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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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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.

[  ]



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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.



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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

reason.

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,

[  ]



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