In an early footnote, partially quoted above, Kant claimed that acting from duty would
require the motive of “respect for the moral law.” Some prefer to translate his term Achtung as “reverence” rather that “respect.”
This motive would not
depend upon any prior experience of pleasure or displeasure. It would arise only subsequent to
consciousness of an action’s being morally required. As indicated in the note,
respect would arise as an effect of the “immediate determination of the will by the moral
law” (Kant 1997a, 14/4:401n, see also 1997b, 62-75/5:71-89).
An interpretive controversy. When he introduced the concept of respect Kant referred to it as a feeling. But some interpreters have assumed that it cannot be
a feeling; or, if it is, it cannot, as a feeling, have any motivational function.
Reath, for example, makes a distinction between the “intellectual”
aspect of respect and its “affective” or feeling aspect; and he says that “it is the intellectual
aspect which is active in motivating moral conduct, while the affective side, or feeling of respect,
is its effect on certain sensible tendencies” (Reath 1989, 287, 290; see also Allison 1990, 123).
A similar view is that the feeling is no effect of the moral law’s determining
the will, but is our consciousness of the same. It is the feeling of being motivated by recognition
of moral requirements (Stratton-Lake 2000, 34-9).
On the other hand, there are some who say that the feeling of respect actually is motivating.
Guevara has it that the feeling is the phenomenal appearance of the noumenal determination of the will (Guevara 2000, 106),
meaning, it seems, that the phenomenal feeling motivates phenomenal action.
I agree that the feeling of respect plays a motivational role, but I do not see how
what Guevara suggests would explain this. In my view, recognition
of a moral requirement gives rise to a feeling of pleasure or displeasure that, ideally, has the
strength to motivate action satisfying the requirement (McCarty 2009, 31-60). Sometimes, however, the feeling is not strong enough,
compared with competing motives of inclination. In that case we have “weakness of will,” as illustrated by
the famous lament of the Apostle Paul in Romans VII (Kant 1998, 53/6:29).
Textual evidence. Kant writes about the strength of the moral feeling of respect in
a surprising number of places—surprising because all of these passages have been ignored by those
who say that the feeling of respect plays no motivational role. For example, he writes that “Obligation with
regard to [the] moral feeling [of respect] can be only to cultivate it and to strengthen it through wonder at
its inscrutable source” (Kant 1991, 201/6:399). Why would there be an obligation to
“strengthen” this feeling if it plays no motivational role? Consider also this quotation
from the second Critique, where Kant wrote that subjectively, the idea of
pure virtue can have more power over the human mind and can provide a far stronger incentive
to effect even [the] legality of actions and to bring forth stronger resolutions to prefer the law
to every other consideration. . . . (Kant 1997b, 125/5:151)
Respect for the idea of virtue is said here to be more effective in prompting action than any other incentive.
On the other hand, if respect can be a powerful motive
to moral action, prevailing over competing feelings of inclination because of its force, then
it looks like free choice must be a quasi-mechanical process. It looks like whatever we do depends upon
the strength of one feeling or another, over which we have no control, and between which we are not
free to choose. That is why a claim made by Kant in several places suggests that although strong motive
impulses may accompany our choices, they cannot determine them. He wrote that unlike “animal choice,”
“Human choice . . . is a capacity for choice that can be affected
but not determined by impulses” (Kant 1991, 42/6:213). Another passage often quoted as
evidence that free choices cannot be determined by stronger forces of desires or incentives has
been dubbed “The Incorporation Thesis”: free choice “cannot be determined to action
through any incentive except so far as the human being has incorporated it into his maxim”
(Kant 1998, 49/6:24).
Status of the debate. The debate is between those who assume the feeling of respect plays a motivational role, and those who deny this. Presently, most
seem convinced that passages like “affected but not determined” and “The Incorporation
Thesis” count decisively against the suggestion that the feeling of respect has any motivating role
(Wolff 1973, 83; MacBeath 1973, 313; Nell 1975, 111; Timmons 1985; and Walker 1985, 98).
But no one has given a satisfactory explanation of what it could mean for a choice to be
affected by a feeling that does not determine it. Nor has anyone explained how the so-called
“Incorporation Thesis” fits into the obscure context in which Kant expressed it. Considering
its context, that Thesis does not seem to say anything like what it is commonly interpreted as saying (McCarty 2009, 71-5).
A final consideration along these lines is an argument from silence. If Kant really did mean to deny
that strong desires or motive forces are effective in determining choices, why didn’t he
come out and say so? Why did he not make this point explicit, as one of his first principles of human
action? Considering the historical context in which he wrote, it seems required that he should
clarify his view on this if he really did believe what the majority today say he believed: that motive
force has no determining influence on action; that we can always choose to act on any desire or motive,
regardless of its strength.
Allison, Henry E. (1990), Kant’s Theory of Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
Guevara, Daniel (2000), Kant’s Theory of Moral Motivation (Boulder, CO: Westview Press).
Kant, Immanuel (1991), The Metaphysics of Morals, trans.
Mary Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
_____ (1997a), Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Mary Gregor
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
_____ (1997b). Critique of Practical Reason, trans. Mary Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
_____ (1998), Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, trans. and ed. Allen Wood and George
di Giovanni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
MacBeath, A. Murray (1973), “Kant on Moral Feeling,” Kant-Studien 74: 283-314.
McCarty, Richard (2009), Kant’s Theory of Action (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Nell, Onora (1975), Acting on Principle (New York: Columbia University Press).
Reath, Andrews (1989), “Kant’s Theory of Moral Sensibility: Respect for the Moral Law and
the Influence of Inclination,” Kant-Studien 80: 284-302.
Stratton-Lake, Philip (2000), Kant, Duty and Moral Worth (London: Routledge).
Timmons, Mark (1984), “Kant on the Possibility of Moral Motivation,” Southern Journal of
Philosophy 23: 377-98.
Wolff, Robert Paul (1973), The Autonomy of Reason (New York: Harper & Row).
Department of Philosophy & Religious Studies
East Carolina University
Last modified: January 12, 2018
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