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An Examination of Moral Action and Aesthetic Judgement
in Kant’s Critical Philosophy

Brian Donohue
University of Sudbury College of Laurentian University

One of the most famous philosophic trilogies in the annals of Western philosophy is Immanuel Kant’s three critiques: The Critique of Pure Reason, The Critique of Practical Reason and The Critique of Judgement. There is no doubt that Kant conceived of the trilogy as an organic whole with each part complementing the other two. Accordingly, an important task in any study of Kant’s philosophy is to trace out the links that permeate the trilogy. To that end, I shall argue that Kant’s conception of the role of reason in moral life provides a unifying theme whereby it is (a) possible to characterize his account of moral action found in The Critique of Practical Reason and (b) link this account to his theory of aesthetic judgements as found in The Critique of Judgement. To develop the thesis, I make much of Kant’s portrayal of man as a partially rational being. In section I, I use this portrait to explicate Kant’s discussion of moral action and connect it to his concept of personhood. Section II links the portrait to Kant’s aesthetics.


This section shall argue that Kant derived the defining feature of our humanity on the basis of our capacity for moral action. Accordingly, we acquire a human identity through the performance of our duties. To make the case, I conduct a detailed examination of Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason.

A dominating refrain of Kant’s moral philosophy is that pleasure cannot be the impetus for moral action. Kant’s fundamental reason for rejecting the pursuit of pleasure as the animating force of morality is that pleasure, by itself, is a subjective matter. Since it can thus vary from person to person, no two people, much less a whole society, may agree on specific pleasures. Consequently, rational assent to moral principles would be impossible if these principles were based on pleasure. Agreement as to the universal validity of moral principles could never be achieved if each person only endorsed the principle when the principle met the test of giving them personal pleasures.

A principle which is based only on the subjective susceptibility to a pleasure or displeasure (which is never known except empirically and cannot be valid in the same form for all rational beings) cannot function as a law even to the subject possessing this susceptibility, because it lacks objective necessity. 1

The rejection of pleasure as the basis of morality because of considerations of universality is part of the metaphysical deduction. In addition, Kant also deduces that moral principles must be self-causing. This embodies the conclusion that there can be absolutely no support in the phenomenal world on which to base the justification of moral principles. Kant describes a higher faculty of desire to show that the moral realm is created according to the demands of reason, thus meeting the stipulations of the metaphysical deduction. It is possible to distinguish between the higher and lower faculty of desire by pursuing the analysis of pleasure.

Desires which emanate from the lower faculty of desire are all aimed at achieving pleasure. Consequently, to the extent to which Kant characterizes desire as in the service of pleasure, his approach is hedonistic. The clearest statement that Kant makes concerning the equation of desire and pleasure is found in the Critique of Judgement: “to wish for something and to have a satisfaction in its existence, i.e.., to take an interest in it, are identical.” 2 The qualification to this hedonism will be made later in this section when I note Kant’s dissociation of moral action from the lower faculty of desire.

Kant proceeds to consider the role of reason in the pursuit of pleasure. He acknowledges that much human activity is preoccupied with personal gratification and that we use all of our resources, including our rational faculties, to achieve this state. He characterizes the use of reason in this way as empirical practical reason. Kant’s careful analysis here lays the groundwork for his move to an account of the role of reason in moral action (which he will describe as pure practical reason). I shall explicate Kant’s account of the two forms of practical reason as a propaedeutic to understanding Kant’s explanation of moral action. I take this course because it is only possible to understand Kant’s moral philosophy if one comes to appreciate the precise way that pleasure is the product of moral action.

Reason is in the service of desire when reason provides the means to satisfy it. Reason plays this part by formulating propositions which can guide the human agent to achieve the goals of desire. Propositions which are capable of this translation into action are called practical propositions, and those propositions which serve the lower faculty of desire are labeled empirical practical propositions.

Kant distinguishes among a number of different propositional formulations that can be made. The most general propositions are called principles. These are complemented by rules which are derived from the more general principles as ways of applying them to particular circumstances. Further, principles which express a policy of life peculiar to a particular individual are called maxims, and principles which express maxims appropriate to all rational beings are called objective laws. An example of a maxim which does not have the status of an objective law would be the credo of a predator capitalist who subscribes to the view “Do unto others before they do unto you.” Clearly, such an attitude could not have application to a society as a whole or the bonds of trust and cooperation which maintain that society would not persevere. On the other hand, a maxim such as “never tell a lie” could have universal application and thus qualifies as an objective law. Finally, any particular propositions one would follow as specific applications of the maxim or law would be characterized as rules.

Kant’s major concern is to demonstrate that there is a class of human actions that is not based on the lower faculty of desire. He must make a case for this class of action to show that reason is not merely a tool of desire. Otherwise, the explanation of all human action would be converted into a causal account where reason is preempted from inclusion into the causal origins of the action. This alternative would emasculate reason and ultimately undermine the requirements of the metaphysical reduction.

That he has reason does not in the least raise him in worth above
mere animality if reason only serves the purposes which, among
animals, are taken care of by instinct; if this were so, reason would
be only a specific way nature had made use of to equip man for the
same purpose for which animals are qualified, without fitting him for
any higher purpose. 3

Even in making a case for a positive role for reason, Kant recognizes that a balance between man’s rational capacity and his passions must be struck. To this end, Kant introduces the notion of an imperative. Reason controls action by formulating the practical propositions in an imperative mood. It is because man is not wholly guided by reason that the dictates of reason must be issued as a command.

Depending on their genesis, the imperatives of reason can take one of two forms. They are characterized as hypothetical imperatives if the imperative serves the private desires of a particular person. This is empirical practical reason where reason is in the service of desire by formulating propositions which facilitate acquiring the objects of desire. The other type of imperative is a categorical imperative. These imperatives command certain actions as valid for all rational agents. The validity of these imperatives is not contingent on the existence of a hypothetical condition (if I desire x then do p). Rather, the validity of a categorical imperative is independent of the circumstances and desires of particular human agents. The genesis of the formulation of these propositions is pure reason itself.

I remarked at the outset of the section that Kant rejects pleasure as the basis for morality because it is contingent and subjective. Kant will maintain, once he has provided us with an account of the execution of the categorical imperative, that pure reason can supply the absolute, necessary constraints of moral obligation. In this regard, Kant’s depiction of the two forms of the imperatives of reason captures the definitive distinction he draws between the two types of human action. All human action must be reducible to causal explanations based on desire or must be the manifestation of pure reason in its practical mode.

The plausibility of Kant’s thesis that action is a manifestation of pure practical reason can be measured by the extent to which it is compatible with our experience of moral phenomena. This is to say that it gains in credibility the more it can account for the essential features of moral experience. To make his case for pure practical reason, Kant makes two basic claims. First, that the objects are created by reason independent of the desires emanating from the empirical world. This second claim segregates moral action from the causal workings of the lower faculty of desire and makes the principles of morality self-causing.

Pure practical propositions have a law-like nature. This follows from the fact that reason is capable of formulating maxims which are universal in form, i.e., applicable to all rational beings. This feature of pure practical propositions reflects the structure in which the laws of nature are formulated. As such, pure reason can generate propositions which have the universality and necessity which we find reflected in our experience of valid moral obligations. What Kant must show -- and this is the crux for the burden of proof he must assume -- is that pure reason is capable of translating these propositions into action. Demonstrating this is demonstrating that pure reason can be practical.

In making his case for the possibility of pure practical reason, Kant frequently means the same thing by the concept of practical reason and the concept of will. On one level, the objects of practical reason supply the purpose of action, and in this way practical reason merges with the willing which effects the action. However, the equation of practical reason and the will follows from the special sense of object that Kant introduces to explain the workings of practical reason. What we will see to be unique about the objects of pure practical reason is that they are independent of the purposes of sensuous desires and hence are produced without an external cause. This connects practical reason to the will because, as Beck nicely puts it, these objects arise as a result of “an internal setting of the will.” 4 The equation of pure practical reason and will is thus a result of Kant’s connection of the formulation of moral concepts to the moral actions which result from these formulations.

As I have already stated, Kant’s rejection of pleasure as the basis of moral principles leads him to conceive of a higher faculty of desire where the cause of human action is not the quest for pleasure. It is in the higher faculty of desire that pure practical reason must operate as a form of willing. To make his case for pure practical reason, Kant focuses on the clear cases where duty and desire conflict. If he can show that duty is an expression of pure practical reason in these cases, then he has provided support for the higher faculty of desire as the engine of moral action.

The first step in Kant’s account is to isolate the objects of practical reason. This isolation provides a clear statement of Kant’s equation of practical reason and the will.

By a concept of an object of practical reason I understand the idea
of an object as an effect possible through freedom. To be an object
of practical knowledge as such signifies, therefore, only the relation
of the will to the action whereby it or its opposite is brought into
being. 5

Kant finds that there are only two objects which are produced by practical reason. These are the objects of good and evil.

The sole objects of practical reason are thus those of the good and
the evil. By the former, one understands a necessary object of
the faculty of desire, and by the latter, a necessary object of
aversion, both according to a principle of reason. 6

Kant is careful to separate off those objects which are determined to be good only because of a relationship to something else. Such objects are not themselves intrinsically good but only count as such because they either produce pleasure or provide a means to an end (for example, cyanide is ‘good’ for suicide). In these types of cases, the characterization of ‘good’ follows from the purpose the object is serving. The purpose is either to produce pleasure or to achieve some end.

The type of good Kant wishes to isolate is based on the rational production of moral principles, principles which are universally valid and necessary. These principles determine whether the object is good. It is in this way that Kant makes the connection between practical propositions and moral action. Working on the premise that he who wills the ends will the means to produce them, Kant argues that we realize the good through the moral action which produces the good. 7 The good is immanent in the action such that our conceiving of the good is internally connected to the creation of the good in moral action. Put another way, we simultaneously realize the good in moral action as we conceive of the good in reason. This simultaneous intersection constitutes pure practical reason. In sum, the objects of pure practical reason are not the effect of action but are part of the action itself; we create the object by doing the act. 8

Kant portrays the moral realm as independent of the natural world. its empirical existence is the product of human moral action, but the origin of the moral law can only be explained by reason. Therefore, Kant has provided us with an indirect account of how moral action is possible through the dictates of pure practical reason. He leaves us to draw the inference that any other account of moral experience would be inadequate to the task.

On this account, the justification of moral principles as principles of
a pure reason could be made with sufficient certainty through
merely appealing to the judgement of common sense, since
everything empirical which might insinuate itself into our maxims as
a determining ground of the will immediately reveals itself through
the feeling of enjoyment or pain which necessarily attaches to it
in so far as it arouses desire, and pure practical reason immediately
refuses to take it as a condition into its principle. 10

The summary of Kant’s analysis of moral action which I have provided might create the suspicion that he is committed to the Socratic proposition, “To know the good is to do the good.” This suspicion would be based on interpreting the connection of conception and action as implying that one can only conceive of the moral law if one in fact has adhered to it in one’s action. I shall attempt to refute this interpretation in the course of developing Kant’s conception of the proper role of pleasure in moral action.

Before doing so, however, I should like to note that, at this point, Kant’s portrayal of our moral capabilities does in fact corroborate an important feature of our moral experience. In assessing the moral worth of an action, there is an emphasis on looking at the motives or intentions the agent had in performing the action. Kant’s emphasis on the moral law as discerned by reason and expressed in action through pure practical reason preserves this moral focus. A moral agent may fail to execute the proper moral action, but, with Kant’s approach, his attempt to do so would exculpate the agent from moral blameworthiness. This allowance for human fallibility shall reemerge in Kant’s account of moral pleasure which I now turn to.

To understand the role of pleasure in moral action and thereby further clarify the relationship between the moral law and moral action, it is necessary to explicate the two senses of freedom that Kant utilizes. One sense of freedom is the capacity to choose among competing pleasures enticing the lower faculty of desire. For example, I am free to choose between the pleasure of eating and the pleasure of drinking. Choices made in this sense of freedom fall under the auspices of empirical practical reason. It is the second, more profound sense of freedom that Kant invokes in describing the activity of pure practical reason. The human being’s rational capacity enables him/her to be free to create his/her own desire through the higher faculties of desire. The objects of his/her desire, good and evil, do not exist in nature and therefore are not caused by another phenomenal event. Moral action refers to these objects, but their causal origin cannot be found in nature. Therefore, good and evil must comprise the categories of freedom whereby rational choice is self-causing. However, since these categories of freedom are not represented phenomenally, Kant’s proof of their existence must be indirect. Pure practical reason must create the objects it refers to because there is no other explanation for the origin of these objects.

Once it is realized that there are two sense of freedom, it is possible to see why Kant is not committed to the maxim, “To know the good is to do the good.” One can be aware of the moral law and still choose not to follow it much the same as one can choose between two competing desires beckoning from the phenomenal world. Kant explicitly acknowledges the existence of freely chosen evil which is the expression of this sense of freedom.

But the latter does not render the vicious quality of the will
necessary, for this quality is rather the consequence of the freely
assumed evil and unchangeable principles. This fact makes it only
the more objectionable and culpable. 11

Kant also mentions the problem when he discusses the attitude of the sinner to the moral law. It is a discussion where Kant clearly assumes both that the sinner knows the law and that s/he has chosen to break it. Therefore, it is clear that Kant does not hold the proposition, “To know the good is to do the good.”

Now that the unique sense of freedom that Kant holds has been presented, it is possible to move on to an explication of “The Incentives of Pure Practical Reason.” This chapter of the Critique of Practical Reason captures the role of motivation and pleasure in moral action through Kant’s account of respect. In this regard, there has been some confusion on whether or not Kant equates respect and moral feeling. Three important commentators do not agree on this point. Lewis Beck says that “stripped to its essentials,” moral feeling is respect.12 H.W. Cassirer, on the other hand, emphatically rejects the equation of respect and moral feeling.13 Finally, Paul Guyer occupies the middle ground between the two (although siding more with Cassirer than Beck) by suggesting that it is doubtful whether respect can be equated with moral feeling.14

My strategy is to explicate respect as a way of categorizing man’s appreciation of his situation as only a partially rational being. I shall interpret respect as constituting an a priori recognition, by each person, of the autonomy of reason, i.e., as separate from the phenomenal world. As such, moral pleasure does not equal respect but is the empirical corollary to this a priori knowledge. However, it is a necessary corollary because we are only partially rational.

Kant’s conception of partial rationality is why he claims that the propositions of pure practical reason must take the grammatical form of categorical imperatives. The human being’s dual nature as a being who has both a sensuous and a rational component means s/he will be constantly tempted by sensuous desires. Adherence to the rational side of his/her being thus requires that s/he constantly suppress these sensuous temptations. Therefore, the dictates of reason, i.e., the moral law, must be characterized as a set of duties. The partiality of our rationality follows from the fact that we are animated not only by reason but also by desire.

Such a will is therefore in need of the moral constraint of the
resistance offered by the practical reason, which may be called an
inner but intellectual compulsion. In the supremely self-sufficing
intelligence choice is correctly thought of as incapable of any maxim
which could not at the same time be objectively a law, and the
concept of holiness, which is applied to it for this reason, elevates
it not indeed above all practical laws but above all practically
restrictive laws, and thus above obligation and duty.15

The ‘intellectual compulsion’ of reason manifested in the moral law prohibits our desires and thereby regulates our conduct. Of course, a perfect being would be devoid of sensuous temptation and therefore would have no need of the moral law.16 The maxims of such a being would be congruent with what the moral law stipulates.

This picture of a partially rational being explains Kant’s concern with giving an account of the need for incentives. Because man belongs to two worlds, the intelligible world of reason and the mechanistic world of nature, the burden falls on Kant to juxtapose these two worlds and describe the way in which the moral law “enters into consciousness and makes clear demands on our allegiance” as we confront the phenomenal world.17 Without this juxtaposition, we are left without a complete picture of moral agency, i.e., we lack its concrete execution. However, to reiterate, the account is required because of Kant’s picture of man as a partially rational creature.

Kant initiates his discussion of the role of incentives in moral action by reminding us of the limits of explanation. As I have already noted, the solution to the problem of free will can only be given indirectly. This is because man’s only knowledge of himself is through appearances, i.e., as phenomena. Hence, our fundamental powers are never transparent. Similarly here, all that is possible is to give a psychological description of the link between the formulations of reason and moral action. While such an account is not exhaustive, it does significantly increase the plausibility of maintaining the existence of pure practical reason.

For how law in itself can be the direct determining ground of the will
(which is the existence of morality) is an insoluble problem for the
human reason. It is identical with the problem of how a free will is
possible. Therefore, we shall not have to show a priori why the moral
law supplies an incentive but rather what it affects (or better, must
effect) in the mind, so far as it is an incentive.18

Put another way, by showing how a rational principle can be an incentive for a sensuous being, Kant effectively links the moral law of the intelligible world to action in the phenomenal world.

Our initial sensuous experience as we attempt to execute the moral law is one of pain. Kant tells us that we know a priori that this feeling of pain will occur. We have this knowledge because we understand that the thwarting of our sensuous desires inevitably produces pain. How is it possible that we can have an a priori knowledge of an empirical event (the experience of pain)? Kant recognizes that this is an extraordinary claim, but he contends that the situation is quite unique. I suggest that the uniqueness can be explained by our understanding of ourselves as only partially rational. This understanding clarifies the unique situation under discussion because the a priori knowledge we have of the moral law must include not only what the moral law is, but also why it exists. Our knowledge of the moral law must contain both these features if we are to understand the obligatory nature of that law. Accordingly, the a priori knowledge of the fact of duty implies an a priori awareness of the limitations of reason. From this, it follows that a knowledge of law as duty entails a knowledge of the necessity to dominate our passions with reason by adhering to the law. In sum, the recognition of the need for duty as part of the fact of duty entails an a priori awareness of the occurrence of pain.

The moral law determines the will directly and objectively in the
judgement of reason. Freedom, the causality of which is
determinable merely through the law, consists, however, only in the
fact that it limits all inclinations, including self-esteem, to the
condition of obedience to its pure law. This limitation exerts an effect
on feeling and produces the sensation of displeasure, which can
be known a priori from the moral law.19

Kant’s conception of the functioning of a partially rational being also clarifies how respect operates as the incentive of moral action. From this perspective, we are able to see what Kant means when he says the moral law, through respect, provides its own incentive. Respect is the attitude one takes to the moral law when one comprehends that the moral law comprises the rational component of a human being. Entailed in our sense of duty is our awareness of ourselves as partially rational, and this awareness enables us to anticipate the pain of the subjugation of the sensuous side of being. Now we can add another consequence: Our appreciation of the full ramifications of our rationality in contrast to our sensuous side leads us to respect the rational aspect of ourselves.

Once we comprehend our rationality via the moral law, this comprehension generates the attitude of respect whereby we are conscious of our inclination to enact the moral law. As I have already argued, to know the good is not to do the good, but we now see that “To know the good is to respect the good.” This augments the claim already cited that even the sinner trembles before the moral law, for no one can escape the recognition that the moral law expresses the rational component of our being. Even the sinner is aware of this, and his/her choice of evil cannot eradicate his/her respect for moral law.

On this reading of respect, it is evident that it cannot be a form of moral pleasure. Respect is the attitude the moral law instills in us, an attitude which coincidentally provides us with an incentive to act morally. It should not be surprising, however, that Kant holds that one of the products of moral action is a feeling of moral pleasure. Once again, the point can be developed through his conception of a partially rational being. He tells us there is a feeling of contentment which arises from negating the domination of passions through reason. This feeling captures the essence of moral pleasure. Further, this feeling gives us our only access, albeit indirectly, to freedom.

The use Kant makes of the conclusions he draws in the section on incentives is rather startling. He asserts that the domain circumscribed by the recognition and enactment of the moral law is the realm of personality. As such, it is the region which comprises that which is indigenously human.

It is nothing else than personality, i.e., the freedom and
independence from the mechanism of nature regarded as a capacity
of a being which is subject to special laws (pure practical laws given
by its own reason), so that the person as belonging to the world of
sense is subject to his own personality so far as he belongs to the
intelligible world.20

Kant thus claims that reason, through the human being’s moral capabilities, segregates his/her rational being from his/her sensuous being and thereby defines his/her humanity.

As a corollary to providing us with personality, moral action also provides us with a gateway to human society. it is a corollary because a human community is comprised of autonomous rational beings. Each of us affirms our autonomy when we adhere to the moral law. Admittedly, the above quoted passage only hints at the idea of morality as the gateway to community. There is a slightly strange hint of the connection in another passage where Kant links pure practical reason to the awareness of an intelligible world.

By this freedom the will of a rational being, as belonging to the
sensuous world, recognizes itself to be, like all other efficient
causes, necessarily subject to the laws of causality, while in practical
matters, in its other aspect as a being in itself, it is conscious of its
existence as determinable in an intelligible order of things.21

In turning to the next section, I shall attempt to pursue and clarify the claim that morality provides the gateway to the human world. I shall do so by elucidating the relationship Kant conceives between morality and aesthetics in terms of it.


In this section, I will be concerned with the commentary on Kant offered by Paul Guyer in his book, Kant and the Claims of Taste, and his essay “Pleasure and Society in Kant’s Theory of Taste.” My first objective is to briefly summarize Guyer’s insightful conception of Kant’s aesthetics, and then elucidate his conception of the morality and aesthetics relationship for Kant. I shall then offer a qualification to this conception by drawing on passages in the Critique of Judgement where Kant discusses the relationship between morality and aesthetics. My second objective is to demonstrate that one of the arguments Guyer feels compelled to refute can be more easily rejected with my addendum to his analysis.

As a precursor to developing his picture of the relationship between aesthetics and society in Kant, it is necessary to sketch Guyer’s interpretation of aesthetic experience. Guyer presents an extensive analysis of aesthetic experience in his book and a briefer, though in some ways clearer, analysis of it in his subsequent essay on the same topic. Since it is only a brief sketch intended for other purposes, I shall ignore Guyer’s careful and persuasive rebuttal of competing readings of the notoriously difficult section 9 of the Critique of Judgement.22

Guyer interprets Kant to be describing two separate acts of reflection in the making of an aesthetic judgement. This simple act of reflection is not governed by rules. Rather, it is a reflection on the harmonious interplay of the two cognitive faculties of imagination and understanding which produces a sensation of pleasure. The subject matter of the second, distinct act of reflection is this experience of pleasure; the second reflection uses the experience of pleasure as evidence for a judgement of taste.

Guyer contends that the first act of reflection explains how an aesthetic experience arises. The key to this approach is that is it based on the portrayal of a causal mechanism which we only have access to via the sensation of pleasure. Central to this description of a causal mechanism is the premise that the faculty of cognition has its own objective. Guyer argues that this objective, from the subjective point of view, is the unification of the manifold of intuition. It is a generalized objective which does not apply particular concepts. Further, as I noted in Section I when I equated desire and pleasure, Kant maintains that the attainment of every objective produces a sensation of pleasure. Connecting these two points forges Kant’s causal account of how aesthetic experience arises.

The second act of reflection which produces an actual judgement of taste is necessary because we do not have direct access to the causal mechanism which produces aesthetic experience. All we have access to is the undifferentiated experience of pleasure. Consequently, the task of the judgement of taste is to determine whether the experience of pleasure has an aesthetic origin or is, in fact, the satisfaction of a desire.

One of the most persuasive reasons for accepting Guyer’s account of a two stage process of reflective judgement is that opting for a single act of reflection leads to an absurdity. To this end, Guyer criticizes both Cassirer and Cerf for adopting the single judgement version. Guyer nicely summarizes his case in the following passage:

If aesthetic judgement resulted from a single act, this would be to
say that the same feeling of pleasure both succeeded, as its
product, and yet preceded, as its evidence or ground, a single
judgement. This is clearly absurd.23

Once he has built a compelling case for a second act of reflection, Guyer then makes a very interesting move. It is this move which I shall attempt to qualify. Guyer argues that the discriminations demanded to make a judgement of taste would only occur for people within a social group. He cites Kant’s discussion of a man abandoned on a desert island as support for this claim.24 Although one can experience the pleasure of beauty in solitude, society enhances our appreciation of pleasure. It does this because we are capable of refining our ability to experience pleasure through the social phenomenon of taste.

This constitutes an elegant riposte to Guyer’s characterization of taste as arising from a second act of reflective judgement. Here he embellishes this analysis with two points. First, we are only concerned with judgements of taste because we live within a community. Second, it is only within a community that we develop the discriminative capacity to distinguish aesthetic pleasure from other types of pleasure. Of course, it should be stressed that our capability to experience pleasure (the first act of reflection) is not affected either in or out of society. Rather, the assertion is that we only attend to and cultivate the capability within society. Essentially, then, taste provides one with criteria to determine whether one is right to ascribe an aesthetic origin to a particular sensation of pleasure. These criteria are communicable because we all share the capability to have an aesthetic experience of pleasure.

While I have no quarrel with Guyer’s astute analysis, I believe his discussion of taste, both in his essay and in his book, has a misplaced emphasis on depicting the relationship between aesthetics and society. I shall first state the misplacement and then provide my correction. I fortify the claim for my correction by demonstrating that it complements the main line of argument in Guyer’s book.

The concluding argument of Guyer’s essay suggests that taste plays a vital role in the creation of a human society.

The communicability theory of pleasure could continue to play a vital role in Kant’s broader picture of the pleasures of beauty and of the
conditions under which mankind could actually develop into a
community of social beings.25

However, as I suggested in the conclusion to section I, it is moral action which provides us with a gateway to human society. Accordingly, while aesthetics may well enrich and promote the perpetuation of society, the qualification I would make to Guyer’s thesis is that one must not forget that it is morality which provides the essential conditions for the creation of social life.

There are four sections in the Critique of Judgement where Kant discusses the relationship between aesthetics and morality. I believe that all of them support my claim for the hegemony of morality. If Guyer had fully appreciated this he would have been able to more quickly dispense with an objection to his basic argument. Further, he would not have had the difficulties of exegesis which he encountered with the s.60 of the Critique of Judgement.

In his interpretation of s.42-43 and s.59 of the Critique of Judgement, Guyer is properly concerned to show that the justification of aesthetic judgements is not founded on morality. Other commentators on Kant have tried to argue that the preoccupation with aesthetic concerns is ultimately grounded on morality.26 They have wrongly claimed that the justification of the validity of aesthetic judgements is completed by referring these judgements to morality. The reference is alleged to be possible because judgements symbolize morality.

Given his competing and, I believe, correct account of aesthetic judgement, Guyer must argue against the above interpretation of the relationship between aesthetics and morality. Indeed, he performs this task quite capably. He points out that the test of aesthetic judgements is not whether these judgements accord with, or serve, moral principles. Rather, as Guyer correctly states, the aesthetic capability is precursed by a moral disposition.27 Nevertheless, my objection to Guyer’s exegesis follows from the lack of emphasis he places on the way morality grounds social life. Given Kant’s conclusions in the Critique of Practical Reason, one cannot underestimate the importance of morality in performing this role. By more aggressively exploiting this perspective, Guyer could have preempted the way other commentators attempted to place aesthetics at the service of morality.

The most fundamental point Kant is making is that the intelligible, supersensible world is created by our capacity for moral action. Morality in no way depends on, or needs be connected to, our aesthetic capabilities as we create this intelligible world. But -- and this is the crux for the hegemony of morality -- aesthetics must be precursed by a moral disposition.

He who takes such an interest in the beauties of nature can do so
only in so far as he previously has firmly established his interest
in the morally good...this immediate interest in the beautiful is
actually not common, but is peculiar to those whose mental
disposition either has already been cultivated in the direction of the
good or is eminently susceptible of such cultivation.28

Of course, Kant does argue that aesthetics builds on our initial opening to the intelligible world and substantially enriches this realm. Finally, the beautiful symbolizes the morally good in the sense that we recognize that the beautiful dwells within the domain created by pure practical reason. In this regard, not only do we ascribe to it the features of the intelligible world (i.e., universal agreement), but we also appreciate the ways beauty enhances this domain.

Now I say the beautiful is the symbol of the morally good, and that
it is only in this respect...that it gives pleasure with a claim for the
agreement of everyone else. By this the mind is made conscious
of a certain ennoblement and elevation above the mere sensibility
to pleasure received through sense.29

Guyer’s failure to emphasize the primacy of morality does his analysis no serious damage. Not surprisingly, however, he does have trouble interpreting the concluding paragraph of the appendix to the aesthetic, a place where Kant makes a very strong statement to connect morality and aesthetics. Guyer interprets Kant to be here attempting to surmount the explanatory limitations of his account of aesthetic judgement. He suggests that Kant recognized that the ‘harmony of the faculties’ thesis is weakened because it is a psychological account. Thus, Guyer concludes that Kant appeals to morality in the appendix as a way to bolster the argument.

Kant may have tried to compensate for the ultimate insufficiency
of his deduction by appealing to the intersubjective validity of moral
ideas; and the insufficiency of the deduction which motivate this
appeal, one could argue, is due to the fact that the harmony of the
faculties must ultimately be acknowledged to be a psychological
rather than a purely epistemological concept. The present passage
may also be motivated by a recognition of the ultimately
psychological nature of the harmony of the faculties.30

I suggest there is a simpler, more thematic interpretation of this final paragraph. Kant here is merely reiterating, as he concludes the aesthetic, the relationship he conceives between morality and aesthetics. Since this is our last opportunity to comment on this absolutely final point, it is to be expected that he would do so here. Kant begins the paragraph by again remarking that our identification of the aesthetic with the intelligible world leads us to ascribe certain features to the aesthetic. These features would not be readily apparent if we considered the aesthetic in isolation from our moral capabilities which initially circumscribed this world. Because we know that taste is part of this domain, we regard it “as valid for mankind in general and not merely for the private feelings of each.”31 Accordingly, Kant’s final comment on the relationship between morality and the aesthetic once again asserts the primacy of morality. Morality serves as the introduction to taste by creating a permanent, intelligible world which makes it possible to recognize and enjoy aesthetic experience.

Hence is appears plain that the true propaedeutic for the foundation
of taste is the development of moral ideas and the culture of the
moral feeling, because it is only when sensibility is brought into
agreement with this that genuine taste can assume a definite
invariable form.32

In sum, Kant believed, and argued vigorously for, the proposition that moral action endows us with our humanity. As such, it lays the foundation for the rich possibilities of human achievement. Thus, any comprehensive examination of Kant’s three great critiques must include a privileged place for his account of moral life.


1. Lewis White Beck, A Commentary of Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, The University of Chicago Press, 1960.

2. H.W. Cassirer, A Commentary of Kant’s Critique of Judgement, Methuen, 1938.

3. Paul Guyer, Kant and the Claims of Taste, Harvard University Press, 1979. “Pleasure and Society in Kant’s Theory of Taste” in Essays in Kant’s Aesthetics, edited by Paul Guyer, pp. 21-54, The University of Chicago Press, 1982.

4. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, translated by L.W. Beck, Liberal Arts Press, 1956.

First Introduction to the Critique of Judgement, translated by James Haden, Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1965.

Critique of Judgement, translated by J.H. Bernard, Hafner Press, 1951.

5. Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Harvard University Press, 1971.


1. Kant, The Critique of Practical Reason, p. 20.

2. Kant, The Critique of Judgement, p. 43 (s.4).

3. Kant, The Critique of Practical Reason, p. 63.

4. Beck, A Commentary on Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, p. 92.

5. Kant, The Critique of Practical Reason, p. 59.

6. Ibid., p. 60.

7. Beck, A Commentary on Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, p. 85. In making this point, Beck cites Kant’s The Metaphysics of Morals as authority for the proposition.

8. Ibid., p. 134. Beck makes these points by connecting other of Kant’s
work on moral philosophy to Kant’s remarks in The Critique of
Practical Reason.

9. Ibid., p. 142. As Beck points out, we can have no direct knowledge
of this.

10. Kant, The Critique of Practical Reason, p. 95.

11. Ibid., p. 103.

12. Beck, A Commentary on Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, p. 223.

13. H.W. Cassirer, A Commentary on Kant’s Critique of Judgement,
p. 79.

14. Guyer, Kant and the Claims of Taste, p. 388.

15. Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, p. 33.

16. Kant is obviously contrasting God with man here. However, a contemporary version of this thesis is adopted by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice (p. 129), where he argues that a community of saints would have no need for a conception of justice.

17. Beck, A Commentary on Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, p. 211.

18. Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, p. 75.

19. Ibid., p. 81 (my italics).

20. Ibid., p. 89.

21. Ibid, p. 90.

22. Guyer performs this rebuttal particularly well in “Pleasure and Society in Kant’s Theory of Taste,” pp. 33-48.

23. Guyer, Kant and the Claims of Taste, p. 112.

24. Kant, Critique of Judgement, p. 139 (s.41).

25. Guyer, “Pleasure and Society in Kant’s Theory of Taste,” p. 54 (my

26. Guyer, Kant and the Claims of Taste, pp. 352-253 summarizes these

27. Ibid., p. 372.

28. Kant, Critique of Judgement, p. 143 (s.42).

29. Ibid., pp. 198-199 (s.59).

30. Guyer, Kant and the Claims of Taste, p. 393.

31. Kant, Critique of Judgement, p. 202 (s.60).

32. Ibid.


A Commentary on Kant's Critique of Practical Reason
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