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§5. The Moral Law as a Law of Freedom
often seen as one for metaphysics and the philosophy of mind alone: it asks
whether free will is compatible with causal determinism without reference
to any particular moral view, and if not, what the consequences are for
moral responsibility. But from what we have just seen, Kant’s approach is
quite different. Three basic points:
First, for Kant, the question of freedom depends on the speciﬁc nature
of the moral conception accepted as valid, and so the question cannot be
settled within metaphysics and the philosophy of mind alone.
Second, the moral law as it applies to us (however indirectly) is a principle of pure practical reason and as such a principle of autonomy; given the
unity of reason, pure practical reason also fully possesses absolute spontaneity and is fully as free as pure theoretical reason.
Third, as a consequence, there is no separate question about freedom
of the will, but only one question: the freedom of reason. The freedom of
theoretical and that of practical reason stand or fall together.
This last point deserves comment. Two features of a Kantian account,
as opposed to Kant’s account, of freedom of the will so-called are that, ﬁrst,
it denies that there is any special problem about the will’s freedom, viewing
the question as simply part of the one main question of the freedom of
reason as such. Second, it holds that pure practical reason is fully as free
as theoretical reason; there is no need to claim that it is more free—what
would that mean?—and being as free is certainly all that is needed for holding people responsible and accountable. As for the freedom of reason itself,
the place to approach it is in the philosophy of mind generally. It is no
longer, on a Kantian view, a problem in moral philosophy, even though
very much one for it.
. The third point above is an aspect of the equality of reason: neither
theoretical nor practical reason is superior to the other. Kant refers to this
equality at the end of the important §VII of the Dialectic, where he remarks
that the constitution of reason as seen in the two Critiques puts them on a
footing of equality (KP :). Pure speculative reason is restricted to seeking
the highest systematic unity in the understanding’s knowledge of the objects
of experience; pure practical reason is extended by the fact of reason to the
ideas of freedom, God, and immortality, though always from a practical
point of view. Both forms of reason have an essential and complementary
role in one constitution of reason.
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
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
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.
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,