Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Kant's Theory of Motivation: A Hybrid Approach

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Kant's Theory of Motivation: A Hybrid Approach

Article excerpt


Anyone remotely familiar with Kant's practical philosophy knows that an agent's actions count as moral only if he is moved to act by moral considerations. But once we get past this truism, the water becomes murky. Kant's moral theory is committed to the view that moral judgments must be efficacious--the cognition "I ought to act morally" must be able to move us to act morally. The nature of the connection between cognition and action is the source of much disagreement, and scholarly interpretation diverges quite dramatically. On one side, we have Henry Allison, Andrews Reath, and Christine Korsgaard, all of whom endorse what is called intellectualism. (1) In their estimation, moral agents are moved to act solely by their intellectual recognition of the authority of the moral law. But affectivists such as Patrick Frierson, Richard McCarty, and Iain Morrisson vigorously contest this picture, contending that affective forces, or feelings, are conditions of the possibility of moral judgment and moral action. (2)

What I will call the motivational dispute might sound like so much Kantian inside baseball, but the stakes are quite high. (3) At issue is something far more important than clarifying the minutiae of Kant's analysis of moral motivation. Kant's justification of morality, or more specifically, his justification of the authority of the moral law, stands or falls with the success of his theory of motivation. This is because Kantian morality places stringent demands on agents, requiring that they act independently of self-interest. Given the severe difficulty of meeting these demands, Kant finds it necessary to ward off worries that moral action is impossible. (4) Kant's attempt to vindicate morality requires him to explain how we can act on moral grounds and independently of our abiding self-interest. And this is just to explain how moral judgments can move us to act.

The controversy surrounding Kant's explanation stems from the existence of two apparently incompatible textual positions. Consider the following well-worn passages:

(1) What is essential to any moral worth of actions is that the moral law determine the will immediately. If the determination of the will takes place conformably with the moral law but only by means of a feeling, of whatever kind, that has to be presupposed in order for the law to become a sufficient determining ground of the will, so that the action is not done for the sake of the law, then the action will contain legality indeed but not morality. (5)

(2) The moral law ... is also a subjective determining ground--that is, an incentive--to [moral] action inasmuch as it has influence on the sensibility of the subject and effects a feeling conducive to the influence of the law upon the will. (6) (1) seems to state that in cases of moral action, the moral law determines the will immediately, without any help from feeling, while (2) seems to state that the feeling associated with the representation of the moral law is what enables the moral law to determine the will. (Hereafter, "action" should be understood in a broad sense that includes deliberating, setting ends, and legislating principles.) Intellectualists plant their flag in the immediacy of the determination of the will by the moral law, concluding that feeling plays no important role in moral choice and action. Affectivists brandish statements like (2) to argue that the feeling of respect is in fact a condition of the possibility of moral choice.

Given this textual state of affairs, both sides must give something up. Intellectualists must explain away or soft-pedal passages like (2), while affectivists must do the same with passages like (1). This should worry friends of Kant's moral theory. Unless either the intellectualist or the affectivist reconstruction is completely convincing, we are confronted with the specter of incoherence on Kant's part. If some texts must be read as assigning feeling a necessary role in moral choice, and others as insisting that cognition does all the work, we might reasonably doubt that Kant's vindication of morality passes argumentative muster. …

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