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

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Abstract

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.

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Notes

  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.

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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. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-61136-1_13

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