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Recent Developments in Kant Scholarship on Human Nature and Agency

In recent decades Kant scholarship has done much to help rectify the historically prominent misconception of the Kantian human agent as simply a rational, autonomous agent. In the 1980s and 1990s Kantian ethicists such as Marcia Baron, Barbara Herman, Thomas E. Hill Jr., Christine Korsgaard, Onora O’Neill, and Allen Wood paved the way with groundbreaking work on Kantian ethics and moral psychology in general, as well as on issues related to care and dependency relations in particular.2 The next generation of Kantians followed their lead and took the project further.’ In addition to making the Kantian agent less one-dimensional and more human (more embodied and more social), many of these interpretations argue that the morally responsible Kantian agent does not have to be as stringently law-abiding as Kant himself seems to think. For example, several argue that we can (or ought to) lie to the murderer at the door in order to save a friend hiding in our house or that we can (or ought to) save our loved one(s) over strangers.4 More generally, these Kantian ethicists tend to argue that we need not accept Kant’s account of absolute prohibitions (perfect duties), leaving much to be learned from Kant with regard to emotionally healthy, morally sound human psychologies, including as we face evil. More recently, there has also been an increasing amount of work on Kant’s writings on human nature and anthropology, such as by Alix Cohen, Patrick Frierson, Robert Louden, Susan M. Shell, and John A. Zammito,5 that, in part, seeks to make evident the inaccuracy of the historically prominent rational autonomy reading of Kant. Like the aforementioned Kantian ethicists (and those who follow their lead), these scholars tend to argue that concerns of happiness are important for Kant, even if morality is more important and happiness is ultimately subservient to it in that being happy is morally beneficial by making it subjectively easier for us to do what is morally required.

My related work draws upon, yet also challenges, aspects of this existing work on Kant’s account of the morally good, emotionally healthy human life. For example, I have defended Kant’s claim that there is an absolute moral prohibition on lying to the murderer at the door (2010, Forthcoming). More recently, I have developed (2020b) this account of absolute moral prohibitions further (in general and in consideration of issues of sexual and gendered violence) in part by drawing upon the work of Katerina Deligiorgi (2012), who defends Kant’s general account of absolute moral prohibitions as situated at the heart of Kant’s practical philosophy and as something Kantians should not forego. Foregoing absolute moral prohibitions entails losing some of the distinctive character and philosophical argumentative power of Kant’s practical philosophy.6 In addition, Kant’s argument regarding absolute moral prohibitions, Deligiorgi argues, is internally linked to central arguments regarding transcendental freedom, which address how it is that human beings - in virtue of being capable of the “ought” - have internal to them what it takes to be morally responsible for their capacity to set ends of their own spontaneously (2017, 2018). I argue, further, that holding this view is philosophically consistent with maintaining that human beings can face situations (such as when one opens the door to find the murderer) in which there is no morally good way out, in which all the available options involve doing a (formal) wrong or doing what Kant calls “wrong in the highest degree” (1996a, MM 6: 307f).7 Furthermore, like some of the existing literature on Kant and human nature, I consider morality more important than happiness; practical reason must set the framework within which we pursue happiness (1996a, CPrR 5: 1 lOf). But, I continue, Kant doesn’t, as he shouldn’t, think that happiness is only or simply instrumentally beneficial or useful to morality. Indeed, although it is the capacity for personality (the capacity to act as motivated by a distinctively moral valuing) that gives human beings a pricelessness (dignity), the embodied and social parts of ourselves are sources of genuine value for us. They are constitutive parts of flourishing human lives. Our highest human aim, therefore, is not to rid ourselves of concerns, desires, needs, and wants rooted in our pursuit of happiness but to strive to bring happiness and morality into as close a union as possible (1996a, TP 8: 279).

This is not the place to engage the many relevant Kantian interpretive debates - I do that elsewhere8 - rather, the point is simply to acknowledge these disagreements in the interpretive literature before proceeding to outline what I believe is the best Kantian conception of care. This conception of care uses Kant’s philosophical ideas to take us beyond what Kant himself wrote on related themes. To do this, it is useful first to get a good grasp on Kant’s understanding of the structure of human phenomenology, some features of which can be sketched through attending to his accounts of the predisposition to good and the propensity to evil in human nature. We can then appreciate the complementary nature of Kant’s account of (internal and external) freedom in giving us (respectively) accounts of duties of virtue (ethics) and of right (justice) and how each analysis gives proper space for concerns rooted in distinctively human needs and concerns. In the next section, I take the first step of outlining personal care relations, postponing the corresponding discussion of justice in relation to care relations to the section on “Justice and Care Relations.” A strength of the overall resulting position, I propose, is its multifaceted analysis of care relations.

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