Kantian Aesthetics and Morality: A Comparison of the Beautiful and the Sublime

by David Fan

At the start of Critique of Judgment, Immanuel Kant presents to us the “great chasm that separates the supersensible from the appearances.”[1] Commentators have suggested that in Kant’s preceding works, Critique of Pure Reason and Critique of Practical Reason, Kant was not able to solve the problem that lies in the separation of the supersensible realm of reason from the phenomenal realm of nature, since our freedom as rational moral agents appeared to him to be independent from the natural law of causality.[2] Therefore, it seems that Kant aimed to bridge this separation in Critique of Judgment, through his analyses of the beautiful and the sublime. 

In this essay, I will argue that, by Kant’s account, both judgments of taste (the beautiful and the sublime) indirectly support our moral agency (i.e., our capability to make moral judgments), despite the phenomenological differences between the two aesthetic categories. Firstly, I will outline the differences between Kant’s account of the beautiful and the sublime. Secondly, I will discuss the moral significance Kant attributes to the different experiences of beauty and sublimity. Finally, I will examine the problem of the sublime as an aesthetic/moral category, given its close link to morality.

I. Comparison of the beautiful and the sublime

According to Kant, both the beautiful and the sublime are aesthetic judgments, and are therefore subjective.[3] Both aesthetic categories must satisfy the requirements of the four ‘Moments’; namely  quality, quantity, relation, and modality.[4] The differences between the beautiful and the sublime lie in the specific ways in which they each satisfy those requirements. Using Paul Guyer’s approach, I will now compare the beautiful and the sublime in reference to each of the four Moments.[5]

(i) Quality

The moment of quality is the requirement that an aesthetic judgment must be without interest.[6] To be without interest means that one must make an aesthetic judgment without an end purpose, such as gratification of desire or respect for the moral good.

Judgments of taste satisfy the moment of quality through their disinterestedness. To be disinterested one must be “indifferent…with regard to the existence of the object.”[7] This means that one simply takes pleasure in the reflection and contemplation of the object, without judging it based on desire or conceptual ends dependent on the existence of the object. Through the disinterested approach, the beautiful provides an occasion for free play between the faculties of imagination and understanding, without the constraints of desire and conceptual rules.[8] In judgments of taste, one feels pleasure through such harmony of the faculties.

In contrast, the feeling of the sublime satisfies the moment of quality through its opposition to interest. According to Kant, “the beautiful prepares us to love something…without interest; the sublime, to esteem it, even contrary to our (sensible) interest.”[9] Thus, the sublime is not merely indifferent to interest but must be opposed to it. It is precisely the failure of the sublime to meet our sensible interest—through its limitlessness (mathematical sublime) or might (dynamical sublime)—that it strains the faculty of imagination and causes a feeling of displeasure. Yet through such an experience, a feeling of pleasure then arises—when our reason surpasses nature’s vastness or might—through which we become aware of our supersensible volitions. Therefore, when confronted with the sublime, one feels a mixture of pain and pleasure, through the conflict between the faculties of imagination and reason.

(ii) Relation

The moment of relation is the requirement that an aesthetic judgment must be grounded in subjective purposiveness.[10]In essence, something is purposive if one can grasp its existence only on the assumption that it was produced for an end, and without knowing the content of that end.[11] Judgments of taste satisfy the moment of relation in the “form of the purposiveness of an object, insofar as it is perceived in it without representation of an end.”[12] The beautiful must appear purposive in its form, but not relate to a determinate purpose. For example, a shell is beautiful in its form (in terms of shape, colour, or texture), as though it has been created with some sort of intention. Yet this intention is indeterminate in that one cannot relate its form to a clear purpose. It is through such purposiveness without a purpose in the form of the beautiful object that contemplative free play is possible.

In contrast, the sublime appears “in its form to be contrapurposive” and therefore “unsuitable for our faculty of presentation.”[13] The object of sublime is formless and thus our imagination does not apprehend it as purposive. However, this inadequacy of imagination leads the mind to abandon sensibility and turn to ideas of reason for comprehension. It is precisely this shift from sensibility to ideas of reason (which Kant terms “movement of the mind”) that is subjectively purposive, rather than the form of the object itself.[14] The sublime thus satisfies the moment of relation through its subjective purposiveness towards our supersensible being.

(iii) Quantity and Modality

The moments of quantity and modality are concerned with the universality and necessity of aesthetic judgments, respectively.[15] Although Kant claims that both the beautiful and the sublime are universally valid and necessary, he outlines the way in which they differ:

There are innumerable things in beautiful nature concerning which we immediately require consensus with our own judgment from everyone else…but we cannot promise ourselves that our judgment concerning the sublime in nature will so readily find acceptance by others. For a far greater culture…[and] the cognitive faculties on which that is based, seems to be requisite in order to make a judgment about [the sublime].[16]

Compared with judgments of taste, whose universal communicability is immediately founded on ‘common sense’, judgments of the sublime require culture (to a greater extent), and an adequate grasp of moral ideas.[17] However, Kant adds that “just because judgment on the sublime in nature requires culture…it is not therefore first generated by culture…rather it has its foundation in human nature……namely in the predisposition in the feeling for [moral] idea.”[18] In other words, the sublime is universally valid and necessary in an a priori sense, in that we share the same cognitive foundations from which we experience the feeling of sublime.[19]

II. Moral significance of the beautiful and the sublime

After examining the different ways in which judgments of the beautiful and the sublime satisfy the four moments, I turn now to a discussion of their moral significance. For Kant, morality is based on the principle of the ‘Categorical Imperative’, which he sees as being “an objective, rationally necessary and unconditional principle that we must always follow despite any natural desires or inclinations we may have to the contrary.”[20] Kant asserts that, as rational agents, our self-governing reason creates its own laws, independent from the natural law of causality. Kant attempts to mediate this gap between morality and nature through his discussion of aesthetic judgments.[21] Without further discussion on Kant’s moral philosophy per se, I will examine the relationships between the aesthetic categories and morality, and explain how the beautiful and the sublime indirectly support a cultivation of moral feelings.

Kant claims that beauty elicits “sensations that contain something analogical to the consciousness of a mental state produced by moral judgments.”[22] In other words, Kant asserts that judgments of taste have psychological characteristics which are analogous to that of moral judgments. Kant specifically lists four of these characteristics to be: immediacy, disinterestedness, freedom, and universality.[23] In particular, the disinterestedness of judgments of taste prepares us to be indifferent to our desires and natural inclinations, which is also necessary for moral judgments. Kant explains this notion further; asserting that “[t]aste as it were makes possible the transition from sensible charm to the habitual moral interest without too violent a leap…teaching us to find a free satisfaction in the objects of the senses even without any sensible charm.”[24] Here, Kant suggests that judgments of taste provide an easier alternative to moral judgments in reaching the disinterested state of mind, given their sensuous pleasure. The affective responses in experiencing the beautiful saturate the mind with harmonious thoughts, and this process leads to cultivation of a loving disposition.[25] In addition, the universality of aesthetic judgments allows us to acknowledge others as subjects like ourselves, and thus promotes respect for others.[26] This indirect route of judgments of taste prepares one for the more difficult task of superseding one’s personal interests, which is a requirement for Kant’s account of morality.[27] Therefore, aesthetic experiences of the beautiful indirectly support an interest in morality.

Furthermore, Paul Crowther suggests that beauty has a metaphysical connection with morality, and that this has moral significance in itself.[28] His interpretation of Kant holds that judgments of taste must be founded on an a priori, supersensible ground just like morality, since, according to Kant, they are universally valid.[29] Given this supersensible ground, judgments of taste are brought closer to our moral beings, away from sensuous particularities of objects. Despite the complex interactions between the sensible and the supersensible faculties, the pleasure we gain from judgments of taste is an indication that there is, to some extent, harmony between the sensible and supersensible realms. This bridging between the sensible and the supersensible is morally significant as it suggests that our moral agency is not completely separate from nature—or, at the very least, suggests that the law of causality in nature is not necessarily in conflict with our moral ends.[30]

On the other hand, the sublime has an even stronger connection with our supersensible being, through which we become conscious of our moral vocations. For Kant, the inadequacy of imagination in the feeling of the sublime “awakens the feeling of a supersensible faculty in us,”[31] and reveals reason’s “capacity for judging ourselves as independent of…and a superiority over nature.”[32] Our ability to comprehend ideas of reason (e.g., the concept of infinity) beyond the limits of imagination and sensibility suggests the superiority of reason over nature. Through experiences of the sublime, we are able to confront nature’s infinite magnitude and overwhelming power with our reason, against our natural fear. This feeling is analogous to moral feelings—similar to the disinterestedness in judgments of taste. However, instead of indifference in disinterestedness, the very opposition against natural inclinations in the feeling of sublime creates a closer parallel to morality, wherein Kant argues that “reason must exercise dominion over sensibility.”[33] Therefore, one may argue that in comparison to judgments of taste, the sublime provides stronger support for a cultivation of moral feelings through its transcendence of sensible nature towards reason.

Crowther also agrees with this role of the sublime, with an emphasis that its moral significance is only indirect.[34] He argues that the awareness of reason’s superiority via sublimity is only an inexplicit feeling, rather than true recognition of the binding power of moral law.[35] The positive feeling or pleasure one gains from such inexplicit awareness makes them more susceptible to moral precepts, yet it does not lead to greater conceptual understanding of morality on their part. Therefore, the contribution of sublimity towards morality remains indirect.

In addition, the reverse also appears to be true; morality appears to indirectly contribute to the feeling of sublime. For Kant, the sublime requires universal assent, and that we judge “someone who remains unmoved by that which we judge to be sublime that he [or she] has no feeling.”[36] Therefore, not only is there an expectation of the same feeling arising in others when they encounter the sublime, but Kant actually makes a normative claim that they ought to feel moved by the sublime—assuming that they have moral feelings. One interpretation of this claim is that, according to Kant, there is moral obligation connected to sublimity (i.e., one must feel sublimity in front of nature’s magnitude and might if one has moral feelings). However, such an interpretation is problematic, as it brings judgments of the sublime too close to moral judgments. Henry Allison offers a more plausible interpretation; that if we presuppose moral feelings in others, then the same predisposition of moral feelings provides the normative foundation for judgments of sublime.[37] In this view, there is an indirect moral necessity in the feeling of sublime. Despite this, many commentators still claim that the Kantian sublime is closer to a moral judgment than an aesthetic category, given the sublime’s intimate connection with morality. I will now briefly examine the issues raised by these commentators.

III. The sublime: an aesthetic or moral category?

Although Kant explicitly treats the sublime as a distinct aesthetic category (as discussed in Section I of this essay), commentators such as Eva Schaper claim that Kant’s analysis of the sublime is more akin to that of morality than that of the beautiful.[38] Specifically, Schaper asserts that the pleasure taken in the triumph of our reason over our sensible nature in the contemplation of the sublime is somewhat “indistinguishable” from that of the good. Of course, Kant denies this claim and maintains that, unlike the satisfaction found in the good, the pleasure found in the sublime is not dependent on a determinate concept.[39] Yet, as I have discussed in Section I part (iii), unlike the beautiful, the sublime is dependent on moral culture and one’s understanding of moral concepts. Although Kant responds by appealing to the common predisposition in the feeling of moral idea, Allison points out that Kant does not further explain why he is entitled to assume such ground for judgments of the sublime.[40] As such, Kant’s distinction between the sublime and the good remains somewhat problematic. Crowther also maintains this view and claims that Kant reduces the sublime to a kind of indirect moral experience.[41]

In contrast, Allison argues that sublimity must be distinct from morality, since the failure to separate the two would undermine the rational foundations of morality.[42] In addition, he asserts that the feeling of the sublime is not equivalent to moral approval, as shown in Kant’s example of the warrior and war.[43] Thus, the sublime is a preparation for morality, but not identical with morality.

To mediate between the two positions, Robert Clewis places the Kantian sublime on a spectrum between aesthetic and moral judgments.[44] He supports the view that the moral feeling of respect and the feeling of sublimity are structurally similar, in that they both have a positive/negative structure based on ideas of reason.[45] Yet, he argues that there is a significant difference between the two; namely, the feeling of sublimity does not produce an interest (i.e., it has no direct motivational force), whereas moral feeling produces a moral interest.[46] Therefore, Clewis claims that to either moraliseor aestheticise the Kantian sublime is to commit a hermeneutic mistake.[47] The correct interpretation, he argues, lies somewhere between the two positions. Allan Lazaroff shares this view of the sublime as being partly aesthetic and partly moral (and, in fact, also partly religious).[48]

In summary, there appears to be controversy amongst commentators regarding the ontological category of the sublime. However, there seems to be a common understanding that the feeling of sublime is analogous yet distinct from moral feeling. It seems that although judgments of the sublime are structurally similar to moral judgments, they are not grounded in determinate concepts and do not produce moral interests. Therefore, in my opinion, the sublime is fundamentally an aesthetic category.


Both the beautiful and the sublime indirectly support our moral agency, despite their phenomenological differences with respect to the four moments of aesthetic judgments. It is clear that, for Kant, both the beautiful and the sublime indirectly support morality, and that sublimity appears to have a closer connection to morality than beauty. Whilst there is debate regarding the ontological structure of the sublime as an aesthetic category, I contend that the sublime is still fundamentally aesthetic, though the problem in its ambiguous aesthetic/moral foundations remains.

David is currently studying part-time at UQ with extended major in philosophy. He enjoys all fields of philosophy, especially ethics. David also works part-time as a registered dentist.


[1]      Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, ed. Paul Guyer, trans. Eric Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 5:195.

[2]      Paul Guyer, Kant and the Experience of Freedom: Essays on Aesthetics and Morality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 28.

[3]      Kant, Critique of Judgment, 5:267.

[4]      Ibid., 5:247.

[5]      Guyer, Kant and the Experience of Freedom, 216-228.

[6]      Kant, Critique of Judgment, 5:247.

[7]      Ibid., 5:205.

[8]      Ibid., 5:217.

[9]      Ibid., 5:267.

[10]    Ibid., 5:247.

[11]    Ibid., 5:220.

[12]    Ibid., 5:236.

[13]    Ibid., 5:245.

[14]    Ibid., 5:247.

[15]    Ibid, 5:247.

[16]    Ibid, 5:264.

[17]    Sensus communis, defined by Kant as a subjective principle which determines pleasure only through feeling. See Kant, Critique of Judgment, 5:238.

[18]    Kant, Critique of Judgment, 5:265.

[19]    Guyer, Kant and the Experience of Freedom, 227.

[20]    Robert Johnson and Adam Cureton, “Kant’s Moral Philosophy,” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta. Stanford University, 2019. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2019/entries/kant-moral/.

[21]    Johnson and Cureton, “Kant’s Moral Philosophy.”

[22]    Kant, Critique of Judgment, 5:354.

[23]    Ibid., 5:354.

[24]    Ibid., 5:354.

[25]    Anthony Savile, “Kant’s Aesthetic Theory,” in A Companion to Kant, ed. Graham Bird (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 451.

[26]    Salim Kemal, Kant’s Aesthetic Theory: An Introduction (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1997), 117.

[27]    Guyer, Kant and the Experience of Freedom, 34.

[28]    Paul Crowther, The Kantian Sublime: From Morality to Art (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 68.

[29]    Ibid., 73.

[30]    Klaus Düsing also supports this claim. Klaus Düsing, “Beauty as the Transition from Nature to Freedom in Kant’s Critique of Judgment,” Noûs 24, no. 1 (1990): 87-88.

[31]    Kant, Critique of Judgment, 5:250.

[32]    Ibid., 5:261.

[33]    Ibid., 5:269.

[34]    Crowther, The Kantian Sublime, 131.

[35]    Ibid., 125.

[36]    Kant, Critique of Judgment, 5:265.

[37]    Henry Allison, Kant’s Theory of Taste: A Reading of the Critique of Aesthetic Judgment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 334.

[38]    Eva Schaper, “Taste, Sublimity, and Genius: The Aesthetics of Nature and Art,” in The Cambridge Companion to Kant, ed. Paul Guyer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 384.

[39]    Kant, Critique of Judgment, 5:244.

[40]    Allison, Kant’s Theory of Taste, 334.

[41]    Crowther, The Kantian Sublime, 165-166.

[42]    Allison, Kant’s Theory of Taste, 342.

[43]    Kant, Critique of Judgment, 5:263.

[44]    Robert Clewis, The Kantian Sublime and the Revelation of Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 126.

[45]    Ibid, 132.

[46]    Ibid, 133.

[47]    Ibid, 134.

[48]    Allan Lazaroff, “The Kantian Sublime: Aesthetic Judgment and Religious Feeling,” Kant-Studien 71, no. 1 (1980): 220.


Allison, Henry E. Kant’s Theory of Taste: A Reading of the Critique of Aesthetic Judgment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511612671.

Clewis, Robert R. The Kantian Sublime and the Revelation of Freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511576492.

Crowther, Paul. The Kantian Sublime: From Morality to Art. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991. doi:10.1093/0198239319.001.0001.

Düsing, Klaus. “Beauty as the Transition from Nature to Freedom in Kant’s Critique of Judgment.” Noûs 24, no. 1 (1990): 79-92.

Guyer, Paul. Kant and the Experience of Freedom: Essays on Aesthetics and Morality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. doi:10.1017/CBO9781139172516.

Johnson, Robert and Adam Cureton. “Kant’s Moral Philosophy.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford University, 2019. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2019/entries/kant-moral/.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of the Power of Judgment. Edited by Paul Guyer. Translated by Eric Matthews. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511804656.

Kemal, Salim. Kant’s Aesthetic Theory: An Introduction. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1997.

Lazaroff, Allan. “The Kantian Sublime: Aesthetic Judgment and Religious Feeling.” Kant-Studien 71, no. 1 (1980): 202-20.

Savile, Anthony. “Kant’s Aesthetic Theory.” In A Companion to Kant. Edited by Graham Bird, 441-454. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.

Schaper, Eva. “Taste, Sublimity, and Genius: The Aesthetics of Nature and Art.” In The Cambridge Companion to Kant, edited by Paul Guyer, 367-393. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. doi:10.1017/CCOL0521365872.

Featured image ‘Shells’ by Lake Clark National Park & Preserve via flickr


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