Skip to main content

Kant’s Justification of Freedom as a Condition for Moral Imputation

  • Chapter
  • First Online:
Free Will
  • 395 Accesses


Kant holds that transcendental freedom of the will—“a faculty of absolutely beginning a state, and hence also a series of consequences”—is a necessary condition for moral imputation. The question of whether we are really free is a vexed issue. In this contribution, I pursue two aims: On the one hand, I provide an account of how, according to Kant, theoretical and practical reason work together in a way that allows us to affirm that we are free. On the other hand, I bring Kant’s position into contact with the contemporary debate and defend Kant’s decidedly practical justification of freedom against objections.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this chapter

Subscribe and save

Springer+ Basic
EUR 32.99 /Month
  • Get 10 units per month
  • Download Article/Chapter or Ebook
  • 1 Unit = 1 Article or 1 Chapter
  • Cancel anytime
Subscribe now

Buy Now

USD 29.95
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Available as PDF
  • Read on any device
  • Instant download
  • Own it forever
USD 109.00
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Available as EPUB and PDF
  • Read on any device
  • Instant download
  • Own it forever
Softcover Book
USD 139.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Compact, lightweight edition
  • Dispatched in 3 to 5 business days
  • Free shipping worldwide - see info
Hardcover Book
USD 139.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Durable hardcover edition
  • Dispatched in 3 to 5 business days
  • Free shipping worldwide - see info

Tax calculation will be finalised at checkout

Purchases are for personal use only

Institutional subscriptions

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. 1.

    Kant’s works are cited using volume and page numbers (volume: page) of the standard Academy edition of Kant’s writings (Berlin. 1900–), except for the Critique of Pure Reason. The latter is cited using the A- and B-editions (A/B).

  2. 2.

    As Peter van Inwagen points out, it was only with Harry Frankfurt’s essay “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility” (Frankfurt 1969) that the concept of moral responsibility entered the discussion of free will (van Inwagen 2017, 215–216). Before, analytic philosophers always (tacitly) accepted the thesis that moral responsibility requires the existence of free will. Frankfurt’s essay puts this thesis into question.

  3. 3.

    ‘Responsibility’ corresponds to the German Verantwortung. This is sometimes translated as ‘accountability’ (e.g., “being accountable to God”, Kant 1996a, 190; 6: 439). ‘Accountability’, in turn, corresponds to the German Zurechnungsfähigkeit (cf., e.g., 6: 26). For a study of Kant’s concept of imputation, see Blöser (2014).

  4. 4.

    This view of moral responsibility is widely shared. Even Peter van Inwagen, who considers the notion of moral responsibility to be unclear, sees an “intimate relation” between an agent’s being to blame for a state of affairs and moral responsibility (van Inwagen 2017, 196).

  5. 5.

    For textual evidence, see Blöser (2015).

  6. 6.

    There are difficulties with integrating praise and praiseworthiness in Kant’s ethics (see Blöser 2015 for discussion). Since these intricacies are irrelevant to the relationship between freedom and moral responsibility in general, however, I leave them aside and will focus on blame and blameworthiness.

  7. 7.

    I understand the expression “real ground” (in the German original, der “eigentliche Grund”) as “central necessary condition”. Kant also says that transcendental freedom constitutes “the real moment of the difficulties” regarding the question of freedom (Kant 1998, 533; A533/B561). The expression “real” (“eigentlich”) seems to point to the fact that there are more (empirical) conditions and aspects to free choice, but it is the transcendental aspect—the necessary condition—that is of greatest interest since it prompts the problem of how to reconcile such freedom with natural causality.

  8. 8.

    See Blackburn 1996, 1980. Hume writes: “[L]iberty, by removing necessity, removes also causes, and is the very same thing with chance ” (Hume 2000, 261–262).

  9. 9.

    One example of a contemporary reference to Hume’s Fork (which does not make explicit its origins in Hume) can be found in Peter van Inwagen’s “The Mystery of Metaphysical Freedom” (van Inwagen 1998). He sets up the problem by claiming that there is an argument for the incompatibility of freedom and determinism and for the incompatibility of freedom and indeterminism, but that one of them must be defective, on his view. His claim is that freedom remains a “mystery”, since it is hard to see how to criticize one or both of the arguments.

  10. 10.

    Let me note one difficulty with determining the relationship between transcendental and practical freedom. On the one hand, Kant describes a close relationship between the two in the Dialectic (e.g., “the abolition of transcendental freedom would also simultaneously eliminate all practical freedom” (534, A534/B562); on the other hand, he divorces practical from transcendental freedom in the Canon, where he announces that he will set aside transcendental freedom in order to focus on practical freedom, which “can be proved through experience” (A802/B830). The tension between the two passages has troubled many interpreters—see (Schönecker et al. 2005) or Allison (1990, 54–70). Without aiming at a full explanation or resolution here, I assume that Kant is using two different (though not incompatible) notions of practical freedom, where the notion in the Canon refers to the empirical appearance of the capacity to determine oneself by reason. It is necessary, however, to conceive of practical freedom as a species of transcendental freedom in order to see how it can ground moral responsibility, since only then can we assume that the person’s will is the ultimate cause of the action.

  11. 11.

    For a more detailed presentation of both views and for passages and considerations that support each, see Blöser (2014, Chapter 2).

  12. 12.

    Defenders of the first interpretation include Henry Allison (Allison 1990), Christine Korsgaard (Korsgaard 1996), and Marcus Willaschek (Willaschek 1992).

  13. 13.

    The second interpretation is defended, for instance, by Jochen Bojanowski (Bojanowski 2006), Iuliana Vaida (Vaida 2014) and Stephen Engstrom (Engstrom 1993). One can hardly say that any one of the two interpretations has decisively more defenders than the other. Defenders of either interpretation concede that there are many scholars on the other side. Allison writes, for instance: “Contrary to many interpreters, I shall argue that Kant is there [in the Critique of Pure Reason, CB] concerned to provide a transcendental framework for a unified theory of agency, one that includes but is not limited to moral agency” (Allison 1990, 29). Vaida, who defends the second view, describes the first as the “received view” (Vaida 2014, 2).

  14. 14.

    As Karl Ameriks notes, Kant’s notion of freedom as autonomy is a widely discussed issue, and much more needs to be said in order to fully grasp this “revolutionary proposal” (Ameriks 2019, 95).

  15. 15.

    Thus, Allen Wood’s well-known characterization of Kant’s project as an attempt to show the “compatibility of compatibilism and incompatibilism” is apt (Wood 1984, 74).

  16. 16.

    Pereboom describes Kant as a libertarian (Pereboom 2006, 538). Note, however, that there are important differences within the libertarian camp. Robert Kane’s position, for instance, is incompatibilist because he believes that freedom is incompatible with natural determinism. Nevertheless, he believes that freedom is compatible with probabilistic causation, and that not all natural causation is deterministic. Kant does not take the possibility of probabilistic causation into account, however. Even if he had been aware of natural, probabilistic causality, this wouldn’t have solved the problem for him. For Kant, the crucial point is that an action can be tracked back to the person’s reason. Thanks to Marco Hausmann for drawing attention to the differences between Kane’s and Kant’s positions.

  17. 17.

    For Kant’s expression of this principle, see especially the Religion: “For, in spite of that fall, the command that we ought to become better human beings still resounds unabated in our souls; consequently, we must also be capable of it” (Kant 1996c, 66; 6:45; see also 6:65 and 6:68).

  18. 18.

    Note that Kant denies that there are strict psychological laws in the Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science (see 4:471).

  19. 19.

    See Willaschek (1992, 31).

  20. 20.

    For more on “real” and “logical” possibility in Kant, also in earlier writings, see (Adams 1997, 818–819).

  21. 21.

    See also Allison (2013, 287).

  22. 22.

    See Allison (2013, 289–290) for a more detailed discussion of these worries.

  23. 23.

    See Willaschek (2010, 169) for this terminology.

  24. 24.

    For example, von Platz (2013) and Willaschek (2017).

  25. 25.

    Willaschek (2017) argues for this in detail.

  26. 26.

    Pereboom presents this argument in his book Living Without Free Will (2001, 141–152, 197–199) and in his article “Kant on Transcendental Freedom” (2006). I focus on the article since it is the later version of the argument and refer to the book only when necessary.

  27. 27.

    This interpretation of Pereboom’s aspiration in the article is consistent with the position he defends in his book, where he argues that “the content of Kantian normative ethics” is consistent “with hard incompatibilism” (Pereboom 2001, 150), which is the view that the free will required for moral responsibility is incompatible with determinism and that we do not have it. This amounts to saying that Kant’s ethics does not require transcendental freedom.

  28. 28.

    See also Korsgaard (1996, 208) for understanding the freedom of others as a postulate.

  29. 29.

    See, for example, Byrd and Hruschka (2010) for a rejection of the traditional view of Kant as a retributivist and on the importance of deterrence for the justification of criminal law in Kant.

  30. 30.

    For more on Kant’s conception of forgiveness, see Blöser (2019).

  31. 31.

    See Watson (2012, 284) for these two forms of judgmentalism.

  32. 32.

    I would like to thank Guus Duindam and Marcus Willaschek, as well as the editors of this book, for helpful comments on earlier versions of this text.


  • Adams, Robert Merrihew. 1997. Things in Themselves. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 57 (4): 801.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Allison, Henry E. 1990. Kant’s Theory of Freedom. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Allison, Henry. 2013. Kant’s Practical Justification of Freedom. In Kant on Practical Justification. Interpretive Essays, ed. Sorin Baiasu and Mark Timmons, 284–299. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Ameriks, Karl. 2019. Kant on Freedom as Autonomy. In Freiheit nach Kant. Tradition, Rezeption, Transformation, Aktualität, ed. Sasa Josifovic and Jörg Noller, 95–116. Leiden: Brill.

    Google Scholar 

  • Blackburn, Simon. 1996. Hume’s Fork. In Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Blöser, Claudia. 2014. Zurechnung bei Kant: zum Zusammenhang von Person und Handlung in Kants praktischer Philosophie. In Quellen und Studien zur Philosophie, Band 122. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter.

    Google Scholar 

  • ———. 2015. Degrees of Responsibility in Kant’s Practical Philosophy. Kantian Review 20 (2): 183–209.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • ———. 2019. Human Fallibility and the Need for Forgiveness. Philosophia 47 (1): 1–19.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bojanowski, Jochen. 2006. Kants Theorie der Freiheit: Rekonstruktion und Rehabilitierung. Berlin: De Gruyter.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Byrd, B. Sharon, and Joachim Hruschka. 2010. Kant’s Doctrine of Right: A Commentary. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Engstrom, Stephen. 1993. Allison on Rational Agency. Inquiry 36 (4): 405–418.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Frankfurt, Harry. 1969. Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility. Journal of Philosophy 66 (23): 829–839.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hume, David. 2000. In A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. Fate Norton and Mary J. Norton. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • van Inwagen, Peter. 1983. An Essay on Free Will. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • ———. 1998. The Mystery of Metaphysical Freedom. In Metaphysics: The Big Questions, ed. Peter van Inwagen and Dean W. Zimmermann, 365–374. Malden; Oxford: Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  • ———. 2017. Thinking about Free Will. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Kant, Immanuel. 1996a. Metaphysics of Morals. Edited and Translated by Mary Gregor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • ———. 1996b. Critique of Practical Reason. Translated by Mary Gregor. In Practical Philosophy, ed. Mary Gregor, 137–271. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • ———. 1996c. Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone. Translated by Allen Wood and George di Giovanni. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • ———. 1997. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Edited and Translated by Mary Gregor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • ———. 1998. Critique of Pure Reason. Edited and Translated Paul Guyer and Allen Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Korsgaard, Christine M. 1996. Creating the Kingdom of Ends. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Pereboom, Derk. 2001. Living Without Free Will. Cambridge Studies in Philosophy. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • ———. 2006. Kant on Transcendental Freedom. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 73 (3): 537–567.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • von Platz, Jeppe. 2013. Freedom as Both Fact and Postulate. In Kant und die Philosophie in weltbürgerlicher Absicht. Akten des XI. Internationalen Kant-Kongresses, ed. Stefano Bacin, Alfredo Ferrarin, Claudio La Rocca, and Margit Ruffing, vol. 3, 531–543. Berlin; New York: Walter de Gruyter.

    Google Scholar 

  • Schönecker, Dieter, Stefanie Buchenau, and Desmond Hogan. 2005. Kants Begriff transzendentaler und praktischer Freiheit: eine entwicklungsgeschichtliche Studie. Kantstudien 149. Berlin; New York: Walter de Gruyter.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Vaida, Iuliana Corina. 2014. The Problem of Agency and the Problem of Accountability in Kant’s Moral Philosophy: Agency and Accountability in Kant’s Philosophy. European Journal of Philosophy 22 (1): 110–137.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Watson, Gary. 2012. Standing in Judgment. In Blame: Its Nature and Norms, ed. D. Justin Coates and Neal A. Tognazzini, 282–302. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Willaschek, Marcus. 1992. Praktische Vernunft: Handlungstheorie und Moralbegründung bei Kant. Stuttgart: Metzler.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • ———. 2010. The Primacy of Practical Reason and the Idea of a Practical Postulate. In Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason. A Critical Guide, ed. Andrews Reath and Jens Timmermann, 168–196. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • ———. 2017. Freedom as a Postulate. In Kant on Persons and Agency, ed. Eric Watkins, 102–119. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Wood, Allen. 1984. Kant’s Compatibilism. In Self and Nature in Kant’s Philosophy, ed. Allen Wood, 57–101. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

Copyright information

© 2021 The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG

About this chapter

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this chapter

Blöser, C. (2021). Kant’s Justification of Freedom as a Condition for Moral Imputation. In: Hausmann, M., Noller, J. (eds) Free Will. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

Download citation

Publish with us

Policies and ethics