History, Evolution, and The Darwin Debate

Darwiniana header image 2

From Korner on Kant: Moral Freedom and Natural Necessity

September 5th, 2011 · 3 Comments

I scanned a passage from Korner’s book on Kant
Check Amazon for a cheap copy:
I. Moral Freedom and Natural Necessity

I F the experience of conflict between duty and desire is not an
illusion; if the judge’s familiar references to criminal responsi-
bility are more than indirect ways of describing the necessary
course of events; if man is subject to a self-imposed moral
law; then we must assume that man exists not only as a
part of the causal order of nature, but also outside it. We
must assume that he is an end in himself, that he is morally
Before turning to Kant’s justification of thispositionit will
be well to recall once again the distinction between (I) Cate-
gories, which are a priori notions applicable to manifolds of
perception, and (2) Ideas, which are likewise a priori but not
similarly applicable. In the case of the Categories, the method
of showing the rightfulness of their use was by a Transcenden-
tal Deduction of them, i.e. by showing that a manifold of per-
ception becomes an object of experience only through the ap-
plication of the Categories to it. Any parallel treatment of an
Idea is impossible for the obvious reason that it is not thus
applicable; it does not refer to any manifold of perception and
consequently does not confer upon any such manifold that
objectivity which is characteristic of the objects of factual and
scientific judgements.
Kant’s justification for the assumption that man is morally
free proceeds by two main steps. The first has already been
taken. In the Critique of Pure Reason it has been shown that we
can think man a noumenon outside the causal order of nature, and
morally free. Moreover it has been shown that the two pro-

positions • Man as noumenon is free’ and • Man as phenomenon is
part of the causa! order of nature’ are compatible. Indeed,
Kant has argued that the Third Antinomy of Pure Reason can
only be resolved by admitting the joint possibility of both
these propositions, thereby accepting the position of transcen-
dental idealism, that whatever stands under the forms of space
and time and under the Categories • is empirically real and
transcendentally ideal’.
Within the field of mathematics and natural science – that is
to say, within the field of the critique of pure reason – the con-
cept of freedom has no positive content. There, freedom means
nothing beyond independence of the .causal order of nature. If
we keep this in mind we can regard it as a kind of causality
and contrast it, as moral or noumenal, with the positive notion
of natural or phenomenal causality, which is a schematized
Category of theoretical thinking.
We have established, now, the internal consistency of the
notion of freedom or moral causality. .But from the internal
consistency of a notion we cannot infer that there are any
actual instances of it whatsoever. From the internal consistency
of ‘centaur’, for example, it does not follow that centaurs
exist. No more can we infer from the internal consistency of
the notion • man as a noumenon’ that man as a noumenon exists.
If we wish to prove that man exists as a free being we need to
know something more; and the nature of the additional evi-
dence we require will determine in what sense we can attribute
to man existence as a free being.
This additional evidence comes from moral experience. In
appealing to it Kant is taking the second step of his proof that
man is free. According to him, it is the plain outcome of
ordinary moral experience that we apprehend the moral law
and our subjection to it. This implies freedom. If the assump-
tion (of our freedom) were self-contradictory there could be no
such implication; our apprehension of the moral law would
have to pass as an illusion and our moral judgements as mis-
takes. The assumption, however, we have found internally
consistent: so our apprehension of the moral law can be evi-
dence of freedom. There is, moreover, no evidence against it.
To give the position in Kant’s words:
‘The moral law shows its reality, in a manner which is suffi-
cient even from the point of view of the critique of theoretical
reason, in adding a positive characteristic to a causality which
so far has been conceived only negatively and the possibility
of which, although incomprehensible to theoretical reason,
had yet to be assumed by it. This positive characteristic is the
conception of reason as 0 immediately determining the will
(through the condition that a universal form can be given to
its maxims as laws). Thus, for the first time, the moral law can
give objective (though only practical) reality to reason which
always hitherto had to transcend all possible experience when
it put its Ideas to a theoretical use •• .’1
Thus, the categorical imperative implies that we are free;
while on the other hand the assumption that we are so is
(a) internally consistent and (b) compatible with the principle
– a fundamental principle of the Critiqtie of Pure Reason – that
all events are causally necessary. Thus we are justified in taking
our apprehension of the moral law as being what it seems to be
to our ordinary moral conscience – an absolute command
which we can fulfil in spite of our being part of the causal order
of nature. All this, however, does not mean that we can know
our moral freedom and its working in the same way as we
know instances of natural causality. There is, as Kant himself
insists, nothing in his argument, or indeed in his whole moral
philosophy, to alter the thesis that moral freedom is an Idea
of pure reason, and therefore unknowable. For the knowable
must be both thinkable and perceivable; while C a perceivable
instance of an Idea’ is, and remains, a-logical contradiction.
If all our thinking were scientific or if it belonged to the
region of that commonsense reflection which is rudimentary
science, then it would make no difference whether we were
naive realists or transcendental idealists. It makes an impor-
tant difference if our thinking includes reflection not only upon
matters of fact but also on moral obligation. This is because we
I. Pro OR. 48, Ab. 137.

The Possibility of Moral Experience 155

cannot in that case avoid being confronted with the prima
facie conflict between the causal necessity of our actions as
parts of the order of nature and our moral responsibility for
them as free agents. If we cannot reject, as being mere mis-
takes, either our apprehension of natural necessity or our
consciousness of moral freedom then we have no alternative
but to treat Kant’s theory with respect as one of the few
thorough attempts to do equal justice to both science and
Certainly the statistical conception of natural law does noth-
ing to reconcile the two standpoints. It is sometimes said that
since all laws of nature are merely statistical, science and
morality can no longer conflict. It might be argued in support
of such a view that if it were a statistical law that a certain per-
centage of action must always be done in violation of duty,
then the law would leave room for the freedom of the will,
since being merely statistical it would refer not to any particu-
lar action but merely to a certain proportion of actions. The
argument, however, implies that a law of nature would rule
out the possibility that all men should be able to do their duty
simultaneously and continuously. Our subjection to the moral
law, however, implies precisely this. The conflict between
causal necessity and moral freedom remains unresolved.
Another, and very frequent though no more successful,
attempt to solve the problem is found not only in philoso-
phical books but also in the criminal codes of civilized coun-
tries. It consists in distinguishing between causes identifiable
with the doer and causes which are outside his control. The
doer mayor may not be responsible. He is responsible accord-
ing to the theory if he is or ‘contains’ the cause of his action,
which is then, as it is put, ‘freely chosen’. But if we accept the
principle of natural causality, every event in time is caused
and every cause is part of a causal chain which started before
the birth of the doer. By receiving the title of C freely chosen’
a cause does not cease to have been caused. This way of tack-
ling the problem, e.g., by calling inner causes C free’ and external
causes C mechanical’, is no more than a way of ignoring it.
Kant calls it a ‘miserable makeshift’ and ‘petty verbal hair-
splitting’ .1

We usually regard a person as responsible for his action if
he could have chosen not to perform it. As G. E. Moore has
pointed out, the sense of the phrase ‘if he could have chosen
otherwise’ is difficult to determine. Indeed, however we take
it, we seem to leave the doer either always or never respon-
sible. On the one hand, the mere logical possibility of another
action, i.e. its non-contradictoriness, is not sufficient since it is
always logically possible to assume that an event fell out other-
wise than in fact it did. On the other hand to require factual
possibility (that a person, in order to be responsible, must have
been able to change the course of the causal sequences leading
to his action) is to require too much: for a person is never in
this position and so would neuer be responsible for his action.
To say that the possibility expressed by the phrase’ could have
chosen’ is neither logical nor causal, but sui generis, is, unless
qualified by further suggestions, of little use.

Kant’s answer, which follows from his distinction between
man as a phenomenon and man as noameno«, is that it is incom-
patible with the principle of causality for any causal sequence
to be changed. We cannot choose that an action be not the
effect of its causes. But he also holds that man as a noumenon
could have chosen differently since’ the whole chain of appear-
ances with respect to anything which concerns the moral law
depends on the spontaneity of the subject as a thing in itself.
Of the nature of this spontaneity, however, a physical explana-
tion is impossible.” .

For Kant the key to the understanding of the phrase ‘if he
could have chosen’ is the subject of the choice, which is man
as a noumenon or end in himself. The choice takes place on the
noumenal level of human existence. We can infer, from an’
adequate description of theoretical and moral experience, that
the choice takes place in the realm of noumena, but not how it
does so. Indeed how it takes place is, like everything noumenal
(non-phenomenal), unknowable.
I. Pro R. 96, Ab. 189. 2. Pro R. 99, Ab. 193.
The Possibility of Moral Experience 157

Kant’s solution of the conflict between causal necessity and
moral freedom implies, as he admits, ‘many difficulties’ and
‘is hardly capable of being clearly presented’. But, he rightly
asks, ‘is any other which has been or may be attempted, simp-
ler and more easily understandable?’1 The answer, I think,
must be an emphatic no, unless we regard it as a solution of
the problem to ignore either morality or science and refuse to
consider them together.

To Kant’s account of freedom it is often, and quite naturally,
objected, that our own observable actions and choices are car-
ried out in time whereas the ‘actions’ and ‘choices’ of the
noumenal self are outside time and unobservable. The appar-
ent mysteriousness of these notions seems to many too high a
price to be paid for the consistency of causal necessity with
moral freedom. According to Kant, however, we are faced
with the choice on the one hand of distrusting science,
moral experience, or both; on the other hand of trusting them
but accepting the fact that a crucial aspect of our being must
remain unknowable to us.

In one way Kant’s notion of a noumenal self and its choices
is no more mysterious than, e.g., Hilbert’s notion of infinity.
Both are ideal, limiting concepts by means of which we estab-
lish the internal consistency of a system of propositions: in
Kant’s case the system of moral and scientific propositions, in
Hilbert’s case the system of classical mathematics. Yet Kant’s.
notions of the noumenal self and its choices are considered by
him to demarcate the field of the knowable from an unknow-
able region beyond it; whereas Hilbert’s notion of infinity is
conceived as a highly ingenious and highly subtle technicality.

Kant’s thesis of’ the whole chain of appearances with respect
to anything which concerns the moral law’ being chosen by
the unknowable noumenal self operating outside time, is not
without other parallels. It reminds us, for example, of the
Platonic myth of Er according to which the soul after death
‘must choose a [new] life which she will have to realize of
necessity’.2 It also reminds us of various religious doctrines
within and outside the European tradition. It would, however,
be quite contrary to Kant’s conception of philosophy and to
his manner of inquiry to support his conclusions by making
use of either myth or the appeal to any special religious experi-
ence or authority.
The scientist qua scientist assumes that every event stands
under causal or, at least, statistical laws. The judge, and indeed
everybody who makes decisions and who is capable of feeling
guilt and remorse, assumes that men are morally responsible
and therefore free. It is the task of the philosopher to render
the relation between science and morality intelligible. In under-
taking this he must face problems different from those which
are peculiar either to science or to moral reflection. He can,
therefore, expect but little help from the pure scientists or the
pure moralists and would, I think, be unwise if he ignored
what Kant has to say on the way in which practical reason can
provide answers to questions which theoretical reason cannot
even properly ask.

Tags: ethics · General · Kant

3 responses so far ↓

Leave a Comment