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The Motive of Duty and the Nature of Emotions: Kantian Reflections on Moral Worth1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Michael Weber
Yale University, New Haven, CT 06520, USA


It is unclear in the Groundwork exactly what Kant takes to be necessary for an act to be morally good or worthy. Traditionally it has been thought that for Kant there are two conditions: it is 1) done in accord with duty, or the moral law, and 2) done for the sake of duty alone. The second condition is commonly thought to entail that an act is not morally good if the agent has a ‘supporting inclination’ or desire to do what is right — be it an inclination of self-interest, or one stemming from some emotion of ‘fellow feeling,’ such as sympathy, compassion, or love. Recent Interpreters, however, claim that Kant is not so strict, because for him the mere presence of a supporting inclination does not necessarily impugn the moral goodness of a dutiful act.

Research Article
Copyright © The Authors 2003

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For valuable comments on early drafts of this paper I would like to thank Allen Wood, David Sobel, Elizabeth Anderson, and Lori Gruen. I would also like to thank participants in the Yale Philosophy Department Faculty Colloquium.


2 Kant, Immanuel Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Paton, HJ. trans. (New York: Harper and Row 1964)Google Scholar

3 The relevant text here is the famous — some would say infamous — section of the Groundwork which the translator Paton titles ‘The motive of duty’ (65-7). It is regarded by some as infamous because they read it as saying what is embarrassing to Kant and Kantians that follow him, namely that grudgingly obeying one's duty is morally preferable to doing one's duty with pleasure.

4 ‘Sympathy’ is frequently used as an umbrella term to cover these and other emotions of fellow-feeling. For the sake of brevity, I will sometimes follow this practice.

5 Herman, BarbaraOn the Value of Acting from the Motive of Duty,’ in her The Practice of Moral Judgment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1993), 1-22Google Scholar. Herman's view requires a Kantian view of action, according to which inclinations or desires are not necessarily motivating. They are motivating if and only if the agent regards them as reasons for action. This opposes the empiricist, or Humean view of action, according to which inclinations and desires are necessarily motivating. See Latham, NoaCausally Irrelevant Reasons and Actions Solely from the Motive of Duty,’ Journal of Philosophy 91 (1994) 599–618CrossRefGoogle Scholar, for a critique of Herman and the Kantian view of action. For other challenges to the traditional interpretation of Kant according to which the ideal moral agent is moved only by a dour sense of duty, see Sherman, NancyThe Place of Emotions in Kantian Morality,’ in Flanagan, O. and Rorty, A. eds., Identity, Character, and Morality: Essays in Moral Psychology (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 1993) 149–70Google Scholar; Baron, Marcia Kantian Ethics Almost Without Apology (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1995)Google Scholar; and Wood, Allen Kant's Ethical Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1999)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Wood's view is widely shared. He notes that there are distinctive pleasurable emotions, associated with recognizing and performing one's duty, such that even when motivated by duty alone one does so with pleasure, such that it is not the case, even when acting on duty alone, that the Performance of one's duty is dour.

6 Herman and others who challenge the traditional interpretation of Kant's Claims about moral worth do not challenge the claim that there is something Special about the motive of duty. For Herman, as noted, the motive of duty is Special and must be the actual motive for a dutiful action to have moral worth. What she challenges in the traditional view is that the mere presence of another motive compromises the worth of a dutiful act. Wood takes a different approach, but still regards the motive of duty as Special. He argues that for Kant dutiful actions done for the sake of duty and dutiful actions done from other motives (as long as the other motives are not themselves discreditable, or involve ends or maxims contrary to duty) are both of moral value. The former are simply more valuable, deserving of Special esteem, where the latter are less so, deserving merely of approval.

7 There are several places in the Groundwork where Kant seems concerned about reliability in producing right action. For instance, he says that a morally worthy action ‘must also be done from duty; where this is not so, the conformity is only too contingent and precarious, since the non-moral ground at work will now and then produce actions which accord with the law, but very often actions which transgress it’ (58, my emphasis). Later, he complains that ‘Innocence is a splendid thing, only it has the misfortune not to keep very well and to be easily misled’ (72). Guyer, Paul Kant and the Experience of Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1996), 337–44Google Scholar, shows that in other texts, especially the Lectures on Ethics, Kant is concerned with the reliability of the motive of duty as compared to other motives. Herman, ‘On the Value’ (3-4), indicates that reliability in producing right action is an important issue for her when she complains that ‘the moral fault with the profit motive is that it is unreliable’ and there is a ‘need for a motive that will guarantee that the right action will be done.’ Critics of the motive of duty, e.g. Oakley, JustinA Critique of Kantian Arguments Against Emotions as Moral Motives,’ History of Philosophy Quarterly 7 (1990) 441–59Google Scholar, also take reliability in producing right action to be an important consideration in judging the moral worth of actions.

8 Kant, Groundwork, 62

9 Oakley, in ‘A Critique of Kantian Arguments,’ calls reliability in producing right action ‘accuracy.’ He considers also two other senses of reliability: 1) reliability as ‘summonability’ and 2) reliability as ‘efficaciousness.’

10 Plato's Republic famously addresses this debate. For contemporary discussion, see, e.g., Scheffler, Samuel Human Morality (New York: Oxford University Press 1992)Google Scholar and the extensive Neo-Hobbesian literature, in particular Gauthier, David Morals by Agreement (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1987)CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Kavka, Gregory Hobbesian Moral and Political Theory (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1986)Google Scholar.

11 Slote, Michael From Morality to Virtue (New York: Oxford University Press 1992)Google Scholar, suggests this line of argument.

12 Herman, ‘On the Value,’ 4-5. Although Herman Stresses reliability here, she later suggests that dutiful actions performed out of a reliable motive is not sufficient for moral worth. This will be further addressed in a later section of this paper.

13 Herman, ‘On the Value,’ 5

14 Baron, Kantian Ethics Almost Without Apology, 126, has also used this example. ‘True’ or ‘informed’ or ‘proper’ love, it might be claimed, would concern itself with the child's ultimate interest, which is learning to fend for herself. In the same way, it might be argued that ‘true’ or ‘informed’ or ‘proper’ sympathy would not be felt for Herman's imagined thief. I take up exactly this issue in what follows. Although we might reach different conclusions about whether ‘proper’ sympathy and ‘proper’ (parental) love can lead us astray, I think many of the same issues arise in both cases. To this extent, much of what I say about sympathy can be applied to the case of (parental) love.

15 There are of course cases in which the right thing to do is to assist the thief, e.g., if his life or limb is at risk. In such cases, we should of course not help him to carry out his nefarious activity, but simply do what is necessary to save life and limb. Then, presumably, we should call the police. For the remainder of the discussion of this example, I will assume that the thief is not at risk of life and limb, and therefore that our duty is to call the police.

16 Of course it is not enough to establish that the motive of duty too is not foolproof, since it could be more reliable than other motives even if it is not foolproof. Both Herman and her critics, however, seem to focus on whether or not the motive of duty is foolproof. Herman, ‘On the Value,’ is probably to blame here, as she clearly states, having noted the fallibility of sympathetic emotions, that there is a ‘need for a motive that will guarantee that the right actions will be done’ (4). I don't think, however, that this exclusive focus on infallibility results in any important problems or confusions.

17 This is the thrust of Oakley's critique of Herman and the Suggestion that the motive of duty is superior to motives stemming from emotions because it is more reliable in producing right action.

18 It is the fallure to see this that renders Oakley's critique of the motive of duty inadequate as it Stands.

19 Stocker, Michael Valuing Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1996)Google Scholar, considers a similar claim, that ‘cool belief and cool rationality are not dangerous when… the facts and procedures they involve are correct, but… emotions are always likely to be dangerous’ (93).

20 This could still allow the emotions a significant role, because it may be that the motive of duty, in some cases, needs emotions such as sympathy to find its proper object.

21 Bennett, JonathanThe Conscience of Huckleberry Finn,’ Philosophy 49 (1974) 123–43CrossRefGoogle Scholar

22 This does not preclude that encouraging a development of sympathetic motives is also advised. Kant seems to hold this view, even to go farther in claiming that developing sympathetic motives is an indirect duty: ‘But while it is not itself a duty to share the suffering … of others, it is a duty to sympathize actively in their fate; and to this end it is therefore an indirect duty to cultivate the compassionate natural feelings in us, and to make use of them as so many means to sympathy based on moral principles and the feeling appropriate to them’ (Doctrine of Virtue, 6:4570). For a thorough treatment of Kant's reasons for cultivating sympathy and similar emotions, see Guyer, Kant and the Experience of Freedom, 368-93.

23 It is a controversial matter whether it is true that we ought not feel any sympathy for malfeasers. It might be thought simply too cruel, and that a weaker claim is more plausible: while it is acceptable to feel sympathy for malfeasers, it is wrong to act on such sympathy when it involves complicity in malfeasance. I am inclined to agree that it is too harsh. However, it is a position that some are drawn to, including both the ‘man on the street’ and philosophers, even if less frequently. Further, as I hope will be clear by the end, consideration of the view that it is wrong to feel sympathy for malfeasers, even if it is false, is philosophically rewarding, because it brings to light important considerations that bear on the larger topic of the reliability and the superior Status of the motive of duty.

24 The cancer patient I know best tells me that this is true, not so much because the treatments work better when taken by an optimistic patient, but because an optimistic patient is more likely to try a treatment and to stick to whatever regimen it requires. This suggests that it is not the case that hopeful and optimistic patients fare better Holding all other variables constant. I do not know whether there are studies that have sufficiently isolated the emotional variable.

25 This is a controversial view, def ended in Jacobson, DanielIn Praise of Immoral Art,Philosophical Topics 25 (1997) 155–99CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Since I am using the view merely for illustrative purposes, I do not need to enter into the controversy and defend the position here described.

26 My discussion here is heavily indebted to D'Arms, Justin and Jacobson, DanielThe Moralistic Fallacy: On the “Appropriateness” of Emotions,’ Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 61 (2000) 65–90.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

27 There is, as D'Arms and Jacobson note, a parallel instrumentalist fallacy, which is to infer that an emotion is not intrinsically fitting or appropriate because it is contrary to one's interests. Bittner, RudigerIs it Reasonable to Regret Things One Did?Journal of Philosophy 89 (1992) 262–73CrossRefGoogle Scholar, flirts with this fallacy.

28 D'Arms and Jacobson, ‘The Moralistic Fallacy,’ esp. 82 and 87

29 Some qualification is needed here, because it can be outrageous if a non-deserving person does not get tenure but for the wrong reason, e.g., because he is a racial minority, and outrageous if a deserving person gets tenure for the wrong reasons, e.g., because he or she is related to a major benefactor of the College or university.

30 It is the fallure to address this matter that renders inadequate Herman's defense of the motive of duty, insofar as reliability is an important matter on her view.

31 We sometimes feel a wave of sympathy for inanimate objects such as cute and cuddly stuffed animals, and all the more so if they are advanced and move and vocalize.

32 I am not denying that parental love is morally admirable. Rather, I am claiming that such love is often not dependent on the moral admirability of the loved child.

33 Wolf, SusanMoral Saints,’ Journal of Philosophy 79 (1982) 419–39CrossRefGoogle Scholar, has famously made this point. I think it is also at least part of what motivates D'Arms and Jacobson.

34 Kant is often tagged with the view that emotions are entirely irrational ‘eruptions,’ insensitive to rational cultivation. Guyer, Kant and the Experience of Freedom, eh. 10, shows that while this might be Kant's (implicit) view in the Groundwork, in later works, especially the Lectures on Ethics and the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant is clear that our emotions can be cultivated.

35 Kant himself goes one Step further, maintaining that doing so is a matter of duty: ‘It is therefore a duty not to avoid the places where the poor who lack the most basic necessities are to be found but rather to seek them out, and not to shun sick-rooms or debtor's prisons and so forth in order to avoid sharing painful feelings on may not be able to resist’ (Doctrine of Virtue, 6:457). Of course it will not necessarily have the desired effect. Some people, unfortunately, seem to be simply disgusted by the miserable plight of some, such that they do not feel sympathy at all.

36 This is a version of a point Herman herself has emphasized, that the motive of duty serves not as a primary motive but as a ‘limiting condition’ on otherwise nonmoral motives.

37 There are of course sophisticated versions of utilitarianism that try to capture within the utilitarian framework our intuitions about (distributive) justice.

38 Herman, ‘On the Value,’ 6

39 Herman, ‘On the Value,’ 5 (my emphasis)

40 Smith, HollyVarieties of Moral Worth and Moral Credit,’ Ethics 101 (1991) 279–303.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

41 Kant, Groundwork, 58. Careful readers will note that I used this quotation earlier (n. 6) to show that Kant is concerned with reliability in producing right action. It seems to me that the quotation indicates both a concern with reliability in producing right action and a concern that right action be non-accidental: ‘precarious’ indicates concerns about reliability; ‘contingent,’ about right action being non-accidental.

42 There is some evidence that elephants experience sympathy. Be that as it may, the important point is to distinguish emotions such as sympathy from emotions such as respect for the moral law.

43 Some might think that appealing to autonomy here commits one to Kant's dubious metaphysics involving a ‘noumenal’ self, though I don't think this is necessarily so. Be that as it may, it is perhaps worries about invoking such dubious metaphysics that lead contemporary Kantians such as Herman to adopt something like the no accident test, despite the fact that Kant himself puts more emphasis on autonomy. It should be noted, also, that this view of emotions as passive is not so much mine as it is Kant's, at least in the Groundwork.

44 Guyer, Kant and the Experience of Freedom, 344-50Google Scholar, and Kelly Sorensen, ‘Kanf s Taxonomy of the Emotions,’ forthcoming in Kant Studies, emphasize this point. If this is right, it will be hard to maintain Wood's view (see n. 6) that dutiful actions done for the sake of duty and dutiful actions done from other motives (as long as the other motives are not themselves discreditable, or involve ends or maxims contrary to duty) are both of moral value, the former simply having greater moral value, because dutiful actions motivated by sympathy are not the product of our will, and thus not of any moral value. The only way out I can see is to claim that in cases of dutiful action motivated by sympathy the act has moral value but the agent is not deserving of any moral credit for performing the morally good action.

45 See Guyer, Kant and the Experience of Freedom and Sorensen, ‘Kant's Taxonomy.’

46 Kant, Groundwork, 66

47 Kant, Groundwork, 67

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