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Kant on the relation between freedom and morality


To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Kant on the relation between freedom and morality
Date: 24th March 2009 12:16

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 15 March with your essay for the University of London Ethics: Historical Perspectives module, in response to the question, 'Does Kant offer a defensible account of the relationship between freedom and morality?'

As a first-year undergraduate at Birkbeck College London, I experienced my first 'peak moment' struggling through section III of Kant's Groundwork, where he brings in the notion of freedom as the 'third term' required to underpin his account of morality. It felt to me then to be something incredibly deep, even though I could not make sense of the idea of 'noumenal freedom'. The thought that came to me is that philosophy isn't about the easy stuff, the stuff you can understand. It's about the stuff you can't understand and yet you find something meaningful, or quasi-meaningful to say about it.

This of course goes against the grain of the analytical approach to philosophy, summed up by Wittgenstein's stance in the Tractatus: what can be said, can be said clearly. Yet all the evidence points to the fact that Wittgenstein felt that the 'mystical', that concerning which we must remain silent, is vitally important, not dispensable, and that the depth of ethics lies precisely in the fact that it goes beyond that which can be said.

All this is in response to your remark about the 'incredible stare'. (Actually, shouldn't it be 'incredulous stare'?). Remember, this is Kant -- not some new age hippie nonsense about crystal healing or crop circles.

Accept -- purely for the sake of argument -- the possibility of God (I am an atheist, but that is by the by). The story of the Great Potter making things -- including people -- out of 'stuff' is the antithesis of ethics because the result can only be a piece of clockwork, where things 'go' according to the laws of nature that God has laid down. (Alan Watts talks disparagingly about the potter analogy, but don't let that scare you. There are any number of ways to go if you reject the potter as an adequate conception of God.)

You can introduce your 'practical freedom' within a naturalist, compatibilist framework (as you describe: the locus classicus is P.F. Strawson 'Freedom and Resentment'), or talk about the difference between the 'logical space of causes' and the 'logical space of reasons' (McDowell, 'Mind and World'). But that merely recreates ethics in the form of 'seeing as'. I see you as a rational agent, and consequently offer you reasons for action rather than trying to manipulate your behaviour. Nagel's 'view from nowhere' gives the lie to this attitude: we are, after all, just part of the natural world obeying its laws, and our 'freedom', 'rationality', 'ethics' merely persistent appearances or illusions -- as is consciousness itself.

Kant offers instead an (admittedly agnostic) metaphysical theology according to which the natural world is itself merely an 'appearance', not the ultimate reality. One way, perhaps, to get a grip on the notion of the noumenal world, and of noumenal freedom is to ask what kind of thing the 'real' world has to be if it isn't the product of a Great Potter.

The subsequent history of philosophy (brought very powerfully to me by reviewing Fichte's philosophy -- the most recent 'philosophical connection' to be added to the PhiloSophos site) describes the various possibilities for idealism (Fichte, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Schelling, Schopenhauer) if one rejects Kant's view. Of course, you can just direct your incredulous stare to every manifestation of idealism, but then you are missing out on rather a large chunk of philosophy.

That doesn't get us very far, but at least it opens up the possibility that the negation of the potter view will take us to very strange and unfamiliar territory, where we are pushing the borders of meaningful discourse.

Consider the idea that 'God's creation' is just Reason itself. This is reason not as a by-product of the natural world but as its ultimate source. We are, as noumenal beings, God's creatures rather than a secondary product of God's creative activity. As rational beings, we require a 'world of appearances' within which to exercise our freedom, and this God has provided too. (Kant was accused of giving a rehashed version of Berkeleian idealism, and there is some truth in that accusation. Although Kant attacks Berkeley as a 'dogmatic idealist', he doesn't appear to have spent much time studying Berkeley's works.)

There is therefore an ontological order of things with a very definite teleological structure: God's creation is for the purpose of realizing a 'kingdom of ends'. Each human being has been created for this purpose, and with the capacity to choose whether or not to act according to the rational requirements for realizing a kingdom of ends, however incomprehensible such 'choice' might seem from our vantage point in the phenomenal world.

I haven't said much about your essay (which is very good). I found the suggestion regarding Asperger's Syndrome provocative -- for reasons I have given previously, I think Kant would have been able to offer a more 'integrated' account of the emotions, leading to the idea that we can, e.g. be 'commanded to love'. In that case, Kant would be able to recognize, as we do, that Asperger's Syndrome is indeed a mental disability.

I expect a sceptical response to this. You are a scientist by training (in the broad sense), and all the stuff about idealism must seem like so much mumbo jumbo. Not to mention the fact that even if we grant the idealist premise, that still does not go very far to explain noumenal freedom. But crop circles it isn't.

All the best,