Immanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Ethics (1785)

To be beneficent when we can is a duty; and besides this, there are many minds so sympathetically constituted that, without any other motive of vanity or self-interest, they find a pleasure in spreading joy around them, and can take delight in the satisfaction of others so far as it is their own work. But I maintain that in such a case an action of this kind, however proper, however amiable it may be, has nevertheless no true moral worth, but is on a level with other inclinations. ... For the maxim lacks the moral import, namely, that such actions be done from duty, not from inclination. Put the case that the mind of that philanthropist were clouded by sorrow of his own extinguishing all sympathy with the lot of others, and that while he still has the power to benefit others in distress, he is not touched by their trouble because he is absorbed with his own; and now suppose that he tears himself out of this dead insensibility, and performs the action without any inclination to it, but simply from duty, then first has his action its genuine moral worth. (17-18)

Because he has the categorical imperative in view, Kant wants to advocate a radically disinterested morality. This is in direct response to English philosophers of sensibility, and he addresses Hutcheson and the other advocates of a "moral sense" in the following passage:

... [A]s to moral feeling, this supposed special sense,* the appeal to it is indeed superficial when those who cannot think believe that feeling will help them out, even in what concerns general laws: and besides, feelings which naturally differ infinitely in degree cannot furnish a uniform standard of good and evil, nor has any one a right to form judgments for others by his own feelings.... (73-74)

(The footnote reads: "I class the principle of moral feeling under that of happiness, because every empirical interest promises to contribute to our well-being by the agreeableness that a thing affords, whether it be immediately and without a view to profit, or whether profit be regarded. We must likewise, with Hutcheson, class the principle of sympathy with the happiness of others under his assumed moral sense.")

Kant's endeavor to locate morality in the domain of the understanding, rather than of the sensibility, has the dual object of universality and self-evidence. And although he is clearly scornful of the "moral sense" theory, he prefers it to a doctrine of "private happiness" in which moral principles are followed with the expectation of their being rewarded. Kant says that in comparison with this model,

moral feeling is nearer to morality and its dignity in this respect, that it pays virtue the honour of ascribing to her immediately the satisfaction and esteem we have for her, and does not, as it were, tell her to her face that we are not attached to her by her beauty but by profit. (74)

Immediacy for Kant is tied up with universality and self-evidence here, as in the Analytic of the Beautiful.

Related terms:

dictionary of sensibility
term list
source bibliography
critical bibliography