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Chris W. Surprenant

Books

  • Kant and the Cultivation of Virtue [Abstract]
  • Published by Routledge in June 2014.

    Immanuel Kant is widely recognized to be one of the most important figures in the history of Western philosophy. His contributions to metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, and ethics have had a lasting and profound impact on almost every philosophical movement that has come after him. It is surprising, therefore, that his account of virtue, and, in particular, how virtue is acquired, has received relatively little attention.

    This book aims to fill this perceived gap in Kant scholarship, as well as contribute to ongoing discussions on the nature of virtue and its acquisition, by examining the following question: What is virtue? How do people become virtuous? These two questions, the first theoretical and the second practical, are at the center of Kant’s moral and political philosophy. This book focuses on this second question, examining Kant’s account of how virtue can be cultivated, paying particular attention to the role of civil society, education, religion, and the laws in this process.

    Chapter 1 – The Project of Kant’s Practical Philosophy
    This chapter serves as an introduction to the project by examining the historical context of Kant’s position, as well as the connection between freedom, virtue, and civil society in his practical philosophy. These issues are foundational in nature and from which it is possible to construct Kant’s account (or, where Kant is unclear, a Kantian account) of how individuals become virtuous in practice.

    Chapter 2 – Freedom and Civil Society
    Since autonomy is a precondition of morality, liberty is a precondition for autonomy in human beings, and living in civil society is necessary for individuals to secure liberty as it provides protection from liberty-infringing acts performed by other people, living in civil society appears to be required in practice for individuals to be virtuous. As a result, Kant claims that individuals are under a moral duty to enter civil society (MM 6:255-6). But it turns out that living in civil society does more than simply provide negative assistance in helping to secure the external preconditions that makes autonomy possible. Civil society also plays a positive role in this process of moral development by helping an individual to refine his talents and reason completely, a necessary component of virtue and one that Kant believes cannot be acquired in isolation. This chapter examines both the negative and positive role played by civil society in an individual’s cultivation of virtue.

    Chapter 3 – Autonomy, Coercion, and the Moral Law
    This chapter aims to reconcile the theoretical component of Kant’s moral philosophy that focuses on realizing freedom of the will, with the practical component of Kant’s ethics that considers how this freedom be achieved fully only by human beings living under coercive law. Once we solve this practical problem, we will see that there are additional problems for human beings to become free, problems not faced by beings of pure reason. Reconciling the theoretical and practical aspects of Kant’s philosophy requires a closer examination of the connection between coercion, freedom, and the moral law.

    Chapter 4 – Moral Education and the Cultivation of Virtue
    When discussing the method of moral instruction, Kant argues for a catechistic approach to moral education. But the process of catechistic instruction appears coercive, and so it seems to violate a central tenet of Kantian morality: an individual is morally praiseworthy only if he performs virtuous acts out of recognition that those acts are required of him (i.e., out of respect for the moral law itself), not because he has been habituated to act in that manner. This chapter aims to resolve these problems by explicating Kant’s account of how an individual cultivates the virtuous character state and how Kant’s writings on moral education and the practical process of cultivating a virtuous disposition provide a significant contribution to the discussion in this area.

    Chapter 5 – Making Moral Decisions
    This chapter examines Kant’s discussion of the practical role God and religion play in the acquisition of virtue, paying particular attention to Kant’s claim that “supernatural cooperation” is necessary to complete this process. I claim that although this “supernatural cooperation” does no heavy lifting in an individual’s progress towards complete virtue, Kant’s discussion points us towards a solution to the problem of how best to cultivate individuals who, when at the moral crossroads, more frequently act correctly for the right reasons. This solution, which centers on the cultivation of an appropriate sense of moral shame within individuals, points us in a better direction for future considerations about moral education.

  • Kant and Education: Interpretations and Commentary [Abstract]
  • Co-edited with Klas Roth and published by Routledge Press in 2011.

    Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy, political philosophy, and philosophy of judgement have been and continue to be widely discussed among many scholars. The impact of his thinking is beyond doubt and his ideas continue to inspire and encourage an on-going dialogue among many people in our world today. Given the historical and philosophical significance of Kant’s moral, political, and aesthetic theory, and the connection he draws between these theories and the appropriate function and methodology of education, it is surprising that relatively little has been written on Kant’s contribution to education theory.

    Recently, however, internationally recognized Kant scholars such as Paul Guyer, Manfred Kuehn, Richard Velkley, Robert Louden, Susan Shell, and others have begun to turn their attention to Kant’s writings on education and the role of education in cultivating moral character. Kant and Education: Interpretations and Commentary has gathered these scholars together with the aim of filling this perceived void in Kant scholarship. All of the essays contained within this volume will examine either Kant’s ideas on education through an historical analysis of his texts; or the importance and relevance of his moral philosophy, political philosophy, and/or aesthetics in contemporary education theory (or some combination).

    Contributors include (in order of appearance): Chris W. Surprenant, Joseph Reisert, Phillip Scuderi, Robert Louden, Manfred Kuehn, Richard Velkley, Gary Herbert, Jørgen Huggler, Lars Løvlie, Paul Guyer, Richard Dean, Alix Cohen, Paul Formosa, James Scott Johnston, Susan Shell, and Klas Roth.

    Click here to read a review of this book at NDPR.

Articles

  • Language in Kant’s Practical Philosophy [Abstract]
  • Forthcoming in The Linguistic Dimension of Kant’s Thought, edited by Richard Velkley and Frank Schalow (Northwestern University Press, 2014).

    This article aims to resolve this apparent inconsistency in Kant's moral philosophy by examining the role of language and logic in Kant's practical philosophy. Specifically, this paper claims that language, as the power of communication, provides the linchpin between Kant’s moral and political philosophy. Insofar as the formulation of a maxim is implicitly a linguistic act, the evaluation of whether or not it is praiseworthy depends on the individual’s exercise of judgment. This exercise of judgment, which has freedom as its basis in the moral realm, has as its concrete corollary the free exchange, adjudication, and communication of members (i.e., citizens) within a body politic.

    In advancing this thesis, I argue that Kant's passage at Gr 4:397 highlights his distinction between good acts and morally praiseworthy individuals. For Kant, acting appropriately is a necessary but insufficient condition for being morally praiseworthy, where what constitutes a good action is determined through discourse between free and equal members of a community. Since the focus of the passage at Gr 4:397 is on trying to determine whether or not an action has been done from duty (i.e., whether or not the person performing the action is virtuous), bad acts can be set aside because they lack a necessary component of actions done from duty (i.e., goodness).
  • Physical Education as a Prerequisite for the Possibility of Human Virtue [Abstract]
  • Forthcoming in Educational Philosophy and Theory

    This article examines the role of physical education in the process of moral education, and argues that physical education is a necessary prerequisite for the possibility of human virtue. This discussion is divided into four parts. First, I examine the nature of morality and moral decision-making. Drawing on the moral theories presented by Plato, Aristotle and Kant, I argue that morality is connected with reason and the attainment of objectively good goals. Second, I examine the role of moral education in helping individuals to cultivate a virtuous character state. I outline the approaches to moral education taken by Plato, Aristotle and Kant—dialectic, dogmatic and catechistic—and examine the ability of each approach to develop the appropriate moral disposition within individuals. Third, I examine the cultivation of this disposition by considering the connection between virtue and happiness and the possibility of producing an individual who is both virtuous and happy through moral education. Fourth, although there is disagreement about the means of moral education, I argue that there must be agreement concerning one necessary component of moral education: physical education. Physical education, while connected to non-moral exercises, allows individuals to develop the strength to become apathetic to bodily desires (e.g. the desire to obtain pleasure or pursue pain), desires that lead them away from virtue.
  • Politics and Practical Wisdom: Rethinking Aristotle’s Account of Phronesis [Abstract]
  • Topoi, Vol. 31, No. 2 (October 2012)

    This paper examines the nature of Aristotelian phronesis, how it is attained, and who is able to attain it inside the polis. I argue that, for Aristotle, attaining phronesis does not require an individual to perfect his practical wisdom to the point where he never makes a mistake, but rather it is attained by certain individuals who are unable to make a mistake of this kind due to their education, habituation, and position in society.
  • Minority Oppression and Justified Revolution [Abstract]
  • The Journal of Social Philosophy, Vol. 41, No. 4 (Winter 2010)

    This paper operates from the assumption that revolution is a legitimate tool for members of oppressed minority groups to secure their rights. I argue that this type of robust right of revolution cannot be derived from Locke’s justification of revolution in the Second Treatise. For Locke, revolution is justified when the government uses its power in a manner contrary to the principles on which the state was established. Whether or not an action is contrary to these principles is determined by the people as a whole (i.e., the majority). Members of oppressed minority groups, therefore, would be justified in exercising their right of revolution only if they could garner support from a majority of the citizenry. In many instances, satisfying this criterion would require oppressed individuals to receive support from their oppressors—a practical impossibility. Since this requirement is rooted in Locke’s account of the origins of civil society, if it is the case that revolution is a legitimate tool for members of oppressed minority groups to secure their rights, then it would be necessary to look elsewhere for theoretical support to justify a robust right of revolution. I argue that such support can be found in a deontological account of civil society.
  • Kant’s Contribution to Moral Education: The Relevance of Catechistics [Abstract]
  • The Journal of Moral Education, Vol. 39, No. 2 (June 2010)

    Kant’s deontological ethics, along with Aristotle’s virtue ethics and Mill’s utilitarian ethics, is often identified as one of the three primary moral options between which individuals can choose. Given the importance of Kant’s moral philosophy, it is surprising and disappointing how little has been written on his important contributions to moral education. Kant argues for a catechistic approach to moral education. By memorizing a series of moral questions and answers, an individual learns the basic principles of morality in the same way that Martin Luther believed an individual should learn the tenets of Christianity. The difficulty, however, is that this approach appears to violate a central tenet of Kantian morality: virtuous acts must be performed out of respect for the moral law itself, not due to habituation. This paper demonstrates Kant’s significant contribution to moral education by showing how a catechistic moral education establishes the foundation necessary for autonomous action.
  • Liberty, Autonomy, and Kant’s Civil Society [Abstract]
  • History of Philosophy Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 1 (January 2010)

    Morality, as Immanuel Kant understands it, depends on the capacity of a person to be the agent and owner of his own actions, not merely a conduit for social and psychological forces and influences over which he has little or no control. As a result, Kant’s moral philosophy focuses primarily on the topic of individual freedom and the necessary preconditions of the possibility of that freedom. In the Groundwork and second Critique, Kant’s discussion of the connection between morality and freedom centers on autonomy of the will. He identifies autonomy as the supreme principle of morality and defines it as “choos[ing] only in such a way that the maxims of your choice are also included as universal law in the same volition” (Gr 4:440). In this paper, I argue that, according to Kant, the possibility of autonomous action requires that certain preconditions be met. Satisfying these preconditions requires an individual to be a member of civil society (status civilis), specifically, a civil society maintained by a strong, sovereign power. This connection between freedom and civil society exists on two levels. First, one precondition of autonomy (that is, internal freedom) is liberty (that is, external freedom), and an individual can secure his liberty only once he is a member of civil society. Second, an individual is free only when others recognize him as a being with the capacity for autonomous action, and joining civil society is the process by which this recognition takes place.
  • Kant’s Postulate of the Immortality of the Soul. [Abstract]
  • International Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 1 (March 2008)

    In the Critique of Practical Reason, Kant grounds his postulate for the immortality of the soul on the presupposed practical necessity of the will’s endless progress toward complete conformity with the moral law. Given the important role that this postulate plays in Kant’s ethical and political philosophy, it is hard to understand why it has received relatively little attention. It is even more surprising considering the attention given to his other postulates of practical reason: the existence of God and freedom. The project of this paper is to examine Kant’s postulate of the immortality of the soul, examine critiques of this argument, and show why the argument succeeds in showing that belief in the moral law also obligates one to believe in the soul’s immortality.
  • Cultivating Virtue: Moral Progress and the Kantian State [Abstract]
  • Kantian Review, Vol. 12 (2006)

    After examining the ethical and political writings of Immanuel Kant, one finds an apparent paradox in his philosophy as his perfectionist moral teachings appear to be linked to his anti-perfectionist political theory. Specifically, he writes that the perfection of moral character can only take place for an individual who is inside of civil society, a condition where no laws may legitimately be implemented expressly for the purpose of trying to make individuals moral. Kant believes that living in civil society is a necessary condition for an individual to refine his talents and reason completely, a process required by morality. I believe, however, that the connection between his moral and political theory runs much deeper than simply facilitating the refinement of talents. Kant's moral theory focuses on an individual's cultivation of virtue, but this cultivation cannot be most satisfactorily completed unless that individual is a member of civil society. Put differently, civil society plays a necessary role in cultivating an individual's character so that he is able to act from maxims consistent with the moral law, out of the respect for the law itself. However, because he believes that civic laws primarily intended to encourage moral cultivation cannot be implemented legitimately, it seems curious that this condition should play such a significant role in Kant's moral philosophy. Through this examination of Kant's moral and political theory, it will be shown that Kant's political society establishes a condition necessary for an individual's complete cultivation of virtue, not by implementing laws that make men moral but by weakening the forces of heteronomy, thereby removing barriers to moral action.
  • A Reconciliation of Kant’s Views on Revolution [Abstract]
  • Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Spring 2005)

    Kant's views on revolution are notoriously paradoxical: on the one hand he appears to condemn all instances of revolution, but on the other he expresses enthusiasm for the French Revolution and other revolutionary acts. I argue that we can reconcile Kant’s views on revolution by examining instances when an individual is under a moral obligation to revolt. First, I show how Kant reconciles his position on the French Revolution with his position on revolution in general. His answer, however, raises additional questions involving revolution in relation to his overall philosophical theory. Next, I present what is generally understood to be Kant’s philosophy on revolution, and Christine Korsgaard’s analysis using this traditional understanding to reconcile his seemingly contradictory views. After critiquing her position, I present my own analysis of Kant’s philosophy, and show how this apparent paradox can be resolved by examining an individual’s overriding moral obligation to leave the state of nature and establish civil society.

Recent Invited Talks

  • Kant and the Limits of State Authority [Venue]
  • Istituto Bruno Leoni; Milan, Italy; May 8, 2014
    Click here to listen to this talk.
  • Religious Freedom: A Defense [Venue]
  • Young Americans for Liberty Louisiana State Convenion; New Orleans, LA, USA; April 5, 2014
  • Is Meritocracy Just? [Venue]
  • A panel discussion.
    Harvard University; Cambridge, MA, USA; March 31, 2014
  • What Can We Learn From the Ancient Philosophers? [Venues]
  • One Day University; New York, NY, USA; February 8, 2014
    One Day University; Minneapolis, MS, USA; November 2, 2013.
  • Virtue and the Good Life [Venue]
  • Renaissance Weekend; Charleston; SC, USA; December 31, 2013
  • Everything We’re Not Supposed to Talk About at the Dinner Table: Reflections on Morality, Religion, and the Law [Venue]
  • Renaissance Weekend; Charleston; SC, USA; December 30, 2013
  • Kant, Raz, and the Morality of Freedom [Venue]
  • Institute for Humane Studies Speaker Series; Students for Liberty Regional Conference; Loyola University, New Orleans; New Orleans, LA, USA; November 16, 2013
  • Should Everyone Go to College? [Venue]
  • A panel discussion.
    University of Mississippi; Oxford, MS, USA; November 1, 2013
  • Morality, Freedom, and the State [Venue]
  • St. John's College, University of Cambridge; Cambridge, UK; October 13, 2013
  • Kant and the Cultivation of Virtue [Venue]
  • Colby College; Waterville, ME, USA; March 7, 2013
  • Happiness, Satisfaction, and Real Education [Venue]
  • The Honors Program’s Colloquium Without Walls Lecture Series; Tulane University; New Orleans, LA, USA; March 23, 2011



  • I am an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of New Orleans, where I direct the Alexis de Tocqueville Project in Law, Liberty, and Morality.

    My work focuses on the intersection of morality, religion, and politics, all of the things well-mannered people are not supposed to talk about at the dinner table. Specifically, I examine the nature of virtue; what an individual must do to become virtuous; and the role of family, community, and state in moral education.

    I teach graduate and undergraduate courses in the history of philosophy (ancient and early modern), moral philosophy, political philosophy, and the philosophy of education. My non-historical courses focus on the intersection of law, liberty, and morality; virtue and how it can be acquired; and what it means for individuals to live a good life and how they can realize this goal.

    In 2012, I was recognized by Princeton Review as one of the "Best 300 Professors" in the United States.