Morality, id est, worthiness to be happy : Kant’s retributivism, the ‘law’ of unhappiness, and the eschatological reach of Kant’s ‘law of punishment’
Thomson, Cameron Matthew
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Throughout his work, Kant regularly glosses ‘morality’ (and cognate expressions) as ‘worthiness to be happy’ (Würdigkeit glücklich zu sein). As a rule, Kant’s commentators do not find this remarkable. Correctly understood, however, Kant’s gloss on ‘morality’ is remarkable indeed. This thesis shows why. In it, I argue that whenever we encounter Kant’s gloss, we are faced with an implicit, durable cluster of unjustified commitments; that these commitments both antedate and survive his ‘critical period’; that they are fundamentally practical in nature (i.e., that they are unexamined commitments to particular practices); and that these commitments entail a number of problematic theological consequences. I argue, in particular, that Kant’s gloss is a habit that signals, obscurely and implicitly, his antecedent commitments to the practice of capital punishment, on the one hand, and to a particular set of practical attitudes towards the happiness and unhappiness of immoral agents, on the other. I show that this habit has key implications for Kant’s thinking about the agent that he calls ‘God.’ My point of departure is Kant’s claim, in his Religion, that the human being’s particular deeds are imputable to her ‘all the way down,’ only on condition that the underlying ‘disposition’ (Gesinnung) from which they arise (according to their kind, qua moral or immoral) is imputable to her as well—that is, only if her (im)moral character may be regarded as the upshot of, or in some sense identical to, an utterly unassisted, unmotivated, originary deed on her part. I argue that Kant evades the question whether we really are permitted, without further ado, to regard this disposition (and with it an agent’s deeds) as so imputable. He simply affirms his commitment to the practice of imputing particular deeds to particular agents and, with this affirmation, affirms that he takes the warrant that it requires (the imputability of ‘Gesinnung’) to be secure. I argue, then, that the theoretical significance of imputation, as expressed in this extraordinary, evasive leap, supervenes on the urgency of the commitments that are expressed in Kant’s habitual glossing of ‘morality’ as ‘worthiness to be happy.’ The practice for which we would lack a warrant if the human being’s character were not imputable to her is the imputation of her deeds under a description (of imputation) that has immediate reference to this same ‘one’s’ punishment—specifically and only, however, to the extent that Kant takes punishments to be justifiable in none but strictly retributivist terms. These stakes and the constraining role of Kant’s habitual gloss are clearest, I argue, in his thinking about the practice of putting murderers to death—a practice, I argue, that has both a political and an eschatological significance for him.