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The Relevancy of Trust in Kant’s Theory of Moral Feeling

In Critique of Practical Reason, Immanuel Kant claims that there is a “moral feeling” that incentivizes people to adhere to the moral law. He calls this moral feeling respect. It is important to note that respect is a feeling that people can only direct towards other people, not things (202). When someone perceives someone else as having a higher degree of moral character than she has, the resulting experience is one of humiliation and deference. Initially, humiliation is a negative effect of the moral law because it infringes on how one views her personal worth (203), but the moral law also has a positive effect because it inspires the person to act in compliance with it.

In The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, Martin Heidegger expounds on Kant’s theory of moral feeling by clarifying that it is determined by reason, not sensibility (134). He goes on to explain how respect is a feeling that can be known a priori, and for this reason, it is not used to judge actions or “[substantiate] the objective moral law itself,” but rather, it is a tool used in incentivizing one to act in accordance with the moral law (134). Put simply, respect is a feeling based purely on reason—not empiricism—and therefore, it precedes judgment.

However, if respect incentivizes action prior to judgment, if “respect for the law, as a motive, first really constitutes the possibility of the action” (135), then it seems as if trust should also be a component of Kant’s theory of moral feeling. This is particularly relevant in Critique of Practical Reason when Kant claims that compliance with the moral law puts an “unavoidable constraint” on one’s “inclinations” and that one may be “reluctant” to pursue moral action (205). Most notably, he claims that there is no pleasure in submission to the law, but instead, there is actually “displeasure in the action” (205).

When the moral law is viewed from a more practical perspective, it is easy to see what Kant means by “displeasure” in this context. Imagine a president of a country, for example, who loses his seat in office after a democratic election. The moral action in this circumstance would be to obey the democratic process and concede to the winner, but this action is frustrating, disheartening, and certainly not pleasurable to do. Or imagine a soldier who takes issue with the battle that he has been asked to fight, knowing that if he does not fight, he will be killed for non-allegiance. In this example, the moral action is not only difficult to discern, but it could also result in his death.

In which case, submitting to the moral law can be more than just “not pleasurable,” it can also be fear-inducing. However, as Kant claims, moral action also “contains something elevating” (205). When one submits herself to the moral law, she is also submitting herself to herself, which in turn leads her to respect herself, resulting in a sense of elevation. Therefore, the moral path has two central components: (1) it leads people to the gift of an elevated spirit, but (2) it also forces them to confront the terror associated with loss, ostracization, or material denigration, among other risks. It is for this reason that trust has to be an important component of moral feeling. Why would someone risk her own life if she did not already trust the moral law wholeheartedly? When confronted by the moral law, the inevitable result is respect, but in order to act on that respect, one must also trust the moral law, knowing that the actions one takes may not be pleasurable.

Works Cited
Heidegger, Martin. The Basic Problems of Phenomenology. Translated by Albert Hofstadter, Indiana University Press, 1982.

Kant, Immanuel. “Critique of Practical Reason.” Practical Philosophy, translated and edited by Mary Gregor, Cambridge University Press, 1996.

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