Kant on Freedom

The Pre-Critical Period

In the pre-critical period Kant is committed to a strong version of what he calls “the principle of determining ground”. This principle states that everything has a determining ground. Kant thinks that this principle applies both to truths and to existing things. Insofar as truths are concerned this principle states that the determining ground for a given truth is to be found in an identity between the subject and the predicate in a true statement. That is, the determining ground for a given truth is to be found at the logical level by the demonstration of an identity holding between the subject and the predicate of that given categorical statement. Insofar as existing things are concerned this principle states that things which begin to exist require an antecedent determining ground for their existence – that is, things which begin to exist require a sufficient cause for their existence which precedes them in time.

Kant insists that whatever comes into existence can only come into existence by sufficient determining grounds. Thus, if those sufficient determining grounds are absent, then the thing in question not only won’t come into existence but also can’t come into existence. So, he concludes, everything that won’t come into existence can’t come into existence. He writes:

If it is the case that whatever happens can only happen if it has an antecedently determining ground, it follows that whatever does not happen could not happen either, for obviously no ground is present, and without a ground it could not happen at all. And this is something which has to be admitted in the case of all grounds of grounds taken in retrogressive order. It follows, therefore, that all things happen in virtue of a natural conjunction, and in such a connected and continuous fashion that, if someone were to wish the opposite of some event or even of a free action, his wish would involve the conception of something impossible, for the ground necessary to produce the opposite of what happened or was done is simply not present. (New Elucidations pp. 21)

Thus, Kant seems to endorse a very strong necessitarian picture according to which everything that will happen must happen, and everything that won’t happen can’t happen. Kant even thinks that the common distinction between hypothetical and absolute necessity does little to mitigate the kind of necessitarianism implied by his principle of determining grounds. He writes “But the distinction obviously has no power at all to break the force and effective power of necessity…. When we distinguish hypothetical necessity, and in particular moral necessity, from absolute necessity, what is at issue here is not the force or the effective power of the necessity. We are not concerned, namely, whether a thing is, in some case or other, more or less necessary. What is at issue is the necessitating principle: namely, whence the thing is necessary.”[1] Thus, it is within the confines of this necessitarian picture that Kant develops his account of freedom in the pre-critical period.

This kind of necessitarianism is not incompatible with freedom, Kant thinks. He writes: “But the way in which the certainty of their actions is determined by their grounds give us all the room we need to affirm that they bear the characteristic mark of freedom. For such actions are called forth by nothing other than motives of the understanding applied to the will… [that is] spontaneous inclination of the will.”[2] Kant thinks that what matters for freedom is spontaneity, when “spontaneity” is taken “in the right sense”. Kant writes “For spontaneity is action which issues from an inner principle. When this spontaneity is determined in conformity with the representation of what is best it is called freedom.”[3] Thus, the mere fact that everything, including human actions, is determined by an antecedent sufficient determining ground does not preclude freedom, for a particular kind of determination is compatible with freedom; namely the kind of determination in conformity with the representation of what is best. As long as this is the determining ground for a given action that action is free.

 

The Critical Period, part I: Critique of Pure Reason

By the critical period Kant had changed his mind radically. He now emphatically asserted that insofar as an action is necessitated by the antecedent state of the world, together with the laws of nature, such an action cannot be free. Freedom, he insisted, requires a kind of causality which originates “a state from itself, the causality of which does not in turn stand under another cause determining it in time in accordance with the law of nature” (A533/B561).

Thus Kant insisted that we can think of causality in two ways: according to nature and according to freedom. According to the former, each action is such that its causal history can be traced through natural causes, in accordance with natural laws, indefinitely into the past. Thus, every action, insofar as it is caused in accordance with nature is necessitated by the previous state of the world together with the laws of nature. The second way we can think of causality, however, is very different. To be a cause in accordance with freedom is to be such that the cause originates from itself as an absolute beginning with no antecedent cause determining it.

It seems that these two ways of thinking about causality are incompatible. That is, it seems that for any given action either its cause was itself caused or it was not. If the former, it is a cause in accordance with nature. If the latter, it is a cause in accordance with freedom. But it seems that it cannot be both.

Kant’s very ambitious project is to show that this appearance is mistaken. His project is to show that there is nothing contradictory in some actions, namely free actions, having causes both in accordance with nature and in accordance with freedom. According to Kant’s picture, there is nothing inconsistent in the claim that a free action is the effect of a cause in accordance with nature and also an effect of a cause in accordance with freedom. In order to appreciate how this claim does not amount to a contradiction in terms, we need some central Kantian notions.

A crucial Kantian notion is the distinction between phenomena and noumena. A first general gloss of this distinction is the following: phenomena are things as they appear to us insofar as we are perceivers, and noumena are things as they are in themselves – that is, things as they are independently of how they appear to us insofar as we are perceivers. For Kant, the phenomena realm is the empirical realm and the noumena realm is the intelligible realm.

What matters for our purposes is that Kant thinks that natural laws only govern empirical reality. So, crucially for our purposes, causation in accordance with nature only takes place in the phenomena realm. This opens the possibility that the noumena realm interacts with the phenomena realm in a casual way which is different from causality in accordance with nature. Kant thus claims that there is nothing inconsistent with claiming that the noumena realm causes the phenomena realm – when these causes are causes in accordance with freedom. Thus there is nothing inconsistent with saying that free actions are caused in accordance with nature by antecedent determining grounds in empirical reality, and they are also caused in accordance with freedom by something in the noumena realm.

In order to make this story more precise Kant introduces the distinction between empirical and intelligible character. For Kant a character is a law of causality without which nothing can be a cause.[4] An empirical character is a character which provides the law for the causality for a particular set of actions in empirical reality. Kant writes: “And then for a subject of the world of sense we would have first an empirical character, though which its actions, as appearances, would stand through and through in connection with other appearances in accordance with constant laws, from which, as their conditions, they could be derived.”[5] An intelligible character, on the other hand, is a character which provides a law of causality for those very same set of actions but which is not to be encountered in empirical reality. Kant writes: “Yet second, one would also have to allow this subject an intelligible character, through which it is indeed the cause of those actions as appearances, but which does not stand under any conditions of sensibility and is not itself appearance.”[6]

Kant thinks that for any given subject that we encounter in empirical reality it is consistent to think that such a subject has both an empirical and an intelligible character. In fact, Kant goes on to say that a given empirical character is “only the sensible schema”[7] of a given intelligible character. Thus, Kant thinks we can call the empirical character of a subject S the character of S insofar as S is an appearance and the intelligible character of S the character of S insofar as S is a thing in itself – that is, a noumenon.

Thus we get a picture according to which it is consistent to say that there are free actions. An action is free insofar as it is the effect of an intelligible character which causes in accordance with freedom. This action, however, is also the effect of an empirical character which causes in accordance with nature. But this kind of causation in accordance with nature does not preclude freedom precisely because it is consistent with the kind of causation from intelligible characters which is causation according to freedom.

Kant’s claim for this picture is rather humble. His claim is merely that such account of freedom is not self-contradictory, nor does it contradict anything we know about empirical reality.

 

The Critical Period, part II: Critique of Practical Reason

In Kant’s second Critique, he retains the picture of freedom adumbrated in his first Critique. In the second Critique, however, Kant has a much more ambitious goal: establishing the “reality” and “objectivity” of freedom. Kant insists that freedom is real and objective, but only “in a practical sense”. What this practical sense of objectivity and reality amount to for Kant is difficult to say. From now onward I shall omit the qualification “in a practical sense” when talking about the reality and objectivity of freedom; it is important to note, however, that for Kant the reality and objectivity of freedom come with these qualifications.

Kant thinks that our moral consciousness enables us to recognize that as rational begins we are bound by the moral law. Kant expresses this by saying that our moral consciousness reveals a “fact of reason” (5:31), and that this fact of reason is the validity and objectivity of the moral law. Saying that the moral law is valid and objective is just saying that all rational beings are bound by it. That is, for the moral law to be objective and valid, according to Kant, is for the moral law to hold “for the will of every rational being” (5:19). It is on the basis of this fact of reason that Kant thinks we can come to recognize the objectivity and reality of freedom. The argument, in very general strokes, is the following.

For Kant imperatives are statements which state obligations and are expressed using the word “ought”. These imperatives provide grounds for determining the will. Imperatives come in two varieties: hypothetical and categorical. Hypothetical imperatives provide grounds for determining the will which depend on “an object (matter) of the faculty of desire” (5:21). That is, hypothetical imperatives do not themselves provide a ground for determining the will, but rather depend on desires providing such grounds. These imperatives are instances of the general schema “if I desire to ф, I ought to ѱ”. Hypothetical imperatives provide “practical precepts but not laws” (5:20). It is the categorical imperative which provides a law.

According to Kant, a law is the sort of thing that provides grounds for determining the will only on the basis of the nature of the will and independently of any contingency connected to the will because of the peculiarities of any particular rational agent. Kant writes “The latter [laws] must sufficiently determine the will as will… and must be categorical: otherwise they are not laws because they lack the necessity which, if it is to be practical, must be independent of conditions that are pathological and therefore only contingently connected with the will.” (5:20).

For Kant, thus, it is the categorical imperative that is the moral law. So, our moral consciousness reveals to us that we are bound to obey the dictates of the categorical imperative – this is the fact of reason. A peculiarity of the categorical imperative is that we are bound to obey it independently of any “sensible condition” – that is, contingent fact about us or our desires. Kant writes “a rule is objectively and universally valid only when it holds without the contingent, subjective conditions that distinguish one rational being from another.” (5:21). Thus, our moral consciousness reveals to us that we are bound to act in particular ways independently of our subjective conditions and desires.

Furthermore, Kant thinks that it is the nature of the moral law that not even a general desire to obey the moral law can adequately provide the determining grounds for the will, for it must be practical reason itself, by means of the moral law, which determines the will directly. Kant writes “In a practical law reason determines the will immediately, not by means of an intervening feeling of pleasure or displeasure, not even in this law;” (5:25). This is so, Kant thinks, because the moral law “as objective, must contain the very same determining grounds of the will in all cases and for all rational beings.” (5:25).

In sum, according to Kant, our moral consciousness reveals that we are bound by the moral law, and that the moral law provides grounds for determining the will which are independent from our subjective sensible conditions and desires.

Crucially, for Kant we are bound to obey the moral law only if we can obey the moral law. Thus, recognition that we are bound by the moral law implies that we are capable of obeying it. As we have seen the moral law provides determining grounds for the will which are independent of all sensible conditions and desires, so it follows that we are capable of acting independently of all sensible conditions and desires. But, according to Kant, empirical reality is such that these sensible conditions and desires, together with the laws of nature, necessarily bring about their effects, so it follows that acting in accordance with the moral law is acting independently of empirical reality. But, acting independently of empirical reality just is Kant’s definition of “absolute spontaneity of freedom”. Thus, recognition of the validity of the moral law leads to recognition that we are endowed with freedom. It is the reality and objectivity of the former that secures the reality and objectivity of the latter.

 

Summary of Kant’s view on Freedom

In Kant’s pre-critical period, Kant endorsed a strong version of what he called “the principle of determining ground”. Following this principle Kant arrived at the conclusion that everything that will happen must happen and everything that won’t happen can’t happen. During this period Kant thought that freedom was compatible with this strongly deterministic picture. Kant insisted that freedom only required that a free action be determined by the agent’s will in conformity with the representation of what is best.

By the critical period Kant had changed his mind regarding freedom. He still thought that empirical reality conformed to something like the principle of determining ground (although he dropped this kind of terminology), and thus that empirical reality was strongly deterministic. However, he now insisted that this kind of determinism precludes freedom. This kind of freedom to be found within this kind of deterministic world is nothing more than a “freedom of the turnspit” (5:97). Legitimate freedom requires, he now insisted, a kind of absolute spontaneity which precludes having been determined by antecedent determining grounds. Kant accommodated this kind of legitimate freedom by introducing a double account of causation. On the one hand, causation in accordance with nature is thoroughly deterministic and governs empirical reality. On the other hand, causation in accordance with freedom precludes this kind of determinism and constitutes the absolute beginning of a causal chain. According to this double account of causation, a single action can both be the effect of thoroughly deterministic causes in accordance with nature and also the effect of absolutely spontaneous causation in accordance with freedom. This is possible, Kant insisted, because causation in accordance with nature only takes place in empirical reality whereas causation in accordance with freedom originates from the noumena realm. Given that these are two different realms, there is no inconsistency between these two kinds of causation.

In the Second Critique, Kant presented an argument for the reality and objectivity (in a practical sense) of this kind of causation in accordance with freedom. Kant insisted that our moral consciousness enables us to recognize that as rational beings we are bound by the moral law. We are bound by the moral law independently of any particularity found in empirical reality. Given that we could only be bound by the moral law if we could act in accordance with the moral law, it follows, Kant insisted, that we are capable of acting independently of any particularity found in empirical reality. But, acting independently of empirical reality just is Kant’s definition of “absolute spontaneity of freedom”. Thus, recognition of the validity of the moral law leads to recognition that we are endowed with this freedom of absolute spontaneity.



[1] New Elucidations pp. 21-2

[2] New Elucidations pp. 23-4

[3] New Elucidations pp. 25

[4] A539/B567

[5] A539/B567

[6] A539/B567

[7] A553/B581

2 thoughts on “Kant on Freedom

  1. Its something I pondered often but could not describe. A guide on how to arrive at such conclusions thru careful reasoning and logic.Great piece.

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