By Juan Bernal
Question: In Immanuel Kant’s moral argument for God, the goals of perfection and highest good play important roles. Are these ideas even applicable to human reality?
Kantian: Kant argues that rational beings ought to strive to promote the highest good. Hence, such beings ought to believe that the highest good is possible. But they can do this only if they suppose the existence of God. Hence rational beings ought to suppose the existence of God.
Moi: What is so important about striving for the “highest good” (Summon Bonum)? Can’t we be morally responsible agents just by striving for improvement (a higher good)? Isn’t striving for this realistic goal, which is not perfection, sufficient for moral virtue?
Kantian: But where do you draw the line and say that it is good enough even though far from perfect? Is the present state of affairs satisfactory, or if not, what percentage increase in goodness will be sufficient?
To be truly a moral agent you need a clear idea of perfection.
Moi: I don’t have a clear idea what a “perfect” world would be; but I don’t need that idea in order to conceive of a better world. I surely don’t need to calculate the “percentage increase in goodness that is sufficient” in order to say with justification that a world of so much suffering, oppression, and inequality is one we can improve upon.
This is like saying that before I could say that John Mize, the homerun hitter of the past [See Wikipedia information at wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnny_Mize], could have been a better hitter, I need to have a clear idea of what a perfect hitter would be. I don’t. All I need is to be able to say is that his hitting average could have been higher, his strike-out rate lower, and he could have hit more homers with men on base.
But I surely don’t know what a perfect homerun hitter would be. In fact, I suspect that the idea is not even a coherent one.
Kantian: Oh, yes it is; and surely you know what a perfect hitter would do. He would hit a home run every time. A perfect bowling score is 300. And a perfect world would be one in which each rational being is as happy as she deserves
… you ask about striving for the summum bonum. Kant thought that a person of good will strives for the highest good, which Kant described as deserved happiness. In order to be deserving and worthy of happiness, one would have to be a free moral agent with a good will, acting for the sake of duty, etc … Happiness is achieved when all goes in accordance with one’s will.
Moi: I’ll set aside for now the issues of Kant’s moral theory and his argument for God. Instead. Permit me to focus on the ideas of perfection and highest good. Let me try to tie these things together. In a perfect world everyone realizes the full measure of happiness that he deserves. That is the “highest good.” In a perfect baseball world, every hitter hits a homer at each plate appearance, assuming that the hitter deserves to do this. (Why wouldn’t he deserve it? After all, each individual could be a free agent with a good will, acting for the sake of duty, i.e., athletic excellence.) In a perfect bowling world, every bowler bowls a 300 game every time he bowls, assuming that the bowler deserves this. All are happy because things went in accordance with their will (hitter wanted to hit homer every time; bowler wished to bowl 300 every game) But does this really make sense?
Kantian: Yes, of course it does. Why shouldn’t it?
Moi: Assume that every hitter realize perfection and presumably each pitcher also realizes perfection (i.e., he strikes out every hitter he faces) and every fielder achieves perfection (fields so well no hitter ever gets on base), a baseball game could not even be played. How could it be played? Every hitter at the plate implies a contradiction: he hits a homerun and the pitcher strikes him out. So in this “perfect” world the game of baseball could not even get started. Now with regard to bowling: if every bowler achieved perfection as a bowler, he would bowl 300 every time he bowled; but so would all other bowlers. Nothing of the game of bowling would remain to hold anyone’s interest. The whole point of bowling, i.e., competition, would be eliminated. In short, athletic competition involves some conflict of interest, some uncertainty as to outcome. Without these, can there be any such thing as athletic competition? But the realization of perfection or the highest good for each player would eliminate the conditions necessary for that form of life, athletic competition.
Kantian: Of course you just talking about the conditions for athletic competition. This is only a small part of life.
Moi: I admit that these examples are only from the world of athletic competition; but the questions raised can apply to most (if not all) of human action, interaction, i.e., to the human world. In a world in which everybody realizes his/her “highest good” (perfection), such things as competition, struggle, uncertainty about outcome, conflict, etc. would not even apply. Hence, much of human activity and human reality, in this imaginary world of perfection and highest good, becomes distorted beyond recognition.
The main point: When we try to apply such concepts as ‘perfection’ and “highest good’ to the human world, we find reason for concluding that they really do not apply. Forcing such concepts onto the human world requires such a transformation of that world that it is no longer recognizable as human.