Kant notoriously rejects the utilitarian model of a supreme principle of beneficence, but he still finds a vital place in the moral life for beneficence. He seeks universally valid principles (or maxims) of duty, and beneficence is one such principle. A motive of benevolence based on sentiment—so admired by Hume—is morally unworthy in Kant's theory unless the motive behind benevolent action is a motive of duty.

Emphasis mine. What is this (incomplete) rejection of the virtue of benevolence based in? Especially interested in a reply which glosses "sentiment" to 'cognition', if that is possible.


For Kant motives other than duty are morally unworthy. He held this view, because these other kinds of motives depend upon some condition. He calls them hypothetical imperatives. They generally have the form:

If you want object x and action h is sufficient for x, you have to do h.

But these imperatives are always dependent on our desire for x which might be recognition from others, pleasure or a place in heaven. Kant argues that moral laws cannot depend on specific desires, but they are categorical. This means they are obligating on every rational being without exception.

Applied to your specific case, I have a quote from the Critique of Practical Reason, First Chapter §8:

the happiness of other beings can be the object of a rational being's will. But if it were the maxim's determining basis, then one would have to presuppose that we find not only a natural gratification in the well-being of others but also a need, such as the sympathetic mentality brings with it in human beings. But this need I cannot presuppose in every rational being (and in God not at all).

Therefore the mere form of a law, which restricts the matter, must at the same time be a basis for adding this matter to the will, but not for presupposing it. Let the matter be, for example, my own happiness. This happiness, if I attribute it to every one (as in fact I may in the case of finite beings), can become an objective practical law only if I include in it also the happiness of others. Therefore the law to further the happiness of others arises not from the presupposition that this is an object for everyone's power of choice, but merely from [the fact] that the form of universality, which reason requires as condition for giving to a maxim of self-love the objective validity of a law, becomes the determining basis of the will.


Kant did not reject the virtue of benevolence. He embraced it. He did argue that benevolence ought to be based on a sense of duty, rather than on mere sentiment (feeling, desire).

To be beneficent when we can is a duty; and besides this, there are many minds so sympathetically constituted that, without any other motive of vanity or self-interest, they find a pleasure in spreading joy around them and can take delight in the satisfaction of others so far as it is their own work. But I maintain that in such a case an action of this kind, however proper, however amiable it may be, has nevertheless no true moral worth, but is on a level with other inclinations, e.g., the inclination to honour, which, if it is happily directed to that which is in fact of public utility and accordant with duty and consequently honourable, deserves praise and encouragement, but not esteem. For the maxim lacks the moral import, namely, that such actions be done from duty, not from inclination. (Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals "I. Transition from the common rational knowledge of morality to the philosophical.")

The point of benevolence as duty is that one acts from the free part of one's nature. Sentiments (feelings, desires) one just happens to have. They are not freely chosen.

It is in this manner, undoubtedly, that we are to understand those passages of Scripture also in which we are commanded to love our neighbour, even our enemy. For love, as an affection, cannot be commanded, but beneficence for duty's sake may. (Ibid.)


There is no one, not even the most consummate villain, provided only that he is otherwise accustomed to the use of reason, who, when we set before him examples of ... sympathy and general benevolence ... does not wish that he might also possess these qualities ... He proves by this that he transfers himself in thought with a will free from the impulses of the sensibility into an order of things wholly different from that of his desires. (Ibid. "How is a Categorical Imperative Possible?")

  • i downoted cos you don't seem to have read the question before answering, which is a really tiresome habit on this stackexchange. your correction of the question ("He did argue that benevolence ought to be based on a sense of duty, rather than on mere sentiment") is already clearly expressed in the question – user6917 Feb 4 '17 at 19:45
  • @MATHEMETICIAN You have judged me wrong. I have read the question, and answered directly to it. And who gave you the right to edit my answer? – Ram Tobolski Feb 4 '17 at 19:58
  • there's no need to be offended, i edited the answer because it gave a false impression of the question. my aplogies if you didn't understand it – user6917 Feb 4 '17 at 19:59
  • when i say "What was Kant's rejection of the virtue of benevolence based in?" in no way do i mean what was kant's rejection of all benevolence based in, or even what was kant's complete rejection of the virtue of benevolence based in. as that's not obvious, i apologise, but it's easier to edit the answer than the question, which already has another answer – user6917 Feb 4 '17 at 20:03
  • 1
    @MATHEMETICIAN It's alright. – Ram Tobolski Feb 5 '17 at 17:38

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy