omnipotent rational being if we assume such only for the sake of the argument . . . [thus] virtue and happiness together constitute the possession of the highest good for one person [where the] happiness [is] in exact proportion to [the virtue]." CprR, p.114-5 This project of realizing the highest good in a particular case might seem a philosopher's dream but the ideal of its realization is immediately recognizable to us in the notion of the happy ending. In literature and at the movies, this need to see people get their just deserts is paramount: Will virtue be rewarded? Will the wicked go unpunished? These questions drive every plot and a scenario that simply ignored them would be morally unacceptable to the public. So much for moral obligation that literature stands under. However, we all know that, in life, at least, this idea that we all should get our just deserts is a mere ideal. Nevertheless, no one doubts that this is the way things ought to be. So: what is the nature of this 'ought' that relates to just deserts? How are we to justify the obligation that there should be a happy ending? We know that the moral ought is felt as obligatory simply from a consideration of the logic involved in universalizing the maxim under consideration. But what happens when we apply this universalization process to the maxim: Apportion happiness in exact proportion to the degree of virtue displayed by the agent.

'Ought' implies 'can'

We are blocked in our attempt to test this maxim in the usual way because the test 'What would happen if everyone acted in accordance with this maxim?' runs into an obvious practical problem. To see whether the maxim is practical you would have to know how to apportion happiness in exact proportion to the degree of virtue displayed. It would seem that only God could do this (only God could discern the purity of the motive involved- the key consideration when deciding upon the degree of virtue displayed by the agent). Thus we must leave the fulfilling of this obligation to heaven and this is Kant's own answer: given that we acknowledge the obligation inherent in the maxim associated with the highest good, we have to postulate a God and a heaven in order to allow the obligation to actually be fulfilled. 'Ought' always implies 'can' and it thus seems that only via a divine judgment coupled with divine power could the possibility of acknowledging an obligation to apportion happiness in exact accordance with virtue be understood. Nevertheless, we mortals still feel the force of this obligation. We may not be able to apportion happiness in exact proportion to virtue (or so organize Nature that the happiness apportioned is actually realized by the person) but we can try to obey an amended maxim appropriate to our powers. The maxim now reads: Attempt to apportion happiness more or less in proportion to virtue. Surely everyone could attempt to live by such a maxim and, indeed, this is what we all try to do in enterprises as diverse as writing film scripts, handing down judgements in courts of law, grading essays, right up to the fine gradations attempted in the judgments which constitute the Queen's Birthday Honours list. So we certainly act as if we think we are able to promote the highest good. The question remains: why do we feel that we ought to make this attempt? Why should we feel obliged to make the attempt to apportion happiness to virtue? In the case of the moral 'ought' we recognized that if we did not obey the moral maxim we faced the sanction of being accused of acting in a self-contradictory fashion ("What makes you think the rule does not apply to you?"). Thus I certainly understand why I ought to obey the moral law: it is a simple matter of recognizing a logical point: namely, that I, as an individual rational agent, necessarily fall under the scope of the law that applies to every rational agent. So let us try applying the same universalization process to a screenwriter who puts forward a script with an unhappy ending- one that follows the maxim: let the virtuous suffer and the wicked prosper. We say to her by way of rebuke: "What would happen if everyone did that?" When we ask this question in the case of the moral 'ought' we quickly see what is logically wrong when everyone lives in accordance with a non-moral maxim such as: 'Always lie to escape difficulties.' If everyone always did this, no one's lies would be believed. Under such circumstances lying would be, from a practical point of view, impossible. Would it be impossible for all screenwriters to write unhappy endings? It does not seem so. One could imagine such a trend catching on and becoming universal without any obvious practical difficulty arising as in the moral case of lying to escape difficulties (where no one would believe you). So the 'ought' that relates to the happy ending is not obviously-like the moral ought-dependent for its obligatory force on the practical consequences of universalizing the maxim in question. Or at least so it seems: when you actually imagine this possibility (of unhappy endings as the norm) it rests on the idea that the audience might come to enjoy the experience of leaving the movie theatre feeling indignant at the injustice portrayed thus keeping the theatres full and the scriptwriters at work. Unless we assume the possibility of this universal capacity to enjoy feeling indignant no one would go to these movies. This assumes that you go to the movies to enjoy yourself and since actually feeling indignant is not pleasant it assumes that one could actually enjoy feeling indignant at least while at the movies. But are we being perverse when we imagine that it is possible for everyone to enjoy the experience of feeling indignant when witnessing depictions of the wicked prospering? Feeling indignant in real life is not pleasant because we feel that we ought do something about apportioning happiness in accordance with virtue and where we can easily do so, we act immediately just to relieve the unpleasantness that characterizes this feeling of indignation. Thus what we face here is the fact that actions that go against the 'ought' governing the highest good go against a universal subjective need, the need to see an attempt being made to apportion happiness in proportion to virtue, in short, the need to see justice attempted. Kant points out that the ground of this 'ought' is subjective, i.e., it is a need, and so grounds our duty to promote the highest good in a special way: " . . . the principle which here determines our judgment, while subjectively a need, is the grounds of a maxim [Attempt to apportion happiness in exact proportion to virtue] . . . which is itself not commanded [by reason]. It rather springs from the moral disposition itself." 151CprR (Thus the practical difficulty of actually acting in accordance with the maxim - apportioning happiness to virtue in a disproportionate way - the difficulty involved in universalizing unhappy endings would lie in the project of trying to get people to enjoy on the movie screen what they don't enjoy in life-as opposed to following a rule that was logically self-contradictory when put into practice.) Kant's contention here is that the maxim (Attempt to see that justice is done) is not a categorical imperative since it (the obligation a person might feel) depends on the actual existence of a moral disposition in the agent - a contingent matter-and not simply on the fact that we-as rational beings-are necessarily bound to feel the obligation to follow the moral ought just insofar as we are rational. Thus Kant concludes by saying that the voluntary decision to promote the highest good "can often waver [as a matter of contingent fact] even in the well-disposed but can never fall into unbelief "151 CprR [i.e., we could never come to believe that the highest good was not an ideal worth promoting, though- due to my actual psychological state at some given moment, -I might not, as a matter of fact, feel the need to act in accordance with the maxim.] Now Kant's contention that our duty to promote justice is grounded in our moral disposition implies-despite the tacit assumption that this disposition is universal-that there is no more than a contingent connection here between the need for happiness-as a universal subjective fact about human beings-and the obligation we may feel to do something about it, viz., attempt to apportion happiness in exact proportion to virtue. But this contingent connection (between our need for happiness and the obligation to do something about it) leaves out the whole question of one's worthiness to enjoy one's happiness-the question of desert-which nevertheless is the focus of the 'ought' associated with our duty to promote the highest good since, unless the happiness is proportional to the virtue, there is something wrong.

'Ought' implies 'can' again

Thus, there is something missing in Kant's account (viz., what connects our subjective need for happiness with the idea that this need can only be properly satisfied if the happiness we enjoy is in exact proportion to the virtue that we have displayed in our conduct) something that only surfaces in the Third Critique and which, so far as I know, he never explicitly connects with the problem of the how we are able to promote the highest good. This is the practical problem of how we are equipped to judge in such a way as to be able to see, in a given case, that happiness has been apportioned in exact proportion to the virtue of the person. To say that the need to do so stems from our 'moral disposition' tells us nothing. What we are looking for here is a rule that we could follow in making such exact judgments and as we saw at the beginning of this essay, it would seem that such a rule could only be known to God. In the Second Critique Kant had recognized that, as a matter of fact, we are very good at making judgments that apportion desert: If we attend to the course of conversation in mixed companies consisting not merely of scholars and subtle reasoners but also of business people or women, we notice that besides storytelling and jesting they have another entertainment, namely, arguing . . . . Now of all arguments there are none which excite more ready participation by those who are otherwise soon bored with subtle thinking, or which are likely to bring a certain liveliness into the company, than one about the moral worth of this or that action from which the character of some person is to be made out. Those who otherwise find everything which is subtle and minute in theoretical questions dry and vexing soon take part when it is the moral import of a good or bad act that is recounted; and they are exacting, meticulous and subtle in excogitating everything which lessens or even casts suspicion on the purity of purpose and thus on the degree of virtue to an extent which we do not expect of them on any other subject of speculation"(p. 157) However, in the Third Critique, Kant discovers that in the case of our aesthetic judgment we can estimate the aesthetic worth of an object without following a rule. He argues there that our faculties are so organized as to be able to detect when a rule is being followed even when the rule is unknown to us. When we say of an object that it is beautiful we are saying that it is worthy of contemplation because it exemplifies a rule even though we have only been able to detect this rule blindly with our imagination. Now just as we are able to estimate the beauty of an object exactly, i.e., we know-as an artist (or a spectator) - that, e.g., something in the picture is still 'wrong' (we sense that there is some sort of disharmony some lack of proportion (that some part of the object is not harmoniously integrated with the others so that the 'rule' which we sense with our imagination -which ought to be governing the whole-is being broken at some point); so too, we think of ourselves as being able to estimate when happiness has been properly apportioned to virtue-e.g., when there has been a fair trial, when an OBE is appropriate as opposed to an MBE , when people have got exactly what they deserve. Now in the case of aesthetic judgments concerned with beauty, we regard individuals as necessarily capable of making such judgments for themselves since we assume that their cognitive faculties are attuned to deliver such judgments. However, when it comes to apportioning happiness to virtue, our confidence that we have got it right depends upon arguing the merits of the case with each other ( as Kant notes in the previous quotation). This source of confidence is a confidence that society can make these exact judgments and it is this assumed capability (this 'can') that underpins our demand that such apportionments ought to be made-that the highest good should be realized. Thus we feel we can-collectively -make such judgments but how do we actually make them?

Collective judging

To apply an empirical concept or rule to a given instance I must use my imagination to see whether the rule applies. How do I do this? How do I apply a general rule to a particular case? I correctly apply the concept by seeing-imaginatively-how the particular case may be thought of as falling under the rule. This imaginative seeing (of the general in the particular) is something we learn to do together: we develop this skill of seeing the general in the particular through the practice of arguing the case and thus settling the matter as to what we shall count as a dog or a chair. The end result of these conventional agreements is an ever-closer 'agreement in judgments' which is what underpins -and, indeed, what constitutes -the exactitude of this process. And we do the same thing when we determine together how much happiness should be apportioned to a given degree of virtue. We effect this agreement through the discussion of whether the moral debt that creates the plot in movies or books has been settled in a satisfactory way)-until our collective judgment becomes acute and, in doing so, the apportionment of happiness to virtue (in so far as this apportionment is constituted by honouring virtue) becomes possible for us as a practice. To repeatl observation: " . . . of all arguments there are none which excite more ready participation by those who are otherwise soon bored with all subtle thinking . . . than one about the moral worth of this or that action from which the character of some person is to be made out. Those who otherwise find everything which is subtle and minute in theoretical questions dry and vexing soon take part when it is a question of the moral import of a good or bad act that is recounted and they are exacting, meticulous and subtle in excogitating everything that lessens or even casts suspicion on the purity of purpose and thus on the degree of virtue to an extent that we do not expect of them on any other subject of speculation." Cpr R p157

Honouring Virtue

It is significant that what we, as mortals, do is to honour virtue. How much honour depends on our estimate of the degree of moral virtue displayed in the agent's actions. That the honour will be acceptable to the person herself as appropriate i. e., that it will actually produces the experience of happiness that she feels she deserves-is a contingency which we never bother to consider because we recognize that the estimate of virtue, unlike that of beauty, is an estimate that can only be exact and thus objective when it has been assessed via a collective argument that gradually produces a rule of thumb for apportioning honour that we can all agree upon. We make up this rule through our collective arguing and reasoning. It is reasoning because although we have a rational idea in terms of which we can judge whether an act is virtuous, viz., that it be done simply out of respect for the moral law, we nevertheless must argue over whether the act fits the idea because we can only fit the idea to the case on the basis of what we can experience of the act, namely, the behaviour and testimony of those involved. Thus the actual moral disposition of the actor - the purity of his motive-cannot be known directly: it can only be only estimated by the manner in which the act was done. Our sense of the appropriateness of the resulting judgment (with respect to the amount of honour that ought to be accorded to a particular virtuous action) remains an aesthetic sense in so far as it seems to us that this proportioning of merit is appropriate due to the exemplary character of the argument that yielded the judgment. The exemplary character of the argument will be evident in terms of its disinterested endeavour to apportion happiness to virtue in just the right proportion. The evidence for its disinterestedness is a direct function of the collective character of the reasoning. The feeling of confidence that the judgments we have arrived at collectively are appropriate is an aesthetic judgment based on our knowledge that we have reached them in an appropriate way .We have learned -through our collective experience-how to organize our discussion of the issue so that everyone will feel satisfied that our collective judgements (with regard to how to apportion honours appropriately) are as wise as they can be, given our finitude. (Rules governing procedures in courts, parliaments, committees -what we might call political rules- evolve asymptotically to match our aesthetic judgments about whether we have succeeded in collectively reasoning in such a disinterested way.) Thus what we finally see emerging is the political character of the 'ought' that governs the duty to promote the highest good. It is only people reasoning together who can honour an individual's virtuous behaviour appropriately. In effect, we recognize the possibility of obeying the political 'ought' as being grounded in a collective versus an individual aesthetic judgment.

Why do we look to others for agreement when we make an aesthetic judgment?

An individual aesthetic judgment is signalled by the delight I feel when I see an object that is beautiful. My feeling that others ought to agree with my judgement (and that it was thus exemplary in Kant's usage) is based on my realization that my aesthetic judgment was free/ disinterested, i. e., not determined by a concept or any interest on my part. In short I feel that in the case of a judgment of beauty I am not following some rule, though -through the fact that my imagination has set my understanding in play- I sense that some rule or other is exemplified in the object which strikes me as beautiful and that anyone else's imagination should- if free from interest-make the same judgment.

How do we recognize the appropriateness of a collective aesthetic judgment?

Now a collective aesthetic judgment is signalled by our sense of justice, by our feeling that the judgment is fair, where 'fair' means that the honour accorded to the virtuous action in question is appropriate or deserved. In the Third Critique Kant noted that our cognitive faculties can interact in various proportions depending on the nature of the object under consideration but he did not explicitly point out that the feeling we get (that our judgment is just when we reason together ) is related to our mutual observance of the rules which promote disinterested argument. In this case the mutual character of this observance makes it impossible (logically) not to be confident that our judgments ought to be agreed to by anyone who observes how they were arrived at. In a curious way, the exemplary character of these collective judgments is secured by our mutual observance of the rules for disinterested discussion. Thus in the case of an individual aesthetic judgement, I look to others for agreement that may or may not be forthcoming (depending on whether their judgement is disinterested) but in the case of a collective aesthetic judgments (that such and such an apportionment of honour to virtue is appropriate) we know that our judgment is correct not simply exemplary since we have explicitly looked to eachother for agreement. This correctness or objectivity has been secured through an acceptance that, together, we can transcend our finitude when it comes to promoting the highest good through honouring virtue in a disinterested way. As Wittgenstein would point out here, we know this because we mutually check each other to confirm that our practice conforms to those rules that we have together constructed to achieve a disinterested and thus objective judgment. This is the only human way to achieve objectivity and thus this is what being correct in our collective judgements means.

Revisiting the justification of the 'ought' that obliges us to apportion honours in a disinterested way

It is clear from the above how we are to understand the 'can' in 'ought' implies 'can' -i.e., given that happiness ought to be apportioned in exact proportion to virtue we can now understand the public processes which give us confidence that the honours we bestow are in correct proportion to the virtue of the recipient. But the 'ought' part of the formula still needs to be justified.

The justification of the moral 'ought'

Now when we justify the moral ought in the sense of saying why we should care about being moral, we do so by converting the categorical imperative into a hypothetical imperative. Thus, in effect, when we say that no one should lie to escape difficulties we justify this by saying; no one-if they regard themselves as being essentially rational- should think that it is all right to ignore the moral 'ought' in their own case simply because they happen to desire to do something else. And this can only be because we regard ourselves as essentially rational as opposed to essentially creatures driven by desire. Why do we so regard ourselves? It is because we recognize our capacity to act in accordance with moral principles as the factor that distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom. The idea here is that what distinguishes us from other creatures is to be counted as our essence. Thus we say of ourselves that we are not simply creatures of desire but, distinctively, rational creatures, creatures capable of acting on principle. We thus feel that we ought to act in accordance with what we essentially are because we cannot help caring about our rational identity- our sense of ourselves as being rational where this means that we are beings capable of following rules. Thus the justification of the moral ought is an ontological justification: we ought to act in accordance with what we essentially are. The commonplace moral justification that makes reference to our need to maintain our integrity, our dignity, is based on this ontological requirement to be true to our essential selves. It is the Aristotelian idea that it is our nature to strive to realize our potential as rational creatures and-since we are distinct in this way-we ought to act on rules that will allows us to be fully rational. This ontological 'ought' is justified by a principle of identity: we must act in accordance with what we essentially are - i.e., in such a way as to realize our rational capacity to act on principle- since otherwise our actions are ontologically self-contradictory. Thus the logical justification of the moral ought (you can see logically that the universalizable principle applies necessarily to you) is realized ontologically and reveals its true moral force in my obligation to be what I essentially am - a rule follower, a being 'capable of a law' in Locke's phrase-as opposed to being who is simply a creature of desire. (Of course I can ignore this obligation but then I necessarily understand why what I then do is wrong. It is wrong because it is at odds with what I know to be my essential nature. Just in virtue of the fact that I can universalize maxims of action I can thus recognize whether they can serve as principles and so know myself to be rational being capable of acting on principle and thus of obeying as well as breaking the law.

The justification of the political 'ought'

What happens when we apply this same reasoning to justify the idea that we are subject to the political ought? Why should we promote the highest good? Is there a logical reason for doing so? Is there a related ontological reason for doing so? We feel that there is something wrong if virtue is not rewarded or if the wicked prosper. What is wrong with this outcome? The clue lies in the collective character of our apportionment of honours to the virtuous and punishment to the wicked. The reason that the wicked should not prosper is that their prospering is necessarily at the expense of others. The logical principle behind our intuition that this is wrong is the principle that each person is to count as one. The ontological principle is that the realization of a person's potential is intrinsically valuable and thus the wicked person's interference in this process is intrinsically wrong. The experience of happiness is the natural sign of this realization of potential. In a world of non- interacting individuals, this happiness would naturally accrue in exact proportion to the degree to which they realized their potential. In the political world, in which we all interact, we must apportion honours (and punish)-in the hope that they will cause happiness in exact proportion to the ontological virtue of the individuals- and it is a hope simply because our interactions with others and they with their environments, etc, etc., cannot be controlled and will inevitably frustrate the actual accrual of happiness in proportion to the realization of ontological potential. Nevertheless, despite these contingencies, the norm represented by the thought of an individuals' unrestricted realization of their potential is always before us as an ideal and we attempt to apportion happiness in accordance with this ideal via honours. Thus we honour others both for the degree to which they have realized their potential but also to the degree that they have done their political duty i.e., promoted the highest good in their community. Thus, in effect, an ontological ideal presents the norm which justifies the political 'ought': there is a need to be recognized for what we have achieved through our efforts to overcome the contingencies standing in the way of our self-realization and this need is satisfied when we are honoured in such a way as to satisfy our subjective need to experience happiness in accordance with our ontological virtue, viz., our praiseworthy attempt to realize our potential and promote this realization of potential in others. As Rawls puts it:

"We have seen that the moral virtues are excellences, attributes of the person that it is rational for persons to want in themselves and in one another as things appreciated for their own sake, or else as exhibited in activities so enjoyed. Now it is clear that these excellences are displayed in the public life of a well-ordered society [one organized around the Aristotelian principle] . Therefore the companion principle to the Aristotelian principle implies that men appreciate and enjoy these attributes in one another as they are manifested in cooperation to affirm just institutions. It follows that the collective activity of justice is the pre-eminent form of human flourishing." (p. 463. A Theory of Justice revised Edition)

And I might add should always be honoured whether in literature or in life with appropriate honours.

The importance of the highest good as an indication of our ontological status

The idea of the highest good is an idea that unites the idea of being good with the idea of being happy. Ontologically, there are two aspects to our being: we are rational beings - rule followers -(when we follow universalizable rules we are good rational beings) and we are finite natural beings, beings that have a unique potential and which desire- have a subjective need- to realize their potential (when we do this we are happy). In society we follow rules in order to avoid interfering with each other's realization of potential. Honouring these constraints has its reward- the sense of self-contentment we find in being good (i.e., acting in accordance with universalizable principles)-but also its price: viz., the constraints on our full development. So recognizing this deficiency re our need for happiness, we mutually compensate each other with honours which square-artificially-our need to experience happiness in accordance with our perception of our own virtue. I call this squaring 'artificial' because the happiness that naturally accompanies self-realization may not be experienced when we are morally satisfied, i.e., feel we have been honoured appropriately. We can thus only hope that those who are so honoured will be happy since we are agreed that they are worthy to be happy. 10