Sense and Sensibility in Kant's Practical Agent: Against the Intellectualism of Korsgaard and Sidgwick



Abstract: Drawing on a wide range of Kant's recorded thought beyond his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, this essay presents an overview of Kant's account of practical agency as embodied practical agency and argues against the intellectualized interpretations of Kant's account of practical agency presented by Christine Korsgaard and Henry Sidgwick. In both Kant's empirical-psychological and metaphysical descriptions of practical agency, he presents a recognizably human practical agent that is broader and deeper than the faculty of reason alone. This agent chooses action from a reflective distance, but not from the complete affective distance of reason. We choose neither as reason alone, nor even as the sum of all of our ‘higher’ faculties, of cognition (including reason), feeling, and desire, in Kant's view. Instead, we choose as an agent that also has ‘lower’, ‘sensible’ faculties, of cognition (including sense), feeling, and desire, which together comprise our ‘sensibility’. These mental states of sensibility are not merely confused versions of our higher cognitions, feelings, or desires, and so different from them in degree only, but are instead distinct from our higher states in kind also; and these distinct sensible states are not dependent on our higher states and so on a commitment to the value of humanity, for example. For this reason, a choice in favour of sensible states and in opposition to the moral law need in no way undermine its own foundations and thus be incoherent, as Korsgaard and Sidgwick argue, but instead only immoral. Because Kant does not reduce the problem of immoral choice to one of insufficient reflection and ensuing confusion, he does not view moral progress in cognitive terms alone, whether in the form of a clearer understanding of the moral law, improved judgment in applying it, or deeper insight into our own nature as practical agents. Kant instead recognizes the crucial importance of cultivating our feelings and desires over the course of a lifetime both as a way to make ourselves worthy of the humanity within us directly and also as a way to facilitate future moral choices.