Moral Feelings

  • Diane Williamson


I always tell my kids to cut a sandwich in half right when you get it, and the first thought you should have is somebody else. You only ever need half a burger.”1 This line from the popular comedian Louis C. K. reminds us that moral feelings are an ubiquitous feature of life, both in our impulses to act and in our response to moral actions.


Moral Judgment Moral Action Moral Duty Moral Motivation Aesthetic Judgment 
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  1. 4.
    Hursthouse expresses the common, prejudiced misunderstanding of Kant’s theory of emotion, arguing that Kant does not believe that emotions can be part of our rational nature, nor can they be morally significant. See Rosalind Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 109.Google Scholar
  2. Geiger as well as others have shown that this criticism results from conflating the faculty of feeling with Kant’s more derogative notions of desire and inclination. See Ido Geiger, “Rational Feeling and Moral Agency,” Kantian Review, 16 (2011): 283–308.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 5.
    My emphasis on Kant’s theory of virtue will seem backwards to some, but I agree with Allen Wood’s conclusion that the Metaphysics of Morals is the most complete statement of Kant’s moral theory and that attention to it will alter conclusions drawn exclusively from Kant’s earlier works. It is therefore unfortunate that many critics of Kant are not familiar with this later text. See Allen Wood, “The Final Form of Kant’s Practical Philosophy,” in Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals, ed. Mark Timmons (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). Similarly, most scholarly understanding of Kant’s theory of emotion sees it as largely derogatory. On the contrary, I see the notion of virtue as foundational in Kant’s ethics and, because of this, stress the importance Kant places on moral emotions.Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    For a good overview of Kant’s theory of virtue see Lara Denis, “Kant’s Conception of Virtue,” in The Cambridge Companion to Kant and Modern Philosophy, ed. Paul Guyer (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006);Google Scholar
  5. and Anne Margaret Baxley, Kant’s Theory of Virtue (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010). Most of their exegetical work is presupposed here.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 14.
    Guyer argues that Kant maintains this theory of pathological determination into his later works and that it develops into the conviction that moral feeling is necessary for morality. Paul Guyer, Kant and the Experience of Freedom (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 30 and 337. Guyer believes that Kant maintained the requirement of subjective determination throughout his mature philosophy and that the feeling of respect takes over this role from other moral feelings.Google Scholar
  7. 15.
    Beck concludes that “all determination of the will proceeds (a) from the representation of the possible action (b) through the feeling of pleasure or pain (through taking an interest in the action or its effect) (c) to the act. The aesthetic condition, the feeling, is either pathological or moral: the former if the pleasure precedes the representation of the law, the latter if it follows it and is, as it were, pleasure in the law.” Lewis White Beck, A Commentary on Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 224. For my own part, it seems strange to identify pleasure and desire in this way, and it seems that an interpretation that does not merge pleasure and desire is preferable since they are two different faculties.Google Scholar
  8. 23.
    For a cataloging of the similarities and differences between the feeling of respect and the feeling of sublimity see R. R. Clewis, The Kantian Sublime and the Revelation of Freedom (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009). Clewis reminds us that enthusiasm can be sublime; it is “the idea of the good with affect” (CJ 272). As we will see in chapter 6, affects can be irrational or they can arise from reason but act irrationally. Enthusiasm is then a kind of moral fervor that may or may not be misled but perhaps does not proceed with as much strategic calculation as is required. Nevertheless, the fact that Kant calls it sublime is a testament to the importance of moral feeling.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 26.
    MacBeath argues that the feeling of respect is felt as an imperative and not just an inclination because it presupposes reason. He also calls Kant’s theory of moral feeling “breathtakingly absurd” because he believes that it is a “fiction conjured up out of a defective view of rational action.” Kant’s view is supposedly defective because, according to MacBeath, reasons do not need feelings in order to be effective. A. Murray MacBeath, “Kant on Moral Feeling,” Kant-Studien 64 (1973): 289 and 313–314. MacBeath risks reasserting a dichotomy between reason and emotion in advancing this conclusion. Kant does give the feeling of respect as part of the answer to the question, “how is pure reason practical?” Nevertheless, this question was poised for an answer from moral psychology. The question should not be understood as pointing to the ineffectual nature of reason, but only to its weakness relative to pragmatic incentives. The question asks: how is it that people would ever choose to follow the moral law when there is always a strong inclination pulling us in the direction of selfish benefit? The answer is: because we have moral feeling. We are psychologically convinced of the necessity of the moral imperative. Kant does not hold that all reasons need feelings in order to be effective; nevertheless, many more reasons might have feelings attached to them than we previously realized.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 29.
    William Sokoloff, “Kant and the Paradox of Respect,” American Journal of Political Science, 45 (4) (2001): 769.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. See Mark Packer, “Kant on Desire and Moral Pleasure,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 50 (3) (1989): 429–442, for the contrary argument that Kant’s emphasis on respect shows that emotions must play a role in his theory of autonomy.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 36.
    Kant is not referring to literal distance with this metaphor, as Baron assumes, but this reading is definitely the most natural. See Marcia Baron, “Love and Respect in the Doctrine of Virtue,” in Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals, ed. Mark Timmons (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).Google Scholar
  13. 42.
    Beck discusses the fact that choosing duty over inclination is an illustration of morality, not morality itself. Lewis White Beck, A Commentary on Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason (Carbondale: University of Chicago Press, 1960), 228.Google Scholar
  14. 43.
    Barbara Herman, The Practice of Moral Judgment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996).Google Scholar
  15. 49.
    For a fuller account of beauty as a symbol of the good, see Henry Allison, Kant’s Theory of Taste, A Reading of the Critique of Aesthetic Judgment (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 50.
    Iris Murdoch, “The Sovereignty of the Good over Other Concepts,” in The Sovereignty of the Good (New York: Routledge, 1971), 82.Google Scholar
  17. 56.
    Let us tarry a moment to meditate on crying. Why do we cry when we are happy? I am not sure what kind of answer I could possibly be looking for with such a question. The question “Why do we cry when we’re sad” has, perhaps, a different sort of answer—perhaps the sort that Darwin gives about functionality. In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Darwin guesses that emotional crying is related to the normal function of tears to moisten the eye. Nevertheless, we should not expect too much from evolutionary functionalism’s brand of just-so stories, and the type of cause we are looking for need not be a final cause, that is, the purpose of crying. (See Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals [New York: D. Appleton, 1873], 163.) Such a hypothesis is nonfalsifiable. Instead, we can wonder if there is any similarity between the tears of happiness and the tears of sadness. It seems, on the face of it, that there should be.Google Scholar
  18. Although it is often assumed that tears are cathartic, that is, they facilitate a clearing of the mind of getting done with a particular thought, they can also have the opposite effect and accompany increased brooding (see Benedict Carey, “The Muddled Tracks of All Those Tears,” in The New York Times, February 2, 2009). We must also remember that crying can have the effect of eliciting sympathy. We might sometimes need to be suspicious of ourselves when we cry. Neither of my examples elicits such a suspicion. Particular thoughts or perceptions trigger tears, and just as crying is sometimes a sort of “breaking down” whereby we cannot accomplish other tasks, the thoughts that trigger crying are often of human mortality and frailty. Perhaps even the successes of life remind us how simple, hence mortal, we as humans are. It takes a certain amount of courage to be emotional and to cry with happiness (and perhaps even to truly be happy) because it is an acknowledgment of our dependency or finitude. As we saw previously, the feeling of sublimity that accompanies the experience of morality is one wherein the self is both strengthened and overcome. Perhaps we cry because we feel overpowered by the truth—the truth of our own mortality—and find strength and happiness in the face of it.Google Scholar
  19. 61.
    For a critical account of the duties to avoid sexual self-degradation, see Lara Denis, Moral Self-Regard: Duties to Oneself in Kant’s Moral Theory (New York: Garland, 2001), 102–123.Google Scholar
  20. 67.
    Our discussion of Kant’s notion of virtue leads us to the question of his relationship to virtue ethics. I have commented on some similarities and differences between Kant and Aristotle throughout, as I will continue to, but, as I remarked earlier, I hold that the most commonplace understanding of Kantian moral theory, exactly because it largely ignores the importance of virtue and moral feeling, is largely mistaken. Betzler notes that virtue ethics focuses on character, the ideal of human flourishing, and lists of virtues as perfections of human natural capacities, and she distances Kant from virtue ethics proper because she holds that the popular view of him is that he remains faithful to “the priority of the right.” Monika Betzler, “Kant’s Ethics of Virtue: An Introduction,” in Kant’s Ethics of Virtue, ed. Monika Betzler (Boston, MA: Walter de Gruyter, 2008), 26. In truth, Kant has a better understanding of virtue than Betzler realizes. His notion of virtue is as a commitment to (rational) moral principles. Being able to grasp the rational content of moral value and to evaluate things and prioritize goals thereby is the basis of morality. Simply not doing something wrong—the right in absence of the good— does not have any moral value in itself.Google Scholar
  21. 68.
    Julia Annas, The Morality of Happiness (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 53.Google Scholar
  22. 69.
    Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981); Annas, The Morality of Happiness, 56.Google Scholar
  23. 70.
    As Baron notes, in English, both the words “duty” and “obligation” carry a negative connotation. Baron speculates that for many Americans the term duty is associated with military duty. Baron, Kantian Ethics Almost without Apology, 16. It is hard to imagine a use of the word “duty” that is associated with something we actually want to do. Kant is well known for contrasting duty and inclination, and it is this contrast that calls into suspicion his insistence that the notion of duty must be at the heart of moral theory. As Paton points out, “[I]n the very idea of duty there is the thought of desires and inclinations to be overcome.” H. J Paton, The Categorical Imperative: A Study in Kant’s Moral Philosophy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), 46. Kant’s definition of virtue similarly implies this kind of internal conflict. Yet, Auxter points out that the German Verbindlichkeit (obligation) carries a more positive sense of boundedness, as “moral… activity is the basis for the tie we feel with others.” Thomas Auxter, Kant’s Moral Teleology (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1982), 163–164.Google Scholar
  24. 71.
    The idea that we should mimic the virtuous person threatens to make virtue irrational. For an example see Keiran Setiya, Reasons without Rationalism (Princeton, NT: Princeton University Press, 2010).Google Scholar
  25. 73.
    Annas, The Morality of Happiness, 53. Confusing inclination and emotion leads to a defense that highlights the role of impurity, as opposed to the holy will, in Kant’s ethics. See Robert B. Louden, Kant’s Impure Ethics: From Rational Beings to Human Beings (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002);Google Scholar
  26. and Nancy Sherman, Making a Necessity of Virtue (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Gregor similarly refers to man as a “moral being with an animal nature”; Mary Gregor, Laws of Freedom (Oxford: Blackwell, 1963), 128. In this way, one might argue that Kant championed pure reason, but that he made concessions for the human case because we do not have divine wills and are thus a mixture of pure reason and inclination/emotion/feeling. This defense paints an overly austere picture of “pure reason,” which need not and does not exclude feeling, as we have seen. (It is this mistake, confusing feeling with inclination, that leads Gregor to think that Kant would prefer holiness, which she describes as the lack of feeling, over virtue. There is no reason to think that holiness equates with the lack of feeling instead of with the lack of temptation. In other words, there is no reason to think that Kant mistook angels for robots.) Gregor, Laws of Freedom, 175.Google Scholar
  28. 75.
    Horn argues that, for Kant, the person who is perfectly good would have achieved a constant feeling of love—although that would still not be the basis of her actions. See Christoph Horn, “The Concept of Love in Kant’s Virtue Ethics,” in Kant’s Ethics of Virtue, ed. Monika Betzler (Boston, MA: Walter De Gruyter, 2008), 155.Google Scholar

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© Diane Williamson 2015

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  • Diane Williamson

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