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Kant's Cold Sage and the Sublimity of Apathy

  • Lara Denis (a1)


Kant has long been known for denying that emotions constitute an adequate basis for morality or for moral motivation. But Kantian ethicists have recently been calling attention to Kant's recognition of the moral importance of emotions. Several philosophers have pointed out that, for example, Kant sees emotions as indicators of appropriate or inappropriate attitudes and as means of prompting us to perform particular morally right actions. In chapter 6 (p. 207) of Kantian Ethics Almost without Apology, however, Marcia Baron points out a passage in the Metaphysics of Morals that sits poorly with these recent, emotion-friendly interpretations of Kant.



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1 The account that I use as my starting-point here is Baron's, Marcia, found in ch. 6 of Kantian Ethics Almost without Apology (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995). But also see ch. 10 of Guyer's, PaulKant and the Experience of Freedom (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993) and Sherman, Nancy, ‘The place of emotions in Kantian morality’, in Flanagan, Owen and Oksenberg Rorty, Amelie (eds.), Identity, Character, and Morality, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990), pp. 149–70.

2 Citations in the text use the following abbreviations to refer to the following English translations of Kant's works. All volume and page numbers refer to the ‘Akademie’ edition of Kant's works. For Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, the English translation of which does not include Academy page numbers, I include the translation's page numbers in brackets.

Ant Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, tr. Gregor, M. J. (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1974).

C ‘Moral philosophy: Collins's lecture notes’, tr. P. Heath, in Heath, P. and Schneewind, J. B. (eds.), Lectures on Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977).

G Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, tr. Ellington, J. W. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1963).

KpV Critique of Practical Reason, tr. Beck, L. W. (New York: Macmillan, 1956).

KU Critique of Judgement, tr. Pluhar, W. S. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987).

M ‘Morality according to Prof. Kant: Mrongovius's second set of lecture notes (selections)’, tr. P. Heath in Heath and Schneewind, (eds.), Lectures on Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977).

MS Metaphysics of Morals, tr. Gregor, M. J. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

Obs Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, tr. Goldthwait, J. T. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1960).

Rel Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, tr. Wood, A. and DiGiovani, G. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

V ‘Kant on the metaphysics of morals: Vigilantius's lecture notes’, tr. P. Heath in Heath and Schneewind, (eds.), Lectures on Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977).

3 Kantian Ethics, p. 216.

4 Ibid., p. 221.

5 Baron may well think that some emotions should be totally eradicated or turned off. We are here focusing on sympathetic emotions that Kant endorses our developing to some degree; these she seems to think need not be turned off, even when they are not useful.

6 I should note that Baron's ch. 6 is broader in scope than my comments might suggest. I am focusing on just one part of a rich chapter.

7 We might have expected Kant to say that we cannot have a duty to help others from compassion because we cannot will ourselves to feel compassion (see, for example, MS 6: 401). It is also important to Kant to make clear that we do not help others simply by feeling sad for them.

8 Except where otherwise indicated, I treat ‘affect’ and ‘agitation’ as synonymous and as translations of ‘Affekt’. Furthermore, I use ‘emotion’ as a general term that stands for the collection of such things as feelings, affects and passions. By contrast, Baron uses ‘agitation’ as the translation for ‘Affekt'; she uses ‘affect’ as a broad term that covers inclinations, feelings, agitations and passions.

9 I should note that, for clarity and consistency, I diverge from Heath's translation of the Lectures here and in my subsequent quotation of C 27:420. Heath renders ‘Affekt’ as ‘emotion'; I have translated it as ‘affect.'

10 And at KU 5:272–3 Kant talks about emotions (Ruehrungen) that do not reach the level of affects (Affekten).

11 The passage continues:

A rich man whose servant awkwardly breaks a beautiful and rare glass goblet while carrying it around at a banquet will think nothing of this accident if, at the same moment, he compares the loss of one pleasure with the multitude of all the pleasures that his fortunate position as a rich man offers him. But if he isolates that one feeling of pain and abandons himself to it (without quickly making that mental reckoning), no wonder he feels as if he had lost his happiness completely.

12 Some emotions might help us in our self-regarding duties, but I will not pursue that here. And of course there are the ‘predispositions on the side of feeling’ that Kant takes to be essential for human morality (MS 6: 399–403).

13 For a more complete and nuanced account of the sublime and the beautiful, including their relation to morality, see Guyer, 's Kant and Experience of Freedom, chs. 1, 6 and 7.

14 He later adds, for reasons that will become clear, ‘Sublime is what even to be able to think proves, that the mind has a power surpassing any standard of sense’ (KU 5:250).

15 The kind of agitation Kant has in mind here is not that of affect (Affekt). ‘Bewegung’ can be translated as ‘motion’ or ‘movement’ as well as ‘agitation’. Kant explains the agitation associated with the sublime as comparable to ‘a vibration, i.e., with a rapid alternation of repulsion from and attraction to, one and the same object’ (KU 5:258). Although Kant takes emotion to be involved in the experience of the sublime in a way that it is not with the beautiful (KU 5:226), he does not imply that affect is constitutive of the experience of the sublime. So the sublime moves us, but it need not do so in a way that interferes with deliberation.

16 The Stoics' error was the lesser because they mistook the unconditioned good, rather than the conditioned good, for the sole good. For more on Kant's views on, and in relation to, the Stoics, see Terence Irwin, ‘Kant's criticism of Eudaemonism’, John Cooper, ‘Eudaimonism, the appeal to nature, and “moral duty” in Stoicism’, and J. B. Schneewind, ‘Kant and Stoic ethics’, all in Engstrom, Stephen and Whiting, Jennifer (eds.), Aristotle, Kant, and the Stoics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

17 Baron says that Kant, ‘aligns himself with the Stoics more than he should and more than his theory would seem to mandate’ (Kantian Ethics, p. 226). Perhaps this is true. But my discussion suggests that we should be cautious in our appraisal of how and how much Kant genuinely agrees with the Stoics.

18 Ibid., p. 221.

19 Although Baron is not explicit about this, she appears to be thinking here of grief as a feeling that may or may not rise to the level of affect. She describes grief as an intense emotion, but does not suggest that it is the affect of grief in particular that we would hope or expect to find in a virtuous friend. See n. 24 concerning the stronger claim.

20 Indeed, emotion of some sort is constitutive of the experience of the sublime (KU 5:226, 258–9). For us to recognize the sage as sublime, or for him to recognize himself as such, requires an emotional reaction of some sort. It would be odd and ironic, though not inconceivable, for it to be the case that being sublimely apathetic precluded the ability to feel sublimity. It is worth noting, however, that recognition of the noble sublimity of a manner of acting seems to have more in common with the rationally grounded feeling of respect than with the sensibly grounded emotions (see MS 6:399–403; KpV 5:71–89).

21 It would be a stretch to interpret Kant's remark about ‘irresistible feelings’ as implying that the affect of sympathetic sadness is an appropriate response of a virtuous person to others' suffering. The feelings could be irresistible simply in that the agent could not help feeling them — not that he had to act as they prompted, nor that he could not stop them from interfering with his deliberation and willing. But this comment does indicate that, for Kant, human virtue neither requires nor furnishes perfect emotional control. Indeed, Kant suggests that emotions would not be as morally useful as they are if feeling them were completely up to us.

22 To do this would be akin to inferring that, because Star Trek's Vulcans can operate morally and healthily without emotions, we can too. See Stocker, Michael and Hegeman, Elizabeth, Valuing Emotions (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. xv–xvi, 235.

23 For a discussion of the connection between painful emotions and morally valuable relationships, ibid., pp. 230–9. The authors also point out that certain emotions and emotional reactions help constitute psychological well-being.

24 Although Kant is firmly committed to the claim that human agents should strive for apathy, he suggests that even the most virtuous of us may be unable to free ourselves from all emotional agitation (C 27: 368; MS 6:408). If we were psychologically constituted such that appropriate concern for one's friends entailed (for example) extreme susceptibility to the affect of grief when they died, Kant would be able to say that a person who did not have the affect of grief in this situation is morally suspect. The claim would not be that having the affect of grief is itself virtuous, but that the affect's presence suggests morally good commitments or traits, of which a lack of affect suggests an absence. Condemnation of the affectless person would not be justified, however, for we could not be certain about his character or commitments from his lack of affect. We would need to acknowledge the possibility that the affectless person has great moral self-control or an unusually cold natural disposition. Whether we are psychologically constituted in the relevant way is a question whose answer lies beyond the scope of this article.

25 Baron says: ‘It is not just that it [repudiating compassion] does not show a sublime way of thinking; there is something wrong if a person is never awash with emotion when, for example, a friend or relative is killed or maimed’ (Kantian Ethics, p. 211). We can now see, however, that Kant can with perfect consistency call apathy sublime and at the same time judge a person who exhibits an extreme lack of emotion as morally worse for that.

26 Passions are more uniformly objectionable than affects. According to Kant, not only are affects as a group less dangerous than passions, but certain agitations — such as those of laughter and weeping — can promote health (Ant 7:261–3).

27 There may be other types of feelings which one would want to seek to rid oneself of altogether. These might be feelings that one could never permissibly gratify, that signal vicious attitudes or maxims, or that are generally hostile to morality. Malicious glee or ingratitude might be two such feelings (MS 6:458–60).

28 This article is dedicated to the memory of my friend Michael Hudson.

Kant's Cold Sage and the Sublimity of Apathy

  • Lara Denis (a1)


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