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Morality and Sensibility in Kant: Toward a Theory of Virtue

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 March 2011

James Reid
University of Chicago


… an immense gulf is fixed between the domain of the concept of nature, the sensible, and the domain of the concept of freedom, the supersensible, so that no transition from the sensible to the supersensible (and hence by means of the theoretical use of reason) is possible, just as if they were two different worlds. (Kant, Critique of Judgment, §II, 5: 175-6)

Copyright © Kantian Review 2004

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1 For a concise statement of the relation between the French Revolution and the tradition of German Idealism, see Henrich's, Dieter ‘The French Revolution and classical German philosophy: toward a determination of their relation’, in Aesthetic Judgment and the Moral Image of the World (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992), pp. 8599Google Scholar . References to Kant's works in what follows are to either volumes of the Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Wissenschaften, Königlich Preussischen Akademie der (Berlin and Leipzig: de Gruyter, 1922)Google Scholar, or English translations cited.

2 Fragment of a letter to Weisshuhn, August-September 1790 in Fichte: Early Philosophical Writings trans. Breazeale, Daniel (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988), p. 357Google Scholar .

3 Schiller's views are developed most fully in his essay On grace and dignity’ (1793) in Schillers Werke, vol. 11, pp. 238-96Google Scholar . Hegel's critique of Kantian morality, which owes a great deal to Schiller, is scattered throughout a number of texts including the first part of Glauben und Wissen (1802), the sections in the Phenomenology on ‘Self-certain Spirit’ (§§596-671), and the Wissenschaft der Logik (section 1, chapter 2: determinate being).

4 See, for example, Martha Nussbaum's essay ‘Perceptive equilibrium: literary theory and ethical theory’, in Love's Knowledge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 168–94Google Scholar . More sustained criticisms of Kantian ethics along similar lines can be found in Williams's, BernardEthics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983)Google Scholar, chapter 13 of Problems of the Self (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973)Google Scholar, and the second chapter of Moral Luck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981)Google Scholar .

5 This criticism can be construed in one of two ways. It might be argued that the point of view on the ‘lower faculty of desire’ advocated by Kant is as a matter of fact possible, but undesirable, perhaps even unethical. This seems to be the position adopted by Williams. On the other hand, it might mean that the reflective detachment called for by the moral law is simply impossible, that we cannot, without ceasing to be finite rational agents, fully dissociate ourselves from our desires and inclinations.

6 In the discussion of humanity as an end in itself in Groundwork II trans. Ellington, James (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993)Google Scholar, Kant famously asserts that ‘the inclinations themselves, being sources of needs, are so far from having an absolute value … that the universal wish of every rational being must be, rather, to be wholly free of them.’ fAk. 4: 428). Kant makes similar claims at Groundwork Ak. 4: 454 and in the Dialectic of the second Critique (5: 118). Translations of the second Critique are Beck's, Lewis White (New York: Macmillan, 1993)Google Scholar .

7 In the Anthropology trans. Dowdell, Victor (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996)Google Scholar, Kant objects to the reading of novels on the grounds that ‘it permits our mind to interpolate digressions while we are reading … and the course of our thought becomes fragmentary’ (§47, 7: 208). Both the Anthropology and the Metaphysics of Morals eulogize the Stoic rejection of compassion and the ideal of apatheia. (See Anthropology, 7: 253 and The Metaphysics of Morals, 6: 408-9 and 457.)

8 ‘Idea for a universal history with a cosmopolitan intent’, in Perpetual Peace and Other Essays (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992), p. 32Google Scholar .

9 The dualism of freedom and nature runs throughout the Groundwork and structures Kant's conception of the system of philosophy as a whole, including its division into theoretical and practical philosophy. See, for example, Groundwork, 4: 387-9 and Critique of Judgment, 5: 171-6.

10 Critique of Judgment, trans. Pluhar, Werner (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), 5: 175Google Scholar . Contrary to an unfortunately widespread conviction that Kant's formalism in aesthetics leads him to ignore the important connections between the philosophy of art and natural beauty and ethics, the Critique of Judgment advances a complex theory of our response to beauty in natural forms that leaves ample space for the ethical significance of aesthetic experience. The formalism of aesthetic judgment is dominant in §§1-22 of the Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, only to be marginalized in §§23-60 where Kant begins to forge a tight link between aesthetics and ethics that culminates in the thesis of §59 that ‘beauty is a symbol of the morally good.’

11 I have benefited from the discussions of Kant's ethics in , Guyer'sKant and the Experience of Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993)Google Scholar and Sherman's, NancyMaking a Necessity of Virtue (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 The expression is Dewey's. See Experience and Nature (Chicago: Open Court, 1925), p. 38.Google Scholar

13 ‘The discernment of perception: an Aristotelian conception of private and public rationality’ in Love's Knowledge, pp. 54–105.

14 Although I have not been effectively moved by Williams's arguments, I cannot defend Kant's position here. However, it is certainly wrong to assert that Kant simply assumes, without argument, the distinction in question. The distinction between the doctrine of happiness and the doctrine of morality is ‘the first and most important task charged to the Analytic of Pure Practical Reason’ (Critique of Practical Reason, p. 92).

15 In the Anthropology Kant claims that discord is the means employed by nature in order to place man on the road to cultural progress, ‘even at the price of much of his enjoyment of life’ (Anthropology, p. 322).

16 Critique of Practical Reason, p. 65.

17 See , Kant's remarks on amazement and admiration in the third Critique, p. 365Google Scholar, and again in the Anthropology, p. 261.

18 Critique of Judgment, p. 187.

19 That is, Newton's Principia, not the Principia Mathematica authored by Whitehead and Russell.

20 Herman, Barbara, The Practice of Moral Judgment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 75Google Scholar .

21 In his article on ‘Natural law, skepticism, and methods of ethics’, Jerome Schneewind opens with the remark: ‘In the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals Kant presente d a method for discovering wha t morality requires us to do in any situation and claimed that it is a method everyone can use,’ (in Guyer, Paul (ed.), Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals: Critical Essays (Lanham, MD: Rowman 8c Littlefield, 1998), p. 3)Google Scholar . If it is a method in the scientific sense, it is a peculiar one. In the discussion of sensus communis in §40 of the Critique of Judgment Kant describes a procedure that possesses the formal features of an appeal to universal rule, but note s that, while it might seem ‘rather too artful to be attributed to’ common sense, ‘in fact it only looks this way when expressed in abstract formulas’ (p. 294).

22 Groundwork, p. 404. Kan t does refer to the universal formula of the categorical imperative as the ‘rigorous method’ (Ibid., p. 436), but I take him to mean only that it provides the moral agent with a ‘way after’ (methodos) the truth in the exercise of moral judgement.

23 This view is consistent wit h Kant's account of virtue in the Metaphysics of Morals. Kant's critiqu e of a conception of virtue as habitus, directed not so much against Aristotle as against the German theologian Cochius, whose Untersuchung iiber die Neigungen appeared in 1767, reflects his own view that virtue cannot involve a rigidly patterned set of responses, but must remain open and flexible in the face of changing circumstances and novel temptations to transgress against the law. See Metaphysics of Morals, Ak. 6: 383, trans. Gregor, Mary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 188.Google Scholar

24 Groundwork, p. 412. See also Metaphysics of Morals, p. 211.

25 See Critique of Pure Reason, A 132-4/B 171-3 and Critique of Practical Reason, pp. 67-71.

26 Critique of Judgment, p. 179.

27 Love's Knowledge, pp. 69-70.

28 Ibid., p. 70.

29 ‘Casuistry is … neither a science nor a part of a science; for in tha t case it would belong t o dogmatics, and casuistry is not so much a doctrine about how to find something as rather a practice in how to seek truth’ (Metaphysics of Morals, p. 411).

30 Ibid., p. 452.

31 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1109b18-23. For a discerning analysis of Aristotle's conception of practical rationality, see Nussbaum's, Martha ‘Discernment of perception’, pp. 54105Google Scholar .

32 In the Critique of Practical Reason Kant can claim that ‘our weal and woe are very important in the estimation of our practical reason; and, as far as our nature as sensible beings is concerned, our happiness is the only thing of importance’ (p. 61).

33 See Groundwork, p. 398 and Metaphysics of Morals, p. 457.

34 For a discussion of the problem of ‘overdetermination,’ see the first chapter of , Herman'sThe Practice of Moral Judgment and Henry Allison's Kant's Theory of Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 107–20Google Scholar.

35 ‘The rules for practicing virtue … aim at a frame of mind that is both valiant and cheerful in fulfilling duties. … But what is not done with pleasure but merely as compulsory service has no inner worth for one who attends to his duty in this way and such is not loved by him; instead, he shirks as much as possible occasions for practicing virtue’ (Metaphysics of Morals, p. 484).

36 Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime, trans. Goldthwait, John (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960), pp. 60–1Google Scholar .

37 See , Kant's discussion of moral feeling as an ‘aesthetic preconception’ in the Metaphysics of Morals, pp. 399400Google Scholar .

38 Groundwork, p. 445. The point is first made at Groundwork, p. 392, and repeated at pp. 397, 406 and 411.

39 Ibid., p. 405.

40 Martha Nussbaum points out that the view of emotions as ‘blind animal reactions’ has been discredited ‘by cognitive psychology, by anthropology, by psychoanalysis, and even by philosophy’ (Love's Knowledge, p. 40). I do not dispute the general claim that a cognitive view of the emotions is preferable to a conception of emotion as blind animal affect. I only wish to emphasize in what follows that the emotions, while not exactly blind, very often appear so from the standpoint of ordinary consciousness.

41 It bears noting that Schopenhauer's theory of the will as the unconscious ground of representation, which bears a number of striking affinities with Freud's theory of the mind, was taken by its author to be a systematic appropriation of the Critical philosophy.

42 See , Kant'sAnthropology, pp. 133–4.Google Scholar

43 ‘Mourning and melancholia’, in Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans, and ed. Strachey, J. (London, Hogarth Press, 1981) vol. 14, p. 245Google Scholar .

44 ‘… the field of our obscure ideas is immeasurable, while our clear ideas are only the infinitesimally few points on this map that lie open to our gaze: our mind is like an immense map with only few places illuminated.” (Anthropology, p. 135)

45 Ibid., p. 136.

46 See the Metaphysics of Morals, p. 441 (The First Common of All Duties t o Oneself). In the Groundwork Kant claims that ‘we can never, even by the strictest examination, completely plumb the depths of the secret incentives of our actions’ (p. 407).

47 Critique of Practical Reason, 76.

48 Ibid., p. 73.

49 Ibid., 118 and 73.

50 Making a Necessity of Virtue, 178.

51 Metaphysics of Morals, 211-12.

52 Critique of judgment, 264.

53 Ibid., p. 265.

54 Ibid., p. 299.

55 Ibid., p. 356.

56 See Anthropology, pp. 233-5.

57 A notable exception is Kant's gloss on dread which ‘can fasten on to someone without his knowing any particular object that he dreads’ (Anthropology, p. 255).

58 Metaphysics of Morals, pp. 401,450 and 457.

59 ‘What Kant might have said: moral worth and the overdetermination of dutiful action’, Philosophical Review, p. 90 (1979), 359-82Google Scholar .

60 See Metaphysics of Morals, p. 446.

61 Kant's Theory of Freedom, pp. 107-20.

62 This has become strikingly clear in the case of the notorious example, shared by Fried and Williams, of a man who, after a shipwreck, can save only one of a number of potential survivors, including his wife. For a Kantian response, see Kant's, Allison'sTheory of Freedom, pp. 191–8Google Scholar .

63 Anthropology, pp. 235-6.

64 Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime, 59 n.

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