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§5. The Moral Law as a Law of Freedom

§5. The Moral Law as a Law of Freedom

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I won’t comment further here on the distinctive features of Kant’s approach. We have more urgent business: namely, to clarify the idea of the

absolute spontaneity of pure reason and to try to locate where it shows itself

in our everyday thought and judgment. We must also remind ourselves of

various features of the moral law that lead Kant to think of it as a law of

freedom and how they connect with the idea of absolute spontaneity.

. One essential feature of reason’s absolute spontaneity is its capacity

to set ends for itself. Pure reason is the faculty of orientation (Kant VII:§),

and reason provides orientation by being normative: it sets ends and organizes them into a whole so as to guide the use of a faculty, the understanding in the theoretical sphere and the power of choice in the practical. Of

theoretical reason Kant says that it has “as its sole object the understanding

and its effective application. Just as the understanding unifies the manifold

in the object by means of concepts, so reason unifies the manifold of concepts by means of ideas, positing a certain collective unity as the goal of

the activities of the understanding” (KR B).

By contrast the understanding is not free. While its operations are not

governed by natural laws, and so not by the laws of association, as Hume

supposed, and while it applies its own concepts (the categories) to sensible

experience, its operations are guided not by ends it gives to itself but by ends

given to it by speculative reason. In this sense, the understanding indeed is

spontaneous but semiautomatic and unthinking. Lacking the capacity to set

ends for itself, it is merely spontaneous.4

. Consider now pure practical reason. Kant remarks of it in the first

Critique (KR B), in a passage in which he is discussing the “ought” as

expressing a possible action the ground of which must be a concept of

practical reason, that “[r]eason does not . . . follow the order of things as

they present themselves in appearance, but frames for itself with perfect

spontaneity an order of its own according to ideas [of pure reason], to which

it adapts empirical conditions, and according to which it declares actions

to be [practically] necessary.”

We already know what Kant has in mind, namely, that pure practical

reason constructs (as its a priori object) the ideal of a possible realm of ends

4. This contrast between reason as free and the understanding as merely spontaneous is stressed

by Neiman.

[  ]

       

as an order of its own according to ideas of reason. The particular elements

of a realm of ends are to be adapted to empirical, that is, to historical and

social, conditions.

By contrast with pure practical reason, empirical practical reason is not

free. While it includes principles of rational deliberation, these principles

take the totality of inclinations as given and seek to schedule our activities

so as to satisfy our wants and needs in an orderly way. This arrangement

specifies a conception of happiness. Some inclinations may be repressed or

eradicated entirely; but if so, this is for the sake of a greater net balance of

well-being over the course of life. Empirical practical reason has no independent standpoint from which to judge particular inclinations. It administers

the fulfillment of the inclinations guided by the principles of the hypothetical imperative and subject to the constraints of pure practical reason.

The capacity of each form of pure reason to set ends for itself in virtue

of its own ideas of reason is, then, an essential feature of the absolute (or

perfect) spontaneity of pure reason. Lack of this spontaneity distinguishes

the understanding from theoretical reason and empirical practical reason

from pure practical reason.

§. The Ideas of Freedom

. I now try to locate where the idea of absolute spontaneity is connected

with the ideas of freedom and how through them it shows itself in our

thought and conduct. To this end, I review three ideas of freedom Kant

uses: the idea of acting under the idea of freedom, the idea of practical

freedom, and the idea of transcendental freedom. I then try to connect

them with the idea of absolute spontaneity.

But first I should say that Kant’s views on freedom are a tangled and

complicated subject, and I do not attempt to survey them.5 Given the time

we can allow, I select three ideas of freedom found in his work and then

5. A very helpful and scholarly discussion is that of Henry Allison, Kant’s Theory of Freedom

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ). The paper by Allen Wood, “Kant’s Compatibilism,”

in a collection he edited, Self and Nature in Kant’s Philosophy (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press,

), pp. –, illustrates some of the grave difficulties, if not unsolvable problems, usually associated with Kant’s view.

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review how they might be seen to fit together and to complement one

another. The result is only one possible view that I think makes reasonable

sense of his doctrine. My discussion is no more than a sketch and leaves

aside many questions.

. The first and most basic idea is that of acting under the idea of freedom. Kant holds that when we engage in pure practical reasoning, we must

do so under the idea of freedom (Gr III: [–]).

Now I assert that every being who cannot act except under the idea

of freedom is by this alone—from a practical point of view—really

free: that is to say, for him all the laws inseparably bound up with

freedom are valid just as much as if his will could be pronounced free

on grounds valid for theoretical philosophy. . . . [W]e cannot possibly

conceive of a reason as being consciously directed from the outside in

regard to its judgments; for in that case the subject would attribute

the determinations of his power of judgment not to his reason, but to

an impulsion. Reason must look upon itself as the author of its own

principles independently of alien influence. Thus, as practical reason,

or as the will of a rational being, it must regard itself as free.

Here I take Kant to mean several things. One is that we must conduct

our deliberations under the firm conviction that our thoughts and judgments, and the conclusions we reach, are (or at least can be) arrived at

solely in the light of the evidence and reasons we review and put before

ourselves for assessment.

He means also that we must believe that we can properly assess those

reasons under the guidance of the moral law, or whatever norms of practical

reason are appropriate, and that we can accept and act from whatever conclusions we decide are supported by the best reasons. As we deliberate, we

must not believe that our powers of reason are determined by anything

external to our reason, or allow anything to influence us except the reasons

and evidence that are relevant for our consideration. Otherwise we abandon


Thus I interpret Kant to say that when we deliberate from the practical

point of view, we must, and normally do, regard our reason as having

absolute spontaneity as he understands it. Acting under the idea of freedom,

[  ]

       

then, characterizes the practical point of view. This point of view, I want

to say, is where the idea of absolute spontaneity, as it was described earlier

(in §), is manifest.

. To sum up: to act under this idea means to deliberate in good faith.

It is not only to deliberate reasonably and rationally as the norms of practical

reason specify, but also to do so with the firm belief that our powers of

reason, both theoretical and practical, are fully self-determining and point

the way to what we ought to do and shall do, once known or confirmed

by deliberation. We believe that the reasoning we are now engaged in, and

the conclusions we shall reach, whatever they may be, and not something

else, can and do determine our conduct.

Note well Kant’s remark that “every being who cannot act except under

the idea of freedom is by this alone—from a practical point of view—really

free.” Kant makes a similar statement at KP :: “The moral law, which

itself does not require a justification, proves not merely the possibility of

freedom, but that it really belongs to beings who recognize this law as

binding on themselves.”

Then, some lines below (at KP :), he makes it clear, as he does in

the first statement, that what he says holds only from a practical point of

view. The meaning of this rider we examine later in Kant X. But one thing

we do know is that from a practical point of view, the laws of freedom of

pure reason are just as valid for us as if our will could be said to be free

for reasons valid for theoretical reason. Theoretical reason cannot provide

arguments that increase their validity for us; nor, on the other hand, can

it take those laws from us. To maintain this last claim belongs to philosophy

as defense.

. As for practical freedom, it is an empirical fact that we can and often

do deliberate in accordance with and act from pure practical principles, and

hence act under the idea of freedom; moreover, the conclusions we reach

do indeed determine what we do. Everyday experience shows that practical

reason is, as Kant puts it, one of the operative causes in nature (KR B,


By contrast, our belief in transcendental freedom is the firm conviction

that our decisions as operating causes are not in fact “nature again” (KR

). I take this to mean that we believe that our decisions issue from the

absolute spontaneity of pure practical reason and are not determined by

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§5. The Moral Law as a Law of Freedom

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