Kantian ethical philosophy has often been criticized for its dependence on an untenable conception of the freedom of the will. Kant is supposed to have asserted that we are morally responsible for all of our actions because we have free will, and that we have free will because we exist in a noumenal world in which we are uninfluenced by the temptations of desire and inclination. If we existed only in the noumenal world, we would invariably act as the categorical imperative requires, but because we are also phenomenal beings we sometimes go wrong. The view so understood gives rise to several problems. First, the claim that purely noumenal persons would act as the categorical imperative requires may be questioned. It is not obvious why persons uninfluenced by causality should act morally rather than any other way. Secondly, if it can be established that insofar as we are noumena we obey the moral law, then the account of moral imputability becomes unintelligible. If we are only responsible because we are noumena and if insofar as we are noumena we only do what is right, then we cannot be responsible for our evil actions. Or, if we are responsible, it is so radically that no room is left for excuses. For how can we take into account the terrible temptations to which the wrongdoer was subjected, when the choosing noumenon was uninfluenced by those temptations? Finally, the view seems to require an unappealing ontological commitment to the existence of “two worlds,” and to give rise to a variety of puzzles about how what occurs in the one can influence the other.


Practical Reason Categorical Imperative Moral Evil Phenomenal World Positive Conception 
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  1. 1.
    For another treatment of some of these same difficulties, but centered more on Kant’s views in the Critique of Pure Reason, see Henry E. Allison, “Empirical and Intelligible Character in the Critique of Pure Reason” in this volume.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The alternative language is used because of the difference in Kant’s own two accounts of what he is doing. I discuss this below. (All citations from the Foundations are taken from Beck’s translation.)Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    For some important discussions of this question see the following works: H.J. Paton, The Categorical Imperative (1947), Book IV (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971); W.D. Ross, Kant’s Ethical Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954); Karl Ameriks, “Kant’s Deduction of Freedom and Morality,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 19 (1981): 53–80; Dieter Henrich, “Die Deduktion des Sittengesetzes,” in Denken im Schatten des Nihilismus, ed. Alexander Schwan (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1975). My own view on the matter is explained in Section 3.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Repr. Indianapolis: Hackett 1981. The appendix, “The Kantian Conception of Free Will [Reprinted with some omissions, from Mind, 1888, Vol. 13, no. 51]” was first attached to the sixth edition in 1901.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Harvard, 1971), p. 5. Rawls is in turn drawing upon H.L. H. Hart, The Concept of Law(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961), pp. 155–59. Rawls uses the distinction in separating the concept of justice, “a characteristic set of principles for assigning basic rights and duties and for determining… the proper distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation” from conceptions of justice, that is, various substantive accounts of what those principles are.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    You may take the belief into account in other ways, like other beliefs. For instance, you may decide to warn your friends that you may do something uncharacteristic today, and that if so they should not be upset, since you are, as we say, “not yourself.”Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    This is brought out well by Thomas Hill, Jr., in “Kant’s Argument for the Rationality of Moral Conduct,” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 66 (1985): 3–23 and in “Kant’s Theory of Practical Reason” delivered at the conference Ethics and Its History, May 16–17, 1986, at the University of California at San Diego.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    To understand this as a law of nature, rather than as a tautology, we must of course understand a “desire” not merely as something we ascribe to a person on the basis of her actions, but as a psychological phenomenon of some sort. This view of desire is also implied by Kant’s account of desire as an incentive, which I explain below.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    More specifically, Kant associates the will’s spontaneity with the fact that it does not exist under temporal conditions and so is uninfluenced by causality, but the important point here is just being uninfluenced — by anything. I discuss the relation between freedom and time in section 6.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    World“ (Welt) is Kant’s term, and it is in some respects unfortunate, since it has lent credence to the interpretation of the distinction as an ontological dualism. Actually these two worlds are two standpoints, or ways we have of looking at things; as I will argue in the next section, they represent a practical and a theoretical viewpoint. I have continued to use the terminology of two worlds, since it is convenient and suits Kant’s own usage. I would like to thank Onora O’Neill for urging me to be clearer on this point.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    The remark is not italicized in Beck’s translation, although it is in the Akademie Textausgabe and the Paton and Abbott translations.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    For a different reading than mine of the idea that the intelligible world contains the grounds of the sensible world and its laws, and of why we must conceive ourselves as among those grounds, see Onora O’Neill’s “Agency and Anthropology in Kant’s Groundwork” in this volume.Google Scholar
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    That our noumenal choices are in some way the ground of the laws of nature is a possibility that remains open; it is enough for the argument that we do not conceive ourselves as choosing these laws.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    In a footnote in “On the Common Saying: ‘This may be True in Theory, but it does not Apply in Practice” Kant speaks directly of the moral incentive as provided by the idea of the highest possible earthly good, as “attainable through his [man’s] collaboration [Mitwirkung]” (TP 8: 280n/65n).Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    For a different and perhaps more sympathetic account of the argument of Foundations III, see Onora O’Neill, “Agency and Anthropology in Kant’s Groundwork” in this volume, especially section 6.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    The view that the idea of the intelligible world plays a motivational role can also be supported by appeal to Kant’s writings on moral education, especially in the Methodologies of the second Critique and The Metaphysical Principles of Virtue (my references here are to the Ellington translation). In both, there is an emphasis on awakening the child to the sublimity of the intelligible existence which freedom reveals.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    The Methods of Ethics, p. 516.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    The metaphysical conception of the world also provides the ewgulative principles used in the theoretical sphere — but what those do is regulate the practice of science.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    In Kantian ethics moral concepts are ideals of practical reason that are imposed on the world, by the command of the moral law, and for practical and moral purposes only. When we praise and blame we are, so to speak, applying the concept of “freedom” to another. The moral law both commands and regulates the application of this concept. I discuss this way of regarding moral concepts in “Two Arguments against Lying, ” Argumentation 2 (1988): 27–49.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    I give a fuller explanation of the attitude Kant thinks is required and the moral basis for it in my “The Right to Lie: Kant on Dealing with Evil,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 15 (1986): 325–349.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    In these respects Kant’s views stand in sharp contrast to the British Sentimentalists whom he admired: Hutcheson, Hume, and Adam Smith. All developed their ethical theories from the point of view of the spectator of the moral conduct of others, and took approbation and disapprobation as the central concepts of ethics, from which the other concepts of moral thought are developed. Hutcheson and Hume believe that the best moral agent is not thinking about morality at all, but acting from admirable natural affections. Smith comes closer to an agent-centered theory, for he takes the agent to act from specifically moral thoughts, but they are generated from an internal spectator.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    The mysterious-sounding parenthetical phrase is “welche Eigenschaft desselben ihn zum Gegenstande der Erfahrung macht.” I take the point to be to equate sensibility and the need for an end.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    In the Introduction to the Metaphysics of Morals, the faculty of desire is “the capacity to be by means of one’s representations the cause of the objects of these representations” and the capacity to act in accordance with representations is identified as “life.” (6:211/9)Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    It might seem to be a problem that the Highest Good is supposed to be conceived as a divine end. How can God have an end if that is a need of sensibility? Kant explains: “For while the divinity has no subjective need of any external object, it cannot be conceived as closed up within itself, but only as compelled by the very awareness of its own all-sufficiency to produce the highest good outside itself. In the case of the supreme being, this necessity (which corresponds to duty in man) can be envisaged by us only as a moral need” (TP 8: 280n/65n).Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    The question of the relation between the two distinctions, perfect/imperfect, and broad/strict, is a very difficult one. These have sometimes been thought to be simply alternative terms for the same distinction, but Kant explicitly asserts that all duties of virtue are of broad obligation, while mentioning many that are perfect. He does not explain himself, and his own use of the terms does not provide clear guidance. Two important discussions of this problem are in Mary Gregor, The Laws of Freedom: A Study of Kant’s Method of Applying the Categorical Imperative in the Metaphysik der Sitten (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1963), pp. 95–127, and in Onora (O’Neill) Nell, Acting on Principle: An Essay on Kantian Ethics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1975), pp. 43–58. The main justification I have to offer for the way I use these terms in the text is that they enable me to make the explanation that follows.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    In one sense I may still claim to have her happiness as my end. I may hold an end merely negatively, as something I will endeavor not to act against. The Formula of Humanity says that we must never use another merely as a means, and Kant says in the Foundationsthat humanity is conceived negatively, as “that which must never be acted against” (4:437/56). But Kant makes it clear that virtue is going to require a more positive pursuit of the end. He says: “It is not enough that he is not authorized to use either himself or others merely as means (this latter including also the case of his being indifferent to others)” (TL 6:395/54).Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    See also this passage from the Religion: “we may also think of this endless progress of our goodness towards conformity to the law, even if this progress is conceived in terms of actual deeds, or life-conduct, as being judged by Him who knows the heart, through a purely intellectual intuition, as a completed whole, because of the disposition, supersensible in its nature, from which this progress itself is derived” (6:6768/60–61); and from the Critique of Practical Reason: “Only endless progress from lower to higher stages of moral perfection is possible to a rational but finite being. The Infinite Being, to whom the temporal condition is nothing, sees in this series, which is for us without end, a whole conformable to the moral law” (5: 123/127). This is why Kant thinks that ethics leads to a view of the “immortality” of the soul, which gives us a prospect of an endless progress toward the better. Only an endless progress is adequate to the achievement of freedom, and to wiping out the original evil in our nature (Rel. 6:72/66; KpV 5: 122–24/126–28).Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    This is not guaranteed. The Foundations contains a well-known discussion of the worth of a man who is helpful although “by temperament cold and indifferent to the sufferings of others, perhaps because he is provided with special gifts of patience and fortitude” (4: 398/14–15), which shows that Kant thinks moral worth may be combined with a recalcitrant temperament. The discussion has unfortunately often been taken to suggest that Kant thinks moral worth must be combined with a recalcitrant temperament.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Kant’s theory of free will is sometimes described as “compatibilist” because both freedom and determinism are affirmed. This description seems to me to be potentially misleading. Most compatibilists, I believe, want to assert both freedom and determinism (or, both responsibility and determinism) from the same point of view — a theoretical and explanatory point of view. Kant does not do this, and could not do it without something his view forbids — describing the relation between the noumenal and phenomenal worlds.Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1989

Authors and Affiliations

  • Christine M. Korsgaard
    • 1
  1. 1.The University of ChicagoUSA

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