Kant argues in his Third Critique (sec. 59) that moral uprightness and decency brings us pleasure as in a reflective, judgment of taste:

Now I say that the beautiful is the symbol of the morally good, and also that only in this respect (that of a relation that is natural to everyone, and that is also expected of everyone else as a duty) does it please with a claim to the assent of everyone else, in which the mind is at the same time aware of a certain ennoblement and elevation above the mere receptivity for a pleasure from sensible impressions, and also esteems the value of others in accordance with a similar maxim of their power of judgment.

(Critique of the Power of Judgement, § 59, Ak. 5:353, Cambridge Edition p. 227)

But must there be an affinity between the good and the beautiful as Kant suggests?

  • 3
    Can you provide the specific passages?
    – stoicfury
    Commented Aug 15, 2012 at 16:17
  • If you go by the classical definition wherein the unity of truth and goodness is beautiful, then yes.
    – danielm
    Commented Aug 31, 2012 at 21:14

5 Answers 5



No, moral acts are definitely not beautiful for Kant. They are objects of respect (as consistent through all works on practical philosophy by Kant), which is to some extend similar, but actually more a kind of the sublime. By virtue of judging it as a case of morality, you exclude the mere reflection on the intuition that is kantian beauty simply because of the alteration of the object of reflection.

But YES, there has to be "an affinity" between morality and beauty. Actually, Kant states in the quote (which I edited into the question, admittedly) that the positivity (and feeling of universalisability) of the feeling of beauty actually is grounded in it being the symbol of morality.

In order to fully answer the question, there have to be three aspects adressed, while the points 2 and 3 some kind of lay ground for the statements of the first one, as section 59 is rather late in the book and many aspects are just reformulations and clarifications of former arguments and conclusions:

  1. What does Kant actually write in the mentioned section?

  2. How are the sublime and the beautiful destinguished?

  3. How is respect (for the moral law) destinguished from both of them?

Regarding § 59 of the Critique of the Power of Judgement

First, please consider the title of this section: On beauty as a symbol of morality.

That does make two points to consider: First, we are speaking here of the opposite direction: It is not the moral act that is beautiful, it is the beauty that is a symbol of morality. Secondly, what does this actually mean (for Kant)?

Here, Kant is quite clear:

All hypotyposis (presentation, subjecto sub adspectum), as making something sensible, is of one of two kinds: either schematic, where to a concept grasped by the understanding the corresponding intuition is given a priori; or symbolic, where to a concept which only reason can think, and to which no sensible intuition can be adequate, an intuition is attributed with which the power of judgment proceeds in a way merely analogous to that which it observes in schematization, i.e., it is merely the rule of this procedure, not of the intuition itself, and thus merely the form of the reflection, not the content, which corresponds to the concept. (Critique of the Power of Judgement, § 59, Ak. 5:351, Cambridge Edition p. 225)

The main point here is that beauty is to some extend similar/linked to morality (which HAS a schematism, see second critique), but not in the sense of a necessary schematism, but only in a symbolic manner, because there are only the 'form of the reflection' together with some other things that are to some extend equal. And he extensively explains in what sense they are equal and where the analogy ends afterwards:

We will adduce several aspects of this analogy, while at the same time not leaving unnoticed its differences.

1) The beautiful pleases immediately (but only in reflecting intuition, not, like morality, in the concept). 2) It pleases without any interest (the morally good is of course necessarily connected with an interest, but not with one that precedes the judgment on the satisfaction, but rather with one that is thereby first produced). 3) The freedom of the imagination (thus of the sensibility of our faculty) is represented in the judging of the beautiful as in accord with the lawfulness of the understanding (in the moral judgment the freedom of the will is conceived as the agreement of the latter with itself in accordance with universal laws of reason). 4) The subjective principle for judging of the beautiful is represented as universal, i.e., valid for everyone, but not as knowable by any universal concept (the objective principle of morality is also declared to be universal, i.e., knowable for all subjects, and at the same time also for all actions of one and the same subject, yet by means of a universal concept). Hence the moral judgment is not only capable of determinate constitutive principles, but is also possible only by means of the grounding of its maxims on these principles and their universality. (Critique of the Power of Judgement, § 59, Ak. 5:353-4, Cambridge Edition p. 227-8)

Regarding the sublime as destinct from beauty

In section 23, Kant destinguishes the sublime and the beauty. The main difference is stated as followed:

The most important and intrinsic difference between the sublime and the beautiful, however, is this: that if, as is appropriate, we here consider first only the sublime in objects of nature (that in art is, after all, always restricted to the conditions of agreement with nature), natural beauty (the self-sufficient kind) carries with it a purposiveness in its form, through which the object seems as it were to be predetermined for our power of judgment, and thus constitutes an object of satisfaction in itself, whereas that which, without any rationalizing, merely in apprehension, excites in us the feeling of the sublime, may to be sure appear in its form to be contrapurposive for our power of judgment, unsuitable for our faculty of presentation, and as it were doing violence to our imagination, but is nevertheless judged all the more sublime for that. (Critique of the Power of Judgement, § 23, Ak. 5:245, Cambridge Edition p. 129)

In section 27, still in the chapter regarding the sublime, Kant explicitely states:

The feeling of the inadequacy of our capacity for the attainment of an idea that is a law for us is respect. (Critique of the Power of Judgement, § 27, Ak. 5:257, Cambridge Edition p. 140)

As we speak here of an inadequacy ('unsuitability' in the quote above) of our capacity, respect clearly is a case of the sublime. Beware: Point 3) in the examination of the analogy speaks of "accordance" rather than inadequacy and rightfully so. Because while we are definately inadequate in our capacity to match the foundational moral law (as we are not able to fully act in accordance to it everytime and categorically), we are able to imagine an accordance in particular cases (which is the reason for our moral feeling). There is no contradiction here!

Regarding respect as some kind of 'link' between beauty and the sublime and destinguished from each of them

In section 29 Kant writes something that can be understood as some kind of the basis for the possibility of beauty as symbol of morality. First of all, he destinguishes by the object:

In relation to the feeling of pleasure an object is to be counted either among the agreeable or the beautiful or the sublime or the (absolutely) good (iucun dum, pulchrum, sublime, honestum). (Critique of the Power of Judgement, § 29, Ak. 5:266, Cambridge Edition p. 149)

And after some clarification, he concludes:

If one draws the result from the exposition thus far of the two kinds of aesthetic judgment, the outcome would be the following brief explanations:

That is beautiful which pleases in the mere judging (thus not by means of the sensation of sense nor in accordance with a concept of the understanding). From this it follows of itself that it must please without any interest.

That is sublime which pleases immediately through its resistance to the interest of the senses.

Both, as explanations of aesthetically universally valid judging, are related to subjective grounds, namely on the one hand to those of sensibility, as it is purposive in behalf of the contemplative understanding, on the other, in opposition to those, as purposive for the ends of practical reason; and yet both, united in the same subject, are purposive in relation to the moral feeling. The beautiful prepares us to love something, even nature, without interest; the sublime, to esteem it, even contrary to our (sensible) interest. (Critique of the Power of Judgement, § 29, Ak. 5:267, Cambridge Edition p. 150-1)


That means that 'respect' has some aspects of beauty (also see first point), but does not express the feeling of an accordance with our capacities, but a shortfalling (as finite beings), and is therefore some kind of the sublime. But the main difference to both of them is the objectiveness of the (grounds of the) judgement, as the object of beauty as well as the sublime is different (intuitions/representations vs. morality as a concept, see 1) in the remarks on the analogy). They are therefore destinct, but purposive, as they each acquaint with one of what is both part of the moral feeling, i.e. respect.

  • Good answer. For the matter, moral acts are objects of objective respect as opposed to the feeling kind.
    – virmaior
    Commented Jun 8, 2016 at 4:29
  • Very interesting! Commented Jun 12, 2016 at 23:45
  • @Dr.J If this fully answers your question, please click the checkmark left to the answer and accept it.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Jun 13, 2016 at 6:31
  • I find it quite helpful and satisfactory! I'm appreciative for your insights--I was trying to see how this ties in with sensus communis and how this relates to the second critique because I read them as comprising the entire critical project? Well-formulated and strong qualifications. Commented Jun 15, 2016 at 20:25
  • @Dr.J According to his definition in Ak. 5:293.30-36, practical reason seems to quite well fit into the definition as sensus communis morus, while it is a very interesting idea to look how the feeling of respect is linked with sensus communis aestheticus. I'd say that it is another layer of abstraction, as 'really objective', not only thought objectively following a subjective principle.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Jun 27, 2016 at 13:29

Kant does not directly state that moral acts are beautiful. It would be contradictory for him to do so. A moral act, according to Kant, is generated internally, via a priori knowledge. An ascription of beauty is based on a sensory response to an external object. It is inherently empirical.

Kant includes our perception of the moral actions of others and even our awareness of our own deliberations as sensory: “It is natural that [man] can attain knowledge even about himself...only through the appearance of his nature...he must count himself as belonging to the world of sense.” -3rd section of Grounding, 451-452.

In his Ethics, Kant is driving to an objective moral good. There would have to be an objective aesthetic value, good/beauty in order to consistently associate the moral good with the beautiful. Kant does not make an argument for universal beauty . No one has made any such aesthetic argument, on a par with Kant’s Ethics.

Beauty is a particular aesthetic property, there are myriad others, which characterize the experience of perceiving the specific object. A corollary to your question might be: must all immoral acts be repugnant?

Because he places actions in the sensory realm, all aesthetic properties would have to be available to describe any action. A case for beautiful immorality is made by Dostoevsky in Crime and Punishment, and a demonstration of the aesthetic appeal of evil is Macbeth. Generally, I would not find much beauty in law enforcement, which one must admit is moral action.

  • Doestovsky makes no such case - he destroys Raskalnikov. It's made quite obvious that a desperate Raskalnikov is rationalising his desperate act. In Act 5, Scene I of the drama Lady Macbeth enters sleepwalking - a device to examine her subconscience by a (Greek Chorus) comprising of a Doctor of Physic and a Waiting-Gentlewoman. Macbeth weeps over 'the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand' and that 'Hell is murky'. Commented Feb 19, 2013 at 1:21
  • At the end of the Scene the Chorus (the Doctor) pronounces 'Foul whisperings are abroad: unnatural deeds/Do breed unnatural troubles: infected minds/ To their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets:/ More needs she the divine than the physician'. There is no Beauty in this. The seductive, alluring promises of the witches are shown in their true light as foul whisperings that have murdered the soul of poor, valiant Macbeth. Commented Feb 19, 2013 at 1:27
  • Agreed, practical affairs are tedious; but they are not the realm of Moral law, it is elsewhere. Commented Feb 19, 2013 at 1:32

2 friends x and y are thieves. They steal the Queen's necklace. The police suspects them, catches x and explains that if he accepts his guilt, he will be saved by any means and only y will be punished. He does that. The Queen is happy. So is the World. They are deceived that there still remains goodness in the world. Thieves are still "moral" and there still is "beauty" in such "moral" acts. Now think of y. Does x's act appear, in any way, beautiful to him? So I think it depends on who is seeing.

  • But then I guess thief y probably doesn't consider x's act as moral either.
    – celtschk
    Commented Oct 7, 2012 at 13:34

Kant's ideas must have evolved in the context where there was no concept or belief of "evil" -- an arguably controversial concept, but that is the articulation point of morality with respect to it being beautiful. Eradicating evil isn't beautiful, but it is Just and therefore Moral.

  • 1
    Senses, that is the capability of not acting only according to the moral law, are the source of the radical evil in Kant, he clearly writes that in the Religion. Knowing Kant (or even bothering to source your claim) would have led you to not writing this.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 13:26

Discussing about moral (based on religion or ethics generally) are rather broad, but at least there is one thing we can hold on. It's not about "moral act has to be necessarily beautiful" or more and more ... . But at least moral act or ethics (to the specific extent) as far as we can try to accomplish, that we must "do not hurt yourself and do not harm anything involved with us" as good as we can do it.

There are number of definitions, categories for something to be considered "do not hurt yourself and do not harm anything involved with us". But the point is, this philosophy ("do not hurt yourself and do not harm anything involved with us") may be a start for us to ignite our creativity or to inspire our acts to do properly (whatever standard we use). Perhaps doing so, somehow we can put our acts in line with harmony and perhaps it looks like beautiful.

It's not about telling that goodness is not beautiful, or it's not about telling that moral acts has no relation with "has to be necessarily beautiful", but it's about placing our starting point at correct placement, and further the beauty on our acts will follow later, i hope :) .

Does a moral act have to be necessarily beautiful?

It's not direct answer, but it's the fact that moral act doesn't have to be necessarily beautiful. But the most important is:

  • To the farthest extent: that moral act must be in line with "do not hurt yourself and do not harm anything involved with us".

  • To the closest extent: that moral act must be in line with "do the best for others like we did the best for ourselves (relevantly)."

  • This answer seems to have nothing to do with Kant...
    – virmaior
    Commented Jun 13, 2016 at 6:42

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