184. Some Common Grounds for Moral Duty and Beauty

Our experiences of beauty and duty appear to be very different. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), in his book Critique of Judgment, argued that judgments of the beautiful must be “disinterested.” This means that we make these judgments (1) without concern for the truth; (2) without concern for using the object to satisfy our appetites; and, more importantly for our purposes here, (3) without concern for the moral goodness of the object. In a disinterested judgment we do have an interest. But we are interested in the form of the beautiful object for its own sake.

When it comes to moral judgments things are different. In his Critique of Practical Reason Kant claims we have a “good will” when we choose to put aside all our selfish concerns and do our duty to the moral law or categorical imperative (command with no exceptions). One formulation of this law is: Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law. If we do our duty to this moral law we can do the right thing.

Thus we cannot have a disinterested perspective in morality since disinterestedness precludes any moral dimension. To be sure, some might not draw a distinction between beauty and morality in this fashion. But Kant’s distinction between, on the one hand, beauty as something with no moral dimension at all that we appreciate for its own sake and, on the other hand, morality which we undertake out of duty for the sake of the moral law, has been very influential and, because it is so extreme, offers us an interesting challenge: can we find some common ground between beauty and moral duty despite their differences? Here are three possibilities for your consideration.


One way we can think about this common ground is to show how both relate to freedom. According to Kant we need to postulate free will if we are to act morally at all. Kant famously asserted that “an ought implies a can”. This means that if we give people prescriptions—if we say they ought to do things—then we must believe they have the power to do or not do those things: they must be free and not determined or necessitated to act the way they do by the laws of nature. After all, if people are determined it would senseless to morally condemn them for acting the way they do, punish them for chosen deeds, praise them, etc.

When we turn to beauty we see that freedom plays a crucial role as well. A lot of what we perceive in our media-saturated world is a function of manipulative stimuli that leads to addiction and thoughtlessness. But judgments of the beautiful activate what Kant refers to as “a free play of the imagination” in which we can dwell on what fits or doesn’t fit, what works, what is interesting, and so on. We rationally consider alternatives and therefore experience ourselves as rational agents that possess freedom. And we can return to beautiful things without becoming addicted or diminished. Indeed, we can always find something new in them and, far from becoming more servile to them, become more autonomous in their presence.

Of course in aesthetic perception this freedom is not yoked to the moral law and so we are not in the realm of morality. But the freedom revealed so vividly in the presence of beauty can make us aware that we are indeed free beings. And this realization can inform our moral life since freedom, as we have seen, is a requirement for moral action. So freedom is one way we can connect beauty to morality despite their stark differences.

Inherent Value

There is a second way we might connect the two. As we have seen, Kant argues judgments of the beautiful allow us to appreciate things with inherent worth that are not a means to an end only. And this notion of inherent value plays a role in his moral theory as well. Consider his second categorical imperative: Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as means only. Here we see that any action that fails to recognize people’s inherent value by using them as a means only (e.g., rape, slavery, stealing, sexual trafficking, etc.) is categorically unacceptable. Thus understanding the inherent value of beautiful things can prime us to understand the inherent value of people and vice versa.


There is yet another way we can connect beauty and moral duty. Consider this passage from Kant’s Critique of Judgment (Hackett):

“However, taste is basically an ability to judge the [way in which] moral ideas are made sensible ([it judges this] by means of a certain analogy in our reflection about [these ideas and their renderings in sensibility]); the pleasure that taste declares valid for mankind as such and not just for each person’s private feeling must indeed derive from this [link] and from the resulting increase in our receptivity for the feeling that arises from moral ideas (and is called moral feeling). Plainly, then, the propaedeutic that will truly establish our taste consists in developing moral ideas and in cultivating moral feeling; for only when sensibility is made to harmonize with this feeling can genuine taste take on a definite, unchangeable form.” (232)

Here we see Kant making a connection between the universality we experience in judgments of beauty and the universality we experience in morality. According to Kant, when we judge something to be beautiful we don’t think it is merely a statement of what we find to be personally agreeable. We don’t think, despite the fact that aesthetic judgments are about feelings and not universal concepts, that our judgment is a matter of subjective feelings alone. No, we place the beautiful object on a pedestal so to speak and try to convince others that they should feel as we do in its presence. Thus Kant argues that if we hold something to be beautiful we think it should be held universally so: beautiful for everyone, everywhere, at all times. If one doesn’t think this then one isn’t making a judgment of the beautiful but rather a judgment about what is personally agreeable. To be sure, Kant is not saying people do, in fact, agree about what is beautiful. He is only saying that judgments of the beautiful entail the belief that others should experience what we experience.

Kant grounds this prescription with reference to our common sense. In his Critique of Pure Reason he argues that our minds are not passive receivers of sense data but actively structure incoming data to make our experience what it is. For example, he argues that all humans experience the world as a system of cause and effect relations because our mind structures the events of our experience as causal ones. This shared capacity to actively shape sense data is our common sense. This common sense plays a role in shaping the world as we know it in science. But it also allows people to feel the same way about objects they take to be beautiful: in the presence of certain forms our shared mental faculties will resonate the same way if we can be disinterested and not allow our appetites, moral views, and concerns about truth into our judgment. Thus it is by virtue of sharing the same mental operating system that we can expect others to necessarily agree with our judgments of the beautiful. In any case, the experience of beauty, as the above quotation shows, helps us become aware of, and reflect upon, something “valid for mankind as such and not just for each person’s private feeling.”

This obviously connects to morality since, as we have also seen, morality is a matter of following a categorical imperative which, as categorical, should hold for everyone at all times. This is a “moral idea” for Kant: the idea of participating in something universal that allows us to accommodate our actions to other rational agents and transcend our selfishness. The experience of beauty as something which requires universality can thus facilitate the experience of moral ideas.

Edward Carpenter explores these dimensions of universality in his 1904 book the Art of Creation (George Allen and Unwin, 1927 edition). He first discusses duty and how it helps us experience a sense of unity with our fellow humans:

“And I take it that it is much the same with the sense of Duty. Much has been written about the Categoric imperative and the stern Daughter and the voice of God. It is sufficient to see that such expressions point towards a transcendent consciousness, without feeling it necessary to accept all they imply. The sense of Duty derives primarily and essentially from the sense (and the fact) of oneness between ourselves and our fellows. Structurally and through the centuries it may grow and be built up in forms of laws and customs and out of lower motives of Fear and Conformity; but ultimately and in all these forms it is the Common Life and unity.” (200)

He then connects beauty to duty and makes the interesting suggestion that love may be the ultimate common ground of both. I will close with his thought-provoking question:

“In the end it is this sense of Oneness, and of the One Life, which underlies these two [duty and beauty], and perhaps many other enthusiasms; and may we not think that both Duty and Beauty, the sense of Morality and the sense of Art, when they at last realize their own meaning, are taken up and surrender themselves in an Idea of an even higher order, namely that of Love?” (201)

For my more in-depth account of beauty and its relation to freedom, go here.

For some thoughts on moral duty and love, go here.

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