Source: Prof Michael Sandel, Justice: ..., Episode 06: "MIND YOUR MOTIVE"

First, a student named Judith says:

35:14: I think that Kant actually says that: it is the pure motivation that gives the action moral worth …
35:32: … so while there's more than one motivation going on there, [this] does not mean that action is devoid of moral worth, just because he has one other motive
35:43: so because the motive which involves duty, is what gives it moral worth. …

Then Prof Sandel responds to Judith, as follows:

35:50: Well Judith, I think that your account actually is true to Kant. It's fine to have sentiments and feelings that support doing the right thing, provided they don't provide the reason for acting.
36:08: So I think Judith has actually a pretty good defense of Kant on this question of the motive of duty, thank you.

But what if sentiments and feelings that support doing the right thing and the reason for acting are too intertwined? Then where do you draw the line? Am I right that Sandel assumes (tacitly) that every human can differentiate between them? What if you can't differentiate them?

  • Hume in his Enquiry into Morals says that it's generally assumed that sentiment drives actions; and one piece of evidence he points to is that certain words carry positive connotations like courage; still, he goes on to critique this position... Apr 4, 2015 at 11:38

2 Answers 2


Kant's moral psychology (i.e. his ideas about how feelings, thoughts, morality, and actions) does not allow for sentiments and feelings to simultaneously motivate an action. His moral psychology is not especially clear on this point, but I would recommend looking at Marcia Barons' Kantian Ethics almost without Apology if you want a long version of how one Kantian tries to handle this.

The basic problem is that bifurcates "subjective" and "objective" grounds for action. (Before jumping ahead, be careful of the following definitions of terms).

For Kant, "objective" grounds means only those grounds that arise through the use of your capacity for pure reason. And these would be bases that are found in reason rather than in your animality.

Conversely, "subjective" for Kant refers to those grounds that arise through our feelings, desires, and wants.

It's not perfectly clear, but it looks like for Kant objective reasons arise noumenally whereas subjective reasons arise in phenomenologically with bases in the world of experience. This means the latter would be things that happen according to the known laws of physics whereas the former happen in according with our free wills.

Again, Kant does not make perfectly clear that overloading is impossible, but he does express that any action motivated by these subjective grounds cannot qualify as good even if it is the same action. In other words, Kant's moral theory is not just about our actions but also about our grounds for acting (we might say "motive" but this word is foreign to Kant's description and generally refers to those things that cause us to respond to them, cf. "emote")

  • Brillantly clear answer.
    – user14511
    Jul 31, 2020 at 16:51

First of all, to demand moral action be consciously separated or refined in any way is simply prejudice against the stupid. If a human being is supposed to be capable of making as purely moral an action as an angel, with its much more highly developed intellect, if less consistently, then the stupidest human who still has any intelligence at all, should be able to be as moral as the most intelligent.

Therefore, it cannot be necessary to know or understand the reason for a moral act, in order for it to be moral.

The ultimate reason for acting, if it arises noumenally as noted by virmaior is still going to have phenomenal representations, and there is no reason why those representations cannot be sentiments. So the question is whether your sentiments are representations of duty, or whether they are completely tied to your own comfort.

When it works, I do believe this is a discernment that even someone with limited attention can make, since one of the moral criteria is the very concrete means-ends one, and we are to trust that the moral criteria clearly identify duty.

Even as quite young children we know when we are acting with respect for others, and when we are play-acting it. To the degree your motives are notably mixed, you are to some degree using people as means. [Being nice to your sister so mommy will be nice to you is not acting out of respect for your sister.]

Absolute discernment in cases of mixed motivation is not truly necessary because, given the absolute isolation of thought from deeper meaning in the noumenon/phenomenon split, it is not possible. It becomes a chicken-egg problem -- which came first, the motive or the awareness that you will benefit? I, at least, can almost never tell.

To my mind, this is consistent with a little bit of Calvinism that subtly inflects the Lutheran Pietism that Kant was raised with. To some degree, only God knows whether you are doing the right thing, but you get points for trying (even if all of those points have already been accounted before you were born, which kind of takes the payoff out of trying. But expecting a payoff is the wrong thing to do, anyway. And so on, back and forth endlessly.)

Analyzing motivation is not pointless, because that itself is a moral act motivated by the attempt to be clear on one's duty. But in the end, you can't attain access to pure duty by thinking about it. You might be able do discern that your action is correct, but your understanding of your motivation is always clouded.

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