Kant's Conception of Moral Character: the "Critical" Link of Morality, Anthropology, and Reflective Judgment.
Over the past decade, scholarship on Kant's practical philosophy has developed from a one-dimensional focus on his objective normative doctrines toward a more richly textured engagement with his views of character, virtue, and subjective moral consciousness. A significant contribution to this trend is made by G. Felicitas Munzel's new study of the formal notion of character running throughout Kant's mature works. As Munzel notes, the exhaustive attention that has long been focused on the Groundwork's justification of fundamental moral principles has obscured the equally crucial issue "of what it means for the human subject concretely to actualize such moral insight" (187). In Kant's Conception of Moral Character, she provides a meticulously detailed and multi-dimensional answer to this question. Her book argues "not only that [Kant] has a very rich notion of moral character, but also that it is a conception of systematic importance for his thought, linking the formal moral with the critical, aesthetic, anthropological, and biological aspects of his philosophy" (1). While the book is almost entirely devoted to the latter exegetical aim, Munzel's larger purpose is to highlight the gulf between Kant's conception of moral character and the Aristotelian conception that underlies much recent philosophical work in virtue theory. By demonstrating the possibility of a notion of character focusing on the principled, rigorously controlled conduct of thought, she wants to present the Kantian account as one capable of contributing to contemporary debates about character, virtue, and moral education.
The conceptual framework of Munzel's study posits two distinct dimensions to moral character. "All the relations and factors involved, first in establishing and maintaining moral character and, second in exercising it as one's conduct of life in a way that the latter itself constitutes the good in appearance, comprise its two moments: causal and reflective" (10). Her book begins with three chapters analyzing the concept of character in Kant's thought, tracing its developmental history from his predecessors' views into the precritical writings and finally into the full range of his mature critical texts. Here Munzel gives an admirably thorough analysis of the relationship of moral character to Kant's major anthropological, aesthetic, and biological categories, demonstrating otherwise obscure links among them and casting each of these aspects of his thought in newly complex light. Such a short review as this cannot begin to do justice to the scholarship and conceptual richness of this part of the book. One of the most important theses of this section is that character is a unity of the entire human being, inasmuch as rationally infused desire and feeling are brought under its developmental and causal framework. A second thesis advanced is that Kant's doctrine of radical evil can be seen to explain why the establishment of character is an ongoing project seeking to close the gap between human potentialities and the actuality of imperfect moral choice. The upshot of this project is the attainment of a subjective condition of peace in which the establishment of law finally brings inward and outward conflict to an end.
Munzel then turns to the reflective "moment" of character, which concerns its rational structure and temporal formation. Chapter 4 focuses on the notion of orientation, showing how the preservation of a resolute exercise of character in the world presupposes the endorsement of subjective principles of thought capable of ensuring that the practical commands of morality trump theoretical doubts about the attainability of moral ends. These principles of orientation include the postulate of rational faith affirming that the highest good can be realized in the world; the reflective principle of conscience demanding ongoing scrutiny of an agent's maxims of action; the three "maxims of sound understanding" that secure shared, consistent, and sound judgment; and various maxims relating to human social discourse, of which the most important is truthfulness. In chapter 5 Munzel considers pedagogy and its relation to character, arguing that Kant's emphasis on the formative influences on character of education, civilization, and cultivation are consistent with holding character to be ultimately a matter of individual responsibility. Finally, an epilogue uses the horticultural metaphor of grafting to sum up the role played by various societal influences in the cultivation of character, and the role of a contingent individual choice in determining the ultimate outcome of this process. Through this metaphor, Munzel contends, we can understand Kant's reconciliation of the natural and moral orders in the development of character.
While Munzel's study claims to contribute to the clarification of contemporary debates about virtue and character, few of her comments directly address the plausibility or attractiveness of the conception of moral character she presents. In some respects she does polish the image of Kant's conception of character to make it more appealing to contemporary philosophical tastes. Her depiction of the person of ideal character dispels the commonly caricatured picture of Kantian virtue as a despotic subordination of inclination to reason, portraying the "magnanimous soul" as one in which aesthetic sensibility is infused by and unified with all other human capacities (120-32). By stripping Kant's doctrine of radical evil of its theological dimensions, she makes it an innocuous descriptive account of the standing possibility of moral failure (133-44). And by defining a strictly formal notion of virtue as always in progress along a fixed course, she dispenses with the metaphysically suspect Kantian doctrine of an infinitely long struggle toward virtue that can succeed only through divine grace (167-73). The radical revolution in thought associated with the attainment of character is cast as the this-worldly possibility of resolving to set out on a new path in life (161). These interpretive moves may assuage some of the obstacles to contemporary philosophers' embrace of Kant's conception of moral character. Nonetheless, Munzel's account gives no sustained argument for the positive attractions of a strictly formal notion of character as the resolute conduct of thought in accordance with rational principle. Partisans of Aristotle are unlikely to find in a Kantian notion of character any satisfactory recognition of those aspects of feeling, desire, and perception that give Aristotelian virtue theory its substantive complexity and breadth.
Certain theoretical commitments of the Kantian account of moral character would seem to pose severe obstacles to any comprehensive endorsement of it by contemporary ethicists. The discussion of truthfulness as a supreme element of moral character is a case in point. On one hand, as Munzel demonstrates, a commitment to absolute truthfulness in one's professions to others is conceptually central to a formal account of character such as Kant's. The inflexibility of the formal requirement on this subjective side of the issue is matched by his notoriously inflexible objective prohibition of lying. As critics have long charged, however, this doctrine unacceptably limits the choices agents may make in situations of extremity. While acknowledging these criticisms, Munzel describes her own aim as being "limited to the attempt to understand the relation of this first principle [of truthfulness] to character" (240). Yet if her larger aim is really to establish the plausibility of a formal conception of moral character, much rethinking will be required to reconcile an appropriate flexibility in practical judgment with the metaphysical centrality to character of a maxim of truthfulness.
Since the strength of Munzel's study lies in its scholarly and historical dimensions, a more detailed explanation of her methodological approach to Kant would be helpful. In presenting her account of moral character with all its richly interwoven conceptual themes, Munzel says relatively little about the sense in which she takes herself to be offering an interpretation of Kant. Such an explanation is called for in light of both the strikingly scattered appearance of these themes in Kant's own texts, and in light of the many conceptual tensions internal to Kant's own thought which would seem to count against the plausibility of a perfectly coherent doctrine of character such as Munzel presents.
Notwithstanding these qualms, though, Munzel's book is meticulously detailed, thorough, broad-ranging, and clearly written. It adds much to scholarship on the subjective dimension of Kant's moral philosophy, particularly in highlighting the coexistence in his thought of a systematic concern with the cultivation of character and an equally systematic insistence on character as the product of a single autonomous resolve. Kant's Conception of Moral Character is an indispensable study for all students of Kant and for all those interested in comparative conceptions of virtue and character.
NATALIE BRENDER Wesleyan University
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|Publication:||The Philosophical Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2001|
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