Ethics in Focus: Sublimity and Morality

We sometimes perceive sublimity in nature. Do we also perceive sublimity in art? Is the capacity to experience sublimity specific to the human species? Are our feelings of admiration and respect for people and their actions analogous to our experience of sublimity in nature? This course explores the relationship between sublimity and morality in its various facets, drawing on the theories of Immanuel Kant and his immediate predecessor, Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten. The course is not just about learning philosophy, but about philosophising for yourself.


  • Baumgarten, A. G.: Ethica philosophica [Philosophical Ethics], 3rd Ed. (Halle, 1763) [As there is no translation of this work into a modern language, I will provide my own]
  • Kant, I.: Metaphysics of Morals. (Cambridge University Press, 1996)
  • Kant, I.: Critique of Practical Reason. (Cambridge University Press, 1997)
  • Kant, I.: Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason. (Cambridge University Press, 1998)
  • Kant, I.: Critique of the Power of Judgment. (Cambridge University Press, 2000)


  • Share your own views on sublimity and morality: Do you sometimes perceive some respectable or admirable actions to be sublime? What object or action do you generally perceive to be sublime? What object or action do you generally perceive to be moral? What do you identify as the connection between sublimity and morality?
  • Sublimity in nature. Where and when do your perceive sublimity in nature? How is your experience of sublimity in nature different from your experience of beauty in nature? Do you experience sublimity in art as well? What, after all, makes an object sublime?
  • Sublimity and the human mind: Humans have the ability to perceive something as sublime. Is this ability specific to humans? Do animals also have the ability to perceive something as sublime? Can we identify the capacity of sublimity as the characteristic of what makes humans humans?
  • Sublimity and moral feeling: We often have certain kinds of feeling through the affection to respectable or admirable actions, feelings that are different from mere sensations. What exactly are they? Can we describe these feelings to be sublime? Are these feelings rational, given that they are not mere sensations? But isn’t it contradictory to call feelings rational? Are these feelings different from the feelings that you have towards actions that you merely approve?
  • Admiration and respect: We sometimes admire or respect people or their actions. Is there any difference between admiration and respect? What kinds of feeling are they? Or are they not feelings at all? Can we draw an analogy between our experience of sublimity and that of admiration and respect?
  • Reflect on your views on sublimity and morality: Have you changed your views since the beginning of the course? Why or why not?

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Understand some of the major theories and debates in philosophical accounts of sublimity and morality.
  2. Understand and analyse arguments in the relevant literatures.
  3. Evaluate these theories and arguments critically.
  4. Develop their own views and arguments through consideration and analysis of the views and arguments presented in the course.
  5. Engage constructively and respectfully with the views and arguments of others, even if they disagree with them.