Philip Blosser: A Problem in Kant’s Theory of Moral Feeling



Philip Blosser

I have always found Kant's discussion of moral feeling to be a beautiful thing. But it has always impressed me as something that does not quite fit tidily into his system. In what follows I shall argue that a fundamental incongruity exists between Kant's phenomenology of moral feeling and his metaphysics--a metaphysics of rational purism.

In the Introduction to his Metaphysic of Morals, Kant classifies feeling under the heading of sensibility, as opposed to understanding. Sensibility has two aspects: sense and feeling. ‘Sense’ corresponds to an intelligible object. ‘Feeling’ refers merely to an effect in the subject of pleasure or pain. Pleasure may be either “contemplative” as in aesthetic taste, or “practical” as in tactile sensation. Practical pleasure evokes the appetitive power called “desire” in the narrow sense, while habitual desire is called “inclination.” The connection between this appetitive power and pleasure can be called “interest,” and in the case of natural desire, an “interest of inclination.” (MS, 212)[2] Objects that promise us pleasure, therefore, may be called “objects of interest or of inclination.” No matter how different such objects may be, the feeling of pleasure by virtue of which they elicit our desire is the same. (KpV, 23)[3] It is always an empirically discerned effect upon our sensibility.

The Relation of Feeling to Moral Law

This has a direct bearing on morality. Since only experience can show us whether a feeling of pleasure or pain will arise in the presence of a certain object, no universally valid moral law can possibly be based on a maxim for the realization of practical pleasure. (KpV, 58) If our act is motivated by feelings of personal satisfaction, it cannot have moral value, for Kant, even if what we do is right. It may have “legality,” but not “morality.” (KpV, 71) But acting from feeling offers no guarantee that an action will be right. At best, it guarantees that we will act from natural self-interest. But even if our desire was for the sublime pleasure that comes from acting morally, this still would not make such pleasure a moral motive for action. (KpV, 115) The only thing that can guarantee the moral worth of our actions is to act from duty. For this, Kant says, the moral law must directly determine the will. (KpV, 71)

This does not mean that our faculties of appetite and feeling enjoy no amicable relation to the moral law. Indeed, one of Kant's abiding concerns was precisely to establish the nature of such a relation. In 1773, well before his major ethical works, he made this significant statement in a letter to Marcus Herz: “The concept of morality must please in the highest degree, must have moving power; and though it is indeed intellectual, it must have direct relation to the basic incentives of the wi11.”[4] Again, in the celebrated Duisberg Fragment 6, probably written just after the first Critique, he offered an analysis of the desire to be worthy of happiness, calling the enjoyment of this condition an “intellectual pleasure.”[5] Josef Bohatec accordingly refers to the doctrine of this fragment as “intellectual eudaemonism.”[6] How does one reconcile such notions with Kant's insistence that moral law must directly determine the will? Indeed, does Kant not call the very notion of intellectual feeling “self-contradictory”? (KpV, 117)

The answer to this question must begin with Kant's statements in his chapter on moral incentives in his second Critique. There he notes that the determination of the will by the moral law has a twofold effect on feeling--one negative, one positive. The negative effect, which comes through the striking down of self-conceit and the thwarting of inclinations, is the “pathlogical” feeling of pain. The positive effect, which comes through the suprasensible nature of the moral law that is made visible by the feeling of pain, is the “moral” feeling of respect. (KpV, 73) The moral law evokes a positive feeling of respect by revealing itself as the source of free, intellectual causality, completely independent of natural inclination.[7] Kant seems reluctant to call this moral feeling “pleasure,” because of its suprasensible origin. There can be no feeling for the moral law itself. (KpV, 75) The feeling of respect arises only mediately by means of the removal of the resistance offered by the appetitive powers to suprasensible determination. For this reason Kant calls respect a “negative pleasure.”[8] And even though it has “sensuous feeling” as its underlying condition, he contrasts it with “pathological” feeling by calling it “moral” feeling. (KpV, 75) LEFT OFF

Consciousness of the Law and Moral Incentive

Granting that the moral law produces such effects on the faculty of feeling it is still not clear how human will is furnished with a moral incentive.  Can a feeling, such as respect, furnish a moral incentive? It would seem not.  For Kant declares clearly that “respect for the law is not the incentive to morality” and that the moral incentive of the human will “can never be anything other than the moral law” (KpV, 76, 72). But then the question becomes: How does the moral law, which is suprasensible, become an incentive for the human will? To answer this question, it is necessary to understand that, for Kant, a feeling may be either a cause or an effect of an appetitive act. Typically, practical pleasure precedes an appetitive act as its cause, and the object producing the sensible pleasure is an object of an “interest of inclination.” But when the practical pleasure follows from a preceding appetitive act as its effect, then it is an “intellectual pleasure” and the interest in the object is an “interest of reason” (MS, 212). 

Hence, it would appear that Kant allows for something like “intellectual feeling,” despite what he says about the “self-contradictory” character of such an expression (KpV, 117). Correlatively, he does allow for a kind of rational inclination (a propensio intellectualis), which is not the cause of this pure rational interest, but rather its effect (MS, 213). Thus, not all desire is sensuously determined; one must distinguish a “higher” and “lower” faculty of desire (KpV, 22), following the scholastic distinction between passion and will. Practical intellectual pleasure, then, is pleasure determined by an act of the will, or what is the same in this case, practical reason.[9]

  In the case of such intellectual feeling or pleasure, the connection between the appetitive power and the pleasure, as we have seen, may be called “an interest of reason” (MS 212) Now “interest,” for Kant, is that by which reason becomes practical, a cause determining the will, or an “incentive” of  the will (GMS, 460, n.; Kpv, 79).[10] But how can an interest of reason become an “incentive of the will? On the one hand, Kant denies that the will can be morally determined by any antecedent feeling, even the feeling of respect. On the other hand, he insists that only the moral law itself can directly determine the will as its incentive. But as Lewis White Beck observes:

In spite of what Kant says, the law itself is not the incentive. A law is just not the sort of thinq that can be an incentive. At most, consciousness of a law can be an incentive. If the law itself were a determinant of conduct, without the intervention of consciousness (which means, for us men, also feeling), it would not be a practical law, and  men would not be free aqents.[11]"  

 For Kant, after all, consciousness of the moral law is “a fact of reason” (KpV, 31). Hence, the question becomes: What is the nature of this consciousness of the law, such that it can be an incentive? If the second Critique leaves any room for doubt on this, it is removed by The Metaphysic of Morals, where Kant writes: “Reverence (Achtunq) for the law, which on the side of the  subject can be designated as moral feeling, is one with man's consciousness of duty” (MS, 464). This means: consciousness of moral law is identical to moral feelinq. But then, the feeling of respect, in some sense, must be a moral incentive.

This would seem to directly contradict Kant's statements denying that any feeling, even moral feeling, can be an incentive to morality. However, this would be a true contradiction only if the feeling of respect were a feeling precedinq the consciousness of the law--if it had to be presupposed--in order for the law to become a determining ground of the will (KpV, 71). But moral feeling cannot precede consciousness of the law, if, as Kant suggests in The Metaphysic of Morals, it is consciousness of the law. Only by means of this identification can we make sense of Kant's statements that respect is “the sole and undoubted moral incentive,” and that “the incentive to be employed  must be only the respect for duty, the sole genuine moral feeling” (KpV, 78, 85). 

If the feeling of respect is a moral incentive, then, like all incentives it must in some sense be “a subjective determining ground of a will.” (Kpv 71f ) But this does not mean that it determines the will in the sense of an “antecedent feeling tending to morality.[12]“ Such an incentive would be the cause not the effect, of the appetitive power or will, and therefore neither intellectual nor moral; and a will so determined would be sensibly determined and therefore neither free nor rational. Rather, moral feeling is itself objectively determined by the will insofar as it is effected by the legislation of practical reason. But then how can it be an incentive? Beck says that the subjectivity of the incentive “refers to the workings of the moral principle, which is itself objective, upon the constitution of the human subject, and this working is the incentive which is obviously subject-conditioned as well as objectively determined.”[13] But how the moral feeling of respect for the law can be both (1) an affective response objectively determined by the will (as practical reason) and (2) a practical incentive serving as a subjective determing ground of the will, is not immediately apparent. 

Moral Feeling as Rational Self-Revelation  

Perhaps the clearest sense that can be made out of Kant's notion of moral incentive is by thinking of it as some sort of rational self-disclosure. Heidegger points out, in remarks on Kant's notion of moral feeling, that respect for the law is conjointly a specific revelation of one's self to oneself as a rational-moral agent.[14] Respect for the law involves respect for  oneself as the self that is not bound by self-conceit and self-love, but  transcendes its natural conditions by virtue of its suprasensible freedom and rationality. Nowhere is this dimension of moral feeling more powerfully invoked by Kant than in his famous eulogy of duty, where he points to the suprasensible personality as the seat of human dignity (KpV, 96f.). Through Submission to the law, I experience not only self-humiliation but the self-elevation of myself to myself as autonomous homo noumenon. I experience the humiliation of my heteronomous natural self by my autonomous supersensible self as consciousness of my higher vocation.

  If such an experience can serve as a moral incentive, it would not be, first of all, an antecedent feeling tending to morality, but one that proceeds from and, eventually, reinforces the determination of the will by reason. This seems evident from Kant's chapter on the Summum bonum in his second Critique where he speaks of the determination of the will by reason as the  ”ground of the feeling of pleasure” (KpV 116). While denying any necessary empirical connection between moral virtue and happiness, Kant nevertheless insists on an analogue of happiness that necessarily accompanies the consciousness of virtue but does not involve a gratification, as happiness does; and he calls this a “self-contentment” or “Intellectual contentment” that arises from consciousness of our independence from inclinations as motives determining our desiring. (KpV, 117f.) He goes even further in Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, describing the aesthetic character or temperament of virtue as “joyous.” Moral resolve, he says, begets a “joyous frame of mind,” assuring us of having attained a “love for the good,” of having incorporated it into our maxim.[15] Still, Kant himself is far from clear how such feelings might serve, within his ethics, as incentives for morality. 


Kant's theory of feeling is bound to the classic dualist tradition for which feeling belongs to the faculty of “sensibility” as opposed to ”rationality.” This produces a tension in almost everything Kant says about moral feeling, which is feeling that must be rationally informed. On the one hand, feeling is something that belongs to the function of receptivity and to the naturally determined faculty of sensibility But the only source of lawfulness within this system belongs to the function of spontaneity and to the autonomy of self legislating practical reason. Hence, feeling cannot serve as the objeccive detemining ground of moral value. In other words, if the human agent is divided into “reason” and “sensibility,” then morality consists in subduing one's sensible, pathological nature and purifying one's will of all affectivity. Affectivity cannot enter into the principle of moral willing. Moral willing must be free from passion. 

On the other hand, in Kant's discussion of moral feeling this disembodied metaphysics of purism seems to give way before a richly phenomenological description of moral affectivity, which Heidegger calls “the most brilliant phenomenological analysis of the phenomenon of morality that we have from him.”[16] In fact, his entire discussion of the feeling of respect as a moral incentive presupposes that willing is indissolubly merged with feeling in the acting person--a presupposition that the explicit dualism of his system makes rather difficult if not impossible.

Is moral feeling phenomenal or noumenal? Is it pure or is it part af aur pathological system? It cannot be both. Yet Kant's account is ambivalent. On the one hand, it is described as an affective response to the determination of the will by moral law, as an effect of rational willing on our emotions, as a practical incentive, as a subjective determining ground of the will. This suggests that it is something phenomenal, belonging to our affective nature. On the other hand, it is described as an “intellectual” feeling and identified with awareness of the moral law (a “fact of reason”), although the law itself is said to be suprasensible and not susceptible of affective feeling. (KpV, 75) This suggests that moral feeling is something noumenal, devoid of pathological affectivity. But which is it? Within Kant's system it must either be one or the other, phenomenal or noumenal, affective or purely rational. It cannot be both.

  Kant's metaphysics subverts his phenomenology. His metaphysics compels him to deny that respect can be a moral incentive, since it is a feeling and therefore sensibly conditioned. (KpV, 76) His phenomenology oompels him to recognize that human emotions furnish powerful subjective motives for actions conforming to duty, and that respect for moral law is an obvious moral incentive. (KpV, 78, 85) But even his description of respect as an incentive betrays the subversive influence of his metaphysics. Respect is distinguished from other feelings as an effect rather than cause of willing. But then, how does it work as an incentive? How does it move the will to moral action?

One possibility is that the will may be moved by consciousness of the law. As we have seen, moral feeling is identified with this consciousness. This is evident, for instance, in Kant's discussion of a person's consciousness of being a suprasensible moral agent. But this presents a problem: since this consciousness is what moves the will, it cannot also be the effect of the will. In this instance, it may qualify as an incentive, but not as moral feeling, on Kant's definition.

  Another possibility is that the will may be moved by the affective incentives of “self-contentment” and a “joyous temperament” produced as effects of previous instances of moral willing. But this, too, presents a problem: since these feelings are the affective results of contingent instances of moral willing, they cannot be relied upon to move the will in the absence of practical rational insight into the moral law itself. In this instance, such feelings may qualify as moral respect, but they are no substitute for practical reason.

   A basic ambivalence in Kant's discussion turns on two possible senses of “will”--the “executive will” (Willkür) and the “legislative will” (Wille), to borrow Abbott's terminology.[17] Only the former can be moved by moral feeling.  The latter, which is equivalent to practical reason, cannot be moved at all, and,as Beck says, there is little or no justification in calling it a “will” at a11.[18] This allows for considerable ambiguity. For one thing, it means that the will can be both mover (as “legislative”) and moved (as “executive”) Furthermore, if moral feeling is identified with consciousness of the law, this means that it can be conceived both as the determining ground of the “executive will” and as an affective response determined by the “legislative will.” At everv turn Kant appears to be victimized bv his own predilection for metaphysical dualism and purism.      Kant's metaphysics did not permit him to allow, like Aristotle, that natural affections themselves could become morally virtuous. As Cassirer notes, his “natural man” is fallen, like that of St. Pau1.[19] The morally virtuous or vicious type has no clear place in his moral philosophy. Instead, as Sokolowski notes, he works within the moral types of Aristotle's morally strong or self-controlled person and the morally weak person (enkrates and akrates).[20] Thus the place of the virtuous will is taken by the “holy will,” which is not desire shaped by reason, but reason cut off from desire and unaffected by it. “Virtue,” for Kant, does not mean the rational domestication of desire and feeling, as in Aristotle; rather, it means the experience of reason prevailing in its struggle against alien desire and feeling. In short, Kant's “virtuous man” is no better than Aristotle's “morally strong man,” who takes care to keep his desires under rational control. Likewise, Kant's “vicious man” is no worse than Aristotle's “morally weak man,” who rationally wishes he could be good even as he surrenders to his desire.

Hence, Kant puts no moral stock in the affective disposition as the source of moral action. Even the notion of disposition as a formal “maxim of maxims” is construed primarily as an effect of inscrutable choice rather the a discernable motive of willing. Ultimately there is only the interplay of reason and sensibility--and choice. The sedimentation of passions themselves into a settled, identifiably moral way of desiring has no place in Kant's ethics as a normative motive for moral action.

This, of course, was the chief complaint that Kant's contemporary  critic, Schiller, had against the Kantian ethic. [21] When Schiller complained  that Kant's opposition of duty to inclination could easily inspire “a gloomy  and  monkish asceticism,” he was not objecting to Kant's practice of clarifying the nature of duty by contrasting it to inclination. Rather, he was objecting to a view of human nature in which no moral virtue attaches to an inclination to do one's duty. It was a matter of complete moral indifference to Kant, he felt, whether an action done from a sense of duty is accompanied by an inclination to do it. At most, it was a happy coincidence. For Schiller, by contrast, the harmonization of desire and reason, sensibility and rationality, is the very aim and goal of moral perfection and virtue, a telos in which the ultimate essence of human existence--the “beautiful soul” (schöne Seele)--might be realized. “Man not only may, but ought to, combine pleasure with duty,” he insisted.[22] The virtuous man does his duty with joy. He no longer needs to consult reason before every action and decision, as Kant insisted, because moral law ceases to have the “imperative form” of an alien necessitation. The inclinations themselves become moral and rational.


Lenoir-Rhyne College

Hickory, North Carolina


[1] A previous version of this paper was presented at a meeting of the North Carolina Philosophy Society at Queens College, in Charlotte, North Carolina, on February 23, 1991.


[2] The reference is to Die Metaphysik der Sitten, Part II of which appears in an English translation by Mary J. Gregor under the title of The Doctrine of Virtue (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1964). Cited pagination conforms to the Prussian Academy edition.


[3] Kritik der Praktischen Vernunft. Cited pagination conforms to Prussian Academy edition. English quotations are from Lewis White Beck's translation, Critique of Practical Reason (Indianapotis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1956).


[4] Quoted by Lewis White Beck, A Commentary on Kant's “Critique of Practical Reason” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), p. 214.


[5] Beck, p. 215.


[6] Beck, p. 216, n. 16.


[7] As Heidegger observes in his analysis of Kant's chapter on moral incentives: “From the negative phenomenon of repulsion the force that performs and grounds the repelling must become visible a priori and positively.” Martin Heidegger, The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, trans. Albert Hofstadter [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982], p. 134.


[8] Critique of Judgment, sec. 23.


[9] This account is corroborated by Kant in a number of other passages. In one he cites a place (the Berlinische Monatschrift) in which he “reduced the distinction between pathological and moral pleasure to its simplest terms: the pleasure that must precede our obedience to the law in order for us to act in conformity with the law is pathological . . . but the pleasure that we can feel only after having determined to obey the law is in the moral order.” (MS, 378) In a second place, he writes: “Pathological feeling precedes the thought of the Iaw: moral feeling can only follow from the thought of the law.”(MS, 399) In third place, Kant writes: “The dissimilarity of rational and empirical grounds of determination is made recognizable through the resistance of a practically legislating reason to all interfering inclinations, which is shown in a peculiar kind of feeling which does not precede the legislation of practical reason but which is, on the contrary, first effected by it, as a compulsion. That is, it is revealed through the feeling of respect of a kind that no man has for any inclinations whatever, but which he may feel for thelaw alone.” KpV, p. 92.


[10] ‘GMS’ refers to Kant's Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten. Any quotations in English are from Lewis White Beck's translation, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (lndianapolis: Bobs-Merrill, 1969). Pagination follows the German edition.


[11] Beck, A Commentary on Kant's “Critique of Practical Reason,” p. 221ff.


[12] KpV, p. 75. Kant does not mean this even when he speaks of moral feeling as a “susceptibility” (Empfänglichkeit) “on the part of free choice to be moved by pure practical reason.” (MS, 400) For by ‘susceptibility’ he cannot mean feeling as a state of consciousness, but only a potentiality that must logically or temporally precede the actual feelimg of respect.


[13] A Commentary on Kant's “Critique of Practical Reason,” p. 217.


[14] The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, p. 132.


[15] Kant, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, trans. T. M. Greene and H.H. Hudson (1934; New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960), p. 19n.; cf. also Critique of Judgment, sec. 29 (“General Remark”).


[16] Martin Heidegger, The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, trans. Albert Hofstadter (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982), p.133.


[17] Kant’s “Critique of Practical Reason” and Other Works on the Theory of Ethics, 6th ed., trans. Thomas Kingsmill Abbott (London: Longmans, Greillater, Co., 1909), p. 268.


[18] A Commentary on Kant's “Critique of Practical Reason,” p. 179.


[19] Heinz W. Cassirer, Grace and Law: St. Paul, Kant, and the Hebrew Prophets (Edinburgh: Handsel Press, 1988), a fascinating treatise by the son of the eminent Neo-Kantian, Ernst Cassirer.


[20] Robert Sokolowski, Moral Action: A Phenomenological Study (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), p. 217 (in “Appendix D: Kant”).


[21] The issues underlying the famous controversy between Kant and his contemporary critic, Schiller, and their well-intentioned (but often misconceived) efforts at reconciling their views, are carefully analyzed in the fine opening chapter of the first major part of Hans Reiner’s Duty and Inclination: The Fundamentals of Moraltiy Discussed and Redefined with Special Regard to Kant and Schiller, trans. Mark Santos (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1983).


[22] Schiller, On Grace and Dignity, first published in Neue Thalia (1793); reprinted in Schillers Philosophische Schriften und Gedichte, 3rd ed., ed. Eugen Kuhnemann (Leipzig: 1922), p. 130 (Reiner, DI, 31).