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§2. The Free Power of Choice

§2. The Free Power of Choice

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

neity of the will (i.e., freedom). But the moral law, in the judgment of reason, is itself an incentive, and whoever makes it his maxim is morally good.”

The three predispositions, however they may affect us, cannot determine our will unless they are incorporated into our maxims by our free

power of choice. This is Kant’s principle of elective will,4 a basic principle

of his moral psychology. It means that while we must take each of the

three predispositions as given (we cannot alter or eradicate them), we can

and must order them: that is, we must decide through our power of choice

the priority and weight these predispositions are to have in our supremely

regulative principles as shown in our deliberations and conduct. Whether

we have a morally good or bad will depends on that ordering.

. Now, our free power of choice has but certain alternatives available

to it. The number of predispositions, and the ways in which they can be

ordered, limit the scope of our free power of choice in adopting a fundamental character. If our human nature had but one predisposition, there would

be no choice at all; and in the absence of all predispositions, our nature

would be empty and the power of choice would have nothing on which

to operate (Rel I : []).5 There is, however, a special limit on our power

of choice, namely, that we cannot repudiate the predisposition to personality. This has the consequence that we cannot exempt ourselves from the

moral law, as Satan is said to have done (Rel I : []). Kant says: “The

[Moral] Law . . . forces itself upon [us] irresistibly in virtue of [our] moral

predisposition; and were no other incentive working in opposition, [we]

would adopt the law into [our] supreme maxim as the sufficient determining ground of [our] will [free power of choice].” This is an important remark. Kant is saying that if all the predispositions were to line up on the

same side, then the predisposition to personality would always be adopted

by us as supreme and as having unconditional priority. This outcome is

determined by our nature as persons.

One might think that since we know that the predispositions conflict,

this feature of our nature is not significant. It brings out, however, the

uniqueness of the predisposition to personality, namely, that it is the only

4. The idea of elective will we noted earlier in connection with Kant’s idea of a pure will in

Kant I:§ and II:§–.

5. This is how I understand Kant’s saying that in the absence of all incentives the power of

choice (Willkuăr) cannot be determined.

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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

[  ]

   

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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§2. The Free Power of Choice

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