Kant and Herman Sara S.
November 13, 2001
Ethical Theory

On Motives and Morals

On Herman's reading of Kant, ``There is reason to encourage the complementary influence of emotions even when the motive of duty is sufficient to bring about the required action.'' Why does Herman want to make this claim? Does it also suggest an adequate response to the charge that Kant cannot fully respect personal commitments to others?

Although Kantian morality has strong roots in the notions of intentionality and duty, Herman believes a system of morality which is not solely deontological can be entirely compatible with Kantianism. According to Herman, Kant does not require that actions be motivated by duty alone, but simply that the motive of duty would have sufficed to bring about the action. Additionally, in some situations Herman wants to prefer acting from the influence of emotion to acting only from the impersonal motive of duty because it allows room for personal commitments.

Herman believes that many of Williams' objections to Kant are not actually objections to Kant, but objections to his misunderstanding of Kant. Much of this confusion stems from a misinterpretation of the relation between duty and emotion. Williams believes that Kant would dismiss emotion as a possible motive on the grounds that emotion is fallible and undependable. Because Kant's examples of morally worthy actions involve a conflict between personal motives and a sense of duty, Williams reads Kant as saying that the motive must be either this sense of moral duty or a nonmoral motive, but not both. Therefore, Williams concludes, since actions done from the motive of duty have moral worth, as far as the Kantian is concerned, those done from other motives (such as emotion), must have no moral worth.

Herman, however, believes there is a place for emotions in Kantianism. Duty and emotion need not be in opposition to each other. Much of the time, the influence of emotion and the motive of duty coincide. There is no special moral worth imparted by a struggle of motives; rather an internal unity or agreement between emotion and duty is preferable. This is not to say that motivation from emotion by itself is enough. The motive of duty is still essential because emotions may at times fail to solicit the morally worthy action. When this internal unity is not achieved, the Kantian would still have moral motivation (duty) override emotion. Moral action in no way requires emotional motivation, but if emotional motivation corresponds to duty, so much the better for the moral agent. In this way, emotional influences play an important role in morality.

Still, this alone is not enough to satisfy Williams. In situations when the motive of duty and emotional influence would bring about the same effect, Williams says not only that we shouldn't prefer the actions done out of duty, but that we may rationally prefer (give greater moral value to) the actions done from nonmoral motives.

For Williams, an action done only from the motive of duty is missing something essential. This something is a personal, natural, and human way of acting; that is, acting out of emotion and personal attachment. Williams illustrates his point by considering the motivation of a husband who rescues his wife. If he is motivated by a commitment of morality, Williams claims that the wife has important rational grounds for complaint about her husband's motive and action. The wife might complain that her husband acted coldly and impersonally, that he cares only about duty and not about her. She would prefer that he had acted out of concern for her than from a motive of duty. Williams worries that Kant would dismiss this preference as insignificant.

This precisely describes my concern upon first reading Kant. I was skeptical that the weight Kant placed on moral imperatives and duty would not allow actions done for emotional, human reasons to be considered valuable. I read Kant as implying that actions done from a motive of emotion were morally inferior to actions done out of obligation and that emotion is irrelevant as a motive for the rational moral agent.

While Herman agrees that this is a possible problem with morality, she does not see this as a problem with Kantianism. Rather, she takes the importance of emotional motivation to be consistent with Kantianism. Herman believes that when duty and emotion coincide, the Kantian need not prefer the action done from duty over the same action done from emotion. On Herman's interpretation of Kant what matters is not that the action was done from the moral motive of duty, but that the motive of duty would have been sufficient to bring about the desired action. In other words, what is important is not that a moral action is done out of duty, but that it could have been done out of duty. While this is not how I originally read of Kant, I think it is a position acceptable to the Kantian.

Not only would Herman's Kant allow for moral actions to be done out of nonmoral motives, but Herman believes there are instances in which the Kantian would prefer actions done from nonmoral action to those done from a motive of duty. Herman wants to ``encourage the complementary influence of emotions even when the motive of duty is sufficient to bring about the required action'' for similar reasons as Williams does. Herman is concerned that actions done out of a primary motive of duty may be impersonal and believes that we want to grant moral worth to actions done from emotion. Personal commitments and attachment depend on actions done from emotion. While I want to consider actions motivated by emotional influence to be morally worthy, I have not found adequate support in Kant's Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals to believe that Herman's interpretation of Kant is accurate.

What Herman provides in ``Integrity and Impartiality'' is not a defense of Kant. She presents a revisionist Kantian view that takes significant strides toward resolving common objections to Kant. Herman's Kantianism treats the influence of emotions in motivation for moral action seriously and allows room for personal commitment to others. It is a Kantian-based position that I am more sympathetic to than Kant's account of morality.


Herman, Barbara. ``Integrity and Impartiality.'' The Practice of Moral Judgment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Williams, Bernard. ``Persons, Character and Morality.'' Moral Luck. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

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On 12 Nov 2001, 01:33.