About the Groundwork

Section I

The Good Will
The End of Practical Reason
Duty and Moral Worth
The Three Propositions
The Feeling of Respect
Conformity to Universal Law
Maxims of Action
The Lying Promise
The Inquiring Murderer

Section II

Hypothetical Imperatives
The Categorical Imperative
The Suicide Example
Perfect and Imperfect Duties
The Contradictions
Moral Realism
The Formula of Humanity
Deontology and Ethical Ends
The Formula of Autonomy
Autonomy and Heteronomy
The Kingdom of Ends

Section III

Freedom of the Will
Free in a Practical Respect
The Hidden Circle
Two Standpoints
The Deduction
Failure of the Deduction


The Feeling of Respect “Immediate determination of the will by means of the law and consciousness of this is called respect, so that this is regarded as an effect of the law on the subject, and not as the cause of the law. Respect is properly the representation of a worth that infringes upon my self-love.”

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).


© Richard McCarty
Department of Philosophy & Religious Studies
East Carolina University

Last modified: January 12, 2018

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