The role of feelings in Kant's moral philosophy

John Joseph Neubauer, Fordham University


In this dissertation I address the concern of critics like Barnard Williams who maintain that the kind of moral law Kant endorses and the motivation of duty it entails are not responsive to humanity's need for a morality inclusive of personal feeling and caring. The rebuttal to such a charge involves not only explaining the disparaging tone and content of Kant's remarks on feelings in his earlier works and why his view of feelings seems to have changed so dramatically in later texts, but identifying a Kantian role for compassionate feelings that will answer the attacks of his critics. What distinguishes this effort from those of its predecessors is that most competing models rely on various, often implausible, interpretations of the Kantian text to formulate a role for sympathetic feelings that can account for his derogatory statements in the Groundwork and Second Critique and his apparent change of heart in later works. This dissertation, however, first seeks the insights of science to help define the evolutionary role for feelings and how they function. Kant's position is then compared to this standard. I argue that Kant held feelings in low regard in his early writings because he believed, contrary to what science has uncovered, that the intention behind all feelings is selfish. By the time he wrote his later works, however, he seems to have come to regard the presence of feelings like compassion as more dispositional, acting as a favorable context within which the motivation of respect can operate more effectively. In an attempt to understand the basis for the Kantian position three supporting postulates are offered. It is argued that Kant's stance on these postulates in large part explains why he believed as he did. The first is that the intentional structures of maxims motivated by compassion and respect for the moral law are compatible. Therefore, the will has no need to choose whether to act from one motive rather than the other, when both encourage the same objectively moral act; the second is that freedom is inoperative in non-moral decisions and the last is that, in order for moral worth to accrue to our actions, inclinations opposing moral law must be stronger than those complementing it and moral value is proportionate to the strength of the opposing inclinations overcome in acting morally. It is argued that Kant is in substantial agreement with these postulates and that these foundational positions make his statements on feelings more intelligible.

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Recommended Citation

Neubauer, John Joseph, "The role of feelings in Kant's moral philosophy" (2005). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3159395.