Exposition of the Necessity of the Highest Good
from Kant's Critique Of Practical Reason

by Philip McPherson Rudisill
7/22/06 revised 7/23/06 edited 10/10/12

We assume here that we have already established the fact of freedom due to the otherwise inexplicable respect that we hold for the moral law.*

* See essay on the Proof of Freedom.

But now it is only natural that we rational humans ask: to what end is this moral law, and thus our freedom also, directed? What is to be accomplished by the fact of such a curious and yet undoubted law affecting our conduct?

The question assumes a purpose, presupposing that all principled action is directed toward some goal, some accomplishment. But this is eminently rational, for otherwise, without a purpose for our practical principles of conduct, we are forced to ask: what's going on? A rule of conduct that has no purpose? Even the game of hopscotch will have a purpose of avoiding boredom. A man who burned up his money to pass the time would be more sane than a man who undertook an act simply because it were derived from the moral law, an absolute code of conduct without any purpose at all, something that we ourselves dream up. One can understand religious people complying with a rule of bowing according to clock and compass, for example, for the sake of a self discipline or because they fear punishment if not. But then imagine people doing that without being religious or wanting exercise. Such senseless principles would be no different from moral principles, absent a purpose.

And so even though the moral law is fully validated in its own right as its own purpose sufficient for action, still it must have a purpose to which it, like any rational, principled action, must aim. The former is a product of reason, the latter a presupposition of reason.

What then is the purpose of the moral law? What is to be accomplished by the fact of this law and the respect that humans hold for it?

We must seek our answer within the context of ourselves as rational creatures who are human, and who are endowed with an irrepressible drive for personal happiness. Our rationality is practical and leads us toward the moral act and also toward the pursuit of happiness. And there is only one way in which these (morality and happiness) can be unified, and practical rationality be brought into accord with itself, and that is by means of the idea of the Highest Good. According to this idea we are to be morally perfect and will have the right to a happiness which is proportionate to that, and so we are to become perfectly happy.*

* This holds for the individual. For a crowd, it is likely that there will be different degrees of moral virtue and hence there would be different degrees of happiness.

And so it is this idea that we must come to put out in front of the moral act (and even of the act in pursuit of happiness to the extent we do not make ourselves unworthy of happiness). And we unify practical rationality within ourselves by means of this conception of the Highest Good as the purpose of the moral law. Essentially we are making the moral act also the most prudent act possible.

Therefore, because our rationality is practical (and hence therefore also unified) the Highest Good is a practical (achievable) goal, and so it is in (implicit) fact the purpose of the moral law and to which the moral act is understood to aim, and what it is to accomplish. Whenever we undertake a moral act we are implicitly and ipso facto implementing the idea of the Highest Good.


Eternal Life. The Highest Good is then a rationally necessary goal for all moral striving. It assumes the attaining of moral perfection, to which each moral act points as intention and evidence. The fact that this moral perfection cannot be attained in any finite span of time means only that the human must have a longer life in order to further that approximation and approach. Otherwise the Highest Good cannot be a practical goal . . . but it is a practical goal! for we are constantly called to act as the morally perfect, and so the Highest Good has to be possible in a practical way (for what we are called to do, we can do), and so utter virtue is practical and thus to be expected as an eventual result of the moral striving.

God. And likewise the Highest Good as a practical goal calls for the intervention of a God as the Omnipotent and All Knowing Moral Judge who dispenses happiness in proportion to one’s virtue. And so where the perfect virtue aimed at by the individual in his pursuit of the Highest Good (through every moral act) is actually realized (for this moral rectification cannot arise by the workings of laws of nature alone).*

* Since there is no proof in pure reason against either Eternal Life or God (or also Freedom for that matter), and since both are required by the Highest Good in order to provide a meaning result to the moral law, it follows that both must be assumed as postulates of pure practical reason. See of Canon of the Critique of Pure Reason.**

** I mention again that it is hard for people to realize that if the moral act were utterly pointless and merely undertaken by rote in accordance with a rule they have admittedly just dreamed up, that one would be insane to continue doing that pointless act. If you were consistent in your thinking you would at least go to a doctor to get some medication for the bad feelings arising as you consider committing immoral but profitable acts. Without the idea of the Highest Good as the unifier of practical reason the moral law itself is in danger, as something to be gotten rid of. Consider: I learn to keep my hands free of frost bite and so my rule is always to wear gloves when it gets below 32º F., and then, when my left hand is chopped off for some reason, let us say, and is lying on the ground by itself and it is below the specified degrees, still, in compliance with my rule, I would go and insert the lifeless left hand into its glove. That would be utterly pointless. Without the unification of practical rationality under the Highest Good the moral law is just as pointless. And it is insane to knowingly engage in pointless acts. (I think the DaDa movement may have been aimed at violating this rational principle of no pointless acts.) See Sagan and Kant.]

And so we either accept the Highest Good as the purpose of the moral imperative (theists) or we reject the authority of the moral law and ignore the moral imperative entirely (atheists).*

* For more on the thinking of atheist with regard to this Highest Good, see also Sagan and Kant and the Handbook for Atheist Youth.

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