There is a tradition of common sense philosophy that rejects the possibility that reason is able to have or generate any interest by itself. Hume spoke for many when he said: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”[1] Like Hume, many people conceive of reason as separate from emotion, and needing the emotions in order to resolve upon a course of action, or even as playing no real part in how we decide. Think, for instance, of how readily the phrase “cold and calculating” is associated with “rational.” Think of how smoothly the Vulcans in Star Trek fit into our stereotype of the rational person: rational people are literally inhuman.

In this common sense view, reason is not meant to be free but to slave away for getting what we want as a kind of “living tool” (Aristotle’s definition of the slave). Reason then is an instrument for getting whatever it is we already happen to want, and it does so through problem-solving or troubleshooting whenever we encounter obstacles to our projects. For Max Horkheimer, it is no coincidence that instrumental reason has been put into the service of seeing people as tools, whether in the brutal form of totalitarian regimentation or the softer form of capitalist wage slavery.[2]

Today we will see how radically and vigorously Kant disagrees with this popular stereotype of instrumental reason and its Humean authorization, and we can do so by seeing why Kant thinks of reason itself as being desiderative without needing desiderata. It turns out that for Kant, reason itself is desire, but desire of a special kind that is anterior to any object we are externally determined to find appealing. Or, to use the Levinasian metaphor I used in the title of this post, practical reason (i.e., the will) is a kind of desire older than any desideratum. Much in the way that Plato says the Good surpasses being (and the lesser forms) in age and power, Kant says the desire for goodness is the source for desiderata of its own, what ought to be made real.[3]

Kant thinks that free will can determine itself independently of any object of desire, and resolve upon a course of action simply through a disinterested form or manner of desiring—that is, unconditionally good willing—and how this in turn means that the desire to be a good person is not something external to free will. It is pivotal for any deep understanding of Kantian morality to grasp that practical reason can set ends for itself without having to first acquire those ends from an external (pathological) source; although he alters the word order from time to time, Kant formulates this as “reason being of itself practical.” This is how I can make duty the determining basis of my will, without there having to be some end attached to the performance of that duty, some pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. This is how moral agency can be disinterested without being uninterested.

The key lies in Kant’s distinction between what he calls the lower power of desire and the higher power of desire. By higher desire Kant does not mean desires that yield more pleasure in a raw and strictly quantitative sense, which seems to be the operating stance of somebody like Bentham or the Cyrenaics, for whom all pleasures fall into the same scale. Nor does the higher power of desire signify the more refined stance of somebody like Mill—or as we’ll see in a second, Leibniz and Wolff—who demarcate qualitatively higher pleasures from lower ones, usually along the lines of the pleasures of the mind and those of the body. Contrary to all of these, by higher desire Kant means practical self-determination. The lower power of desire, on the other hand, is pathological inclination (whether mental, physical, or otherwise). Kant illustrates how intellectualism falls within the mercenary logic of the lower power of desire with some unusually evocative and concrete examples:

The same human being can return unread an instructive book that he cannot again obtain, in order not to miss a hunt; he can leave in the middle of a fine speech in order not to be late for a meal; he can leave an intellectual conversation, such as he otherwise values highly, in order to take his place at the gaming table; he can even repulse a poor man whom at other times it is a joy for him to benefit because he now has only enough money in his pocket to pay for his admission to the theater. If the determination of his will rests on the feeling of agreeableness or disagreeableness that he expects from some cause, it is all the same to him by what kind of representation he is affected. The only thing that concerns him, in order to decide upon a choice, is how intense, how long, and how easily acquired, and how often repeated this agreeableness is.[4]

The heteronomy definitive for the lower power of desire means that it is our usual standpoint, the standpoint where everything is for sale. This includes the intellectual pleasures of the Leibnizian ethics of perfection. One fascinating thing to note is that is that Kant includes “consciousness of our strength of soul in overcoming obstacles opposed to our plans” as one of the intellectual pleasures we can heteronomously desire through the lower power of desire.[5] This would be identical to his characterization of Stoic rigidity of will, and it has the subtle import that Kantian autonomy is not the hyper-individualism of mentally steeling yourself to always get your way, nor is it the pride of tenacity through adversity. Despite how easily his biography and his cantankerous tenor give that impression, self-denial is amoral for Kant, and sometimes we conflate this lower power of desire with morality itself.[6]

The salient difference is that with the lower power of desire we judge something to be good because we desire it, whereas with the higher power of desire we desire something because we judge it to be good.[7] As always, Kant cannot furnish any conclusive evidence that we ever actually succeed in desiring the good qua good, but if it is not conceivable that we could make this the determining basis of our will, autonomy would be impossible and therefore so would morality.[8] Freedom must be founded without ever being found. Indeed, strictly speaking, the hardness of abiding by the moral law cannot count as proof of free will (self-determination through practical reason), because nothing can, but also because as we saw earlier, being hard on oneself can be a sick pleasure (and thus spring out of the lower power of desire).

Kant calls this self-denial motivated by self-love moral enthusiasm, or as Pluhar’s translation more evocatively puts it, moral fanaticism.[9] Like the religious fanatic, the moral fanatic takes himself to be on a higher plane than the common run of humanity. The word for fanaticism (Schwärmerei) comes from the German “to swarm” (schwärmen), and like a swarm of bees or birds the fanatic is abuzz with fluttering feelings, roiling about and wreaking havoc. For Kant this ranting and raving is no innocent error, but the arrogance of thinking oneself equal to or above the moral law—that is, the Stoic boasting that virtue is easy and delightful—and this has to be struck down with the humbling comparison of one’s maxims to the moral law in all its austerity.[10]

The moral fanatic is incentivized to endure hardships for morality out of “ebullitions of feeling,”[11] but truly moral action can (and often does) lack this pathological sentimentality altogether. The thought of having done one’s duty often lacks warm fuzziness, and is instead cold comfort. I often think of this when friends mean to compliment me by remarking on what an honest person I am. I can’t help but think: isn’t that bare minimum?[12] So I don’t lie habitually. Whoop de doo.

Kant clarifies that the satisfaction (if we want to call it that) that comes from conscientious behavior is often unsatisfying, if not dissatisfying:

When an upright man is in the greatest distress, which he could have avoided if he could only have disregarded duty, is he not sustained by the consciousness that he has maintained humanity in its proper dignity in his own person and honored it, that he has no cause to shame himself in his own eyes and to dread the inward view of self-examination? This consolation is not happiness, not even the smallest part of it. For, no one would wish the occasion for it on himself, or perhaps even a life in such circumstances. But he lives and cannot bear to be unworthy of life in his own eyes. This inner tranquility is therefore merely negative with respect to everything that can make life pleasant; it is, namely, only warding off the danger of sinking in personal worth, after he has given up completely the worth of his condition. It is the effect of a respect for something in comparison and contrast with which life with all its agreeableness has no worth at all. He still lives only from duty, not because he has the least taste for living.[13]

The empirical blandness of dutifulness is instructive in multiple ways. For one thing, it underscores how mysterious self-determination is, how it surpasses the intelligibility that comes from there being conditions that trigger decisions. Kant’s distinction in the passage above between person and condition emphasizes that even when there is no material, social, or even emotional benefit to being a good person—no better state of things into which I enter—I can make my character matter to me more than any condition I could enjoy. Everything depends on seeing how making integrity matter to myself does not come automatically. I can and often do easily disavow self-respect as being unimportant to me. Despite conscience being an inalienable feature of all moral agents, people ignore their conscience all the time through various socially acceptable strategies, as Tolstoy argues in “Why Do People Stupefy Themselves?” [14]

Empirical self-tranquilization is not the same as the moral tranquility of true self-respect, which can only be had by behaving with integrity, that is, through the self-consistent free behavior codified in the moral law and intuitively knowable to us all through the simple question, “What if everybody did that?” (the categorical imperative). This means that there are no shortcuts to self-respect, no ways of gaming the system of moral agency to get tranquility through the lower power of desire, without honest and autonomous self-determination. To quote one of Kant’s favorite authors, “Long is the way/And hard that out of Hell leads up to light.”[15]

Moral fanaticism is an attempt to bypass the narrow path of duty, to get the end of self-respect before one’s conscience without the process of conscientiousness. It sees righteousness merely as a means to self-righteousness, and ironically thereby loses sight of genuine selfhood. The moral fanatic reifies himself through self-conceit: he thinks of character like an object he can get out of a certain way of behaving, and in so doing misconceives of personhood as a kind of condition. The moral fanatic engages in morality for the sense of superiority it gives him, but Kant stresses that a dutiful mindset often makes us feel quite the opposite of superior. The moral fanatic is looking at himself as if from the outside, as though the story of his moral striving is already finished and all he has to do is enjoy each installment of as it comes out. The act of comparing oneself to the moral law, by humbling us and striking down our self-conceit, unfreezes the moral fanatic’s flash-frozen self-conception.[16]

Personality is not a plaything, for it is not a thing at all; the non-objectifiability of the soul returns here as the idea of character as something to be perpetually enacted, not something premade and fated to unfold. It is unbedingt—unconditioned, unthinged, and uncertain. The higher power of desire—the capacity to desire to be a good person for its own sake, and not simply use one’s personhood merely as a means to bask in “ebullitions of feeling”—acts independently of any object or objectification, for it is self-subjection to the moral law and ipso facto self-subjectification.

Most people ignore how Kant says that duty’s source is personality—Persönlichkeit, personhood itself—and so the moral law is the idea in codified form of the completely good disposition or character, or the good will that Kant identifies at the beginning of the Groundwork as unconditionally valuable.[17] By thinking of a good will through the metaphor of law we attend to its lack of exemptions, the unconditional necessity of what must be and what we must be to enact it. This is the meontic dimension of the moral law: the ought transcends the is. The Good surpasses being in both age and power. This power is not power as we usually define it, in terms of violence or the power to determine others; it is the power of self-determination, the higher power of desire. It is practical reason’s capacity to rule itself (autonomy), to not have to look to any inclination to tell it what to decide.

Reason is not passion’s slave, as Hume would have it, for Kant holds that there is another way of desiring that is free and freeing. The more one sees that one is free in and through desiring in this way, the stronger one’s desire for integrity becomes. The desire older than desiderata is the desire to live for the calling of good character, the moral vocation whose infinity we are just beginning to appreciate.


[1] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Book II, Sec. III.iii

[2] Max Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason

[3] Plato, Republic 509b. Eventually I would like develop this thought more, using some excellent connections observed by T.K. Seung. T.K. Seung, Kant’s Platonic Revolution in Moral and Political Philosophy. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1994. Pages 62-63: “The theoretical Ideas of perfection concern the existence of objects, such as the existence of the most perfect being, but the practical Ideas of perfection do not concern the existence of objects. …The pure concepts of the understanding are for describing what is; the Ideas of pure reason are for prescribing what ought to be. What ought to be can never be derived or deduced from what is; normative standards can never be set by positive facts. Kant takes this point as central in Plato’s theory of Forms as archetypes. He recognizes two conceptions of normative standard: normative positivism and normative transcendentalism. Normative positivism treats normative standards as social facts, such as positive law or conventional reality. On the other hand, normative transcendentalism claims that ultimate normative standards transcend all social facts. Kant looks upon Plato as the father of normative transcendentalism.” The aprioricity of the formal principle of morality (the moral law) is the anteriority of the Idea of the Good, whose demanding relevance is evergreen, its antiquity to all that exists lasting in the eternity to which all are called to be free together (see esp. Seung’s reading of Critique of Pure Reason A316/B373, Seung p. 63). The Good for Plato—the moral law (and its Lawgiver, God) for Kant—is treated as if it were Source from which all things proceed and the Destiny to which they return.

[4] Kant, 5:23, Critique of Practical Reason p. 157

[5] Kant, 5:24, Critique of Practical Reason p. 157

[6] A helpful corrective to this common misreading comes through the things Kant has to say about aesthetics and moral cultivation. See §53 of the Tugendlehre: “The rules for practicing virtue (exercitiorum virtutis) aim at a frame of mind that is both valiant and cheerful in fulfilling its duties (animus strenuous et hilaris). For, virtue not only has to muster all its forces to overcome the obstacles it must contend with; it also involves sacrificing many of the joys of life, the loss of which can sometimes make one’s mind gloomy and sullen. But what is not done with pleasure but merely as compulsory service has no inner worth for one who attends to his duty in this way and such service is not loved by him; instead, he shirks as much as possible occasions for practicing virtue.” Kant, 6:484, Metaphysics of Morals in Practical Philosophy, op. cit., p. 597

[7] For confirmation of this, see how Kant says that if we were to define morality through a material principle, then good would just mean good for getting something else (i.e., well-being, happiness). Kant, 5:62, Critique of Practical Reason p. 190.

[8] Kant, 5:24, Critique of Practical Reason p. 158: “The principle of one’s own happiness, however much understanding and reason may be used in it, still contains no determining ground for the will other than such as is suitable to the lower faculty of desire; and thus either there is no higher faculty of desire at all or else pure reason must be practical of itself and alone, that is, it must be able to determine the will by the mere form of a practical rule without presupposing any feeling and hence without any representation of the agreeable or disagreeable as the matter of the faculty of desire, which is always an empirical condition of principles.”

[9] Kant, 5:85-86, Critique of Practical Reason p. 209

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 5:85, Critique of Practical Reason pp. 208-209

[12] Immanuel Kant, 8:269-270, “On the Miscarriage of All Philosophical Trials in Theodicy,” in Religion and Rational Theology, trans. and ed. Allen W. Wood and George di Giovanni. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. 1996. Pages 35-36.

[13] Kant, 5:88, Critique of Practical Reason, pp. 210-211

[14] For this reason, Kant draws a distinction between conscience (Gewissen), and conscientiousness (Gewissenshaftigkeit) as the degree to which one has accustomed oneself or unaccustomed oneself to adhere to the deliverances of one’s conscience. See Kant, 6:400-401, Metaphysics of Morals pp. 529-530.

[15] John Milton, Paradise Lost II.432-433, ed. Gordon Teskey. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company. 2005. Page 38.

[16] See Kant 5:86, Critique of Practical Reason, p. 209. Whereas Arendt thinks of Platonic Ideas as statically frozen and in need of metaphysically deflationary thinking to restore dynamicity to our lives, Kant thinks the transcendental normativity of the Platonic Idea (of a free republic) thought through reason (Vernunft) is what “unfreezes” the solidified determinacy of quotidian understanding (Verstand). Hannah Arendt, “Thinking and Moral Considerations,” in Responsibility and Judgment, p. 176.

[17] Ibid., 5:86-87, pp. 209-210.