The Highest Good:

Kantian Ideal, Buddhist Reality

Justin C. Maaia


This paper is not an attempt to prove that Kant would agree with the Buddha on the issues of Pure Reason.  No one can speak for Kant except Kant, and no one can speak for the Buddha except the Buddha.  The purpose of this paper is to show that what follows from Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, if it is thought out to its end, is completely in agreement with the Buddha’s basic teachings on morality.  But not his “teachings,” exactly.  Rather it will be shown that what follows from Kant is in agreement with what follows from the Buddha, namely, the examples of the present-day Buddhist masters.

Maybe Kant would agree with what is here derived from his text.  Maybe he would not.  He certainly did not make it explicit.  He did nevertheless carve a path that leads in a certain direction.  Similarly, the Buddha’s words can be jumbled about and interpreted in many different ways.  Those who most truly represent the Buddha’s words are those whose conduct reflects the fruits of the path he pronounced.  I claim that these paths lead to the same place.  If there is such a thing as “enlightenment” in either the Kantian or Buddhist sense, it is necessary that this be so.

Main Text

Why aren’t all people concerned with morality?  Is the problem that there is no reward for it?  This is certainly not an issue for morality itself, for by its definition it should not be concerned with reward.  It is our duty to be moral, to be virtuous.  This idea of duty was most famously exalted by the eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant.  But what if there is a reward for virtue, what if happiness is a result of it?  This is a theory that is touched upon by Kant in his Critique of Practical Reason, but it is unclear as to how, when, where, or if this correspondence of happiness and virtue actually happens.  Upon closer examination of the text, this theory’s possibility unfolds.  The only question that remains is whether the theory can be carried out in practice.  Is the coincidence of virtue with happiness–the highest good–an ideal or a reality?  The experience of certain Buddhist masters supports the claim that the highest good is a reality.  Perhaps their path to morality–and therefore happiness–can give us insight into how Kant’s theory can be experienced by us as well.  The purpose of this paper is to show that Kant intended the highest good to be not only an ideal but a reality as well.  It then finds some concrete examples of this reality in present-day Buddhist masters.

We need to start with Kant because he made some important distinctions and defined some important things.  The first of these is the distinction between phenomena and noumena.  “Phenomena” is the term used by Kant to refer to things as they appear.  This is contrasted with “noumena,” or the term Kant uses to refer to things as they are in themselves.  We can only ever know a thing as a phenomenon, because that is how we know things–as they appear to us.  We can never know a thing as it is in itself, divorced from the observer and the act of observing.  The one thing we know about a thing in itself is that it does have this noumenal aspect.  “For,” Kant says, “it is absurd for there to be an appearance without anything that appears.”  Now the congruency of the thing in itself and the thing as it appears cannot be decided.  An object in itself could have an infinite number of qualities, of which an observer is only aware of a few.  Or, perhaps the thing in itself is almost identical with its appearance.  The only thing we can be sure of is that the noumenon does differ from the corresponding phenomenon at least a little.  The observer is active in creating his/her representation of an object.  This is evident in the case of two people arguing over whether a particular color should be labeled ‘red’ or ‘orange’ or in the fact that one can never really know another person (or even oneself) completely.

The second is closely related to the distinction between phenomenon and noumenon.  It is the distinction between using reason practically and using it theoretically.  Theoretical or “speculative” reason is reason as it is applied to the phenomenal world, the world of appearances.  An example of this is physics, which studies the movement and behavior of objects just as they appear.  Kant held that scientific knowledge is the result of applying reason theoretically to objects as they appear.  As a result, science can become a body of stable knowledge.  However, there are gaps in this body of knowledge, gaps that are caused by the fact that scientific certainty can be applied only to phenomena.

Practical reason, on the other hand, is reason as it is applied to the noumenal world, to things as they are in themselves.  This use of reason can never yield knowledge in the scientific sense, but it is nevertheless necessary to apply reason to the aspects of life that science cannot determine.  An example of the practical use of reason is ethics.  Ethics deal with a person’s actions over which he/she has control–such as whether or not to lie–as opposed to actions that are determined by the laws that theoretical reason reveals–such as the fact that if a person jumps, that person must also come back down.  A person never has knowledge of him/herself or anyone else as a noumenon, but a person can be aware of him/herself as a noumenon in moments of ethical decision.  Consequently, theoretical reason cannot determine what the outcome of such a decision should be.  One can only rely on practical reason to guide one’s thoughts and actions.

Kant argued that theoretical reason cannot be used to prove or disprove things that are out of its element.  For example, some philosophers have tried to argue that time had a definite beginning, while others have argued that it has no beginning or end.  Kant argued that both of these ideas are absurd, for one cannot conceive of time as having a definite starting point or of it stretching into infinity.  Neither option is compatible with our experience of time.  Both are inconceivable because time is rooted in our thinking and so cannot be evaluated by thinking.  It is not an object about which one can theorize.  Rather, it is one of the forms of our intuition, i.e., everything we experience happens within time.  Therefore, certain concepts, such as God, immortality, and freedom (or determinism), cannot be proven by theoretical reason.  Likewise, these concepts cannot be disproved.  They are outside the realm of experience, and so we cannot have certain knowledge of them.

In Kant’s analysis of this situation, he recognized that there was a part of himself that was not subject to the laws of science, and therefore to theoretical reason.  This aspect of himself, his noumenal aspect, did not always operate according to time, space, or the categories of the mind that we apply to phenomena.  Maybe Kant’s ability to float above the earth was curbed by gravity, but his freedom in making moral choices had no such restriction.  This special feature of morality prompted Kant to examine more closely the situation of things-as-they-are-independently-of-appearing-to-us.  He applied reason to noumena in a practical rather than theoretical way.

Kant showed that there is, by necessity of reason, a moral law that exists to guide moral, “noumenal” decisions.  Signs of this law are present in a person’s conscience.  The moral maxims that we follow in our daily lives are approximations of the moral law.  As we will see, Kant will use practical reason to determine just what this law is.  He will then use it to tell whether a particular maxim is a true reflection of the moral law.  Unlike our subjection to gravity, we are free to follow or to disobey this moral law.  This was Kant’s first use for practical reason.  He went on to show how pure practical reason can be used to postulate the presence of other elements having to do with things-as-they-are-in-themselves.  These elements are called “postulates” because Kant recognizes that they cannot be proven with the apodictic certainty that is the standard of knowledge of the phenomenal aspect of things.  Even though we cannot have knowledge regarding the noumenal aspect of the world, this does not mean we should give up examining it.  Since theoretical reason cannot address noumenal issues, they can and should be talked about using reason in a practical way.

The first postulate of practical reason is freedom.  Freedom must exist, for we are each a noumenon, or thing-in-itself.  We are necessarily free because of this, despite some people’s claims that we are not free because of the laws of physics.  The determinacy of which they speak has to do with the phenomenal aspect of things, the aspect governed by the concept of cause-and-effect that is built-in to our experience of the outside world.  An example of this is the fact that if someone were to punch me, it would hurt.  It is true that this seems to limit my freedom, as I have no choice as to whether the punch hurts or not.  However, I am free because of the choices that are present to me after I am hit.  Yes, I have to feel the pain.  But my freedom lies in the choice of whether or not I will punch the person back.

Kant says freedom is what allows us to be holy.  It has this value because freedom is the thing that gives morality its worth.  If we were not free to follow or ignore the moral law, then it would be worthless.  If we were made to conform to the law, then there would be no merit in following it.  Freedom must exist in light of practical reason.  Theoretically speaking, we cannot of course prove whether we are free or determined.  Practically speaking, we all have a sense of what is right and what is wrong.  We all have a sense that we should act a certain way, and when we do not succeed in acting that way we chastise ourselves and vow to do better the next time.  This sense of “ought,” of what one “ought” to do, is so strong that while it cannot give us knowledge of our freedom, it does warrant us to postulate freedom as the basis for our moral decisions.

What is it that guides us to use our freedom properly?  Kant claims that pure practical reason gives us a moral law to guide our decisions.  He first refers to our intuitive sense of morality, called conscience.  This intuitive sense is an approximation of the moral law.  We can follow the moral law most of the time by “listening to our consciences.”[i]  After applying practical reason to the concept, Kant shows us that the moral law is something more concrete than conscience.  Each of our actions can be tested, by reason, against a concrete moral law.  Kant says that this law is not a specific law, but rather a form that a moral principle must take in order to be a law.

The form that any principle, or ‘maxim’ as Kant calls it, must take in order to be law is the form of a universal.  Each maxim, before one can call it law, must be tested by putting it in a universal form.  For example, if someone were to posit the maxim, “One should not break one’s promises” as a moral law, that person would first have to test this maxim as a universal.  So, one would use reason in this way: The definition of a promise is that it is the giving of one’s word that one will perform a particular act.  If one were to give one’s word and then not perform the act, that person’s word would no longer be respected.  Therefore, breaking a promise goes against the foundation on which promises are built.  The maxim of keeping one’s promises must be a moral law.

Someone might take issue with the idea of a moral law by asking whether one should keep a promise even if there is another person’s life at stake is the promise is kept.  It may seem that this is a solid argument against the idea of an objective moral law.  However, one needs to realize that there is a hierarchy of moral laws.  There is a law that a person should not kill another person, and this law outweighs the law regarding promises.  As for the task of determining this hierarchy, that is up to the individual.  In most cases, it is obvious which law should take precedence, and, if it is not obvious, then it is probably not a crucial decision.

Reason tells us that we should follow this moral law for its own sake, and not for any possible reward.  This is obvious because the worth inherent in following the law would be jeopardized otherwise.  This sentiment has been expressed by many thinkers, including the ancient Greeks.  It has to do with the definition of virtue.

Conforming to the moral law is what makes a person virtuous, or worthy of happiness.  Until Kant, most people had tried to equate virtue with happiness.  The Epicureans, for example, said that a person should use happiness as a gauge for morality.  In other words, what makes one happy is hopefully what is also morally right.  The Stoics, contrarily, said that one should act morally and that the intellectual satisfaction that accompanies this act is called happiness.  In opposition to both of these views, Kant says that happiness and virtue are not the same thing.  Being worthy of happiness (virtue) and happiness are two different things.  Happiness must include not just the intellectual contentment that the Stoics valued, nor merely the pleasure with which the Epicureans are associated.  Happiness is the fulfillment of one’s wishes, and this encompasses both the intellectual and physical needs of human beings.

Kant also said that, while we should follow the moral law only for its own sake, if we follow it, we will become aware of, and will wish for, a highest good.  This highest good is the existence of happiness in proportion to virtue.  In other words, each person should have his/her wishes fulfilled in proportion to his/her conformity to the moral law.  This sounds very logical, but how can we expect the world, over which we have very little control, to reward our virtue with happiness?

Kant’s distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal ways of knowing the world is an observation of the fact that the outside world is impersonal.  Its laws cannot be changed in order to gratify human wished and desires.  This is why “bad things happen to good people,” as is often said.  Consequently, there can be no guarantee, no expectation, not even a hope, that happiness will correspond to virtue.  How is the impersonal world going to change in order for a person to be rewarded for his/her moral actions?

This impersonal world that does not reward the virtuous with happiness seems like a formidable adversary for Kant’s idealism.  At this point in his philosophy, it seems that he should either accept the fact that happiness will never correspond to virtue, or else he should change his definition of happiness by equating it with virtue, as the Epicureans and Stoics did.  Kant refuses to take either of these options.  He holds that happiness must correspond to virtue because it is the only option that pure reason will allow.  Whether Kant is being stubborn in holding to the idea that reason governs the world, or whether he actually experienced happiness as a result of being virtuous, is a matter to be debated elsewhere.  It is his philosophical solution to this problem that is of interest to us.

This is where Kant proposes that God must exist.  A second postulate of practical reason, God’s existence is the guarantee of the reward of happiness in the future.  Kant also insists that we must assume that our souls are immortal.  There are two reason for this.  The first is that we will be assured of receiving our reward of happiness only if we are immortal (immortality takes away the anxiety caused by any lack of happiness in proportion to virtue in this life).  Secondly, we must have immortal souls because we cannot hope to become perfectly moral in this life.  We can only start on our way toward moral perfection.  Luckily, because God can “see” infinity, our progress can be viewed as what we are on pace to attain, rather than just what we have accomplished during this lifetime.

These are odd claims for an enlightenment thinker.  Kant’s greatest achievements before writing the Critique of Practical Reason had been his success in saving science from Hume’s skepticism, and his arguments against trying to prove things about God and the soul using theoretical reason.  Also, in the Critique of Practical Reason itself, Kant had established a moral law without relying on the existence of God.  In other words, while the moral codes of most religions had been accepted “because God said so,” Kant’s moral law was based solely on reason.  This is a remarkable achievement.  So, why would such a philosopher now make claims of the existence of God and the immortality of the soul?[ii]  He had already written the Critique of Pure Reason to prove that we cannot have theoretical (scientific) knowledge of such matters.

The answer is not easily found in Kant’s book, but it becomes clearer upon examining certain passages in the text.  Kant is not trying to prove that God and the immortal soul exist, nor is he saying that they can be considered objects of knowledge in the theoretical sense.  Kant reminds us that they are postulates of practical reason.  This means they are concepts that can only be presumed to be true, but can never be proven true or false.  They are still of the realm of practical reason and are not to be confused with scientific knowledge:

The postulates of pure practical reason all proceed from the principle of morality, which is not a postulate but a law by which reason directly determines the will.  This will, by the fact that it is so determined, as a pure will requires these necessary conditions for obedience to its precept.  These postulates are not theoretical dogmas but presuppositions of necessarily practical import.[iii]

Even if Kant is not in conflict with his distinction between theoretical knowledge and practical reason, is he not re-inventing religion?  Why would he do this?  Is it merely to save his precious ideal of virtue and happiness?

The answer is that Kant is not re-establishing religion.  Rather, he is engaging in psychology of religion.  (This term, “psychology,” as in “psychological needs,” is used reluctantly because of its connotation of “providing comfort.”  It is meant in a deeper sense, a sense that could be rendered by the term “transcendental aid.”)   One should pay attention to the sentence that states that the “will requires these necessary conditions for obedience to its precept.”  Kant is saying that the will–a person’s will–needs to assume the postulates of God and an immortal soul in order to follow the moral law.  Kant also makes this clear on page 132 when he states:

It is well to notice here that this moral necessity [the existence of God] is subjective, i.e., a need, and not objective, i.e., duty itself.  For there cannot be any duty to assume the existence of a thing, because such a supposition concerns only the theoretical use of reason.  It is also not to be understood that the assumption of the existence of God is necessary as a ground of all obligation [to follow the moral law] in general (for this rests, as has been fully shown, solely on the autonomy of reason itself).[iv]

The existence of God and the immortality of the soul are psychological needs.  Belief in them is pragmatically rational.  Kant realized the psychological aspect of these components of religion, but he also insists that there may be more to their proposed existence than psychological value.  If the world were governed by reason, which Kant believes it to be because of the very existence of reason, then these postulates would turn out to be true.  But Kant also holds to his belief that matters such as God and immortality cannot be talked about theoretically and that they can only be postulates of reason used practically.  In other words, Kant has proven these postulates inasmuch as they can be proven.

Kant is doing more than psychology of religion, however.  After reading this book, no philosopher would doubt that Kant is trying to envision religion on a different ground.  He obviously does not want to throw-out religion.  However, since further analysis of the text shows that Kant realizes the psychological aspects of religion, one might argue that he is disproving the ideas of God, immortality, and freedom by virtue of the fact that he is proving them to be only psychological.  This is not the case.  This is Kant, and it is doubtful that he would ignore his own distinction between what can and cannot be proven to exist.  He is not proving or disproving these ideas.  Rather, he is demythologizing the ideas of God, immortality, and freedom, while also showing their practical importance.[v]  To repeat, to take these postulates out of the realm of knowledge and certainty does not diminish their importance.  Rather, it secures their place as specifically human concerns of great subtlety and significance.

On page 117 of Beck’s translation, Kant equates God with the principle of justice (“impartial reason”) in describing how one should enjoy happiness in proportion to one’s virtue:

[Virtue, or the worthiness to be happy, is not sufficient as the only component of the highest good.] For this, happiness is also required, and indeed not merely in the partial eyes of a person who makes himself his end but even in the judgement of an impartial reason…For to be in need of happiness and also worthy of it and yet not to partake of it could not be in accordance with the perfect volition of an omnipotent rational being, if we assume such only for the sake of argument.[vi]

Here, Kant is clearly showing that belief in God might be based on the need for a guarantor of justice.  Someone must make sure that each person will experience happiness in proportion to his/her worthiness to have it.  This “highest good” is proven to exist by pure reason, but there needs to be a guarantee of this justice.  Because a person cannot imagine justice in the form of happiness and virtue, he/she must presume the existence of a being that will somehow guarantee it in this life or, if necessary,  in another.

In the following passage, Kant demythologizes the idea of God in a different way.  He takes the moral law, which he has already established according to reason, and which needs no further proof, and he refers to it as “His command.”

For nothing glorifies God more than what is the most estimable thing in the world, namely, reverence for His command, the observance of sacred duty which His law imposes on us.[vii]

This is actually more of a “re-mythologization” of the moral law than a demythologization of God.  But it nevertheless shows the relationship between mythical and demythologized language.

A similar case occurs earlier in the text in one of Kant’s most famous passages.  It is here that Kant tries to show the importance of our duty to follow the moral law.  He takes this concept and conveys its divine nature by calling it by name:

Duty!  Thou sublime and mighty name that dost embrace nothing charming or insinuating but requirest submission and yet seekest not to move the will by threatening aught that would arouse natural aversion or terror, but only holdest forth a law which of itself finds entrance into the mind and yet gains reluctant reverence (though not always obedience)–a law before which all inclinations are mute even though they secretly work against it: what origin is worthy of thee, and where is the root of thy noble descent which proudly rejects all kinship with the inclinations and from which to be descended is the indispensable condition of the only worth which men alone can give themselves?[viii]

A demythologization of the soul is present in various places throughout the Critique.  After discussing the role of a person as a phenomenon who is determined by cause and effect, Kant says:

…the same subject, which, on the other hand, is conscious also of his own existence as a thing in itself, also views his existence so far as it does not stand under temporal conditions, and himself as determinable only by laws which he gives to himself through reason.[ix]

In this passage, Kant distinguishes the only thing that can definitely be known about the soul.  This concept, whether it is ontologically true or not, is a result of a human being’s inward consciousness.  A person knows that he/she is constrained by time, space, cause and effect in the external world.  Internally, however, he/she is aware of the freedom to make moral choices, and also of the apparent transcendence of time experienced in such things as sleep, dreams, daydreaming, and meditation.

Linked to the concept of a soul is the postulate of its immortality.  Even here, Kant seeks to distinguish what can be known with certainty without denying the possibility that immortality is ontologically true.

Only endeless progress from lower to higher stages of moral perfection is possible to a rational but finite being.  The Infinite Being, to whom the temporal condition is nothing, sees in this series, which is for us without end, a whole conformable to moral law.[x]

And again in the footnote:

Though he can never be justified in his own eyes either here or in the hoped-for increase of natural perfection together with an increase of his duties, nevertheless in this progress toward a goal infinitely remote (a progress which in God’s sight is regarded as equivalent to possession) he can have prospect of a blessed future.[xi]

Kant emphasizes the postulate of immortality with regard to how a person can view his/her moral progress, not with regard to an afterlife.  This postulate is not knowledge that one will live forever.  Rather, Kant stresses that one’s moral worth is measured by the rate at which one progresses toward moral perfection, not by how perfect one is (for human beings can seldom succeed in being perfect).  For example, it does not matter that Fred only makes a mistake every month, while Judy makes one every day.  What is taken into account in assessing moral worth is the fact that Fred has always only made one mistake per month, while Judy used to make one mistake per hour.  Consequently, in the eyes of One who could see their progress in infinity, Judy and Fred might be equally virtuous.

These passages are evidence that Kant is attempting to create a demythologized religion.  Why he does not explicitly state this intention is unclear.  Perhaps he was not consciously aware that he was doing this.  Or, maybe he tried to hide this message within the text in order not to draw the attention of the conservative ruling class of his day.  These questions are valid, but the evidence to support the hypothesis exists nonetheless.

Because of Kant’s genius and his unsurpassed analytical ability, one would tend to think that whatever Kant’s intention had been, he was aware of it.  This view leads one to the conclusion that Kant must have glazed over his intention for a reason.  Kant’s moral law and his postulate of freedom are each well-grounded.  It is the other postulates–God and the immortality of the soul–that seem to be resting on shaky ground.  Is it possible that Kant reintroduced the ideas of God and immortality in order to make his most important claim–the coincidence of happiness and virtue–seem more plausible?

Perhaps Kant knew that happiness and virtue do coincide in this life.  However, he also knew that one needs to cultivate virtue before one can be aware of the happiness that follows from it.  Because a person needs to become virtuous before he/she will experience any of the rewards for it, most people will be reluctant to believe that it could ever happen.  It is like telling someone that all he/she has to do is follow me for ten miles and there will be a pot of gold waiting at the end of the road.  It may be true, but one does not know until one has already followed me for the ten miles.  One can guess how many people would be willing to do that.

In addition to this wager, Kant also has in mind the distinctions he made in the Critique of Pure Reason.  In that book, he made it clear that a person sees the world in two different ways, phenomenally and noumenally.  These two ways of seeing do not always coincide.  For example, just because, noumenally, I know that a child does not deserve to suffer pain, it does not follow that the outside, phenomenal world will refrain from causing a child pain in some sort of natural disaster.  This distinction makes it seem even more improbable that happiness can occur in proportion to virtue.

One may ask why Kant would believe that the case of virtue and happiness is any different from this example of the suffering child.  Well, perhaps to his surprise, Kant cultivated virtue and then experienced happiness in proportion to it.  (We realize the speculative nature of this claim about Kant’s personal experience, but the reasons for speculating in this way will become clear below.)  Somehow (as I will later demonstrate), this coincidence of virtue with happiness occurred.  Kant was elated and he felt the need to write a book about cultivating virtue and using pure reason to determine the moral law.  He began writing the Critique of Practical Reason, but part of the way through the book, he realized the above-mentioned obstacles.  He realized that his readers would never believe that happiness comes with virtue.  They would cite their past experiences and even use Kant’s own theory of phenomena and noumena against him.  “But,” Kant would say, “you won’t believe it until you see it.  You won’t have happiness until you cultivate virtue.”  “Well,” the critic might reply, “I am not going to go through all of the trouble to be virtuous only to find out that you were wrong and there is no happiness attached to it.  I did not experience any happiness the few times I did try to be virtuous, so why should I worry about it now?”  Kant replies, “You need to cultivate true virtue, not just a few good deeds, but a whole new way of looking at and acting in life.”  His pleas fell on dead ears, but he did not give up.  Instead, Kant introduced the old concepts of God and immortality.

These concepts had previously provided security for people.  They needed a God with whom they could plead in order to survive in this harsh world.  Likewise, they needed immortality in order to enjoy the years of life they were cheated out of by the impersonal world.  But in the modern world, people have tamed the earth and they are no longer in such dire need of these things.  Many still believe in God and immortality, but many also doubt them.  Kant decided to use these concepts to satisfy a new need.  He used them to explain how the coincidence of happiness with virtue is possible.

Kant used these concepts for practical reasons while still holding true to his epistemological stance.  In recognizing the psychological aspects of God and immortality, Kant does not necessarily deny that God exists.  For Kant, perhaps the experience of happiness as a result of virtue is proof enough of the existence of God.  The point is that Kant needed to use these concepts in their traditional and their demythologized forms in order to make his readers believe that his claim is true, namely, that once they become virtuous, they will also experience true happiness.

People need immortality and God in order to assure them of the coincidence of virtue and happiness.  What people do not know, and will not know until it occurs, is that this coincidence can happen in this life.  Kant would still hold that to believe in God is the most reasonable position a person can have.[xii]  But it is also probable that Kant knew the coincidence of happiness and virtue could be experienced without knowledge of God’s existence or the immortality of the soul.  Kant always kept in mind the boundaries of possible experience.

How is one to believe that he/she will experience happiness as a result of his/her virtue without having first experienced it, without the concepts of God and immortality, and without “trying it out,” (for virtue by its very nature cannot be cultivated with a reward in mind)?  In spite of these obstacles, the coordination of virtue and happiness can be proven.  It can be done with the help of the moral law, the existence of which Kant has already masterfully proven.

The question of whether there is an afterlife is irrelevant to the discussion of morals.  Yes, virtue is acquired through correspondence to the moral law.  Virtue is, as Kant says, the worthiness to be happy.  And the highest good is for each person to have happiness in proportion to virtue.  All of this is self-evident because of pure reason.  The crux of this system is that it is unclear how happiness corresponds to virtue in this seemingly indifferent world.

In Kant’s model, the phenomenal world would have to change in order for the highest good to be realized in this life.  As physical beings, we are subject to the laws of the physical world.  So, even though we are free in the noumenal realm (in the ability to act morally), there is no guarantee that the physical world will reward our virtue with happiness.  Consequently, something must change: Either there must be an afterlife where happiness can correspond to virtue (which I claim is irrelevant to this discussion), or the definition of happiness must change.  The truth is that neither of these must change.

The definition of happiness as the fulfillment of wishes does not have to change.  It is the wishes themselves that must change.  We look at the idea of happiness corresponding to virtue from the outside and we foresee that even if we were to act morally, happiness would not necessarily follow, at least in this world.  But it is possible for our wishes to be fulfilled, and we cannot comprehend this until we follow the moral law.

Virtue does result in happiness.  This relationship develops not because our idea of happiness changes, or because the phenomenal world begins to heed our wishes, but because our wishes change.  Once we are virtuous, we no longer have egotistic, selfish wishes for happiness.  Rather, we learn to appreciate life itself and to derive happiness from it.  We learn to savor the simple acts of breathing, eating, drinking, sleeping, forging relationships with people, and appreciating the harmony of nature.  We are, in fact, a part of this harmony.  Our wishes are now for these things–for the harmony of nature–to endure, for the world to take its course.  Anything extra–material possessions, music, art, knowledge–these are all bonuses to be enjoyed.  They are not the sole sources of our happiness, but rather enhancements to it.

This appreciation of nature is not to deny that the pain and suffering of life are real.  But these, too, are a part of the harmony of nature.  There will still be pain, loss, and sadness, but deep down we will have contentment welling up inside of us.  We will know that things are right with the world, and that, through it all, we are still alive.  And one can be happy–experience pleasureful happiness–simply in being alive.

We are not asserting there is a direct causal relationship between virtue and happiness.  It is more like an affinity of one for the other.  It is not that the more one does virtuous things, the more happy one will be, as in, “If I do A, then I will receive B” (“B” representing a car, house, or some other thing).  Rather, as one increases one’s virtue, one increases one’s capacity for happiness.

This relationship is due to a simple fact.  In order to cultivate virtue, to be a truly virtuous person, one has to “let go” of one’s ego-centered desires.  One has to let go of one’s selfishness.  One has to let go of one’s ego, in a way.  The ego still remains, but it does not dominate all aspects of life.  As a result, one finds that more of what happens in life is actually in accord with one’s wishes, as these wishes are now selfless instead of selfish.

This idea can be illuminated through in different terms as well.  In Sociology and Philosophy, Emile Durkheim[xiii] highlights the difference between the analytic and synthetic consequences of an act.  For example, if one eats rotten food, there is the consequence of sickness.  This consequence is contained analytically within the act.  However, in an action concerning morality, such as murder, Durkheim claims that no such analytic consequence is to be found.   Because of this, society imposes “sanctions,” or synthetic consequences that are linked to an act.  In the example of murder, the murderer is put in jail.  Prison is the consequence for murder, and it is a synthetic rather than analytic consequence.

We are proposing that there are both synthetic and analytic consequences to moral actions.  It is necessary for the sake of the common good for society to impose sanctions on criminals.  However, we are arguing that there is a consequence analytically contained within each moral action.  When someone acts immorally, their capacity for happiness is decreased.  This analytic consequence is present regardless of any sanction, any punishment, even any awareness of this decrease on the part of the criminal.  This applies to all actions, from the most gruesome crime to the most minute lie.  It also works in reverse, as one’s happiness corresponds to one’s virtue in the form of the metamorphosis of one’s desires.

This is the resolution to Kant’s problem.  It is also the reason why he could not prove to us that his theory (or knowledge?) Of happiness and virtue is true–at least without reintroducing the concepts of God and immortality.  There is a metamorphosis that occurs when one cultivates virtue, and one who has not experienced it cannot understand this change.  It is not a change in the definition of happiness, it is a change in what is required for one to be happy.  Happiness still includes both physical pleasure and intellectual contentment.  The difference is that happiness can be derived from the smallest of stimuli.  In a sense, happiness is in perpetual correspondence with virtue, but we are only aware of it upon practicing morality.

There are very few places in the text where Kant gives any indication that this is his intention.  One of these passages is located on page 152:

It is only in the way in which we are to think of this harmony of natural laws with laws of freedom that there is anything about which we have a choice, because here theoretical reason does not decide with apodictic certainty, and in this respect there can be a moral interest which turns the scale.[xiv]

Theoretical reason does not decide how we are to think of happiness.  Reason tells us that happiness is the fulfillment of wishes, but it does not tell us what those wished are.  We decide that.

For concrete support of the idea that our wishes can change and that happiness can be derived in a way that is different from that to which most people are accustomed, we must turn to a source that is perhaps as far away from Kant as one may get.  This source is the Buddha, and, more specifically, the present-day followers who best embody his ideals.  It is here that we find examples of the success of Kant’s theory, or, rather, this theory that is derived from Kant and can only be tentatively assigned to his personal experience.

“When does happiness ever correspond with virtue?” one may ask, “especially if we operate within Kant’s own admonition that the outside world must remain impersonal and that we don’t have the power to change it to reward a person’s virtue.”  Within Buddhism, we are given many examples of the truth of Kant’s system[xv].  Zen masters such as Thich Nhat Hanh[xvi] and Taisen Deshimaru[xvii] speak of each moment as being a “gift.”  These men, as well as the Dalai Lama of the Tibetan tradition, to name a few, exhibit the utmost joy, happiness, and easygoing nature no matter what the circumstances.  The Dalai Lama, for example, has been exiled from his own country and yet continues to be a tireless spiritual leader and source of inspiration for his people.  An extreme example of the happiness experienced by these people is Hanh’s description of the intense experience of peeling and eating an orange.  This is something that people do everyday, but do they ever experience happiness as a result of it?  Perhaps they sometimes enjoy this act, if they are not thinking about something entirely unrelated while doing it.  Hanh demonstrates that when the act of peeling and eating an orange is performed mindfully, bliss can be derived from it.

This mindfulness can only be attained after much practice living in this way.  “But,” one may ask, “are these masters moral, or are they ‘merely’ mindful?”  The answer is that this mindfulness is equivalent to morality, for the Buddha’s ethics can be reduced to his principle of “right mindfulness.”  The Noble Eightfold Path comprises the foundation of the Buddha’s ethics.  There are eight components, each stressing a different area on which one must concentrate in order to become enlightened.  The Eightfold Path is:

1.  Right view

2.  Right thought

3.  Right speech

4.  Right action

5.  Right living

6.  Right effort

7.  Right mindfulness

8.  Right concentration[xviii]

Upon close inspection, it becomes apparent that the concept of right mindfulness encompasses all of these virtues.  By succeeding in living mindfully, one is also necessarily following the other seven virtues.  For example, a person could never mindfully harm someone else.  Even if he/she were to concentrate “mindfully” on this violence, it would miss the essence of the concept.  If a person is harming another, they are not being mindful of the other person’s well being.  Therefore, they have failed to employ “right action.”

It is obvious, then, that the Buddha’s ethics is closely aligned with Kant’s conception of the moral law, for they are both founded on the form of a universal.  And it also follows that if Kant’s theory of the correspondence of virtue and happiness can occur without relying on the concepts of God and immortality, then it is probable that this is what is experienced by the masters of Buddhism (as well as many other people of various disciplines).  But it is here that the comparison must end.  The next issue of relevance in this discussion of morality is the question of how to achieve it, and this is where Kant and the Buddha advocate two different practices.

Kant and Buddha agree on the moral law and on the correspondence of virtue with happiness, even though they use different language to describe this relationship.  The issue that follows from this is what path of action one must take to achieve that virtue, and hence the happiness that goes along with it.  Kant describes a classroom type of instruction, where people are taught to observe the actions of others and to judge those actions according to the moral law.  This will help them to be aware of the law, and it will give them examples to follow and mistakes to avoid.  The Buddha, on the other hand, relies on a self-awareness of the moral law through meditation.  He does not speak of a moral law like Kant does, but rather indicates the intricate web of causality in which we exist and the karmic actions that affect/effect that web.  This amounts to the same universal-concern that characterizes the moral law.  The Buddha emphasizes, like Kant, that morality comes from the practice of living mindfully (the cultivation of virtue for Kant).  This mindfulness is created through the practice of meditation.

While Kant probably had no conception of meditation in the Buddhist sense, and the Buddha would have probably criticized Kant’s methods as too “heady” and not intuitive enough, perhaps there is within this dichotomy a valuable solution to achieving virtue and happiness.  Perhaps a combination of the methods of these two philosophers will create a complete method of practice.  Buddhist meditation would establish the intuitive awareness of how to conduct oneself, while Kant’s philosophy would keep Westerners grounded in their own tradition (the success of meditation can only be attested to by examples of Buddhist masters, or by one’s own practice and subsequent experience of awareness.  But Kant’s correlation of virtue and happiness is likewise obscure until it is experienced).  Similarly, the Eastern mind who is already familiar with meditation will be able to supplement his/her intuitive awareness with a philosophical treatise to satisfy his/her craving for that type of intellectual stimulation.[xix]  Lastly, there is the case of the person is predisposed to one way and not the other.  For that person, this comparative study will help him/her to be aware that their chosen practice is not at odds with the practices of others.

One might argue against the correspondence of virtue and happiness despite Kant’s reasoning and the Buddha’s example.  One might object by asserting, “I am a moral person, but I am not happy.”  The reply that is to be given to this person is that he/she has not become perfectly mindful, and therefore does not know whether he/she is truly moral.  The Buddha said that a person should be so mindful as to know whether he/she awoke on an in-breath or an out-breath.  It is only this level of mindfulness that can give one knowledge of whether he/she completely follows the moral law.  This is where the distinction between morality and mindfulness lies.  It is theoretically possible that one could be moral without being mindful, without being aware of it.  But it is not possible for one to be mindful without also being moral.  This mindfulness is essential to the correlation of virtue and happiness, for it is only by such mindfulness that one learns to be happy with and appreciate each moment.

There is one last objection that may be made to this comparison.  One may object that the Buddha differs from Kant in that Kant insists on a happiness that includes pleasure, while the Buddha denies pleasure.  This argument is based on a superficial understanding of the Buddha’s teachings.  He did not say that an enlightened person must deny happiness or pleasure.  He said only that the enlightened person should have conquered the desire for pleasure so that he/she will not be consumed by it.  The only desire that is permitted is the desire to become enlightened, and even this is abandoned upon reaching that goal.  Once all desires are destroyed, pleasure can be freely enjoyed.  This is not unlike our theory that Kant is asking for a transformation of will, rather than a change in the definition of happiness..

The coincidence of happiness with virtue is central to the ethical teachings of Immanuel Kant and the Buddha.  Both teachers offer a practice whereby one may cultivate this virtue.  The question is, “Does happiness follow from virtue?”  Kant says that it does, and he proves that pure reason prevents it from being any other way.  However, Kant also felt the need to introduce the concepts of God and immortality in order to convince people of what reason alone already proves.  The Buddha, of the other hand, did not introduce any other concepts but virtue and happiness.  If one wants to believe in their coincidence, the one must practice.  One must experience it.  Kant, too, must have believed in the primacy of this experience, but he also felt that the need for assurance (in the form of the postulates of God and immortality) was too great to ignore.  This difference in method is a result of the different way in which each philosopher came to his realization of virtue and happiness–Kant through self-instruction and intellect, and the Buddha through meditation and intuition.  Since both of the roads ultimately lead to the same paradise, it is not up to us to determine which one is objectively better.  It is in our much better interest to learn which way, or combination of ways, works best.  As long as we each come to possess this great pearl, neither the Buddha nor Kant would argue over the journey taken to find it.

After word

It has been brought to my attention that this paper is an attempt at theodicy, at least in a “demythologized” sense.  In other words, I have attempted to show how the world can be ultimately good in spite of the suffering that occurs here.

I would not want this paper to be read as a theodicy.  I agree with Emmanuel Levinas that the attempt to formulate a theodicy is an unjust act.  Theodicy ultimately seeks to justify the suffering of others, and the accompanying mind-set of such a justification is fertile ground for the cultivation of immoral behavior.  This paper is certainly not a justification of the suffering of any person.

That being said, I would not rule out the idea that this paper is an analysis of the coincidence of virtue and happiness under ordinary circumstances.  What I have tried to show is that, in daily life, if one succeeds in being moral and mindful, one will also be happy.  This coincidence of happiness and virtue has power over the minute vicissitudes we normally refer to as suffering (such as missing one’s train, or getting the flu).  Often, this coincidence occurs in the face of more intense suffering (such as a serious illness).  Suffering is not diametrically opposed to happiness.  One can occur simultaneously with the other.

However, I would not even entertain the idea that the suffering of a person is evidence of his/her immorality.  A Jew who suffered the torture of a concentration camp during World War II would not be said to suffer because of his/her immorality.  Rather, this suffering was caused by a person’s choice to use his freedom–the very same freedom that allowed the Jew to be moral–to torture another human being.

While I will not assert the justification of anyone’s suffering, I also will not hesitate to cite an example that shows the coincidence of virtue with happiness in a very adverse situation.  This example comes from Jacques Lusseyran book’s And There Was Light, which is treated in Dorothee Soelle’s Suffering.  In the book, the blind nineteen-year-old Lusseyran depicts the extreme suffering experienced by prisoners of a German concentration camp.  He relates his role among the prison population:

I could try to show…[my fellow prisoners] how to go about holding on to life.  I could turn towards them the flow of light and joy which had grown so abundant in me.  From that time on they stopped stealing my bread or my soup.  It never happened again.  Often my comrades would wake me up in the night and take me to comfort someone, sometimes a long way off in another block.

Almost everyone forgot I was a student.  I became “the blind Frenchman.”  For many, I was just “the man who didn’t die.”  Hundreds of people confided in me.  The men were determined to talk to me.  They spoke to me in French, in Russian, in German, in Polish.  I did the best I could to understand them all.  That is how I lived, how I survived.  The rest I cannot describe.[xx]

The existence of suffering and evil in the world is a different problem from that of the relationship of virtue and happiness.  These two problems seem to be linked, as one imagines it to be easier to be happy when one is not suffering and harder when one is.  However, as one can tell by the example of Jacques Lusseyran, one can even be “joyous” in a concentration camp.  And we can see the opposite, that a person can refuse to be happy no matter how little they suffer, in the countless examples of “spoiled brats” with whom we are all acquainted.  More often than we would like to admit, we are those brats.

[i].Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, trans. Lewis White Beck (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993) 129.

[ii].I need to thank Dennis Outwater of Suffolk University for posing this question to me in this way.  It is what prompted me to further probe this work in this way.

[iii].Kant, 138-139.

[iv].Kant, 132.

[v].The term “demythologize” was coined by Rudolph Bultmann.  It is the process of recognizing that myths are stories written in the symbolic language of the mind and that there is a truth that underlies each of them.  This process is the opposite of “demythicization,” also coined by Bultmann.  One who demythicizes a myth discounts it as a primitive explanation for some aspect of the external world.  He/she then replaces it with a scientific explanation, if it is available.  Contrarily, the demythologizer lets science improve our understanding of the external world, but he/she also realizes that the myth is a product of the human mind and that it has a philosophical truth or truths underlying it.  The demythologizer holds that while science may better explain the external world, the language of the myth is as good as any language at describing the inner world of nature, the mind.  One needs only to interpret its symbolic language, which is analogous to the idea of dream-interpretation.

One may examine the creation myth of Genesis as an example.  One who demythicizes is likely to take the idea that the world was created in seven days and to replace it with his/her scientific knowledge that the earth has evolved over billions of years.  In doing this, he/she has missed an important opportunity for insight.  One who demythologizes takes this opportunity to think deeply about the myth.  In it, the act of creation is performed by God.  One way of demythologizing this myth is to say that its implicit message is that creation is divine.  No matter what type of creation it is–art, music, literature, sex–it is likened to an act of God.  Of course, this is only one of many ways that this myth can be demythologized, but it makes the concept clear.

[vi].Kant, 117.

[vii].Kant, 138.

[viii].Kant, 90.

[ix].Kant, 102.

[x].Kant, 129.

[xi].Kant, 130.

[xii].Kant, 149.

[xiii].Emile Durkheim, Sociology and Philosophy, trans. D. F. Pocock, (New York: The Free Press) 42-43.

[xiv].Kant, 152.

[xv].There is an absence of specific references in this section of the paper.  This is not due to scholarly laziness; it is due to the fact that no such reference could provide evidence for the truth of Kant’s theory, regardless of how true it is.  Kant’s theory deals with practical reason, and therefore practice.  It is only through practice that this theory can be proven true or false (barring any logical inconsistencies, of course).  My hypothesis holds that Kant’s theory is proven by the living example of certain people.  The people chosen to represent this example in this paper are Buddhist masters of various traditions.  I cannot cite Buddhist texts from particular traditions, as this would not serve the purpose of showing a concrete example of Kant’s abstract ideal.  Citing such sources would be comparing theory with theory, rather than supporting theory with evidence.  Obviously, the evidence presented here requires the reader to “take my word for it,” or to look for people in his/her own life who exhibit something of the coincidence of virtue and happiness of which Kant speaks.  The best I can do is to cite a couple of books that might give the reader insight into the type of people who embody Kant’s ideal.

[xvi].Thich Nhat Hanh, Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brother (New York: Riverhead Books, 1999) 56-65.

[xvii].Taisen Deshimaru and Nancy Amphoux, Questions to a Zen Master. Arkana, 1991.

[xviii].David J. Kalupahana, Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1976) 59.

[xix].I apologize for this distinction between the “Western” and “Eastern” mind.  Apophatic mystics are found in the Western tradition, as are logic- and argument-laden philosophers in the East.  I only intend the distinction to indicate the more mainstream tendencies in each area.  I think it is not unfair to say, for example, that more Easterners are acquainted with some form of meditation practice than are their Western counterparts.  In the West, these types of practices traditionally have been relegated to cloistered monastic orders.

[xx].Jacques Lusseyran, And There Was Light, trans. Elizabeth R. Cameron (London: Heinemann, 1963) p.222