Kant on Virtue
Received: 22 February 2012 / Accepted: 6 March 2013
Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013
Abstract In business ethics journals, Kant’s ethics is
often portrayed as overly formalistic, devoid of substantial
content, and without regard for the consequences of actions
or questions of character. Hence, virtue ethicists ride hap-
pily to the rescue, offering to replace or complement Kant’s
theory with their own. Before such efforts are undertaken,
however, one should recognize that Kant himself wrote a
‘‘virtue theory’’ (Tugendlehre), wherein he discussed the
questions of character as well as the teleological nature of
human action. Numerous Kant scholars argue that Kant
already erected precisely the kind of integrative moral
architecture that some of his modern interpreters (while
aiming to supersede him) wish to construct. For business
ethics, this divergence of scholarly opinion is of crucial
importance. It shows ﬁrst that the standard portrayals of
Kant’s ethics in business ethics textbooks—as rigidly
deontological, narrowly individualistic, and hence unsuit-
able for the speciﬁc demands of corporate agency—might
have to be revised. Second, discussions in the business
ethics literature on stakeholder-engagement and managerial
decision-making likewise stand to gain from a more
nuanced picture of Kant’s moral philosophy. Third, a
reassessment of Kant’s ethics with regard to questions of
personal character and moral sentiments might also lead to a
more favorable view of the relevance of his ethics for
managerial practice. Last, but not least, the many current
attempts to reconcile Kant’s freedom-oriented philosophy
with virtue theories stand to beneﬁt considerably from a
better understanding of how Kant himself conceived of one
such synthesis between the formal and substantial aspects of
morality. This, ultimately, could lead to an important
overlapping consensus in the academic literature as to the
role and relevance of virtuous conduct in business.
Keywords Virtue ethics Teleology Deontology
Kant Kantian Formalism
Two contrasting views exist in the literature concerning the
relationship between Kant and virtue ethics. Outside the
ambit of Kant scholarship, the opinion prevails that Kant is
a purely deontological thinker, lacking sensitivity toward
the preconditions and consequences of ethical acts, with the
result that his theory urgently needs emendation and
complementation, especially through theorems of virtue
ethics. Kant scholars, to the contrary, hold that Kant’s
moral philosophy contains all such considerations and
virtually culminates in a virtue ethics.
For business ethics scholarship, the consequences of these
different assessments are as patent as they are pertinent.
While the former view limits Kant’s contributions to current
debates to a very narrow range (i.e., mostly rights-based,
procedural concerns), the latter view suggests a drastic
expansion of the possible applications of Kant’s thinking
(i.e., into the remits of substantial morality). From this sec-
ond angle, moral sentiments and questions of character as
well as consequentialist and teleological forms of moral
thought seem approachable from a Kantian perspective.
Against the often suggested combination of Kant and Aris-
totle (by many considered the ‘‘perfect mix’’ for business
ethics), it appears that such a synthesis between deontolog-
ical and teleological thinking could be constructed within the
conﬁnes of the Kantian system alone.
C. Dierksmeier (&)
Global Ethic Institute, University of Tu
Grabenstr. 26, 2070 Tu
J Bus Ethics
In what follows, I want to prepare the grounds for
further research on the aforementioned issue. I will
proceed by giving a theory-based overview on the literature
(‘‘What Does the Literature Say?’’ section). Then, I analyze
the historical and systematic reasons for the drastically
diverging views on Kant’s ethics, i.e., why his moral phi-
losophy appears merely deontological (‘‘Why Does Kant
Appear to Be a Mere Deontologist?’’ section) and why, in
fact, it is not (‘‘How Does Kant Supersede Deontology?’’
section). Thereafter, I shall brieﬂy outline Kant’s own
virtue ethics and its relevance for current debates in busi-
ness ethics (‘‘Kant’s Virtue Ethics’’ section). Finally, I will
draw some conclusions for the direction of further research
What Does the Literature Say?
In the last three decades, there has been a constant increase
in literature on virtue ethics in business ethics journals (for
an overview of the literature until 1999 see Moberg 1999).
At present, the ﬁeld of research is wide and comprises both
theoretical studies on the philosophical or spiritual foun-
dations of virtue ethics as well as investigations into prac-
tical applications of virtue ethics in the business world.
Articles with a theoretical focus suggest a diachronic
consensus on the merits of a virtue-based approach to busi-
ness ethics. From authors such as Aristotle (Dierksmeier and
Pirson 2009; Sison 2008; Freeman et al. 2004) via the Middle
Ages (Arjoon 2008; MacDonald and Beck-Dudley 1994;
2009; Dierksmeier and Celano 2012) up to notable
contemporary thinkers such as Heidegger (Swanton 2010),
Foucault (Everett et al. 2006) and Solomon (1999, 2000) runs
a more or less continuous thread of arguments extolling the
merits of virtue-oriented theorizing about business practice
(McCracken and Shaw 1995). Although, for some decades,
the predominance of contractarian theories had thwarted
virtue-oriented theories (Oosterhout et al. 2006), the current
weakening of the former appears to bring a renewed
strengthening of the latter (Crockett 2005).
Said diachronic accord overlaps with a synchronic con-
sensus with regard to the manifold practical applicability of
virtue ethics to problems as variegated as supply-chain
management (Drake and Schlachter 2008), decision-mak-
ing (Bastons 2008), leadership (Dawson and Bartholomew
2003; Flynn 2008), impression management (Provis 2010),
human capabilities (Bertland 2009; Giovanola 2009;
Alexander 2008; Beckley 2002; Esquith and Gifford 2010;
1985), professionalism (Parkan 2008), and the pursuit
of personal as well as organizational excellence (Whetstone
2001, 2003; Weaver 2006; Alzola 2008). Increasingly,
empirical studies for the measurement of virtue in business
are being undertaken as well (Neubert et al. 2009; Chun
2005; Shanahan and Hyman 2003; Bright et al. 2006; Caza
et al. 2004). Bridging, as it does, both historical time and
cultural space, virtue ethics appears to many authors as a
very suitable approach to business ethics, not in the least
when considering its pedagogics (Roca 2008).
While the philosophical concept of virtue ethics still
remains controversial (Stohr and Wellman 2002; Jost and
Wuerth 2011), as a theme of interdisciplinary study, virtue
ethics has nonetheless become ﬁrmly established within the
discourse on corporate conduct and organizational behav-
ior. Previous suggestions rejecting the very idea of a virtue
ethics as fundamentally ﬂawed (Louden 1984), seeking less
ambivalent terms for this ﬁeld of research (Nussbaum
1999), or abandoning the attempt to marry virtue theory
and business practice (Sundman 2000), have hardly been
heeded. Although not conceptually, at least pragmatically
then there is today a sufﬁciently large consensus about the
contents and features of virtue ethics among contemporary
scholars so as to give the term real purchase in current
debates (Swanton 2003). Apart from a very few exceptions
(Gotsis and Kortezi 2008; Werhane 1994; Whetstone 2001;
Colle and Werhane 2008), most scholars in the ﬁeld sub-
scribe to the view that Kant certainly does not belong
among the champions of virtue ethics. I wish to challenge
Some preliminary remarks are required on the unique
role that Kant’s moral philosophy plays in the contempo-
rary business ethics literature: On one hand, numerous
scholars make an impressively constructive use of Kant’s
ethical theorems for various practical applications in the
realm of business (Micewski and Troy 2007; Reynolds and
Bowie 2004; Arnold and Bowie 2003; Bowie and Dunfee
2002; Bowie 1998, Bowie and Werhane 2005; Dubbink
and Liedekerke 2009; Moberg and Meyer 1990; Dier-
ksmeier 2011). On the other hand, several renowned phi-
losophers still question the relevance and validity of Kant’s
moral philosophy altogether. While the former group cel-
ebrates the clarity and lucidity that Kant’s ethical principles
offer for solving speciﬁc ethical problems, the latter gen-
erally doubt their capacity to provide meaningful theoret-
ical orientation and practical guidance.
In particular, Kant is charged with overlooking human
virtue (Foot 1978) or, at least, with impeding consider-
ations of virtuous action due to an exaggerated focus on
duty for duty’s sake (Blum 1980). Thus, so the critique
goes, Kant reduces ethics to not much more than a demand
for sheer obedience to abstract rules (MacIntyre 1981).
Shunning considerations of moral character (Williams
1981), Kant’s view on ethics is found to neglect such
important aspects of ethical agency as the employment
and cultivation of moral sentiments (Oakley 1990) and
to overlook both the factuality and the importance of
supererogatory acts (Guevara 1999). This bleak account of
Kant’s ethics has also found its way into business ethics
textbooks that more often than not portray Kant as the
paragon of a nonconsequentialist thinker, who shows but
cold indifference to the outcomes of actions as well as of
the social, psychological, and cultural conditions that fur-
ther or impede them (De George 2010; Shaw 2002; Don-
aldson et al. 2008).
At the center of such critiques is almost always the
opinion that Kant overlooks the individual and societal
preconditions of virtuous action and thus presents a view of
morality which does not include—and hence cannot cope
with—the true phenomenological complexity of real ethi-
cal acts. Ever since the studies of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich
and Max Scheler (Scheler 1921), it has been rec-
ommended that Kant’s ethics be completed or wholly
replaced by considerations of character and virtue. Before
yielding to such proposals we should, however, note that
the numerous contemporary Kant scholars have staunchly
defended Kant’s ethics against such accusations. Accord-
ing to them, the common image of Kant’s moral rigorism
and empty formalism is owed less to Kant’s own writings
than to their posterior misrepresentation (Lo 1981). They
surmise that such readings might be driven by a tactical
desire to conjure up the specter of an austere, absolutist
deontology: For, through the abstract dichotomy between
utilitarian consequentialism on one hand and deontological
nonconsequentialism on the other, an apparent need for a
reconciliatory synthesis is created, which proponents of
virtue ethics ache to provide (Louden 1986).
Kant scholars have long since gone to battle against such
polarized conceptions of Kant’s ethics (Schroeder 1940).
Speciﬁcally, the point is made that Kant’s formalism is not
at all empty but procedural, i.e., a structural function which
not only allows for but actually requires speciﬁc ethical
content to be operational (Silber 1974). Along with that
correction comes a vindication of the importance of Kant’s
notion of ‘‘the highest good.’’ In integrating the speciﬁcity
of context and circumstance into a comprehensive vision of
the good, it rounds out Kant’s ethics by ascribing to the
categorical imperative certain obligatory moral ends (Gu-
yer 2000). Together, these often overlooked aspects give
Kant’s ethics a notable teleological dimension (Ward
1971); Kant scholars argue that without this dimension, any
depiction of his ethics would be sorely incomplete (Sim-
mons 1993; Velkley 1989). Far from excluding a richer
account of morality and virtue, they argue Kant’s practical
philosophy culminates in a concern for the so-called
‘‘kingdom of ends’’ (Korsgaard 1996), to be understood as
a symbol for a morally united humanity (Nelson 2008).
This ‘‘consequentialist’’ view of Kant’s ethics (Cum-
miskey 1990) has led researchers to identify hitherto dis-
regarded positive functions of natural desire and moral
pleasure in his studies (Packer 1989). The widespread
perception that Kant rejected all emotional involvement in
ethical agency has consequently been challenged (Gauthier
1997). In other words, Schiller’s often-cited objection (that,
following Kant, one could not be ethical, if and when
acting from love) is now commonly rejected as resting on a
misunderstanding (Baxley 2003). On the contrary, current
research when emphasizing Kant’s manifold analyses of
anthropological aspects of moral action, virtue, and char-
acter (Wood 1999; Laidlaw 2002) maintains that Kant’s
ethics favors embedded morality, promoting also acts over
and beyond duty based on love, charity, and a sense of
human companionship (Baron 1987; Eisenberg 1966;
McCarty 1989). In short, following the cited authors, one
cannot avoid the impression that the debate in business
ethics journals has simply not caught up with (or not even
caught on to) philosophical Kant scholarship.
Why Does Kant Appear to Be a Mere Deontologist?
The problem with such spirited defenses of Kant, however,
is that the image of Kant as ‘‘deontology personiﬁed’’
(Louden 1986, p. 473) seems nonetheless to be derived
directly from his studies. After all, in his Groundworks of
the Metaphysics of Morals,
he did write, for example,
(a) that the pure idea of duty was the touchstone of all
ethicality, (b) that ethical action must come from reverence
for moral law, (c) that for the validity of moral actions
considerations of their probable outcomes would be irrel-
evant, and (d) that hence a lofty disregard for ‘‘results’’ was
the hallmark of a good conscience (AA IV, 393–395
Must we, therefore, either view Kant scholars as out of
touch with their own master, or else think of Kant as an
inconsistent thinker pronouncing contradictory ideas?
Neither consequence follows from a frank admission of
the apparent tension between Kant’s earlier studies on ethics,
such as the Groundworks (1785), and his later writings, such
as the ‘‘doctrine of virtue’’ (Tugendlehre) in his Metaphysics
of Morals (1797–1798). The adequate consequence seems
rather to take a closer look at the historical genesis of Kant’s
ffe 1994). We need to note that Kant wrote his most-
quoted text on ethics, the Groundworks, long before he had
ﬁnished deﬁning the systematic function of ethics within
his philosophical system. In the architecture of his writings,
very different functions fall to texts at different systematic
See, e.g., the §§ 133ff. of Hegel’s Grundlinien der Philosophie des
Rechts, TWA 7:250, Hegel et al. (1969).
Kant’s studies are referenced according to the pagination of the
German edition of the Royal Prussian Academy (Akademieausgabe),
in the following format: AA Volume: Page.
Kant on Virtue
necker et al. 2005). While the apparatus of
the Critiques scrutinizes the conditions of the possibility and
validity of certain cognitive forms (theoretical, practical, and
symbolical) of the subjective engagement with the human
life-world, his two treatises on metaphysics (Metaphysical
Foundations of Natural Science, and Metaphysics of Morals)
spell out the features of the factuality of such engagements.
In other words, if we are interested in what Kant has to say
on the features of real moral acts, then we must look to his
later Metaphysics of Morals even more than to his earlier,
Kant published his Groundworks two years before he
ﬁnished his Critique of Practical Reason (1787), ﬁve years
before he completed the Critique of Judgment (1790), and
more than twelve years before he came out with his con-
clusive statements on ethics in the Metaphysics of Morals
(1797/1798). Importantly, during this period, Kant rear-
ranged the architecture of his philosophical system twice:
before the publication of the second Critique and the third
Critique, respectively. During the ﬁrst such change, he
convinced himself of the need to give ethical thought a
standing and a function separate from theoretical reﬂection.
In the second transformation, he considered the relevance of
symbolic forms and teleological speculations for human
rationality in general and for ethics in particular. Either
modiﬁcation had tremendous ramiﬁcations for the unfolding
of his philosophy overall (Bartuschat 1972). Only after both
of these alterations to his initial philosophical system, did
Kant work out his ethical theory in detail. Hence, to quote
Kant solely from the Groundworks is not only illegitimately
identifying a part of his system with the whole (a quantitative
mishap, so to speak), it also means ignoring substantial
alterations in Kant’s thought (a qualitative mistake). As we
will see at once, such selective readings inspire the erroneous
view that ‘‘duty’’ is a foe rather than a friend of ‘‘virtue’’
within Kantian thought. Once we take a broader look at his
studies and paint a more comprehensive picture of his moral
philosophy, this assessment is bound to change.
Predominantly concerned, as he was in 1785, with the
question of the validity of moral judgments and their epi-
stemic possibility (e.g., the conditions that need to be met
to assess the truth content of moral evaluations), Kant
investigated ethics not (yet) with a focus to establishing a
moral doctrine for human practice. He felt, before we could
color in the shapes of a moral life, we would need to
establish its proper framework: to investigate critically the
scope of ethical knowledge offered by human reason itself,
irrespective of all situational and personal experience.
From this (preliminary and transitory) focus on the con-
ditions of interpersonal validity of ethical judgments stems
the often-noted abstract, formalistic character of Kant’s
Groundworks: Only if we succeed in ﬁnding foundations
for moral convictions and intuitions that are convincing to
rational persons as such (regardless of their particular
character and circumstance), Kant thought, an ediﬁce of
ethical thought for all can be established; in other words,
through a deliberate recourse to the ‘‘humanity within our
person’’ Kant aimed at a moral philosophy acceptable to
humanity at large (AA V, 131).
This radical abstention from the concreteness of moral
life has both its reason and its price. Its price is conceptual
abstraction; its reason is the following: In pre-Kantian
philosophies, the standard scheme of argumentation begins
with a general anthropology and then, through intermediary
steps, proceeds toward speciﬁc moral prescriptions. Kant,
however, believed it was necessary to invert this sequence.
He derives his anthropology in large part from what he has
previously carved out as a theory of normatively correct
action. In this counter-intuitive shift lies both the novelty
and the strength of Kant’s ethics (Wood 1999). While his
predecessors dealt right away with the moral problems they
wanted to solve, Kant introduced a hitherto unheard-of
pause into the workings of philosophical reﬂection.
He pondered: Since our mind is the cardinal tool of phi-
losophy, should we not ﬁrst get to know its features, before
employing it all-too-readily on philosophical topics? When
a given tool is inappropriate for a certain task, we may try
what we will, yet our efforts shall not meet with success.
What if, Kant suggested, some of the antinomies philoso-
phers are wont to encounter, are caused not by the objects
they deal with, but by misguided subjective workmanship?
What goes for theoretical endeavors holds as well in
practical philosophy, i.e., ethics (Kaulbach 1996). We need
to ask, suggests Kant: what do we bring to the table in
every moral debate? what do we carry into each normative
dispute? can we, for example, identify structures of moral
judgment that inform all our moral decisions and assess-
ments? It is with these questions that Kant’s foray into
ethics begins (Guyer 2000). He holds that from the uni-
versal nature of reason must follow certain structures of
moral deliberation to which each and every human being
will have (potential) access (Henrich and Velkley 1994).
Yet, moral judgments often look like the very opposite of
something derived from universal rationality. What seems
right in this context, proves wrong in another; what is
apparently good for one person, turns out to be bad for the
next; what was held in esteem at one point in time, is
ridiculed later. Is it not particularity and speciﬁcity then
that constitute morality? Can we really refer to something
common that applies to all humans, all over the world, and
at all times?
Kant’s answer is afﬁrmative. He does, however, qualify
this response, limiting its purview to the formal compo-
nents of moral judgments. In other words, Kant is quick to
admit that every moral action is contextualized, insofar as
it has a material side to it. No two contexts are entirely
alike, nor are, therefore, the material components of two
different moral actions. What makes them normatively
comparable nevertheless, is their formal structure (O’Neill
1989). For example, to be a responsible teacher may
demand different (material) instructional methods, varying
from pupil to pupil, while (and precisely because) the
(formal) duty to promote with disinterested fairness the
learning of each holds true for all. Each action takes on a
certain form that, once it has been laid bare by human
reason, can guide ethical assessments so as to allow
interpersonal accord in morals. Apart from all the varia-
tions that gender, age, nationality, religion, etc., introduce
into the arena of human behavior, Kant thinks he has
thereby found a point of departure for a moral theory
agreeable to each and every human being (Korsgaard and
In order to provide concrete practical orientation, such
theorizing needs to be applied to human reality, obviously.
Without such application, the procedural formalism of
Kant’s ethics remains empty indeed (Freier 1992). Yet
there is hardly any human reality of strictly universalizable
features. So, as long as we entirely bracket the speciﬁcity
of each person’s character and circumstance in pursuit of a
strictly universalizable validity theory, the categorical
imperative cannot relate to the material side of human
action—which typically is context dependent and situation
speciﬁc—and therefore must necessarily concentrate on its
formal components alone. There is, however, only one area
of the real that can so ‘‘purely’’ be accessed and assessed:
the ambit of pure human reason itself, investigating its own
rationales. Practical reason, in abstracting from everything
else, can still scrutinize its own principles. Examining the
order of determining reasons (Bestimmungsgru
nde) of the
human will, we do not need seasoned experience or situ-
ational knowledge to know that, for instance, we ought to
pursue the good because it is good. For, if instead we were
to pursue the good only when swayed by contingent
emotions or in pursuit of its concomitant beneﬁts, then,
naturally, from lack of the antecedents would follow the
absence of the consequence. We arrive thus only at a
conditional morality of hypothetical imperatives, but not at
an unconditional morality of categorical imperatives
(Prauss 1973). This Kantian insight has lost nothing of its
relevance over time, as can be seen by a quick glance at the
current discourse on instrumental (i.e., conditional) versus
normative (i.e., unconditional) stakeholder dialogue (Zak-
hem et al. 2008) and at discussions on stakeholder
engagement for social impact (Harter et al. 2009).
There is but one area of ethics that can successfully be
treated through ‘‘pure’’ practical reason alone: the realm of
our conscious convictions and motivations. That questions
of moral purity play such an enormous role in the Ground-
works is owed to the fact that they alone are amenable to a
‘‘pure’’ rational treatment, without requiring further
anthropological or situational information. In other words,
the narrowness of focus (predominant only in this particular
study) is owed to Kant’s method, not his philosophical
interests or inclinations. As we will see below, Kant was fully
aware that the realm of ethics to be treated like thus, i.e., with
exemption from any prudential knowledge, was only a
(small) part of the entire ﬁeld of ethics: the ethics of con-
viction (Gesinnungsethik) and internal will determination
(Dierksmeier 1998). Hence, the deontological purity char-
acteristic for this partial domain of his moral philosophy is
not indicative of his ethical program at large. Instead of
reducing (all of) ethics to mere deontology, Kant uses
deontological deliberations solely—and quite literally—as
the ‘‘Grundlegung’’ (groundwork) upon which later to build
a much larger ethical ediﬁce (Denis 2010).
How Does Kant Supersede Deontology?
Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason and his Metaphysics of
Morals form a uniﬁed architecture combining the systematic
foundations of the ﬁrst study with the doctrinal ediﬁce of the
second. Once the possibility of valid ethical assessments has
been established (as ﬁrst explored in the Groundworks and
then demonstrated in the Critique of Practical Reason),
Kant turns to the next project: reconstructing the phenom-
enology of our moral experiences. This project is advanced
in his conceptually rich Metaphysics of Morals, which
consists of two major parts: a legal doctrine (Rechtslehre)
and a doctrine of virtue (Tugendlehre). In the latter, we ﬁnd
Kant’s mature moral philosophy (Timmons 2002). Here he
discusses his ethical teachings in depth and detail. Here, too,
he argues in favor of many subjects (such as virtue, char-
acter, and moral sentiments) for the alleged oversight of
which contemporary critics criticize him. So, in the gene-
alogy of his studies, Kant moves from initially predominant
abstract concerns of validity (at the foundational level of
this theory) to the questions about the genesis of concrete
moral actions (at the application level). His theory changes
accordingly from reﬂections on the conceptual possibility
and moral necessity of categorical imperatives to investi-
gations into the practical reality of their objects and objec-
In his Tugendlehre, Kant wishes no less but to elucidate
what constitutes virtuous living in daily practice. In this
context, emotions and intuitions ﬁnd Kant’s acute atten-
tion. Wherever the phenomenal correlates with the nou-
menal directives of practical reason, moral sentiments play
an eminent role in his theory (Ameriks 2000). For instance,
Kant afﬁrms that our intuitions often provide us with
important introspective and situational insight (Audi 2001).
Contrary to conventional wisdom, Kant’s ethics is thus
Kant on Virtue
neither bereft of an emotional side, nor of contextual sen-
sitivity (Baxley 2003). On the contrary, his Metaphysics of
Morals proceeds as the very analysis of such dimensions of
human morality, albeit through universal conceptual stan-
dards (Speight 1997). The latter are not meant to eliminate,
but to elucidate the former; they relate to one another, as
matter does to form. Far from trying to derive ethics out of
logical inferences alone (Powell 2006), Kant’s concern is
not at all—as some of his critics still profess—to avoid
particular and sensual motives from entering into the pro-
cess of our will formation, but solely to determine whether
they make us violate moral commitments.
Hence, the difference, whether the human being is
good or evil, must not lie in the difference between
the incentives that he incorporates into his maxim
(not in the material of the maxim), but in their sub-
ordination (in the form of the maxim): which of the
two he makes the condition of the other. It follows
that the human being (even the best) is evil only
because he reverses the moral order of his incentives
in incorporating them into his maxim. (AA 6, 36)
Simply put, Kant holds that motives catering to the
particular interests of the individual are legitimate as long
as we do not employ them to declare a wrong action to be
right, or an evil purpose to be good. This ﬁnding sheds new
light on the old question which role the proﬁt motive can
play in business. Popular misconceptions aside, one must
conclude that Kant would not have demanded that pecu-
niary interest and calculations never enter into reﬂections
about business ethics. Rather we should ascribe to him the
view that such considerations must not dominate the ethical
rationales so as to dwarf or thwart their moral purposes.
In consequence, there is (pace Thielemann and Wettstein
2008) nothing wrong with pondering the ‘‘business case’’
for ethics as long as this conditional rationale is not being
(mis-)used to eschew the unconditional demands of ethics
precisely when and where they do not appear to overlap
with ﬁnancial interests.
Kant thus maintains a strict conceptual distinction
between the ethical validity of an act and its phenomeno-
logical reality but does not construe an ontological dichot-
omy between them. What he intends is a logical bifurcation,
not a psychological separation of the two. Conscientiousness
cannot be proven (or disproven), after all (AA VI, 67). As in
the case of the human self the subject and the object of
analysis converge, we can never know with certainty what
motivated us empirically, because ‘‘when our drives are
active, we do not observe ourselves, and when observing, our
drives are passive’’ (AA VII, 121). There is therefore no
going beyond or behind the subjective conscience (AA VI,
399). From this theoretical insight, Kant draws the practical
conclusion that we are not meant to attain but only to aspire
to purity in motivation, i.e., by cultivating our conscience
(AA VI, 401). Our duty is consequently not to have a speciﬁc
kind of motivation or moral feeling but rather to undertake a
certain kind of action (AA VI, 393). Relate this to contem-
porary discussions about the ‘‘honesty’’ and ‘‘authenticity’’
of endeavors in Corporate Social Responsibility, Corporate
Citizenship, sustainability, and philanthropy (May 2013).
The question, following Kant, should not be whether a
company is acting from pure motives but whether its actions
are morally reasonable. Our concern should be the validity,
not the genesis, i.e., the effective nature rather than the
affective nurture of such endeavors. The latter plays merely
an instrumental role in informing our moral judgment whe-
ther an (individual or collective) agent has done everything
within his or her power to accomplish a certain moral goal,
because this, says Kant, is an essential feature of the ‘‘good
will’’ (Korsgaard 1996). Such considerations can inform
contemporary business theory, for instance, when scruti-
nizing the credibility of efforts in corporate ethics. In the line
of Kantian thought, it seems advisable to investigate whether
a company employs suitable means to promote decent cor-
porate practices by examining whether the ﬁrm engages in
such efforts within or without of the area of its core com-
petences, and whether it announces such programs merely or
whether it follows up on them, e.g., through a self-critical
management of corporate cultural affairs by means of a
ethically guided incentive and promotion management,
controlling, etc. (Trevin
o and Nelson 2010). The rationale
behind these criteria is simply that companies who are truly
devoted to their professed goals will typically aspire to
employ their respective ﬁnancial and logistical means in the
most effective way possible. The frequently advised move
from CSR-policies from the margins of corporate activity
(PR, risk management) to the core (strategy), can thus be
viewed as a stringent consequence of a Kantian approach to
business ethics, insofar as it assures the efﬁciency of such
endeavors over time (Dierksmeier 2011).
Instead of obsessively scrutinizing ourselves, or others,
we are meant to improve, to become more virtuous,
because this, i.e., the advancement of virtue, is the ultimate
goal of duty (AA VI, 398). This shift from a spectator
perspective to the angle of the active moral agent is also
underlined by Kant’s remarks on moral character.
Now if one asks, what is the aesthetic character, the
temperament, so to speak, of virtue, whether coura-
geous and hence joyous or fear-ridden and dejected,
then an answer for this is hardly necessary. This latter
slavish frame of mind can never occur without a
hidden hatred of the law. And a heart which is happy
in the performance of its duty (not merely complacent
in the recognition thereof) is a mark of genuineness
in the virtuous disposition—of genuineness even in
piety, which does not consist in the self-inﬂicted
torment of a repentant sinner (a very ambiguous state
of mind, which ordinarily is nothing but inward regret
at having infringed upon the rules of prudence), but
rather in the ﬁrm resolve to do better in the future.
This resolve, then, encouraged by good progress,
must needs beget a joyous frame of mind, without
which man is never certain of having really attained a
love for the good, i.e., of having incorporated it into
his maxim. (AA VI, 23–24n., 19–20n)
In his Metaphysics of Morals, Kant thus corrects the
impression that his ethics is but a eulogy on duty for duty’s
sake. Instead, Kant now emphasizes that, thus far, the
accomplishments of his ethical theory are but negative, i.e.,
it allows us to identify improper motives but does not yet
provide positive ethical guidance. Of all those maxims
which conceivably pass the universalization test of the
categorical imperative a crucial question remains yet
unanswered: Over and beyond such a ‘‘negative principle
(not to run counter to moral law),’’ we need to ask, ‘‘How
can there be in addition a [positive] law for the maxim of
practice?’’ (AA VI, 389).
In his Groundworks, Kant had already sought to provide
an answer to this question by two oft-cited reformulations
of the categorical imperative through a formula that
instruct us ‘‘to treat humanity […] never as means only’’
(AA IV, 429) and to act ‘‘act as if [one] were through
[one’s] maxim always a legislating member in the uni-
versal kingdom of ends’’ (ibid.). Both formulas have a
teleological impetus in that they direct all practice to
contribute to the improved fellowship of all human beings.
In his later studies, particularly in his Tugendlehre, Kant
pursues this quest for the afﬁrmative moral purposes of
practical reason with heightened ardor. After eradicating
immoral maxims, Kant insists that we still need to identify
a ‘‘categorical imperative of pure practical reasons […] that
conjoins a concept of duty with the concept of a general
purpose’’ (AA VI, 385). What is this ‘‘general purpose’’ of
moral action? To which ﬁnal objective does it direct human
morality? These questions lead us directly to Kant’s con-
cept of virtue.
The supreme principle of virtue ethics (Tugendlehre)
therefore is, ‘‘Adopt such a maxim of ends as can be
made imperative on all mankind to adopt.’’ […]. This
position in morals, being a categorical imperative,
admits of no proof; but some account may be given of
it, i.e., a deduction from the nature of pure practical
reason itself. Whatsoever can be an end in relation to
humanity, oneself and others, must be declared an end
of practical reason. For pure practical reason is a
power of ends as such, and for it to be indifferent to
ends or to take no interest in them would be a con-
tradiction, because then it would not determine the
maxims for actions either (since every maxim con-
tains an end) and so would not be practical reason.
(AA VI, 395)
When Kant urges us to act according to ‘‘such a maxim
of ends as can be made imperative on all mankind to
adopt’’ (ibid.), his theory appears to come very close to
Aristotle’s. Kant even goes so far as to say that a rejec-
tion of this teleological dimension of practical reason
‘‘would do away with all moral philosophy’’ (AA VI,
384). One needs both a moral vision of the world at large
and seasoned judgment. Only through the combined
effects of both can one ﬁt one’s actions coherently to one
another as well as adapt them adequately to the respective
situational context. Kant therefore concurs with Aris-
totle’s view that ‘‘practical wisdom’’ (phronesis)is
essential for moral conduct and must be cultivated by
learning from exemplary situations and persons how to
live well (Jost and Wuerth 2011). Excepting only ‘‘perfect
duties’’ which must be carried out come what may, this is
also why Kant, like Aristotle, believes it to be most
conducive to proper character development when indi-
viduals are being schooled through the ‘‘casuistry’’ of
moral catechisms; a task that his Metaphysics of Morals
Other than Aristotle, however, Kant does not track
inborn, natural tendencies (for happiness and/or perfection)
but maintains ‘‘it is an act of the freedom of the acting
subject, not an effect of nature […] to assume a purpose for
one’s acts’’ (AA VI, 385). While Aristotle derives our
duties from the conception of the telos of human life, Kant
proceeds in the opposite direction (Du
sing 1968). A con-
ception of our duties leads us to the notion of necessary
ends of practical reason; the notion and content of duty in
turn rests on his conception of moral freedom. For Kant,
reaching this ultimate end through one’s own free will and
efforts is all-important (Sullivan 1974). To begin with a
concrete conception of the moral goal of life (in order to
proceed from there to a speciﬁcation of our duties as ways
to promote said goal) would only entangle us in conditional
rationales. For an unconditional foundation of virtue ethics,
we must instead set out with the merely structural features
of our duties and then provide material content for them
through a reﬂective use of our power of judgment. The
result of this process, and not its premise, is the ‘‘highest
good’’ (AA V, 119).
Kant’s ethics thus has a teleological dimension, albeit
not in the textbook-sense that strictly contrasts teleology
with deontology (Lo 1981). Critical philosophy makes a
regulative, not constitutive use of teleological thinking
See also AA VII, 282.
Kant on Virtue
(Langthaler 1991). As such, however, it is part and parcel
of Kant’s moral system. This becomes clear from virtually
all of his texts written after the ‘‘Typik’’-chapter in his
second critique, where this notion was ﬁrst explored (AA
V, 70), as well as in his third critique and in Kant’s writings
on the philosophy of religion and history (Dierksmeier
Moreover, this teleological aspect of his ethics, as
we shall see presently, lays the foundation for Kant’s virtue
Kant’s Virtue Ethics
The categorical imperative commits us to act, as if the
maxims of our actions were of universal import. When
forming our moral purpose, Kant suggests we aim for
actions that would both ﬁt into and contribute to a world
wherein everyone else was acting morally too. In directing
our behavior to this goal, Kant construes a realm where
everyone is respected as an end in himself or herself, and
where the purposes of each ﬁnd respect and support insofar
as they respect and support the (morally legitimate) pur-
poses of others. We shall act so that we advance such a
‘‘kingdom of ends’’ (AA IV, 436ff.); that is, we shall
pursue ends which integrate the ends of others insofar as
these do not in contradict the moral law (AA V, 453). In
particular, we are to seek happiness (Glu
through forms of morally worthy behavior (Glu
digkeit). The idea of the ‘‘highest good of practical reason’’
thus represents both the natural and moral orientations of
the human will (Glu
cksseligkeit and Glu
harmonious synthesis (AA V, 110).
Through what particular kind of actions, however, can
one advance this synthesis? According to Kant, only two
purposes qualify (AA VI, 386): the promotion of one’s own
perfection (eigene Vollkommenheit) and the furthering of
the happiness of others (fremde Glu
Kant further develops the Aristotelian conception of well-
ordered living (eudaimonia), i.e., the aspiration to harmo-
nize the (at times divergent) human aspirations to do good
and to do well (Dierksmeier and Pirson 2009). For, Kant
deliberately eliminates the promotion of one’s own hap-
piness and of the perfection of others from the canon of
virtuous life goals. His argument is as follows: While all
are naturally inclined to promote their own happiness, said
happiness is a legitimate concern only under the condition
of being ‘‘worthy’’ of promotion, and thus refers back to
the moral law as the source of unconditional value
(Kaulbach 1996). The moral perfection of others is like-
wise not for us to advance. We are neither capable of
exerting causality upon the innermost realms and the
morality of others, nor would we be entitled to override
their moral freedom. Hence, the integration of the worthi-
ness and the factuality of being happy can only be con-
sistently furthered by perfecting oneself and promoting the
happiness of others (Du
sing 1971). Through this dual
purpose, the hitherto solely structural commandments of
the categorical imperative assume the very moral substance
that Kant’s critics ﬁnd lacking.
The ﬁrst and foremost ethical concern of moral agents is
the ‘‘qualitative perfection’’ of their own self (AA VI, 416).
Individuals are called to cultivate those capabilities that
help them to become ever more apt and inclined to virtuous
conduct. The best way to accomplish this goal, says Kant,
is through constant practice (AA VI, 397), particularly the
practice of charity or ‘‘practical love’’ that accustoms us to
‘‘make the purposes of others (as long as these are not
immoral) our own’’ (AA VI, 450).
When it is writ: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as
thyself, this does not mean: you shall immediately
(ﬁrst) love and (then) treat him well, through the
mediation of said love, but rather: treat your neighbor
well, and this activity shall then effect benevolence
[Menschenliebe] within you (as an affective readiness
to benign actions)! (AA VI, 402)
The application of this theorem to the world of business
seems patent enough. It suggests that once ﬁrms truly
aspire to do good they will eventually encounter the means
to do so; and the more they practice good governance, the
better they will become in reconciling their ﬁnancial and
moral goals. Putting the ethical rationale ﬁrst, therefore
appears as a necessary, albeit not sufﬁcient, condition for
its practical manifestation. In short, Kant suggests that
hermeneutics drives heuristics (Dierksmeier 2011). Oper-
ating from an understanding of the business world that
encompasses and tracks moral ends, companies are better
positioned to generate the tactical ideas requisite for the
strategic realization of their social purpose: a proposition
that today is increasingly conﬁrmed by the successful
models of social entrepreneurs (Nicholls 2006; Haugh
2007; Elkington and Hartigan 2008; Hackenberg and
If we direct ourselves to act with charity toward others,
Kant surmises, we will also then reap an emotional reward:
heightened esteem for, contentment with, and pleasure in
ourselves (AA V, 117; VI, 67, 74, 377). This helps us
continuously to practice virtue so that it becomes habitual;
and that visible virtue (virtus phenonmenon) prepares the
human being so that the good will (virtus noumenon) can
have tangible and lasting practical effects (AA VI, 47).
‘‘Anyone who has some knowledge of Kantian philosophy in every
important aspect will not ﬁnd teleology essentially incompatible with
Kantianism. This is because the second half of the third Critique, the
Critique of Judgment, is completely devoted to establishing Kant’s
own teleological framework’’ (Lo 1981, 196f.).
Consequently Kant extols individuals who immediately
tend to the good, instead of having to force themselves to
benign conduct (AA VI, 401). A cheerful disposition
toward good acts indicates that one has already accom-
plished a substantial moral self-transformation and takes
pleasure in the good for its own sake (AA VI, 23).
Thus, in view of the ordinary image of Kant as a
deontological curmudgeon who favors a joyless morality
without any transient goal or purpose, the furor of Kant
scholars may be both understandable and justiﬁable:
Only ignorance of the greater part of his published
books and essays can lead to the sort of comment,
[…], that Kant is a stern philosopher of duty for
duty’s sake, without regard to considerations of
human fulﬁllment and happiness, or that the sense of
duty has for him no necessary relation to human
purposes or desires. (Ward 1971, p. 337)
To repeat, once we realize both the history and the
systematic function of Kant’s disjunction between a theory
of ethical validity on one hand and his theorems of moral
phenomenology on the other, we can understand how Kant
had already advance precisely the kind of arguments in
favor of virtue that critics ﬁelded against him (Foot 1978,
pp. 10–14). As we have seen, while the concept of duty
reigns over the theoretical discourse of validity, virtue
assures the practical realization of the good. The deonto-
logical criterion is only the necessary condition for sound
moral action, whereas the teleological dimension functions
as its satisfying condition. So, in Kant eyes, the true path to
virtue is through duty—both in theory and in practice.
Theoretically, we can reconstruct Kant’s deﬁnition of
virtue as complementing the abstract formality of the moral
law by the concrete speciﬁcity of ‘‘the highest good.’’ The
appropriate philosophical notion of virtue is a combination
of a negative (eliminative) conception of acting from duty
with a positive (afﬁrmative) conception of acting toward
the perfection of self and the happiness of others. Virtuous
action, to put it differently, is formally premised on right
intentions (Tugendpﬂicht) and materially fulﬁlled through
acting toward meritorious ends (Tugendzwecke) (AA VI,
383). Other than a mere technical aptitude or a mechanical
habit, it requires a will to do good—but at the same time it
cannot be reduced merely to the purity of such motivation
(AA VI, 384).
Practically this means that the social dimension of acting
under the aegis of the ‘‘kingdom of ends’’ derives from the
individual quest for a consistent conception of the ‘‘highest
good’’ (Brugger 1964). The interpersonal aspect of Kant’s
ethics arises from the personal sphere; it is not pitted against
it (Kersting 2004). In Kant, there is neither a false identi-
ﬁcation, nor a false dichotomy between the private and
the common good (Habermas 1991; Blesenkemper 1987).
The public deliberation on how to promote a world
resembling the ‘‘kingdom of ends,’’ where moral desert and
personal happiness are better aligned, is a result of the
individual’s quest for the (morally) good life (Gehrke
2002). Hence, it is wrong to assume that his theory, because
of its individualistic orientation, cannot at all address col-
lective action and corporate responsibilities and can there-
fore be bypassed by contemporary business ethics (Altman
2007). In Kant, the public sphere is intimately related, yet
never conﬂated, with the private realm.
Applied to the reality of business, these distinctions
mark how companies should approach their stakeholders.
Being morally committed to promote the ethically
approvable ‘‘happiness of others,’’ the ﬁrm must identify
what contributes to this goal. Instead of conjuring up a
private conception of the good in the boardroom, Kant’s
theory commits ﬁrms to public discourse (Freeman 2004).
For the normative orientation of this public discourse, Kant
suggests the following formula: ‘‘All maxims which stand
in need of publicity, in order not to fail their end, agree
with politics and right combined’’ (AA VIII, 386; orig.
italics; C.D.). Kant’s rationale for this proposal—formu-
lated with a view to politics—has an interesting ring to it
also for the application in the realm of business.
For if they can attain their end only through publicity,
they must accord with the public’s universal end,
happiness; and the proper task of politics is, to pro-
mote this, i.e., to make the public satisﬁed with its
condition. If, however, this end is attainable only by
means of publicity, i.e., by removing all distrust in
the maxims of politics, the latter must conform to the
rights of the public, for only in this is the union of the
goals of all possible. (AA VIII, 368)
If only through participatory forms of government,
governance in the best interest of the citizenry can be had,
the same should, mutatis mutandis, also hold for the public
actions of corporate entities. Yet since a direct involvement
of all citizens in each political or corporate decision is
neither always feasible nor desirable, decision-making
systems should be so organized as to achieve indirectly the
adequate representation of comprehensive interests (Arendt
and Beiner 1982). The diversity of human interests and the
plurality of values notwithstanding, politicians as well as
managers must anticipate the common concerns of their
In his Critique of Judgment, Kant describes such
encompassing thinking as operating under the regulative
idea of a shared perspective of humankind (AA V, 293).
Devising policies as if judging affairs from the angle of all
involved, the facilitator of social processes stands higher
chances for approval and support (AA V, 294). Successful
public action is hence more than weaving threads of
Kant on Virtue
empirical interests together into a ball of yarn that sells
well (O’Neill 1989). Rather it rests on the ability to inte-
grate the perspectives of each group and individual into
cohesive fabrics through consistent visions (Heinrich et al.
1967). As the ethical leitmotif of such policies serves an
ideal state of affairs, where the collectively organized
freedom of all would ‘‘result, by ethical laws both inspired
and restricted, as the cause of universal happiness; such
that the rational beings themselves, guided by said princi-
ples, produce at the same time sustained well-being for
themselves and all others’’ (AA III, 525).
Kant advocates, as it were, a stakeholder-model of
political and corporate governance: What concerns all
should be accomplished by the—at best active and at least
representative—participation of all. (Dierksmeier 2011)
Such a procedural rather than substantial account of what
constitutes human happiness and well-being transforms
stakeholders from passive beneﬁciaries of corporate
benevolence to active agents of their own welfare (Kaptein
and Van Tulder 2003). People, not ﬁrms ultimately decide
about the timely and contextually adequate vision of ‘‘the
highest good.’’ Instead of molding (or even contorting) that
vision, business should heed it (Thielemann 2005). The
corporate mission statement, consequently, should be the
outcome of a dialog with rather than a monologue about
society (Kimakowitz 2011). The foremost Kantian contri-
bution to the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility
would therefore be the mandate to respond and hence to
listen to society when it comes to deﬁning the objective
function(s) of business.
This article has shown that Kant’s later studies transform his
earlier deontological theory on ethical validity into a theo-
rem that also addresses teleological concerns such as the
practical realization of morality in and through forms of
virtue. Virtue and duty, in short, are strictly correlated in
Kant’s ethics. Just as our duty culminates in the pursuit of
virtue, the proper path to virtue is the fulﬁllment of our
duties. Virtue ethics thus forms an eminent part of Kant’s
moral philosophy as the domain where the intrinsic purposes
of pure practical reason are explained. The realization of the
integral role of virtue in Kant’s ethics, however, forces a
reassessment of his possible contributions to contemporary
debates. While Kant was used as the standard against which
to contrast the merits of virtue ethics in the past, it is high
time to realize Kant’s own contributions to his ﬁeld.
Taking note of Kant’s own virtue ethics in general, is, of
course, not tantamount to agreeing with all of its particular
features. Within the limits of this article, Kant’s virtue
ethics could only be presented brieﬂy, yet not defended.
We still must ask ourselves: Can his virtue ethics meet the
analytical requirements of contemporary ethical theoriz-
ing? If so, will the practical outcomes of Kant’s theory
satisfy the needs of current moral debates? These questions
deserve further research.
One can, however, be optimistic that, once the virtue
dimension of his ethics is more broadly recognized, Kant
will indeed play a more prominent role in future debates on
economic and business ethics. For example, to present
deliberations about the common good and the connection
between individual and civic responsibilities (Etzioni
2004), Kant’s studies can contribute much. Kant’s
approach clearly offers attractive perspectives for modern
conceptions of Corporate Social Responsibility by pro-
viding the requisite conceptual conditions for a contem-
porary theory of public morality (Dubbink and Liedekerke
2009). Proceeding, as Kant does, from individual virtuous
conduct to a societal conception of a ‘‘kingdom of ends’’
(or, in modern parlance, addressing the debate about public
and social goods from an individualistic, yet interperson-
ally oriented angle), allows him to show that certain forms
of pursuing the common good and of collective responsi-
bilities are simply endemic—and thus not at all inimical—
to individual freedom (Dierksmeier and Pirson 2010).
Between the extremes of atomistic individualism and
totalitarian collectivisms, Kant’s approach thus offers an
important ‘‘middle ground’’ with evident attractiveness for
contemporary conceptions of the common good.
To conclude, the standard textbook portrayals of Kant’s
ethics—as rigidly deontological, narrowly individualistic,
and hence, wholly unsuitable for the speciﬁcities of cor-
porate agency—will have to be revised. Business ethics
scholars when arguing in favor of virtue ethics should look
to Kant no longer as an opponent but as a source. Regarding
questions of personal character and moral sentiments in
managerial decision-making, a reassessment of Kant’s
contributions is equally called for: Instead of seeing his part
in business ethics theory only on the side of universalism,
deontology, and moral critique, his studies should rather be
examined for their contributions to elucidating the speci-
ﬁcity, virtuousness, and the developmental aspects of
morality. Discussions on stakeholder-engagement likewise
stand to gain from a more nuanced picture of Kant’s ethics.
Once we recognize his ethics as not only rights-based but
also virtue-oriented, we can better address the interpersonal
and societal dimensions of business with the conceptual
toolkit offered by Kant. For example, the collective pursuit
of shared values and common goods in and through busi-
ness can now be recognized as an internal part (instead of,
as before, as an external addendum) to what Kantian theory
offers to management ethics.
Last, but not the least, current attempts to reconcile
Kant’s freedom-oriented philosophy with virtue theories
stand to beneﬁt from a better understanding of how Kant
himself forged one such synthesis between the formal and
substantial aspects of morality. Business ethicists can thus
recalibrate the relation between duty and virtue—from an
either/or-construct into a both/and-constellation. With this
transition from total divergence to partial convergence, a
hitherto invisible overlapping consensus between deonto-
logical and teleological theories comes into sight. As a
consequence, new subjects of research may surface, such as
studies on the universal virtues of business—like justice—
that can be established on both deontological and teleo-
logical grounds (Dierksmeier and Celano 2012). In sum,
we may hope to see the former abstract as well as sterile
opposition of the Kantian and the Aristotelian camps yield
to their fertile collaboration on concrete questions of
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