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§2. The Free Power of Choice

§2. The Free Power of Choice

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predisposition fit to serve in a supremely regulative role. Moreover, since

we cannot repudiate the moral law, we cannot choose to be devils and to

act against that law for its own sake (Rel I : []). We cannot reverse,

so to speak, the predisposition to personality by adopting evil as our good.

The limit of human perversity lies in changing the moral order among

the predispositions; when we do this, we give inappropriate weight in our

deliberations to reasons grounded on the predispositions of humanity and

animality. We neglect the moral law and ignore the voice of conscience.

But conscience can never be silenced so long as the powers of moral personality are alive in us. They are a fixed basis in our persons for a principle

of identification: we cannot help but identify with the predisposition to

personality and its moral law.

. We have still to consider an essential feature of the moral psychology

of the Religion. I refer to Kant’s view that the basic features of the original

predispositions establish a moral order of priority (sittliche Ordnung). This

order ranks the predisposition to personality as unconditionally prior and

the others as unconditionally subordinate. As we saw above, our free power

of choice may not follow that moral order, but its freedom, as Kant defines

it, consists in its power to do so.

Let’s review the features of the predispositions that Kant seems to think

specify the appropriate ordering for persons with the power of free choice.

Two features we have already noted.

The first is that the predisposition to personality is unconditionally good

and incorruptible, by which I take Kant to mean that no vices can be grafted

onto it (as can be done with the predispositions to animality and humanity)

and our free power of choice cannot reverse it.

The second is that by including the moral law as an aspect, the predisposition to personality is the only one suited to be ranked as unconditionally prior.

It contains the only practical principle that can be supremely regulative.

Note that in each case the comparison is between the predisposition to

personality and the other two predispositions. Kant is not saying, for example, that only the moral law, and not some other moral principle—for example, a principle of perfection—is suited to be supremely regulative. To say

this would go against what we said earlier (in Kant VII:§.), that it is a

mistake to hold that only the moral law can specify a unified and shared

public order.

[  ]

     ,  

. There is a third important feature of the predisposition to personality. It is mentioned when Kant excludes certain explanations of human

wickedness and perversity. He says (Rel I : []):

Neither can the ground of this evil . . . be placed in a corruption of

the morally legislative reason [the predisposition to personality]—as if

reason could destroy the authority of the very law which is its own

or deny the obligation arising therefrom; this is absolutely impossible.

To conceive of oneself as a freely acting being and yet as exempt from

the law which is appropriate to such a being (the moral law) would

be tantamount to conceiving a cause operating without any laws whatsoever. . . . [T]his is a self-contradiction.

The first sentence of this passage connects with the two features noted

above. To understand the second sentence, recall that Kant thinks:

(a) That when we engage in, and act from, pure practical reasoning,

we must always act under the idea of freedom and think of ourselves as

free, although, of course, only from a practical point of view (Gr III: [–

]; KP :). In so doing, we do not think of ourselves as exempt from

the principles of reason appropriate to us as free.

(b) That the moral law is the only law that discloses to us not only our

independence of the natural order but also of a prior and given order of


In virtue of our capacity to incorporate it into our maxims and to act

from it, the moral law is, therefore, the only principle that fully discloses

to us our freedom and autonomy. We may take Kant to say that the ordering of our predispositions ranking the predisposition to personality unconditionally prior is the only ranking that is appropriate to us as persons with

a free power of choice. It is the principle that fully expresses our nature as


. The fourth, and last, feature of our moral psychology relevant to the

ordering of predispositions is that this psychology provides a permanent

basis of identification with the ideal conception of the person founded on

that ordering. This psychology Kant regards as belonging to us as reasonable

and rational; it characterizes our nature and we cannot change it. We can

never altogether repress the pure practical interest we take in being the

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kind of person who lives up to the conception of our person expressed by

the appropriate ordering of predispositions.

Our identification with that ideal is disclosed in our moral feelings when

we are at fault; these are described by Kant not primarily as feelings of

obligation and guilt but as feelings of (moral) shame and self-reproach. His

doctrine is not one of a legitimate authority that enacts principles for us

to obey, but one of mutuality and self-respect in a moral community of

equal persons ordered by public principles of practical reason.

Finally, the moral order of our predispositions does not reflect an antecedent order of values known to us by rational intuition, an order given

apart from our conception of ourselves as persons endowed with the powers of pure practical reason, moral feeling, and the power of free choice.

Rather, this moral order is rooted in the predispositions of our persons and

their characteristic features and the possibilities of their combination into

an appropriate ranking. Kant’s moral psychology in Book I of the Religion

goes with his constructivist moral conception and answers to its essential


§. The Rational Representation of the Origin of Evil

. We have seen that the ordering of predispositions we adopt is, in effect,

the adoption of a moral character. But we must be careful how this is to

be understood. Kant sometimes views this adoption as how we must represent to ourselves the way our character has arisen: we are to see it as something we have made and within our free power of choice (Rel I :–

[–]). This means that we are not to regard our fundamental character

as determined in time: that is, we are not to regard it as a social artifact,

or as determined by psychological laws, or as the product of happenstance,

and the like. As reasonable and rational, we are to view our character, the

ordering of our predispositions, as a matter up to us, given our free power

of choice and the absolute spontaneity of reason.

How can we understand the thought that we are not to view our character as determined by causal conditions in the course of time? I suggest that

it is simply a part of the beliefs and attitudes toward ourselves as we act

under the idea of freedom. For in our deliberating under the idea of free[  ]

     ,  

dom, the order of our predispositions is shown in what we count as reasons,

in the weight we give them. Our fundamental character (what Kant calls

our intelligible character) is mirrored in our moral thought. Now, as we

have seen, in acting under the idea of freedom, we must regard our reason

as free and guided by its own principles. The same must hold for what we

count as reasons and their relative weight.

Kant’s thought is that if we regard our fundamental character as a social

artifact, or as the result of psychological laws and accidental contingencies,

we would also not regard our reason as free; and this we cannot do. Two

people who so regarded themselves and whose systems of reasons were at

odds could only observe to one another: “Subjected as we were to different

circumstances, our fundamental characters were formed in different ways.

There’s nothing more to say.” It is this thought that Kant rejects. Our

scheme of reasons may be different from others’, but we must regard ourselves, not forces for which we are not accountable, as having made them

so. It is an evasion of our responsibility to say that we are constituted this

way or that by nature or society or by anything external to our reason and

will.6 He says (Rel I : []):

In the search for the rational origin of evil actions, every such action

must be regarded as though the individual had fallen into it directly

from a state of innocence. . . . He should have refrained from that

action whatever the temporal circumstances and entanglements; for

through no cause in the world can he cease to be a freely acting being.

. . . But this merely amounts to saying that man need not involve

himself in the evasion of seeking to establish whether or not the consequences [of his free actions] are free, since there exists in the free . . .

action, which was their cause, sufficient ground for holding him accountable.

. Kant distinguishes between our intelligible (fundamental) character

and our empirical character. The latter he thinks of as manifesting in experience the causality of reason, so that our choice of an intelligible character

6. See also what Kant says against a preformation system of pure reason in the first Critique

(KR Bf.).

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is disclosed in part7 in the weight we give to different kinds of reasons and

in what we do. That our choice of a fundamental character should thus

manifest itself follows from practical freedom (KR B–): namely, that

the free decisions of our practical reason are operative causes in nature.

Now, from the point of view of practical reason, there is no physical

explanation of our intelligible character (KP :); that this is so follows

from our belief in transcendental freedom. Moreover, we know about our

intelligible character only by way of our actual moral thought and conduct

(KR Bf.). From this we can discern, in rough outline anyway, the empirical character of ourselves and others. Armed with this knowledge, we can in

general foresee, or estimate, what others will do in particular circumstances.

(Kant says that could we know that character perfectly, which we cannot,

we could accurately predict our actions in any given conditions.) As thus

foreseen, Kant speaks of our conduct not as free but as necessary and subject

to the laws of nature.

But all this means is that, given the knowledge of people’s beliefs, interests, and circumstances, together with the knowledge of the weight they

give to different kinds of reasons (their empirical character), we can tell

what they will decide and do. But from a practical point of view, when we

are making mutual decisions or asking others for advice, we regard those

empirical characters as expressing the outcome of the deliberations of pure

reason. These deliberations are the upshot of the absolute spontaneity of

reason; expressing our intelligible character, they are taken as not having

a physical or other explanation.

. When in Religion I :f. (f.) Kant speaks of seeking the origin of

evil not in time but merely in rational representation, I think he means

roughly the following. Insofar as our fundamental (intelligible) character

arises from our power of free choice, we are to regard it as our responsibility

alone. Doing this is part of our view of ourselves in acting under the idea

of freedom when complemented, as it should be, by the belief in transcen7. I say in part because our empirical characters are not the work of practical reason alone.

Kant says: “The real morality of actions, their merit or guilt, even that of our own conduct, thus

remains entirely hidden from us. Our imputations can only refer to the empirical character. How

much of this character is ascribable to the pure effect of freedom, how much to mere nature, that

is, to faults of temperament for which there is no responsibility, or to its happy constitution . . . ,

can never be determined; and upon it therefore no perfectly just judgments can be passed” (KR


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§2. The Free Power of Choice

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