Kant on Sympathy with the Fate of Others

Written by: Kate A. Moran


During the strange week in March that began almost normally and ended with the shuttering of campuses and a series of rushed goodbyes, the students in my course on Kant’s moral philosophy half-jokingly wondered if he might have anything instructive to say about pandemics or social isolation. I pondered the question. There was, I supposed, his discussion of live vaccines, and whether the risk these impose constitutes a violation of the duty of self-preservation. And one could hardly omit the story of Kant’s mother’s death, brought about (in his alleged retelling) by encouraging a sick friend in her care to take some medicine by sampling a bit of it herself, only to realize in that fateful moment that she had used a contaminated spoon, thereby exposing herself to the same disease.[i] (How many of us have rubbed our eyes after bringing in the mail and been gripped by the same fear lately?)

But it was only several weeks later, holding class discussion online, that a better example came to light. A mention of infectious disease appears, perhaps oddly enough, in Kant’s discussion of sympathy in the Doctrine of Virtue, where he argues that we have a duty to cultivate our natural feelings of pity in order to engage in active sympathetic participation with the fate of others. He distinguishes this sort of cultivation and active participation from a merely passive receptivity to a feeling (compassivity, Mitleidenschaft) that he rejects as needless and harmful.[ii] He compares compassivity to infectious disease: it ‘spreads naturally to human beings living side-by-side’ and inflicts itself on others, ultimately causing more and more pointless suffering (Doctrine of Virtue, 6:457). The description of compassivity as a form of contagion is not a mere metaphor: the curious term appears in the title of a report by the physician Christian Friedrich Michaelis about an incident in 1783 at a barracks on Long Island.[iii] Upon witnessing one soldier suffer from a severe mania, several other soldiers immediately but temporarily also fell into the same mania. Kant also mentions the episode in his Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, and remarks that the same phenomenon explains (among other things) the way that married couples adopt each other’s facial expressions over time (Anthropology, 7:179).

Kant’s rejection of compassivity may seem dour at first reading. What could be so wrong with being – quite naturally – affected by the suffering of others? Part of the answer is that to be charitable out of mere compassivity is a demeaning form of beneficence that Kant calls mercy.  Specifically, pity without active sympathetic participation makes a false claim to superiority or separateness, since it lacks an awareness that one is also needy and finite. This is why Kant characterizes beneficence from mere compassion as ‘making a show of one’s virtue’ – what we nowadays might call ‘virtue signaling’. Beneficence out of compassivity is the kind of help that we might offer a small child or non-human animal, not the kind of help that we offer to a person who is equally situated with respect to need and ability.

Mercy exhibits a tendency to think of oneself generously offering assistance from above –  if not exactly looking down on others, then at least thinking oneself removed or somehow immune from their unfortunate position. This tendency also appears under a slightly different guise, often under conditions of what Kant calls ‘general injustice’. Kant observes that we often have an inclination to congratulate ourselves for being charitable when, in fact, we are actually simply repaying a debt that we have incurred via institutional injustice. We may have had nothing to do with the historical event that caused the injustice, yet because of that injustice we are in a position to be charitable, while others need help. When we benefit from injustice in this way, it is a mistake to think that our helping actions deserve the praise attached to acts of true beneficence.

It seems to me that what unites these tendencies is that they are both attempts at an easy, unreflective way of being ­– or seeming to be – virtuous.  At bottom, they vastly misrepresent the moral universe of which we are all a part by failing to acknowledge that any situation that requires beneficence is either the result of misfortune to which all are subject, or the product of an injustice of which one may well be a part. To acknowledge the first point is to admit our finitude as human beings; to acknowledge the second is to admit our shortcomings as moral beings. Neither admission is particularly pleasant, and so we prefer to take the easy way:  easier to think of ourselves as noble and generous than to think of ourselves as finite and flawed.

I am always puzzled by Kant’s reputation among some as esoteric or out of touch, because he strikes me as a keen observer of human nature in these sorts of discussions. By the same token, his observations strike me as trenchant these days. What better reminder of the fortune to which all are subject than a virus that infects indiscriminately? Admittedly, it is a virus that affects some much more seriously than others, and that is before we say anything of the underlying inequalities and injustices that allow some to isolate in relative security, while others suffer all the more. But this last realization, too, seems a part of a growing awareness of the kinds of historical and institutional injustices from which many have suffered, while other have benefited. Time will tell whether the realization brings about long-term change, but I suspect Kant would have approved of the moral recalibration that it represents, at least.

[i] See Manfred Kuehn. Kant: A Biography. Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp. 31–33.
[ii] Jeanine Grenberg and Jens Timmermann offer this translation of the term Mitleidenschaft in their forthcoming revised translation of the Doctrine of Virtue (Cambridge University Press).
[iii] Christian Friedrich Michaelis, ‘Tollheit aus Mittleidenschaft’ in Medicinisch-praktische Bibliothek (Göttingen, 1785). See also Jens Timmermann, ‘Kant Über Mitleidenschaft’, Kant-Studien 107, 2016, pp. 729–732.

Kant on Freedom and Spontaneity edited by Kate A. Moran
Kant on Freedom and Spontaneity edited by Kate A. Moran


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About the Author: Kate A. Moran

Kate Moran is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Brandeis University. She is the editor of Kant on Freedom and Spontaneity (Cambridge University Press, 2018), and is writing a short volume on Kant’s ethics for Cambridge Elements in Ethics....

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