Until we have some clear understanding of the meaning of “freedom”—even though it may be a limited understanding—we cannot embark upon the theoretical examination of practical reason’s moral authority. We have already seen that moral law and the concept of duty presuppose human freedom of choice. If man be simply the unwitting pawn in a cosmic game of casual determination—that is, if all his choices are necessarily determined by his desires, and thus all his imperatives hypothetical—then moral law and moral character are fictitious and cannot possibly relate to any reality. On the other hand, if the rational (human) will is free, then morality is a genuine practical law. Consequently, in order to determine whether morality is a valid law for the human will, we must, as a first step, prove that freedom itself is a valid concept.
Let us begin by trying to clarify the meaning of freedom. Morality imposes a valid constraint on the will of a rational being only if the will imposes this constraint upon itself. To say that the will imposes constraint upon itself is to say that a person freely, on his own, determines his duty and chooses to do it. Choosing and performing ones duty is an example of what we would ordinarily call a free action. However, there are two philosophical views which deny the existence of any such free actions. They are determinism and libertarianism. These views can be characterized and contrasted with Kant’s view of free action by considering what we might call the “causality” of an action. In every action there is some agent who performs the action. Consider then the possible kinds of causality which can be attributed to any action, particularly with regard to the agent’s involvement in such causality.
1. If an action is caused by some set of conditions over which the agent who performs the action has no control, we shall say that the action has dependent causality, i.e., the causes of the action are not dependent on the agent but, on the contrary, the agent is totally dependent on the conditions which obtain at the time he performed the action.
2. If an action occurs for which there is no cause at all, we shall say that the action has no causality.
3. If an action is caused by a set of conditions over some of which the agent does have control, we shall say that the action has independent causality.
In this regard, determinism can be defined as the thesis which holds that human actions have only dependent causality. Libertarianism can be defined as a theory which holds that at least some human actions have no causality. The determinist position seems to follow logically from the general law of causality, that for every event there is a set of conditions which together are the cause of that event, and actions are a species of event. If the determinist position is true, there are no free actions, and so, for Kant, there is no situation in which morality validly imposes a constraint upon the will in the form of a command of reason.
One might think that to deny the determinist thesis is to espouse the libertarian thesis, affirming that free actions are those for which there are no causes at all. But this will not do. First, it is doubtful that there are any free actions in this sense—indeed, it seems absurd to suggest that there are. Secondly, even if there were free actions in this sense, it would not help Kant’s theory. Such free actions would simply be events that happen quite independently of anything else, including an agent’s choices. However, morality essentially involves a relationship of some kind between one’s will (his ability to choose) and his actions.
This is not the place to argue the competing theses. For one thing, each side affirms a basic truth. Determinism is correct to insist that the causal law is universal; libertarianism is correct to assert that human awareness confirms free choice. If Kant simply ignores the argument for determinism, he will thereby fail to justify human freedom, and if he fails to justify human freedom, he cannot validate the moral law. He identifies free actions with those actions, if any, which have independent causality. This would not be inconsistent with the universal law of causality, but obviously it conflicts with the determinist thesis. To justify this identification, Kant examines first the concept of freedom.
the concept of freedom
is the key which explains the autonomy of will
If a living being is rational, then he has will, which makes him a kind of cause. And if such a will is free, then he can exercise his causal power without being determined to his choice by causal influences outside the will itself. Opposed to freedom is natural necessity, which is the exercise of choice under the determining influence of outside causes. Natural necessity is the only mode of choice for nonrational beings.
A rational will is a cause and so in some way must relate to the law of causality, as the determinists claim. But as an independent cause, capable of exercising some control over some of the causal conditions, the will escapes the dehumanizing causal "natural necessity" which would rob a person of his freedom of choice. A second important element in this definition is the uniting of free choice with rationality: a man has free will if and only if he is a rational being. However, to say that freedom is undetermined causal power does not define freedom in any positive way.
This definition by itself, being negative, contains no insight into the essence of freedom. But from the negative definition we can derive a positive conception of freedom which is much richer and more fruitful. The concept of causality involves the idea of laws which command that, whenever we determine something as a cause, we must also include something else—its effect. Thus, since will makes a rational being a cause, freedom of will cannot be separated from law; will cannot exercise a lawless freedom, even though it may act independently of the laws of nature. Will, as the ground of free causality, is subject to the immutable laws of freedom, laws of a special kind. Otherwise a free will would be an absurdity.
Will is a cause, but if it be free, then it is not at the same time an effect, as is the case in natural causal necessity. Certainly every cause is related to some effect, and the relation of cause to effect is expressed as one of law. If we wish to avoid the absurd position of claiming that a free will acts in accordance with no law whatsoever—no maxims, no subjective principles or policies, in a word, acts for no reason at all—then we must conclude that free will is subject to law. The difference between a free will and a determined will does not lie in one being free from law while the other is inexorably ruled by law, but rather it must lie in a difference in the kinds of law. A determined will is one which is wholly ruled by natural causal necessity, the laws of nature; a free will must be ruled by a different kind of law, a law of freedom.
In the very idea of law there is contained the idea of necessity, so that a free will is still subject to a kind of necessity, even when it exercises free choice. The necessity, of course, is moral necessity, not causal necessity. Furthermore, if will is a cause, it must cause something. The effect of choice will be an action of some kind. (Perhaps we should say that the effect of choice is the initiation of action, for sometimes we are unable to do what we set out to do. So long as this point is kept in mind, action can be said to be the usual effect of choice. )
The difficulties raised by this idea—of will itself as a cause of human action—become clear when we consider that a human action is not solely an act of will but is also an overt natural event, and as such is subject to the law of causal natural necessity. This puts us in what seems to be an inescapable difficulty: if the will be free, then according to the laws of freedom it causes actions which, as effects in the natural universe, are events caused by prior events outside the will. To put it more pointedly, an action caused by a free will is an action which is caused by something else. Not that any event is uncaused, rather that every human action, being an event, seems to require two unrelated causes, either of which should alone be sufficient to bring about the event. And yet, to eliminate either involves conclusions which commonsense and freedom refuse to allow.
A third point, that the free will is a rational will, requires further discussion. Where does reason play its part in human choice? In Section II, Kant identified will as practical reason itself, yet here he speaks of will as a distinguishable factor in human choice. Perhaps we should note a distinction which Kant makes in the German between Wille and Willkür, both translated as will.1 Wille refers to will as the source of maxims, be these maxims autonomous or heteronomous. In this sense, will is the same as practical reason. Willkür refers to will as the spontaneous faculty of choice. Since Willkür is spontaneous, it is free in the sense that it is not determined in its exercise, although spontaneity does not mean autonomy.2 In brief, Wille (practical reason) supplies the principles, Willkür (free choice) chooses according to them. These two aspects of will do not refer to different “parts” of the will, but to distinguishable activities of will. Spontaneous, undetermined choice (Willkür) may be exercised autonomously or heteronomously, depending on whether the maxims of will (Wille) be self-legislative or otherwise. In either case, spontaneous will determines itself, even though it may do so according to maxims other than the moral law.
Natural necessity, as we have seen, is a heteronomy of efficient causes : no effect can possibly come into being unless its efficient cause was moved to activity by yet another determining cause. What else then can freedom of the will be but autonomy, that which makes will to be its own law? But to say that will is its own law in all its choices is to assert nothing less than the rule that will ought always act on a maxim which at the same time contains will itself as the ground of universal law. Now this is precisely the formulation of the categorical imperative, the supreme principle of morality. Thus a free will is exactly the same as a will which is subject to moral law.
To assert autonomy as the law of freedom, Kant says, is to assert nothing less than the law commanding will to regard itself as the foundation for moral law. But at the same time, it is surely to assert a great deal more. That the will can make its own maxims does not mean that it must base its own law upon its nature as rational will. We can hold that a free will must be subject to s elf-legislated moral law without having to agree that a free will is itself the basis for such moral law. In fact, while traditional moral theory has insisted on free will as a necessary condition for morality, moral philosophers before Kant sought the ground of moral law in something outside the will, e.g., in mans natural end, Gods Will, or human desire. In order to justify our joining the concept of a spontaneous will to the idea of autonomous law based on will itself, we must find something which relates both to freedom and the categorical imperative of morality.
If we assume freedom of the will, then by a mere analysis of this concept we can derive morality together with the rule of morality (the categorical imperative ). But the rule of morality—that an absolutely good will is one whose maxim at the same time contains itself as the ground of universal law—-is a synthetic proposition: no such maxim can be discovered by an analysis of the idea of an absolutely good will. We can construct such synthetic propositions only when the two ideas are joined to each other through a third idea in which the original two are both found. Through the positive conception of freedom we can discover the third idea; but this idea cannot be Nature as the world of appearances, as it is with physical causes.* We cannot yet explain what this third idea is, which we can derive a priori from the concept of freedom; nor can we give an understandable account of how the concept of freedom can be legitimately derived from pure practical reason, that is, how a categorical imperative is possible. Further prepration is required.
* In thinking of physical causality we join the idea of something as the cause to the idea of something else as the effect.
Here Kant formulates the method he will use to justify freedom of the will, and thus wills subjection to moral law. His problem, briefly, is this. We know from analyzing the idea of free will that such a will is subject to the law of morality, expressed in the categorical imperative. We also know from analyzing the idea of a good will that such a will acts according to the moral maxim, i.e., out of respect for law. But an analysis of concepts does not tell us that the good will which acts out of respect for law is a will which obeys the law of autonomy. Now the categorical imperative expresses a command of reason to a will in this way: “In order to be a good will, act according to a maxim which conforms to the law of autonomy.” But reason can only exercise such command authority if it has the authority, or in Kant’s terms, if we can relate the idea of a law of autonomy to the idea of a good will and, furthermore, establish this relationship a priori—for only an a priori relationship could give reason the authority to command the will categorically, unconditionally, under moral necessity.
We can relate these two ideas, Kant suggests, if we can find a third idea which relates a priori to the other two ideas. That is to say, this third idea will relate a priori to the idea of a good will, and will relate a priori to the idea of a self-imposed law of autonomy. In order to illustrate this method, let us consider the idea of two points in space and the idea of the shortest distance between them. No analysis of either idea alone will include the other idea. But if we include a third idea, that of a straight line, then the first idea can be related to the second: a straight line between two points in space is the shortest distance between two points in space (a synthetic a priori proposition).3 The present search is for some idea which will relate the good will to the autonomous will, an idea which relates to both a priori, but to neither simply by an analysis of concepts (for this would simply restate the original problem in other terms).
Although he does not tell us at this point what the third idea is, Kant does say that we can discover it through the positive idea of freedom, that is, through the idea of a will subject to the law of morality. We already know that this third idea will have to be consistent with that of free will subject to autonomous law. But at this point in the argument the search for the third idea would be premature: we must first prove to our satisfaction that freedom is a real possibility, not simply a fiction of the imagination. For if freedom be only a fantasy, then any discovery of such a connecting third idea would be at best a mere logical game, having no practical validity whatsoever. On the other hand, if freedom can be proved a real possibility, then it will become most important to determine whether or not the absolutely good will derives its law from its own nature or from some standard outside itself, since whatever that standard may be, it will serve as the fundamental and supreme principle of morality. To justify this principle, then, we must prove the genuine possibility of freedom.
we must assume that
the will of every rational being is free
It will not do to give just any reason for claiming that we have a free will; furthermore, we must offer sufficient evidence for claiming that all rational beings have free will. For since morality can subject us to law only as we are rational beings, it must be valid as law for all rational beings. Since morality must be derived solely from the concept of freedom, we must prove that the will of every rational being is free. We cannot find such a proof in certain alleged experiences of human activity, for our proof must be a priori—we must prove freedom of the will for all rational beings as such—and experience simply cannot provide us with such an a priori proof.
In Kant’s introduction to the proof of freedom, the emphasis on the inadequacy of experience for an a priori proof must be kept in mind, for it may appear that Kant’s proof is based upon nothing more than man’s introspective awareness of his freedom of choice. But this is not so: the proof is based upon the relation of rationality to a free will. Man is a moral agent because he is a rational being. This then must be the basis of the proof, for only by proving that a free will is necessarily related to rationality can Kant prove the universality of free will, and thus prove that every human being is subject to the moral law.
Any being which cannot act except in a subjective consciousness of freedom is by this very fact really free in a practical sense.
That is to say, every law inseparably bound up with freedom is a valid law for such a being as much as if his will were proved free in itself by a conclusive theoretical argument.*
But every rational being possessing a will is aware of freedom and is conscious of acting as a free agent.
For by having will he has practical reason, that is, reason which acts as the causal agent regarding its objectives. Now we cannot conceive of (theoretical) reason consciously allowing its judgments to be made for it by something other than itself; in such a situation reason would simply conclude that its judgments had been due not to reason but to impulse. Reason must regard itself, not something outside itself, as the source of its principles.
Thus in its practical function—as the will of a rational being—reason must regard itself as free.
That is to say, only through the subjective consciousness of its own freedom can the will of a rational being (his practical reason) be the source of its own principles (maxims); and consequently, from this practical point of view, every rational being must have free will.
* I assume that the subjective consciousness of freedom which rational beings must be aware of when they act will suffice for our present purpose. In so doing we avoid having to provide a conclusive theoretical proof of the objective reality of freedom. Even if such a proof were found to be inconclusive, the same law which commands a being who is really free commands equally the being who cannot act except in a conscious awareness of his own freedom. We can thus avoid the burdensome theoretical question.
This proof may be disappointing at first. We have what appears to be just that appeal to the psychological experience of free choice which Kant warned against in the foreword to the proof. Our disappointment is understandable. We expected a theoretical proof, in metaphysical language, for the actuality of freedom, but we find only an apparently weak argument for the mere possibility of freedom. We can justifiably demand an accounting: where is the core of the proof?
As arguments go, the proof is a rather simple one: two premisses leading to a conclusion. Rephrased, the argument is:
(P1) All beings which must act with a subjective awareness of acting as free agents are beings which, in a practical sense, are really free agents.
(P2) All rational beings which possess will are beings which must act with a subjective awareness of acting as free agents.
(C) Therefore, all rational beings which possess will are beings which, in a practical sense, are really free agents. Q.E.D.
When put in this way, there is no doubt that the conclusion follows logically from the premisses. The burden of proof then falls upon proving each of the premisses true, for unless we can prove the truth of the premisses, the truth of the conclusion remains in question.
But two important aspects of this proof must be clarified before the premisses can be examined. First, since the conclusion is a synthetic proposition, at least one of the premisses must be synthetic, for from two analytic premisses only an analytic conelusion may be derived. Secondly, and of utmost importance, the proof is not a proof from speculative reason. Kant has already shown the impossibility of knowing anything about free will through theoretical metaphysics.4 He would hardly have violated the emphatic doctrine of the first Critique. Rather, the proof is based upon practical reason; Kant does not try to prove that freedom of will can be known, but that freedom of will is necessary in action. We may not know by logical proof that the will is free, but we can know by acting that we must act as free agents. Hopefully, this important distinction will become clear during our examination of the premisses themselves.
The First Premiss: “Any being which cannot act except in a subjective consciousness of freedom is by this very fact really free in a practical sense.”
We begin with the idea of a being who views himself as a free agent whenever he chooses to act. This introspective consciousness, however, is only a subjective awareness, not objective knowledge; being subjective, it does not provide the ground for a theoretical certainty about the actuality of freedom. But if the subjective consciousness of freedom is necessarily the agents way of viewing himself when he chooses to act, then he must think of himself as a free agent, even though he may not know whether this thought has any objective basis in reality. Furthermore, he cannot escape being aware that, as a free agent, he is bound by any laws which determine that freedom. Thus, Kant will argue, any being which necessarily acts in this subjective awareness of freedom is subject to the moral law, whether or not freedom can be proved by a metaphysical argument. The first premiss is true analytically.
The Second Premiss: “Every rational being possessing a will is aware of freedom and is conscious of acting as a free agent”
In matters of theoretical judgment, reason must see itself as the author of its judgments; for if reason felt that some other impulse were the source, then reason would not consider that a judgment had been made at all, strictly speaking. For instance, suppose I have an irrational fear of the dark. I go into a room which is well-lit, and I see no one else present nor anything in the room which could harm me. Suddenly an electrical failure plunges the room into blackness and my reaction is an overpowering feeling of terror. Looking back, I cannot say that I judged that I was in danger, for I knew there was no danger. Nevertheless, I clearly felt in danger because of my fear of darkness. What happened is easily understandable: I did not make any judgment at all; my emotions simply responded to a stimulus. So too in human choice. If I choose to act, intend to act, and initiate an act, then I regard the activity as resulting from my agency, aimed at my goals. If I feel compelled by some outside force to move in a direction not of my choosing, I simply conelude that I had not acted at all: I had merely re-acted to some compulsion. This is the heart of my sense of responsibility; I feel responsible only for actions of which I am the agent. Nevertheless, I could be deluded in believing I am the cause of my actions since it is possible that subconscious desires or compulsions force me to my “choice.” How can we prove that belief in free agency is justifiable? And even more, how can we prove it a priori? Morality, based as it is upon freedom, stands or falls on the a priori validity of awareness of freedom in acting. Unless we can establish a priori its validity, the second premiss will at best be an introspective judgment; we might still appear to ourselves as free agents, but our empirical belief would carry no moral weight whatsoever. The crux of the proof lies in the second premiss.
As he frequently does, Kant briefly summarizes what progress has been made. Once again he raises the fundamental question: Can reason be practical? That is to say, can reason by itself, through its influence alone, cause human action?
concerning our interest in mortality
We have finally shown that a meaningful idea of morality must be established on the idea of freedom, yet we have not actually proved that we, as human beings, are really free. We saw only that if we wish to regard a rational being as conscious of his inherent causal agency—that is, as having a will—then we must grant freedom to human nature. On these same grounds we must grant to every being having reason and will the same freedom, namely, the capacity of exercising his causal power in the consciousness of freedom.
From the presumed idea of freedom, we derived the awareness of a law of action, namely, that we must always act on subjective rules of action (maxims) which can at the same time be objective rules, the universal law which we ourselves enact. But why should I as a rational being put myself under this law, and in so doing put all other rational beings under it as well? I cannot allow that some interest makes me do so, for then we would have no categorical imperative. But, on the other hand, I must take an interest in this matter and try to answer these questions. For the purely rational being, who finds no obstacle whatsoever in acting solely from reason, “I ought” necessarily leads to “I will.” But for us human beings, influenced by nonrational, sensuous motives, not always acting as reason alone dictates, the objective necessity of “I ought” does not always lead to the subjective necessity of “I will.”
In the second paragraph above, Kant seems suddenly to have changed the subject. He began with a summary of the argument—and a very subtle, difficult argument it is—but then he asks a different question: assuming that I do have free will, why should I obey the moral law? This question is weighty and of crucial importance to every man, but it hardly seems relevant to the problem of freedom.5 What follows is a discussion of the inestimable value of the moral law and its influence on the will.
Have we, in this idea of freedom, simply assumed the moral law of autonomy, because of our inability to prove by some other argument that the law is real and objectively necessary? Even were this so, we still would have made a great advance, for we would have determined the principle much more exactly than anyone had ever done before. But we would have gotten nowhere in proving that it is valid or that we are subject to it through some practical necessity. We could not satisfactorily explain how our universally valid maxim could be a law which is the limiting condition of our actions; nor could we determine the basis on which we judge the value of acting under such conditions—a value so great that no other can equal it. We could not make clear to anyone why a man would find his own personal worth in such actions, a worth in comparison to which a pleasant or painful existence means nothing.
Sometimes we do take an interest in a personal quality without thereby having any interest in the external situation connected with it, except of course that by having the quality we then can profit from the related situation if reason should approve of it. Thus being worthy of happiness can be our goal, even though we do not make happiness itself our motive for acting. And yet we judge this to be so only on the above assumption of the supremacy of the moral law (which we acknowledge when we act in the consciousness of freedom by detaching ourselves from any empirical interest).
The vital question, “Why should I be moral?” can be read in two ways: what’s in it for me? and, what is there about the moral law that I should obey it? The answer to the first question has already been given in Section I.6 Morality is my only guarantee of becoming worthy of happiness. If ever I expect to find complete happiness, I had best convince myself that the moral life is a necessary condition for such happiness, even if it be not a sufficient condition. That is to say, while the moral life does not itself guarantee complete happiness, I will never reach complete happiness unless I live a moral life.
The second question is the critical one; what is there about the moral law that I should obey it, especially when I may want to do something else?
But why should we detach ourselves from such interests? Why should we view ourselves as free to act but still subject to certain laws? Can we find a value in ourselves alone which would make up for the loss of everything which we commonly think necessary for happiness? We cannot yet an wer these questions, nor do we understand how a person can act this way. In short, we must ask: how does the moral law place us under obligation?
Kant defines happiness7 as the sense of well-being attending the fulfillment of all desires. The difficulty of his question lies in the apparent conflict of saying, on the one hand, that obeying the moral law is necessary in order to be worthy of happiness and, on the other, that obeying the moral law frequently prevents us from fulfilling those desires which seem necessary for happiness. How can we feel obligated to obey a law in order to be worthy of happiness when obeying that law may prevent us from being happy? Is there a contradiction between our moral purpose and our natural purpose? This would violate the axiom that Nature has ordained everything to its proper end.8 Or could it be that the contradiction is only apparent, that we must take different points of view on each matter, the moral point of view and the natural point of view? And if this indeed be the case, where can we find the basis for making the distinction?
The argument is becoming rather complicated. Let us step back for an overview of the situation thus far. Kant has offered a proof which purports to show that the human experience of acting in a conscious awareness of freedom is sufficient to establish the validity of the moral law. The second premiss of the proof states that human consciousness of freedom is sufficient ground for the practical acceptance of freedom. This premiss has not yet been proved true. Kant is aware that any justification of the second premiss presupposes the very possibility of free will. Should freedom be a logical impossibility, then the human experience we look to is only an illusion of freedom.
In fact, Kant has undertaken to solve three distinguishable problems: (1) proving that the idea of human free will is not logically impossible but rather is consistent with causal necessity, which rules the world of appearances. Once he has solved this problem, he can then move on, (2) proving that our conscious awareness of acting as free agents is sufficient justification for accounting ourselves to be really free, at least in a practical sense. Given this practical (if not metaphysical) proof of freedom, Kant can take the final step, (3) proving that the moral maxim of the absolutely good will must be the self-imposed, self-grounded law of autonomy. In order to confirm the law of autonomy as a valid moral law binding every human will, Kant must show that the experience of freedom is necessarily an agent’s view of himself when he chooses to act. But in order that this experience can even be suggested as evidence for human freedom, Kant must meet the determinist’s objection and prove that human freedom is really (not merely logically) possible. Thus the first step in this complex justification of the moral law will be to prove that human freedom is possible; the second step will be to prove that every human agent must think himself free; and the final step, that every human agent is bound by the law of autonomy.
Now let us return to Kant’s discussion. Having considered the question, “Why should I be moral?" Kant returns to the main line of his argument by reviewing the two ways in which the idea of freedom and the idea of moral law have been related. He suggests that each idea has been used to justify the other, which, if true, would be an obvious fallacy.
I frankly admit that we find a circular argument here, which seems impossible to avoid. We presuppose our freedom from determining efficient causes so that we may think of ourselves as subject to moral law, as ends in ourselves. And then we maintain our subjection to moral law because we have presupposed freedom of the will. Freedom of the will and self-legislation of moral law are concepts which refer to exactly the same thing: autonomy. Consequently, we cannot use one concept as the foundation for the validity of the other. However, we can use them for the logical objective of showing how two different conceptions of the same subject, autonomy, can be combined into one concept—reducing them to the lowest common denominator, so to speak.
Obligation would be an empty concept, unrelated to anything real, if we could not freely choose to do our duty. By accepting our awareness of obligation as genuine, we recognize our freedom. Freedom, on the other hand, will be an empty idea unless we establish its practical necessity. The statement of the problem does seem circular: if we are free then we have duties, and if we have duties then we must be free. The problem becomes even more difficult when we see that each idea, freedom and obligation, is identified with the same idea of autonomy. If we are free to choose, then we ought to choose according to the laws of freedom, which are the laws of autonomy; and if we have a duty to act, we are obligated under the laws of morality, which again are the laws of autonomy. In short, I have a duty to obey the laws of autonomy because I ought to choose according to the laws of autonomy. This statement is not simply a truism, as though we are saying merely that duty is duty. As Kant points out, there are two different concepts here, free agency and moral obligation, both related to the concept of autonomy. The circle in the argument consists of using the idea of free agency to justify moral obligation, and then using our recognition of moral obligation to justify the idea of free agency. When we describe free agency as an agency subject to autonomy, we emphasize the agent’s independence from outside determining causes, his freedom from laws of natural causal necessity. On the other hand, when we describe moral obligation as an agency subject to autonomy, we emphasize not the agent’s independence from natural causality but his subjection to the laws of practical reason. Because the agent’s freedom from natural causality subjects him to the law of morality and because his subjection to the law of morality presupposes his freedom from natural causality, we seem to be caught in a circular argument.
There may be a way to escape this difficulty, however. Could it be that when we think of ourselves a priori as agents exercising a free causality we take a different point of view from that of seeing ourselves as others see us, namely, as agents exercising a determined causality?
In order to escape the charge that we are arguing in a circle, we must show that one of the two ideas, free agency or moral obligation, has its own independent basis for validity. Because the two ideas support each other, we need only to find an independent justification for one of the ideas. Kant will try to justify free agency, since it is the necessary condition for moral obligation. He will argue that when we regard ourselves as agents, we take a different point of view from the one we take of ourselves as beings in a universe of time, space, and causality.
What I now propose needs no subtle reflection; even the most ordinary intellect can grasp it, even though it may do so in a rather obscure form (sometimes referred to as “having a feeling"). To wit: whatever impressions we receive, such as sensations, which do not arise from our own design, give us knowledge of objects only as we are affected by the impressions. What the object may be like in itself we have no way of knowing. Consequently, no matter how clearly we attend to such impressions, we can obtain only a knowledge of the objects as they appear to us, never a knowledge of things in themselves.
Perhaps we first recognize this simply by noting the difference between ideas which we passively receive and those which we ourselves make up in imagination. But once we make this distinction, we have to allow that “behind” the appearances, so to speak, lie things in themselves, which do not appear to us at all. This we must admit, even though we recognize that in knowing them only by the way they affect us and lacking any other way of knowing them, we can never reach any knowledge of what they are in themselves. But this much lets us make a rough distinction between a world of sense impressions (things as they appear to us) and a world of thought (things as we may think about them). The universe we sense may appear differently to different observers, depending on what impressions each may receive; but the world of thought must be the same to all, since it is the foundation (in objective reality) for the world of appearance.
The doctrine stated so simply here—that we know objects only as they appear to us through our sense impressions—is central to Kants whole theory of knowledge, and forms the basic premiss for his rejection of all metaphysical knowledge. Kant argued that there are collections of impressions which we accept as factually informative and then again those which we classify as simply imaginative, but that the distinction between the two cannot be decided simply by collecting more impressions; rather, the final judgment as to which collections ("manifolds") of sense impressions are factually informative lies in the laws of pure reason, those a priori laws which establish the necessary conditions for veracity.
Kant’s theme here, as in the Critique of Pure Reason, is the inability of the human mind to know objects in the world except through perception. What objects may be unperceived we simply cannot know, for all our knowledge comes to us through impressions : through impressions of sense when we know objects in nature, or through introspective impressions when we know our own inner selves. Commonsense and a kind of instinctive realism lead us to assume that things exist more or less as we perceive them (why should they be otherwise?), that this underlying existence accounts for the order and regularity of our impressions, and that in turn we can affect external objects by our own activity. Nevertheless, these assumptions remain at best matters of reason, not facts of knowledge.
We may even insist, as did René Descartes (1596-1650), that surely we have direct knowledge of ourselves as we really are, as rational beings. But Kant rejects even this kind of direct knowledge.
No one can know his own objective nature, not even through introspective inquiry. He does not make himself what he is, nor does he have any a priori knowledge of his own nature in itself. And since the only knowledge he does have is through introspective experience, it follows that he knows himself only as his nature appears to him, according to the way his consciousness is affected. And yet behind this appearance of himself—which consists of a complex of introspective impressions—he must necessarily posit something to support these impressions, namely, the ego, the self in itself.
In Kant’s view, all impressions, both those of spatial objects and those of introspection, are ones which occur in time. But time, he argues (in the Critique of Pure Reason), is not itself an impression; rather it is one of the a priori modes of perceiving, inescapable and necessary for all perception. The element of time is something added by mind to the content of all impressions, making it necessary that everything (as we perceive it) have temporal characteristics. Thus we can know ourselves only as we perceive ourselves in time; we cannot know ourselves as we might exist unperceived even by ourselves (e.g., as God might know us).9 Furthermore, since we know the self only as an introspective appearance, this sensible self is subject to all the laws which govern the world of sense impressions, particularly the laws of psychological causal necessity. The self as we perceive it, as we know it, lacks freedom.
Yet here too, even more than with objects in space, commonsense posits some core of existence which underlies all our introspective impressions—the self as it exists in itself.10 While it is one thing to lack knowledge of things as they exist unperceived—or in Kant’s terms, as they exist in themselves—we are surely free to think about things in their unperceived existence. The laws of nature which apply to objects in space and time cannot apply to the unperceived universe; they apply only to our experiences. The world of sense impressions is the world as we know and experience it, conforming in every way to laws of nature. The unperceivable world of thought, independent of the laws of nature, is unknowable—but thinkable.
Thus from the standpoint of mere introspection and receiving impressions of himself, a man must see himself as belonging to the sensible universe. But from the standpoint of his possible spontaneous agency (of which he is aware immediately, not through sensations), he must see himself as belonging to the world of thought. But this is all he knows of that world.
The thoughtful person must conclude that he takes one or the other standpoint regarding everything which confronts him. Even nonintellectuals understand this, though they commonly try to find something behind the scenes, so to speak, some invisible, spontaneous agency. But they soon muddle the whole attempt by trying to make the invisible visible, i.e., an object of sense. Nothing at all can be learned this way.
Just as we may think of objects as they might exist unperceived, in themselves, so we may think of ourselves as beings which exist in ourselves—even though, once again, there is no way of acquiring any knowledge of ourselves as, say, we may exist in God’s eye. But since the laws of natural causality apply only in the world of sense impressions, then we may indeed think of ourselves as free, spontaneous agents in the world of thought, choosing according to the laws of freedom, undetermined by the laws of causal natural necessity. Thus, we can see everything, including (and especially) ourselves, from two points of view: (1) as beings in the world of sense impressions, and thus subject to the law of causal necessity; and (2) as beings in the world of pure thought, subject only to the theoretical and practical laws of pure thought. But, as Kant points out, while this is recognized by most people—at least as a practical principle if not a theoretical one—only our experience in the world of sense impressions provides us with any knowledge of the self. Psychology is a legitimate science; metaphysical speculation about the self is not. Nevertheless, this dual point of view proves free will to be a logical possibility, and thus solves Kant’s first problem.
If this view of the self as a being in the world of thought were optional, one we might take or leave as it suited us, then human freedom would be a logical possibility merely. But Kant must prove freedom to be a practical fact, which he can prove by showing that we must view the self as a being in the world of thought—that we have no option. His next step, then, is to explain why we must so see ourselves.
There is in every man a real faculty which sets him apart from everything else, even from himself so far as he is affected by objects. This faculty is Reason, a purely spontaneous activity of the mind which surpasses even the activity of the Understanding. The latter is likewise a spontaneous activity of mind and so differs from the faculty of Sensibility, which acts only in response to impressions passively received. But the Understanding, while it does produce its own ideas, can employ them solely for combining sensible impressions according to certain rules, thereby uniting the impressions in one act of conscious awareness. Except for this, the Understanding cannot think anything at all. But Reason, on the other hand, exercises its pure spontaneity (through what I call the pure Ideas) by going far beyond the sensible universe. Its primary function is to distinguish the sensible universe from the universe of thought and thereby set down limits for the exercise of the Understanding.
Kant here distinguishes three functions of intellectual activity.11 Sensibility is the mind’s capacity to perceive the impressions of inner and outer sensation through the a priori modes of space and time. Mind receives impressions and as it does so, one might say, spatio-temporalizes them. Understanding is mind’s capacity to receive impressions from sensibility, combine them according to a priori principles of knowledge, and judge whether the combined impressions are genuine experiences of the sensible world. Since it operates according to its own a priori laws, understanding is a spontaneous faculty to the extent that its judgments are not determined by any casual necessity. On the contrary, judgments of causal necessity are products of understanding. However, understanding cannot judge objects or events which cannot in some way be perceived, for its sole function is to deal with sense impressions. It may produce its own a priori laws, but they are restricted in their application to the world of sense impressions; any attempt to use them in the world of pure thought must fail and finally end in contradiction.12
The third function of intellect is Reason.13 Reason’s legitimate function is to consolidate the judgments of experience produced by understanding, so that the more or less disconnected items of factual information can be systematically related to form a unified whole which conforms to the patterns offered in the Ideas. Since Reason organizes only the products of a spontaneous function of intellect (understanding) rather than the impressions of sensibility, Reason’s activity is not limited to the world of sense impressions. It can escape the restrictions of time and space and seek to know things which may exist beyond experience, such as the existence of God, the creation and limits of the universe—and freedom of the will. Unfortunately, when it reaches beyond the products of the understanding, it cuts itself off from its only available tie to reality, perception. In such an attempt, Reason inevitably blunders, either by taking principles from understanding and using them ouside the context of sense impressions (e.g., using the principle of causality to explain the origin of the universe), or by using the pure Ideas in the world of sense impressions (e.g., using the Idea of freedom to characterize the self as it appears to us through introspective perception). Each of these two ways of misusing Reason leads ultimately to contradictory conclusions.
Reason’s legitimate function, Kant argues, is regulative, not constitutive; that is, Reason cannot discover truth, but it can establish rules (in conformiy with its Ideas) by which understanding must organize empirical knowledge. For instance, Reason rules that the Universe be a consistent totality in which no law conflicts with any other. This conception, we may recall, was the underlying premiss for the first variation of the categorical imperative. We do not know this to be factually true, but we still regulate our experiences in such a way that an experience which suggested an inconsistency in Nature (e.g., a man who could walk through solid brick walls) would be judged illusory.
Reason’s ability to think independent of the restrictions of the sensible world of space and time has a most important bearing on morality: if we can think independently of sensibility, then to that extent we are free of space-time-causal restrictions. In particular, we can think of ourselves as existing in a world which cannot be perceived but can only be thought. Indeed, we must think of ourselves in this way.
It follows that every rational being, as an intelligence, must see himself as a member of the world of thought, not simply as a member of the sensible world through his lower faculties. Thus he has two points of view from which he must see himself and determine the laws governing how he acts: (a) as a member of the world of sense impressions he is ruled by the laws of Nature (heteronomy); (b) as a member of the world of thought he is subject to laws which are neither laws of Nature nor derived from experience, but based solely on reason.
Reason cannot view itself simply as a link in a causal chain. Every being which thinks—and this includes every human being —must view himself as a spontaneous intelligence. Of course, we also look upon ourselves as members of the world of appearances, but we cannot take the empirical view as our only perspective, even though it alone gives us what factual information we have about ourselves. We must also consider ourselves as members of the world of pure thought, not only in the realm of theoretical reason but especially in the realm of practical reason. From the standpoint of the world of pure thought, reason must view itself as a free agent—and thus subject to the moral law.
Because he is rational, a member of the world of thought, man cannot conceive what it would be to exereise his will except in the consciousness of freedom. For freedom is nothing more than willing independently of the determining causes in the sensible world; reason cannot but regard itself as independent in this way. The idea of freedom is inseparably connected to that of autonomy, and autonomy to the idea of universal moral law. Ideally, the moral law is the foundation for all rational activity, just as the law of Nature serves as the foundation for all appearances.
Because he is a thinking being, man exercises his faculty of Reason, which is recognized to be a spontaneous activity. In order to do so, man must see himself as a being in the world of pure thought. From this standpoint he can exercise his Reason generally, his practical Reason in particular, independently of those laws which apply only to the world of sense impressions; that is, he can choose in the conscious awareness of his freedom. Now to act in this manner (as we say in the proof above) is to act subject to the law of freedom, which is nothing other than the law of autonomy, the supreme moral law. Therefore, in order to be a thinking agent, man must view himself as free and thus as subject to the moral law of autonomy.
Kant has found his “third idea": that of the rational self as a spontaneous member of the world of pure thought. It proves the possibility of human freedom and thus solves the first of Kant’s three problems, as we noted above. Furthermore, the idea of the self as a spontaneous member of the world of pure thought is a necessary presupposition for holding that the human will can become a good will. If the good will is possible only as a member of the world of pure thought, then the good will must be subject to the laws which govern the world of pure thought. Thus if membership in the world of pure thought is necessarily a rational being’s way of conceiving himself, the good will must be subject to the law of autonomy and Kant’s third problem will have been solved. By his “third idea” of the world of pure thought, Kant has established the conditional validity of the second premiss of his proof for freedom. But his premiss is still only conditionally valid. We must take one final step before we can rest from our difficult journey. We must prove that Reason’s point of view has an a priori basis, that it is not simply another frustrating misrepresentation of Reason. This last step will be the principal subject of our final chapter.
Another problem also has been solved, namely, the problem concerning the circular argument.
This allays the suspicion raised above, that we might be arguing in a subtle circle by deriving autonomy from freedom, and then deriving freedom from the moral law (autonomy). That is, there was some question that we posited the consciousness of freedom in order to justify the moral law, and then used the consciousness of the moral law to justify freedom. This would have meant that we were unable to find a ground for moral law—for while congenial minds would readily allow that our begging the question was a formally correct argument, they surely would not concede that we had thereby proved anything. But now we see that when we are conscious of being free agents, we have made ourselves members of the intelligible world, recognizing autonomy of the will and how it leads to morality; whereas when we are aware of obligation, we think of ourselves as members of both the sensible universe and the universe of pure thought at the same time.
While we may think of ourselves simply as members of the world of pure thought, we cannot think of ourselves simply as members of the sensible world. The awareness of freedom always accompanies our thought, sometimes obscurely (when we study objects of natural science), sometimes purely (when we analyze moral concepts and principles), and sometimes in between (when we are faced with moral conflict), but we are never without the awareness of freedom. Now we can better understand Kant’s definition of constraint as the relationship between a human will and the law of practical reason. To be aware of constraint is to feel the influence of two opposing forces, those which influence us as members of the world of sense impressions and those which influence us as members of the world of pure thought.
Freedom of will is the fundamental and necessary condition for morality, for unless we can choose independently of the laws of natural causality, we cannot meaningfully be judged subject to the moral command of reason. But to have freedom is not to be independent of all law; freedom is the ability of a rational being to choose according to the laws of freedom, which laws are those of practical reason, expressed in the categorical imperative. Since the validity of the moral law stands or falls on the possibility of freedom, it becomes crucially important to prove that will is indeed free and that a free will is subject to the law of autonomy.
The proof hinges on the necessity of the relationship between rationality and freedom, that in its exercise of rational will, a person must think of himself as a free agent.
1. All rational beings have will, which is the ability to exereise causality in the universe. This ability may be either spontaneous (free) or determined by natural causal necessity.
2. If a rational being, in the exercise of his will, necessarily acts in the subjective awareness of acting as a free agent, then in a practical sense he is truly a free agent. Although we cannot prove freedom by a deductive metaphysical argument, we may still be able to prove that every rational agent is a free agent in his willing, if we can only show that in acting he cannot but see himself as a free agent, and hence subject to the moral law.
3. In order to prove that a rational being must act as a free agent to himself, we must show a priori how the idea of a rational will is related to the idea of a will which necessarily thinks of itself as a free agent. Only in this way can we justify the conclusion that a rational agent must always and necessarily act as a free agent, and thus as a moral one.
4. We need some interconnecting idea, one which relates directly to the idea of acting as a rational being and to the idea of acting as a free agent. The third idea cannot be discovered in either of the two ideas by an analysis of concepts, for that would beg the question of the relationship. We shall have to validate this third idea on independent grounds.
5. A rational being acts in the subjective awareness of itself as a spontaneous activity, especially in its function of Reason. Thus as rational beings we can take a dual point of view of ourselves: (a) as members of the world of sense impressions and thus subject to the laws which govern this world, especially the law of causal necessity; and (b) as members of a world of pure thought, acting independently of the laws of causal necessity, and thus subject to the laws of freedom. Since Reason, as a distinguishable function of intellect, does not relate directly to sense impressions, Reason can conceive itself, both in its theoretical and practical exercise, as a spontaneous faculty, determined not by the laws of causal necessity but only by the laws of freedom.
6. In Reason’s ability to view itself as a member of the world of pure thought is found the third idea which relates rationality to freedom: a rational being can regard itself solely as a member of the world of pure thought, subject only to the laws of pure practical reason, which are the laws of morality.
One final step remains, to show an a priori relationship between choosing in the awareness of free choice and acting as a moral agent subject to the law of autonomy, and to show this relationship by relating both of these ideas to the “third idea” of the self as a member of the world of pure thought. If the relationship be simply assumed, then we have merely assumed the validity of the moral law and have failed to prove that rational beings have moral obligations. If the relationship be a judgment causally determined by some introspective experience, it cannot serve as the a priori foundation for the validity of the moral law, and the awareness of obligation becomes nothing more than another natural feeling wholly without moral status. Only by justifying the proposition, “All rational beings which possess will are beings which necessarily act in a subjective awarenes of themselves as free agents,” as a synthetic a priori proposition of practical reason, can we ultimately establish the validity and authority of the supreme moral law. That final task, now lies before us.