History of Modern Ethics
Stephen Darwall
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Kant Lecture 4

I. Recall the passage from p. 30 of Kant's Critique (reproduced on p. 3 of Kant III). What is going on in this passage?

Kant begins by considering someone who says that he has an irresistible lust for something when it is present. Kant then remarks that such a person would probably agree that he would control his lust if ``a gallows were erected on which he would be hanged immediately after gratifying his lust''.

Now what lesson are we supposed to draw from this? Although Kant doesn't mention it, some move of this sort is often made by empiricist compatibilists to argue that, even if, without the presence of the gallows, a person's satisfying his lust is caused by this having been his strongest desire, that doesn't show he didn't act freely. While it is true that a person cannot have acted freely unless he could have acted otherwise, it is often asserted by empiricist compatibilists that in order for that to have been true it is sufficient that the person would have acted otherwise, if had chosen to do so, or if his strongest desire would have been to act otherwise. So even though the person's act is caused by his strongest desire when he acts on his lust, his act is nonetheless free, he could have done otherwise, if it was true of him that if a gallows …, then he would have wanted most not to satisfy his lust to avoid the gallows, and, consequently, would not have done so.

There is something to this response. It seems to go some distance toward showing that the person didn't have to satisfy his lust. There are circumstances, after all, in which he would have ''controlled'' it.

But even so, it may also seem ultimately unsatisfying in explaining our sense that a person is free when she acts. How can it help to explain the freedom of the act in the present situation to note that if the circumstances had been different, some other act would have occurred?

II. Kant goes on: ``But ask him whether … under a plausible pretext''.

Note how he describes the response: ``Whether he would or not he perhaps will not venture to say; but that it would be possible for him he would certainly admit without hesitation. He judges, therefore, that he can do something because he knows that he ought, and he recognizes that he is free---a fact that without the moral law, would have remained unknown to him.''

There are several things to notice about this:

A. First, Kant explicitly detaches the thought that one is free not to give the false deposition from any thought about how one will in fact act, either in the actual circumstance, or in some altered circumstance. In this way, his response differs from his remark about the lust case. The point must be that whether a person is free to reject the false deposition, whether it is possible for him not to give it in the relevant sense, is independent of what he will do (and perhaps of what he would do in some altered circumstance).

B. Second, Kant argues that what forms the basis for the thought that one is free is simply the thought that one ought not to give the deposition. How can this be? Suppose one thought it impossible to avoid giving the false deposition. Could one then think that, nonetheless, one ought not to do so? Of course, one might think it terrible that one is doing so. But if rejecting the deposition is literally impossible, then it is not a practical alternative; it is not an action open to one. But if it is not an option, then in what sense can it be something one ought to do? It seems it cannot. So if one ought not to give the false deposition then it must be an action open to one; it must, in the relevant sense, be possible for one not to do it. As Kant puts it, ``he judges, therefore, that he can do something because he knows that he ought.''

C. In thinking the idea of a law that binds one as an agent, therefore, one is led to the thought that one is free, ``a fact which, without the moral law, would have remained unknown to [one].'' A practical law which confronts one in thinking about what to do (in practical thinking) entails practical freedom. One can think one is bound by such a law only if one regards oneself as free.

Although Kant does not explicitly add it, it is implicit in his thought that, not only is it possible for one to reject the false deposition, it is likewise possible for one to reject it for the very reason that one ought to. Again, that one will reject it for this reason, that this will be one's strongest desire, may or may not be true. But whether one will is irrelevant to whether one can.

III. Here we get the Critique's version of the doctrine I earlier discussed from the Groundwork. In the latter Kant argues that an agent cannot act but under the idea of freedom. To deliberate about what to do, about what reasons exist for doing one thing rather than another, one must think as if one can do whatever one thinks one has good and sufficient reason to do and as if one can do this precisely for the good and sufficient reason one takes oneself to have. Of course, we all have had the depressing experience of deliberating about what to do in the belief, perhaps even the knowledge, that we will not end up doing what we think we should. But that is not the same thing as thinking that we cannot do what we think we should.

There are actually two points here:

A. First, if we think it impossible to do something, we can hardly coherently think that this is, nonetheless, something we should do. An act can be something we should do only if it is an alternative that is open to us, something we can do.

B. Second, in deliberating we seek reasons to act. This thinking is practical in the sense that it naturally concludes in an intention, in a commitment to action. But it is also practical reasoning in the sense that, if the resultant intention results from deliberation, we will have some reasons for so intending. In the context of deliberation, therefore, the thought that one ought (all things considered) to do something seems to entail the thought, not only that one can so act, but, as well, that one can for the very reasons that one ought.

IV. Now as I have noted before, Kant is a compatibilist about freedom. He thinks that insofar as our actions are part of a world we can experience, we must experience them as taking place in accordance with causal laws. At the same time, however, in seeing ourselves to be bound by practical laws, we must see our actions as free.

But if Kant is a compatibilist, he is a compatibilist of a very different sort than the empiricist compatibilist I referred to above. Hume, for example, takes our freedom to consist simply in the fact that our actions are caused by our beliefs and desires, by our character, as he puts it. The causal chain resulting in our actions goes through us, and we can see this by seeing that if our character had been different, if we had believed or desired differently, then we would have acted differently.

Note that this compatibility is entirely effected from an observer's point of view. That the order of nature went in the precise path it did doesn't mean that if we had been different that our actions would not have been different. Thus our nature, our beliefs and desires, is what determines our actions and, Hume asks, what more can we have in mind in thinking of ourselves as free?

Kant's response is that the sort of freedom we take ourselves to have is nothing we can grasp from an observer's standpoint. Rather, it is as agents who deliberate, thinking about reasons to act, that we must think of ourselves as free. And this thought is independent of any thought we might have from an observer's point of view in predicting or retricting what we, or anyone else, will or did actually do. For this reason we might aptly call his position a compatibilism of practical reason.

V. In the Critique, then, if not in the Groundwork, Kant takes it that the moral law is something that is unavoidably part of the practical thinking of any agent who is capable of acting on principles. And that this ``fact of reason'', as he calls it, is the only way through which we come to know of our own freedom.

``It is therefore the moral law, of which we become immediately conscious as soon as we construct maxims for the will, which first presents itself to us; and, since reason exhibits it as a ground of determination which is completely independent of and not to be outweighed by any sensuous condition, it is the moral law which leads directly to the concept of freedom.'' (29)

``The consciousness of this fundamental law may be called a fact of reason, since one cannot ferret it out from antecedent data of reason, such as the consciousness of freedom (for this is not antecedently given) …''

VI. A striking feature, therefore, of Kant's thought is the sharp line he draws between practical and theoretical thinking, between thinking that we engage in deliberating about what to do and that which we undertake in wondering what is true or what to believe. We should ask ourselves whether these are as distinct as he must suppose.

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