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Kant on freedom and morality


To: Craig S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Kant on freedom and morality
Date: 10th March 2011 12:00

Dear Craig,

Thank you for your email of 26 February, with your essay for the University of London BA Ethics Historical Perspectives module, in response to the question, ''Acting freely and acting morally are one and the same thing for Kant.' Discuss.'

On Monday, I was sitting in Gordon Square, WC1, very near the place where I sat in 1973 after I had read the third section of the Grundlegung where Kant discusses free will and the phenomena/ noumena distinction. I remembered how I felt back then: what one would describe as a 'peak moment'. I had an intimation of something breathtakingly deep, coupled with a powerful desire to understand what seemingly surpassed all understanding. This was philosophy!

Why was I there? I was invited down to London for lunch, to discuss Pathways' contribution to the UoL International Programme (as it's now called). Sam Guttenplan's last contract, before he retires, was to revamp the BA, increasing it from ten to twelve modules. Those were the necessary requirements for bringing the degree in line with other subjects which had already switched to the twelve module setup. The changes are due to take affect in 2012/3. Students currently registered with the BA will be given the choice of sticking with the old regulations or switching to the new. The extra two modules are the Introduction (from the Diploma, which existing BA students will be given an exemption for) and a dissertation. The sweetener, is that exams will be two essays in two hours rather than three essays in three hours.

My take on this question is that you are not being asked to go too deeply into the question of how freedom relates to the metaphysics of phenomena and noumena. Rather, the focus is on the specific claim that moral action and free action are one and the same. Are they?

Well, I freely chose to respond to your essay today (rather than yesterday) on the basis of what seemed to me to be reasonable though not compelling considerations. I took Tuesday off (to recover from Monday and to reflect on my options, as not everything went as I'd hoped). When I came into my office yesterday, I had over 200 emails to sift through (many from Philos-L, but still a lot of work). To cut a long story short, the explanation why I decided to respond today would cite certain desires which I had (like the need to be sufficiently fresh, I always reserve the best part of the day for this activity). Was that moral? It would be the right thing to do, for anyone in my position. I am prepared to argue the case that my action was consistent with the categorical imperative.

But note that what I actually did was motivated by my desires, albeit desires which pass the test of the categorical imperative. The desire to perform at one's best is a worthy desire, an ethical desire, a desire that I am prepared to legislate for. If instead I had been motivated by laziness to to procrastinate, to 'put off until tomorrow what one can do today', than that would be an unethical desire, inconsistent with the categorical imperative.

In short, whether my action is ethical or unethical, by the test of the categorical imperative, the explanation of my action is exactly the same in both cases. It is a causal explanation. To use Donald Davidson's formula, it is a combination of a belief and a desire which together result in action. The desire in question, which I would be prepared to cite if someone challenged my decision, is also what rationalizes the action. So it does double duty. John McDowell uses the terms, 'logical space of causes' and 'logical space of reasons' to distinguish these two aspects.

But note that, for Davidson, both motivations -- the desire to be at my best, and the lazy desire to procrastinate -- are equally 'rational'. My 'freedom' in both cases is Humean freedom, as you describe in your essay. ('Weakness of will' is an example of irrationality which Davidson considers a challenge to his account.)

Kant believed that he had discovered another kind of rationality, an overarching rationality which governs actions with the same force as beliefs are governed by the laws of logic. Not all cases of Davidsonian rationality are truly 'rational'. On this picture, true rationality doesn't relate to contingently given desires because it is purely structural or formal. What Kant should have said at this point is that to *exhibit* this kind of rationality is something to be observed or recognized, as a structural feature of the phenomenal world. It is a desirable feature, for those that share Kant's capacity to see its desirability (though, note, this desire is contingently given, not everyone possesses it). But the structural feature itself has nothing to do with causes and effects. It isn't some special kind of 'cause' (the 'free will'). Which leads me to question whether the metaphysics of phenomena and noumena has any real relevance (but that's another story).

The real question, whenever the problem of free will comes up is, 'Is this notion of freedom worth wanting?' E.g. does Humean 'freedom' give us a freedom worth wanting? For libertarians, the answer is no. What about Kantian 'freedom'? For my part, I just don't how it can be, if one is not happy with mere Humean freedom. In both cases, as you observe, we are fully bound by the causal realm. The only difference isn't some different kind of 'causality' but merely an observed structural feature.

All the best,