Philosophy 433                                     History of Ethics                       Darwall                                    Winter 2008




I  Empiricist Freedom.   Recall the passage from p. 30 of Kant's Critique (reproduced on p. 3 of Kant III).  What is going on in this passage? 

            Kant begins by considering someone who says that he has an irresistible lust for something when it is present.  Kant then remarks that such a person would probably agree that he would control his lust if "a gallows were erected on which he would be hanged immediately after gratifying his lust."

            Now what lesson are we supposed to draw from this?  Although Kant doesn't mention it, some move of this sort is often made by empiricist compatibilists to argue that, even if, without the presence of the gallows, a person's satisfying his lust is caused by this having been his strongest desire, that doesn't show he didn't act freely.  While it is true that a person cannot have acted freely unless he could have acted otherwise, it is often asserted by empiricist compatibilists that in order

for that to have been true it is sufficient that the person would have acted otherwise, if had chosen to do so, or if his strongest desire would have been to act otherwise.  So even though the person's act is caused by his strongest desire when he acts on his lust, his act is nonetheless free, he could have done otherwise, if it was true of him that if a gallows . . ., then he would have wanted most not to satisfy his lust to avoid the gallows, and, consequently, would not have done so.

            There is something to this response.  It seems to go some distance toward showing that the person didn't have to satisfy his lust.  There are circumstances, after all, in which he would have "controlled" it.

            But even so, it may also seem ultimately unsatisfying in explaining our sense that a person is free when she acts.  How can it help to explain the freedom of the act in the present situation to note that if the circumstances had been different, some other act would have occurred?


II  Moral Freedom (Autonomy).  Kant goes on:  "But ask him whether . . . under a plausible pretext." 

            Note how he describes the response:  "Whether he would or not he perhaps will not venture to say; but that it would be possible for him he would certainly admit without hesitation.  He judges, therefore, that he can do something because he knows that he ought, and he recognizes that he is free--a fact that without the moral law, would have remained unknown to him."

            There are several things to notice about this:

                        A.  First, Kant explicitly detaches the thought that one is free not to give the false deposition from any thought about how one will in fact act, either in the actual circumstance, or in some altered circumstance.  In this way, his response differs from his remark about the lust case.  The point must be that whether a person is free to reject the false deposition, whether it is possible for him not to give it in the relevant sense, is independent of what he will do (and perhaps of what

he would do in some altered circumstance).

                        B.  Second, Kant argues that what forms the basis for the thought that one is free is simply the thought that one ought not to give the deposition.  How can this be?  Suppose one thought it impossible to avoid giving the false deposition.  Could one then think that, nonetheless, one ought not to do so?  Of course, one might think it terrible that one is doing so.  But if rejecting the deposition is literally impossible, then it is not a practical alternative; it is not an action open to one.  But if it is not an option, then in what sense can it be something one ought to do?  It seems it cannot.  So if one ought not to give the false deposition then it must be an action open to one; it must, in the relevant sense, be possible for one not to do it.  As Kant puts it, "he judges, therefore, that he can do something because he knows that he ought."

                        C.  In thinking the idea of a law that binds one as an agent, therefore, one is led to the thought that one is free, "a fact which, without the moral law, would have remained unknown to [one]."  A practical law which confronts one in thinking about what to do (in practical thinking) entails practical freedom.  One can think one is bound by such a law only if one regards oneself as free.

            Although Kant does not explicitly add it, it is implicit in his thought that, not only is it possible for one to reject the false deposition, it is likewise possible for one to reject it for the very reason that one ought to.  Again, that one will reject it for this reason, that this will be one's strongest desire, may or may not be true.  But whether one will is irrelevant to whether one can.


            Here we get the Critique's version of the doctrine I earlier discussed from the Groundwork.  In the latter Kant argues that an agent cannot act but under the idea of freedom.  To deliberate about what to do, about what reasons exist for doing one thing rather than another, one must think as if one can do whatever one thinks one has good and sufficient reason to do and as if one can do this precisely for the good and sufficient reason one takes oneself to have.  Of course, we all have had the depressing experience of deliberating about what to do in the belief, perhaps even the knowledge, that we will not end up doing what we think we should.  But that is not the same thing as thinking that we cannot do what we think we should. 

            There are actually two points here:

                        A.  First, if we think it impossible to do something, we can hardly coherently think that this is, nonetheless, something we should do.  An act can be something we should do only if it is an alternative that is open to us, something we can do.

                        B.  Second, in deliberating we seek reasons to act.  This thinking is practical in the sense that it naturally concludes in an intention, in a commitment to action.  But it is also practical reasoning in the sense that, if the resultant intention results from deliberation, we will have some reasons for so intending.  In the context of deliberation, therefore, the thought that one ought (all things considered) to do something seems to entail the thought, not only that one can so act, but, as

well, that  one can for the very reasons that one ought


            Now as I have noted before, Kant is a compatibilist about freedom.  He thinks that insofar as our actions are part of a world we can experience, we must experience them as taking place in accordance with causal laws.  At the same time, however, in seeing ourselves to be bound by practical laws, we must see our actions as free.

            But if Kant is a compatibilist, he is a compatibilist of a very different sort than the empiricist compatibilist I referred to above.  Hume, for example, takes our freedom to consist simply in the fact that our actions are caused by our beliefs and desires, by our character, as he puts it.  The causal chain resulting in our actions goes through us, and we can see this by seeing that if our character had been different, if we had believed or desired differently, then we would have acted differently.

            Note that this compatibility is entirely effected from an observer's point of view.  That the order of nature went in the precise path it did doesn't mean that if we had been different that our actions would not have been different.  Thus our nature, our beliefs and desires, is what determines our actions and, Hume asks, what more can we have in mind in thinking of ourselves as free?

            Kant's response is that the sort of freedom we take ourselves to have is nothing we can grasp from an observer's standpoint.  Rather, it is as agents who deliberate, thinking about reasons to act, that we must think of ourselves as free.  And this thought is independent of any thought we might have from an observer's point of view in predicting or retrodicting what we, or anyone else, will or did actually do.  For this reason we might aptly call his position a compatibilism of practical



            Note also some further features of the case:

                        (a) the reason one presupposes one can act on is not outcome-based, it does not derive from the value of an outcome considered independently of how it is brought about.  It comes from the mere thought that it would be wrong to betray the patriot by giving the false deposition.

                        (b) In this way the kind of freedom one takes oneself to have is autonomy; one presupposes one can act in accordance with a law that applies to one as a will, not as instrumentally useful (in bringing about a valuable state), but just in virtue of what it is to be one will in the company of others (in certain circumstances, say, where we are mutually dependent and mutually vulnerable).

                        (c) Note finally, the consequence: we must take ourselves to have a kind of freedom that is structurally disanalogous to any we have in theoretical reasoning.  We must presuppose autonomy of the will.


III  Freedom from moral obligation.  In the Critique, then, if not in the Groundwork, Kant takes it that the moral law is something that is unavoidably part of the practical thinking of any agent who is capable of acting on principles.  And that this "fact of reason," as he calls it, is the only way through which we come to know of our own freedom.

            "It is therefore the moral law, of which we become immediately conscious as soon as we construct maxims for the will, which first presents itself to us; and, since reason exhibits it as a ground of determination which is completely independent of and not to be outweighed by any sensuous condition, it is the moral law which leads directly to the concept of freedom." (29)

            "The consciousness of this fundamental law may be called a fact of reason, since one cannot ferret it out from antecedent data of reason, such as the consciousness of freedom (for this is not antecedently given) . . . "


IV  From autonomy to the CI (Fundamental Law of Practical Reason)  Suppose we begin with the assumption that we are free, in the sense that we can determine the will through reasons.  Can we then deduce the Categorical Imperative, the Fundamental Law of Practical Reason?  How might this go?  This is what Kant calls Problem II on p. 5:29:

            "Supposing that a will is free, find the law which alone is competent to determine it necessarily. “

            Since the material of the practical law, i.e., an object of the maxim, cannot be given except empirically, and since a free will must be independent of all empirical conditions (i.e., those belonging to the world of sense) and yet be determinable, a free will must find its ground of determination in the law, but independently of the material of the law.  But besides the latter there is nothing in a law except the legislative form.  Therefore, the legislative form, in so far as it is contained in the maxim, is the only thing which can constitute a determining ground of the [free] will."

            How is this reasoning supposed to work?  Consider the very idea of an agent acting for [what she regards to be] reasons.  Now, while an agent may of course take her desires to provide her with reasons, her being moved by a desire is not the very same thing as her being moved by [what she regards to be] a reason.  Think back to our heroin addict.  Suppose she regards her addiction as a compulsion she is in the grip of, as something which gives her no reason to take heroin.  Here she has a strong desire for heroin, but, as she judges it, no reason to take it.  She will take it for a reason, she will have some reason

for taking it, only if there is something she can regard as a reason to take it.

            But, as we have noted before, this seems to commit her to a universal proposition.  Can she coherently think that a feature of the situation provides her with a reason to do something, but would not for someone "relevantly like her" in a situation "relevantly like hers."  It seems she cannot.  She must be prepared to think that it is because she is an agent (of some relevant kind) in a situation of some relevant kind that she should so act.  That is, she must think there to be some universal law which applies to her in this situation that recommends her so acting.  For her to act for reasons, therefore is for her to be committed to willing her action as an instance of some (universal) law. 


            Kant assumes that, since no desire for any object is necessarily part of rational agency, willing an action as an instance of a law applying to all agents cannot be identical with determining the will through the desire for some object.  But what alternative is there?  Kant seems to think that the only alternative is the agent's determining her will by a particular maxim being conditional on the agent's being prepared to will her maxim as universal law.

            The picture, then, is this.  An agent is inclined toward adopting particular maxims by his particular, contingent psychological makeup.  Perhaps he desires the welfare of others.  In this case he is moved to adopt maxims that seem likeliest to promote this.  Or perhaps, like Kant's self-interested homo economicus of 5:23f, he desires only to increase his property, and so is moved to adopt a maxim:  "I will increase my property by every safe means."  Now, just by having these maxims, so conceived, an agent is not yet acting for reasons.  To do that she has to regard her maxim as rooted in universal law, and she must will her acting on the maxim as prescribed by such a law.

            Now, being moved to adopt, and be guided by, a maxim by a desire for some object--whether for the welfare of others, or for the increase of one's property, or for some other thing--is not the same thing as being moved to determine  the will by a maxim because this is prescribed somehow by universal law that applies to one independently of the value of outcomes.  An agent can be doing the latter only if she is prepared to will her maxim as universal law.  Thus Kant concludes what he calls, in the Groundwork, the Categorical Imperative:

            Act only on maxims that you can at the same time will to be a universal law.


            The argument seems to depend on the assumption that the only alternative to acting on the CI is acting from a desire.  Is this so?  What if my motivation is not a desire that my interest be promoted (by me or someone else), but rather my acceptance of an egoistic norm of action.  Will the norm pass the CI test?  On the one hand, since I am not following this maxim in order that my interest be promoted, we will not necessarily get a contradiction in the will between a private end (my own interest) and what I will when I will that everyone do what is in their interest (supposing this is not in my interest).  On the other hand, the principle itself tells me only to will what is in my interest, so if it is not in my interest that everyone act on this maxim, then my maxim tells me not to will its universalization.

            Suppose that, for this reason, my maxim fails the test.  Why might it not still be a practical law, nonetheless?  I certainly seem to be able to treat it as a practical law.


            Kant doesn’t deal with this question in the Critique in a way that he does, at least implicitly, in the Groundwork.  There the idea seems to be that the alternative we are supposing, that a principle might simply be a practical law, quite independently of whether a free agent could legislate or will it, is unacceptable because it implies heteronomy and is inconsistent with autonomy, “the property the will has of being a law to itself.”  (GR440) 


Now there is a weak sense in which the very idea of practical law presupposes autonomy, since, by their very nature, practical laws bind any rational agent, that is, any being with a will.  So it is the will itself that is the ground of obligation.  Nothing our norm-egoist thinks, however, need be inconsistent with that.  He accepts egoism as a norm that binds all rational agents (all wills).  But it is clear that Kant has in mind something stronger by autonomy, namely that the will is a law to itself, in the sense that following the practical law (the law to which any will is subject) can consist in nothing more than the exercise of the capacities that are intrinsic to will .  And here Kant’s idea that, from this perspective, nothing is given to will—either empirically (through desire) or a priori (by some kind of rational intuition). 

Free agency is a formal rather than a material or substantive capacity.


Access to the practical law can only come through the exercise of free will, and this requires that practical law must be capable of being legislated by each will.  Hence the CI test:  “Act only on maxims you could will as universal law.”


            What could vindicate this assumption?  Here’s a possibility.  Go back to the “fact of reason.”  We noted there that the law one takes oneself to be bound by applies to one independently of any desire, and of the value of any outcome that it might take some particular desire (or pleasure) to appreciate.  One takes it that one can comply with the law because one thinks one ought.  But notice also that one takes that one is responsible for complying with the law, that it would be culpable for one not to.  But to be culpable for complying with the law, one must be able to grasp the law.  This apparently rules out the possibility that there might be norms that simply apply to one that one might not grasp.  Any law that binds one in this sense, must be a law that one can grasp through the very capacity that makes one subject to it.  This means that the law must somehow be “built into” the will.  The CI is Kant’s proposal for how it is.