Humean and Kantian Moral Psychology

Is morality determined by sympathy or reason? This has been a topic of discussion in philosophical circles for centuries. Bennett, Kant and Hume are some of the notable philosophers who try to answer this question albeit the different positions they take. Bennett describes ‘sympathy’ as any sort of feelings; both of pain towards suffering or compassion towards pain, directed towards another individual. There is a contradiction between Hume’s, Kant’s and Bennett’s views on morality.

Hume notes that true moral motivation lies on an individual’s inherent capacity to sympathize with his fellow humans, hence purely on sympathy. Kant however claims that love and sympathy do not in any way have moral worth, but the true source of moral worth is rationality, Kant, 1788. Bennett on the other hand sees a relation between sympathy and moral judgment asserting that both aspects play the critical roles on human moral judgment. Although Bennett does not take a position, he supports both sides by taking a middle ground, which is both rationality and sympathy, have key roles in morality.

To Bennett, although sympathy only refers to feelings towards another person’s predicament, it may compel one to act towards helping someone in distress. He gives an example of Twain’s presentation of Huckleberry Finn, who tries to help Jim, a slave, escape from his owner Miss Watson. Although Finn contravenes the generally accepted principles of the times by taking away Jim from his legal owner, both his sympathy and his personal moral judgment drive him to help Jim though his conscience haunts him.

When he later on decides to turn Jim to the authorities, which to him is morally correct, he is faced with a dilemma between his morality and sympathy. However, Finn’s sympathy wins over his morality when he assists Jim to escape, Singer, (1994). In this case it is evident that sympathy, though not entirely responsible for sound moral judgment as Hume claims, plays a critical role in the process of making sound judgment. Since Finn is bound by both the law and the fear of punishment if found helping a Negro, he is morally justified in turning Jim in to the authorities.

His sympathy however wins enabling him to make sound judgment, although to him this is morally incorrect. From the above illustration, Kant is also not justified in his claim that all desires and emotions (sympathy included) should be eliminated for one to make solid moral judgments, Kant, 1788. Hume sees morality as being equivalent to concern for other’s well being hence founded on sympathy. He also sees sympathy and empathy as the means though which good morality is achieved, Bennett notes that sympathy and both bad and good morality may at times contradict to a given proportion.

Giving an example of a sick crying child taken to the doctor, obviously, the mother has feelings of sympathy towards the sick child, but also has a moral obligation to hand the child over to the doctor, the two aspects are contradicting in this case. It is imperative to note that it is Bennett’s assertion that there will always be conflict between bad morality and sympathy is a fact supported by both Kant and Hume. Bennett gives an example of Himmler, a Nazi Secret Service (SS) chief, to illustrate bad morality’s inherent conflict with sympathy.

Himmler’s policies are extremely evil hence he finds it difficult to win the sympathy of even his fellow Nazi SS generals. Himmler unknowingly asserts that it is not easy to act in violation of our sympathies by committing atrocities against fellow humans, and yet still gain dignity, Singer, (1994). He further notes that it takes great courage and strength to maintain ones sympathies while violating those very sympathies. Citing Himmler’s personal physician, Bennett illustrate that Himmler, despite his great power and evil morality, had sympathy for the Jews to be exterminated.

But even though this caused, within him, great conflicts evidenced by numerous nervous breakdowns and stress related physical disabilities, his morality wins over sympathy because he sees the exterminations as obligatory. Similarly, Kant also sees a man with bad morality as a man living with instincts as opposed to reason hence will never be at peace with himself. He asserts just like Bennett that man may never know peace and happiness without good morality, though to him morality is only attainable through an act of pure reasoning and not sympathy or emotions.

To him, enjoyment and true contentment in life are synonymous with reason. Hume also sees all men as possessing similar emotions and feelings, hence affection as a true unifying factor of humanity. This, he therefore claims is the true foundation of not only morality, but true peace of mind. In my opinion, using Himmler’s case as an example, although he tried to suppress any forms of sympathy by exuberating courage, lack of peace of mind in him is evident. Himmler tries to justify his evil actions as not his liking but obligations presented to him by the state.

This is not a justifiable claim. Exemplifying Kant who notes that that however ‘dutiful’ or ‘amiable’ one may be, ones actions must be a true reflection of true morality, Keating, (2007). Furthermore Kant presents a description exemplifying Himmler’s circumstances by noting that nature has provided humans with sympathy to assist man not to be unsympathetic and indifferent to human suffering. Suppose one ignores the inherent sympathies then in Kant’s words he ‘should not be the meanest product of nature’ Kant, 1778 p.

g 127 a clear illustration that Himmler is not justified in his claim that he is duty bound exterminating the Jews. This point also illustrates that although Kant do not accept sympathy as a determining factor of good morality, he has nonetheless internalized the fact as evidenced by his statement. Kant sees morality based on emotions as untrue as it originates from a complex constitution of an individual’s interpretation of his own feelings, Sherman, (1990). He notes that, just like climatic conditions which presents different experiences to different persons, virtue and vice are just but perceptions of the mind.

Unless one completely ignores his sympathy, the guilt and embrace true reason, true standard morality cannot be attained. Kant therefore concludes that only good will can be justified as good, otherwise all the other human qualities including morality and sympathy cannot be justified. Likewise, Bennett acknowledges that even though there is no standard way of distinguishing between ‘bad morality’ and a good one, though to him, actions which constitute ‘good morality’ are universally accepted.

He further asserts that he is not in any way justified in claiming that his morality, or the morality of the majority for that matter, are a true representation of good morality as someone acting in accordance to a set of principles he sincerely believes in have a morality of his own as he acts in obedience to his conscience. Bennett continues his discussion by asserting that are cases in which sympathy is totally ignored in the face and strong belief in morality. Illustrating the case of Jonathan Edwards, who advocated for the eternal condemnation of sinners.

Although a reverend, Edwards is of the view that man deserves eternal suffering and death in the pits of hell as God’s anger is provoked by the sins of men. Analyses of his writings show that Jonathan has neither sympathy for sinners nor considerations towards the painful experiences they are likely to undergo in hell. Bennett sees that, Jonathan is wrong in his presentation of God not only as one who hates people ‘misanthropic’ but also one who is not sympathetic to human suffering. Similarly, Kant cannot comprehend a God who makes observation on human affairs and who works on the principle of reward and punishment, Singer, (1994).

Bennett further asserts that sympathies can serve to control our morality especially when moral principles become unsound, in which case one may be forced to modify or abolish principles all together. He gives an illustration of the experiences of a soldier turned poet Wilfred Owen. Owen sees a fellow soldier die painfully from poisonous gas during First World War and sympathizes with him to an extent that he is forced to amend the principle ‘it was prudent to die for ones country’ that he has believed in for a long time. Principles are therefore not factual.

Kant asks whether virtue and vice are matters of fact. To him, sympathy and certain emotional behaviors which are not a foundation of human morality since they cannot be justified by reason, even though, to him reason is the ruler of human will provided for by nature, Kant, 1788. Both Hume and Bennett further affirm that sympathies should not be overlooked but should be kept as sharp and sensitive as possible as they in most cases serve to guide both our principles and conduct. Kant also argues that human morality is shaped by reason which is an inherent constitution of an individual’s worth.

However, Hume views reason as completely inert and not a true motivator to human morality. It is in my view that both Kant and Hume are to a degree right as both reason and emotions constitute human morality just as asserted by Bennett. From the presentation above, Bennett illustrates his arguments demonstrate his analysis on sympathy by using the cases of Huck Finn’s experience with slavery, Heinrich Himmler with genocide, Jonathan Edwards with eternal damnation and Horace with death and human suffering and generally takes the position that both sympathy and reason constitute moral judgments.

Kant sees reason as the only practical faculties given by nature to determine highest form of good morality hence emotions have no place in determining true morality. It is self evident from the discussion above that both rationality and sympathy are determinants of human morality. When faced with a dilemma both rationality and sympathy will always play a critical role in every man’s actions.


Singer, P. (1994) (ed. ), Ethics (in the Oxford Readers series), Oxford University Press, (ISBN 0192892452) 1. Item 34 Kant (pdf) 2. Item 76 Bennett (pdf) Ethics (ed. ), Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1994


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