Patrick Kain

Department of Philosophy

Purdue University

Professional Profile





I am a Philosophy professor at Purdue University, with primary teaching responsibilities and scholarly interests in ethics and the history of modern philosophy.  I am particularly interested in understanding human nature and human dignity and the role they play in the foundations of ethics.  Much of my work is particularly concerned with the work of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), which is of great historical significance and significant contemporary import.

Since Kant’s time, many of his friends and foes have contended that Kant broke with his predecessors to conceive of the moral law as a human creation or construction and to characterize moral philosophy as a profoundly autonomous discipline, remarkably free of metaphysics, anthropology, and other disciplines.  I contend, to the contrary, that Kant proposed a distinctive kind of moral realism - grounded in human dignity - and that there are important connections between Kant’s moral philosophy and issues in metaphysics, anthropology, biology, psychology, theology, and philosophy of religion.  Kant’s practical philosophy is distinctive, yet less revolutionary, than received interpretations would suggest. There may be room for a Kantian moral realism which fits with what we know about the world and ourselves.

My examination of Kant’s famous conception of moral “self-legislation” reveals that, on Kant’s theory, moral obligation must be grounded “in the nature of things,” first and most radically, in our own rational nature.  This theory precludes theological voluntarist and eudaimonist conceptions of morality, yet entails a more realist, less “constructivist,” account of normativity and value than previously recognized.  I co-edited and contributed to a collection of Essays on Kant’s Anthropology (CUP 2003), to advance scholarly discussion of Kant’s anthropology and its historical context and philosophical significance.  Another set of connections between Kant’s moral philosophy and his metaphysical, anthropological, biological, and psychological theories emerges in my study of Kant’s contention that all biological human beings possess dignity and moral status.  Drawing on material in Kant’s (still unpublished) “lectures” on physical geography, I have also argued for a new interpretation of Kant’s account of human obligations regarding non-human animals.  I am currently working on a monograph that synthesizes and extends this work to enhance our understanding of Kant’s place in the history of moral philosophy, and of our own philosophical history, and provides a fresh perspective on the prospects for human nature and human dignity in contemporary ethics.

I recently collaborated with my colleague, Michael Bergmann, on the three-year Knowing in Religion and Morality Project, sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation, which included a major conference on moral and religious epistemology, and resulted in Challenges to Moral and Religious Belief: Disagreement and Evolution (OUP 2014).  This collection of essays places challenges to moral belief side-by-side with challenges to religious belief, sets evolution-based challenges alongside disagreement-based challenges, and includes philosophical perspectives together with theological and social science perspectives, with the aim of cultivating insights and lines of inquiry that are easily missed within a single discipline or when these topics are treated in isolation.

I know that a rich liberal arts education prepares students to Think Broadly and Lead Boldly, and was proud to help Purdue’s College of Liberal Arts celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2014.  I serve on Purdue’s University Senate and Educational Policy Committee, because faculty leadership and responsible shared governance are critical to the future of this great public university.