Kant and Moral Feeling

Identifying One Object of Moral Feeling


Kant directs his moral philosophy against the reigning sentimentalist accounts of his day.  Many such accounts see moral feeling as the proper motive to action.  Kant develops an alternate view in line with his claim that moral action can arise from duty alone.

1. I will first spell out Kant’s account of moral feeling to illustrate how he thinks feeling can be a moral motive.

2. I then address a second problem in Kant’s account, namely, the possibility of identifying the proper objects of moral feeling.

3. I argue that the duty of oneself to develop and increase one’s natural capacities provides criteria by which we can make justified character judgments.

4. Thus, I claim that there is a determinable object of moral feeling, which is the agent’s power to exercise negative freedom against inclination, a power revealed by act types within a vocation.


It is commonly thought that moral behavior merits praise and admiration.  But how is this possible?  The common intuition about virtuous behavior implies that we can feel good about others whose actions either benefit us emotionally or reveal good character.  However, in Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy, judgments concerning one’s moral disposition cannot be reached through inferences about the moral worth of actions.  Such inferences are unjustified.  Furthermore, even if they were justified, the resulting feeling could only be of “a state of contentment and peace of soul in which virtue is its own reward” (MM 6:377).  This paper is addressed primarily to the possibility of character judgments, although the ability of such judgments will find expression in moral action is related and will also be discussed.[1]

Kant acknowledges that feelings are a strong motive both for and against moral action.  He says of the latter motive that “[i]mpulses of nature, accordingly, involve obstacles within man’s mind to his fulfillment of duty and (sometimes powerful) forces opposing it…” (MM 6:380).  He also agreed with the sentimentalists who stressed that some variety of moral sentiment is a necessary moral motive:

In order for a sensibly affected rational being to will that for which reason alone     prescribes the “ought,” it is admittedly required that his reason have the capacity to induce a feeling of pleasure or of delight in the fulfillment of duty, and thus there is required a causality of reason to determine sensibility in conformity with its principles. (GW 4:460)

Thus, he found it necessary to give his own account of a valid moral interest wherein the subject takes an interest in the law for its own sake.  At this point, Kant departs from the sentimentalist view.  He describes his account of moral feeling as issuing from “a pure interest of practical reason alone, independent on sense” (KpV 62).  He gives two principle reasons for why a sensible interest, the variety David Hume and Adam Smith both endorse, cannot lead to moral action:

(1) Sensible inclination would determine the faculty of desire, which implies:

(2) The resulting action would not be free[2]

This is the problem of heteronomy, or allowing laws of nature to determine the legality of action.  An agent only acts morally when practical reason, not sensible interests, determines an action.  Why is this?  Kant accepts what natural science implies for free will in a world determined by causal laws.  Sensible inclinations exist in a world of causal interactions, and they aren’t able to bring about an object of desire outside of these determined interactions.  The principles that guide are action cannot be determined by causality as it appears in Kant’s theoretical philosophy.  Practical causality, which exists apart from the world of causality in which our sensible nature exists, is thus the only possible way to account for free choice.

Since (1) implies (2) in the sentimentalist account of moral interest, Kant privides an alternative that is consistent with free moral action.  To allow for such action, Kant reverses the sentimentalist model of moral interest that holds the faculty of desire is always guided by pleasure.  He claims that “there can be a pleasure that is not connected with any desire for an object but is already connected with a mere representation that one forms of an object…” (MM 6:211).  Happiness would dictate that pleasure guide our decisions in a way that would maintain it.  Kant in fact identifies the uninterrupted satisfaction of sensible inclination happiness (or self-love).  Thus, he redefines moral pleasure in order to account for it as a moral force, namely as a kind of respect for self-inflicted pain, the purpose of which is to smother one’s sensible inclinations.  He explains this respect as follows.  “[W]e can see a priori that the moral law, as a determining principle of the will, must by thwarting all our inclinations produce a feeling which may be called pain…” (KpV 56).  Pain is clearly the opposite of pleasure, but Kant says moral feeling is just viewing such a situation favorably since it expresses the primacy of moral law.  We can therefore draw out two points from Kant’s view of moral feeling:

(1a) The only permissible moral feeling is respect for the moral law

(2a) Moral feeling is always coupled with sensible pain

Kant therefore provides a pleasurable motive to act on duty by redefining pleasure.  Why is this motive better than the sensible one?  Because Kant says it makes the motive morality itself.  He insists that “the respect for the law is not a motive to morality, but is morality itself subjectively considered as a motive…” (KpV 59).  Again, Kant stresses the heterogeneity of the sensible and intelligible worlds, albeit in a way that allows noumenal freedom to have some affect on phenomenal events.  Moral legality must always be oriented in this manner, such that the law is internally created and is its own motive.  Even if a sensible (phenomenal) impulse harmonizes with a (noumenal) moral law, this is only to act according to the letter of the law, not its spirit.  Kant thus says that “…it is even dangerous to allow other motives (for instance, that of interest) even to cooperate along with the moral law; (KpV 55).  Accordingly, we can derive a third point regarding Kant’s notion of moral feeling:

(3a) Moral feeling treats the moral law as its own incentive

Kant’s account of moral pleasure therefore aids our ability to act on duty through stifling inclinations.  Thus, moral respect increases our capacity to act freely.[3]

What I contend is that Kant’s model of moral feeling is inconsistent with the imperfect duty to one’s own perfection[4], since we are able to appraise correctly actions as expressive of this sort of virtue.  I direct this point against Kant’s claim that we can never tell when someone has acted on virtue.  With respect to duties to ourselves, requirement (3a) of moral feeling does not apply.  Accordingly, character judgments of such variety do not rely on one considering the moral quality of acts but are instead inferences from the act to the character of an agent.

Kant discusses two kinds of positive duties of virtue to oneself, one natural and one moral.  I will only discuss the natural duty.  The duty that arises from it commands “the cultivation of any capacities whatever for furthering ends set forth by reason” (MM 6:392).[5] Kant thus provides what I will call the self-improvement maxim (SIM), the general policy one should follow in order to meet this duty: “Cultivate your powers of mind and body so that they are fit to realize any ends you might encounter” (MM 6:393).  The SIM is sufficiently general to apply to any human being, whatever vocation he or she chooses to follow.  Imperfect duties thus don’t prescribe what vocation to follow, since this would just result in a set of technical imperatives that would clarify how to develop the skills of a dictated vocation.  Thus, if there is a capacity X that will help realize ends within or without vocation Y, it is a duty to develop capacity X.  Kant calls this “play space” (Spielraum), which under-determines a set of acts that will meet the SIM.

This variety of duty shows up in the doctrine of virtue because Kant thinks developing natural capacities ultimately strengthens us against falling prey to our self-directed inclinations.  Act types within a vocation are properly instrumental for other moral ends, not for ends dictated by inclination.[6] Hence, Kant calls the section on these duties “On a Human Being’s Imperfect Duties to Himself (with Regard to His End) (MM 6:445 emphasis mine).  His account of moral feeling allows us to develop “habitual desire from the pure interest of reason” alone (MM 6:213).  The strength is not to employ the use of one inclination in order to combat another since this would compromise our freedom.  I am focusing on this variety of duty because ends set under the SIM are not of themselves morally valuable.  They rather reflect a capacity that is morally valuable, and this capacity is made public through a public vocation by means of which self-improvement is possible.

*          *          *

We admire actions that rightly represent a virtuous character.  Kant disagrees that (i) this is possible and that (ii) this would be desirable (for reasons explained in the section on moral feeling).  First, Kant makes it clear that external actions can’t be judged as virtuous, since we are unable to tell whether or not the action arose from an interest in duty itself or an inclination towards a sensible end.  Actions that are supposed to reflect virtue are thus not subject to the judgment of others, and if we don’t have a way to judge actions as virtuous, then we aren’t justified in positively assessing actions that appear to be virtuous.

Kant’s ideas about imputability apply to action that springs from virtue.  Kant asks us to think of our actions as determined by an antecedent orientation of our will towards an end of free choice.  We create a maxim (“a subjective principle of volition”) and this maxim contains the general form of the action that we then test by the categorical imperative (GW 4:201).  The act then arises as bearing some relation to the maxim that passed a law.  Thus, while we can never know whether or not the determining ground for action really lay in our own will, we must at least trust that it can.[7] This view is consistent with Kant’s criticism of theories of moral sentiment, since it prevents us from deriving morality from token acts or their consequences (GW 4:409).  But while we can never know with certainty whether we acted from duty or inclination, we must be able to determine an act to peruse from the set of those covered by a maxim (in the case of the duty under discussion, the SIM).

Thus, duties are ultimately directed towards acts, although even perfect duties under-determine what the act should look like.  One can, for example, honor a debt by check or cash on any day of the week.  The characteristic the act takes on is left to the agent’s judgment.  There is also a distinction to be made between an act and act type.  Acts are the precise characteristics of an act type—a sufficiently general expression of an act, such as “honor a debt” —that allow us to differentiate between them and judge which ones are suitable to match an antecedent maxim.  The act type “improving one’s intellect” thus has a set of specific acts that should be able to approximate the act type with success.  The moral agent must see an act as falling under an act type that then falls under the even more general SIM.[8]

But how can an agent exercise her judgment to choose acts that represent act types?  The ability to determine an act that meets the SIM requires the possibility of judging that it merits choice over another act.  The actions that stem from the self-improvement maxim are determined as suitably representative of this maxim only because of a contingent framework of public acts.[9] This variety of duty is special in that it has a public standard of what constitutes a successful act type.  We cannot appraise act types or acts without this standard.  It is clear when acts like lying and suicide violate perfect duties because an agent can assess them outside of any public standard.  But once an agent exercises her judgment and establishes what act meets the SIM, a set of background vocations emerges as the framework in which the agent’s act is situated.

Since the agent is able to determine acts suitable to meet the SIM, these acts are capable of being implemented in a regime that will improve one’s ability to meet ends within a vocation, all of which adequately rest under the SIM.  This maxim is an imperative of pure practical reason, although it considers a broad range of feasible action subject to individual free choice through judgment.  Acts thus have vocational legality as act types that fall under the SIM and individual legality in that they can be thought as freely chosen in accordance to duties of right.  Vocational action can therefore potentially satisfy the standard of imperfect duty and violate the standard of perfect duty.[10]

Actions can fulfill the self-improvement maxim only when a vocation is available.  Such vocations are developed in accordance with public norms, and this gives them an external and contingent legal source.  Growth and development thus require us to progress within a vocation with a set of intersubjective standards as ends.  Consequently, an agent can never suitably decide whether she is cultivating a natural capacity without an end conditioned by external factors.  The external grounding of normativity implies that acts can only disclose facility within a vocation—and can only be judged—relative to less successful acts, i.e., ones that fail to meet a set of publicly legislated standards.  Only by such means can one know whether she has cultivated and improved natural capacities.

Self-improvement is possible only through practice, and practice is the exercise of negative freedom with respect to this virtue.  Because people choose to experience pain and cultivate innate ability through practice, fulfilling the SIM requires an agent to exercise negative freedom.[11] With the end in mind to develop competence within a vocation, we rationally choose to work against the natural inclination that stands opposed to this virtue, namely to “leave idle and… rusting away the natural predispositions and capacities that [one’s] reason can someday use” (MM 6:445).  Kant only finds reason to call self-improvement a virtue because we are not inclined to do it.  If we naturally had an inclination to develop and cultivate our natural endowments, Kant would see no need to make the SIM a duty.  Instead, we exercise negative freedom against inclination by choosing ends that interrupt the happiness that accompanies idleness.  Elsewhere, Kant argues that free choice of this variety proves the necessity of freedom.[12]

Through our work within a public vocation and through private moments of practice, we publicly express virtue in the form of act types.  The members of a vocation all determine how an act is performed, what accounts for its success, and even what technical maxims are required to become proficient.  It is only by such a standard that we are able to claim we are improving ourselves.  It is only possible to choose act types (and therefore acts) that represent the SIM because of this publicity.

If practice requires the rational restraint over the natural inclination not to pursue self-improvement, then meeting the SIM is an instance of negative freedom.  If self-improvement relies on the exercise of negative freedom, an agent who is proficient at a vocation is so due to either a greater capacity to exercise freedom or the more frequent exercise of freedom. By virtue of this freedom, an agent achieves greater facility to bring about successful act types (with respect to the duty to oneself under discussion).  Finally, if act types can only meet the SIM because of publicly legislated standards by which our acts are assessed, success in a vocation implies that one’s ability to exercise negative freedom—a mark of good character to Kant—becomes public knowledge.  Kant emphasizes that we must consider ourselves the determining ground of phenomenal acts.  If act types within a background vocation are imputable to an agent, it follows that we can attribute the “fruits of our labor” to an agent with a more or less virtuous disposition.[13]

Kant objects that admiring virtue is possible because we cannot identify the moral motive of an action.  Remember, Kant says that the only motive of pure practical reason must be “the objective principle of determination,” which “must always and alone be also the subjectively sufficient determining principle of the action, if this is not merely to fulfill the letter of the law, without containing its spirit” (KpV 55).  It is thus impossible to tell whether the agent’s act type was chosen with the sole interest to meet the SIM.  If it was chosen ultimately for some other motive of inclination, practice would simply be an example of inclinations doing battle, and the exercise of free choice against “lying idle” would have no moral worth.

But I do not think this objection applies to the first part of duty to oneself, because of the instrumental reasons Kant gives for following this duty.  This type of virtue is thus the capacity to bring about an end that another less proficient agent cannot.  What this means is that one cannot really act on the maxim of self-improvement for moral reasons (the duty as such) if the duty is instrumental to other moral goods.  The ends are made possible by self-improvement, and their morality is still subject to individual free choice.  Thus, the particular ends within the vocation would not be the object of praise, but the characteristic feature of the end-doing that self-improvement supports.

While we cannot identify what is moral in an action, we can identify an agent who is capable of achieving ends that we are incapable of achieving.  We can also identify ends we can now achieve that we used to be incapable of achieving.  The respect we owe to others or ourselves is thus owed to public displays of virtue.  Kant himself seemingly relies on a similar standard of respect, or so his works suggest:

“Fontenelle says, ‘I bow before a great man, but my mind does not bow.’ I would add,      before an humble plain man, in whom I perceive uprightness of character in a higher    degree than I am conscious of in myself, my mind bows whether I choose it or not…          Why is this?  Because his example exhibits to me a law that humbles my self-conceit   when I compare it with my conduct: a law, the practicability of obedience to which I see             proved by fact before my eyes” (KpV 60).

The upright man that Kant admires has something about him that is praiseworthy, a “practicability of obedience,” but his account makes it impossible to even determine the moral worth of actions.  It is clear that Kant’s ideas about the possibility of such knowledge are a source of tension in his Doctrine of Virtue.  However, if we appeal to a public standard of what acts foster self-improvement, we can then identify agents who demonstrate faculty with such acts as virtuous.  We can thus gauge the ability of an agent to fulfill the SIM, not through characteristics of individual phenomenal acts, but through the negative freedom such acts reveal in agents.








Works Cited

Kant, Immanuel, and Mary J Gregor. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Cambridge,     U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Kant, Immanuel, and Mary J Gregor. The Metaphysics of Morals. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Kant, Immanuel.  Critique of Practical Reason. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2004.

Stocker, Michael.  “Acts, Perfect Duties, and Imperfect Duties.”  The Review of Metaphysics.    Vol. 20, No. 3 (Mar., 1967), pp. 507-517

[1] If we can exercise Kant’s variety of moral respect, it requires the possibility that we can know when someone merits respect.

[2] Kant gives other reasons to oppose the sentimentalist view.  He states that pleasure cannot consistently be connected to duty and therefore should not move us to it (KpV 7).  He also states that the concept of “good” would precede moral calculation that aims to determine it (KpV 42), I argue these two points are exegesis on the concept of heteronomy and thus both reasons are primarily concerned with freedom.

[3] Kant suggests this in a footnote in the Metaphysics of Morals: “The less a human being can be constrained by natural means and the more he can be constrained morally (through the mere representation of duty), so much the more free he is” (MM 6:382).

[4] He describes this as cultivating “the crude predispositions of [our] nature” (MM 6:392).

[5] The second is the “cultivation of morality within us” (MM 6:393).  This is an extension of (4a), the point that we should seek the grounds of obligation in the moral law itself.

[6] “Hence the basis on which he should develop his capacities (for all sorts of ends) is not regard for the advantages that their cultivation can provide; for the advantage might (according to Rousseau’s principles) turn out on the side of his crude natural needs.” (MM 6:445)

[7] “In fact, it is absolutely impossible by means of experience to make out with complete certainty a single case in which the maxim of an action otherwise in conformity with duty rested simply on moral grounds and on the representation of one’s own duty.  It is indeed sometimes the case that with the keenest self-examination we find nothing besides the moral ground of duty that could have been powerful enough to move us to this or that good action… but from this it cannot be inferred with certainty that no covert impulse of self-love… was not actually the real determining cause of the will…” (GW 4:407).

[8] Michael Stoker makes this helpful distinction.  “Acts, Perfect Duties, and Imperfect Duties”

[9] Being an excellent Prussian Baker in 1785 will demand a different set of actions than being a baker in twenty-first century Kansas City.

[10] The scope of this paper won’t permit the discussion, but this seems most clear in occasions when a vocation requires action that cannot be universalized without contradiction, while it can successfully meet the maxim of self-improvement, and therefore a duty of virtue. Kant says that action can be considered more virtuous when duties of right and virtue overlap to a large degree (MM 6:390).  This implies that we can determine the morality of a vocation by whether or not the act types that constitute success also are narrow duties of right.

[11] See (2a) in the above section on moral feeling

[12] “But in reason’s practical use the concept of freedom proves its reality by practical principles, which are laws of a causality of pure reason for determining choice independently of any empirical conditions (of sensibility generally) and prove a pure will in us, in which moral concepts and laws have their source” (MM 6:221).  Elsewhere he says, “[I]f we saw the possibility of the freedom of an efficient cause, we should also see not merely the possibility, but even the necessity of the moral law as the supreme practical law of rational beings, to whom we attribute freedom of causality of their will” (KpV 75).

[13] I don’t claim that the act types under discussion reveal a wholly virtuous disposition (my argument leaves duties to others unaddressed), but these act types do at least reveal the agent’s respect for one important duty of virtue, self-improvement.


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