Friday, January 10, 2014

Kant's Groundwork III, part 4

The second section of Groundwork III, entitled Freedom must be presupposed as a property of the will of all rational beings, has always struck me as an obscure and intriguing piece of philosophy. It is formed of one very condensed paragraph that seems to stand on its own.

G 447-448, §4

The overall meaning of the section is unambiguous, and it is plainly stated in the heading. As Kant had previously made clear in the Preface, the connection of the moral law and freedom with the concept of a rational being as such, is a preliminary and indispensable condition for whatever attempt to derive the moral law itself.

Every one must grant that a law, if it is to hold morally, that is, as a ground of an obligation, must carry with it absolute necessity; that, for example, the command “thou shalt not lie” does not hold only for human beings, as if other rational beings did not have to heed it, and so with all other moral laws properly so called; that, therefore, the ground of obligation here must not be sought in the nature of the human being or in the circumstances of the world in which he is placed, but a priori simply in concepts of pure reason; (G 389)

At the beginning of the second Section, while he was pointing to the specific a priori character of all practical concepts, Kant recommended not to make the principles of practical reason dependent upon human anthropology, but “just because moral laws are to hold for every rational being as such, to derive them from the universal concept of rational being as such, and in this way to set forth completely the whole of morals […] (G 412).

Since the deep significance of the section is hard to come to terms with, I shall divide my interpretative effort in two steps, which it might be thought of as responding to two interrelated issues: (1) in which way, if any, the paragraph contributes to the Groundwork foundational project; and (2) which aspects of freedom it is intended to underline. I shall start by the latter in order to acquire a favorable perspective from which to view the former in a better light.

Freedom “in a practical respect”

At a first reading the paragraph shows the pre-eminence of the concept or idea of “practical” freedom, i.e. the capacity to spontaneously determine actions. Kant sets out a number of statements that might help us understand the exact meaning of that concept.

Every being that cannot otherwise than under the idea of freedom is just because of that really free in a practical respect, that is, all laws that are inseparably bound up with freedom hold for him as if his will had been validly pronounced free also in itself and in theoretical domain. (G 448)

To every rational being having a will we must necessarily lend the idea of freedom also, under which alone he acts. (G 448)

..a reason that is practical….has causality with respect to its objects. (G 448)

Reason must regard itself as the author of its principles independently of alien influences. (G 448)

Freedom is obviously intended as “transcendental freedom”, the capacity to autonomously and spontaneously determine oneself to action, no matter of any competing motives or pressures, either internal or external. However, this starting point needs more refinement. What does it mean to “act under the idea of freedom”? Moreover, is that kind of freedom compatible with the other Kantian statements signaled above?

There seems to be a strong tie between the content of the transcendental freedom and some implications which are possible to derive from it. Acting under the idea of freedom entails an irreducible first personal character. As clarified by Kant, a kind of agential, and first-personal, self-conception accompanies all the operations of practical reason and has to be thought of as a condition of the binding force of practical laws upon the acting subject “that cannot act otherwise than under the idea of its own freedom” (G 448, note; my emphasis). This point might be restated as follow: practical laws are binding upon you only insofar as you can represent yourself as free from a first-personal perspective.

The point of view of an agent, who has an original self-representation of himself as free, is beyond question that of a deliberator. Freedom “in a practical respect” is the capacity to make choice without being influenced by alien causes, but also, and more significantly for the present discourse, the capacity of practical reason to act solely following its own intentions and principles. That conclusion is consistent with some of Kant’s statements reported above. For example, practical reason “has the causality with respect of its objects” (G 448) means that in producing actions or judgments reason is relying only upon its own autonomous determinations. Another way to put the same point is by reference to the authorial power of self-determination entailed by reason: “Reason must regards itself as the author of its principles” (G 448). Reason is to be understood not only as the capacity to act in accordance with the representation of some laws, but also, and more crucially, as the capacity of being the author of its own principles and decisions.

The latest assertion introduces into the discussion a foreseeable complication. At the end of the paragraph, the link between freedom and the agent’s self-conception, which initially has been presented in modal terms (as in my previous statement: practical laws are binding upon you only insofar as you can represent yourself as free), has now shifted into (a kind of) practical necessitation: reason must represent itself as free in order to be the author of practical laws. In that conclusion, however odd it might appear at first sight, I can’t see any contradiction or incoherence. What Kant is seeking to affirm in a roundabout way is the conceptual truth that reason, as ultimate source of practical laws and principle, is freedom itself in its most qualified sense, i.e. autonomous spontaneity or self-determination. After having specified this assumption, what it remains to prove is the real capacity to be rational on the part of human beings (a task that Kant has set for himself from the beginning of Groundwork III).

Groundwork foundational project

The picture of freedom Kant has laid out so far has bearing on the way in which Groundwork III should be understood against the background of his overall foundational enterprise. Now we are in a better position to undertake the first issue named above. According to Paul Guyer, in this book, the four initial paragraphs of Section III are merely analytical in content; which means that they do not actually add anything new to the concept of freedom already developed by Kant in the second Section of the Groundwork. Here are Guyer’s incisive words:  

Any rational being that thinks of itself as free must therefore ‘regard [ansehen] itself as the author of its principles independently of alien influences’, that is, must regard the moral law rather than any heteronomous source as the principle of its action. This argument, which turns on attributing to any rational being the positive conception of freedom and therefore the moral law, serves the purpose of showing that any rational being is bound by the moral law. But it is still just ‘preparation’ for the deduction of the moral law because it has not yet been shown that we are actually rational beings. Kant is not here claiming that for us to act ‘under the idea of freedom’ is sufficient to prove that we are rational beings; rather, he is still, as he explicitly says, preparing the way for a subsequent proof that we are rational beings which will demonstrate that we are not acting merely under the idea of freedom but are actually free and therefore, in accordance with the positive conception of freedom, bound by the moral law. This is why he can still be worried about the threat of a circle entailing a petitio principii, at G IV 450: he has not yet attempted to prove that we are rational beings, but has only proven what will follow, namely the validity of the moral law for us as for all rational beings, if we are. It is because Kant so clearly says that this argument about what must be presupposed by and about any rational being is still part of the preparation for the deduction, not the deduction itself, that I cannot, as a matter of historical interpretation, join in the contemporary tendency to regard it as intended by Kant to be the real basis for the proof that the moral law applies to us (Guyer P., Problems with freedom…, pp. 183-184).

This text poses two distinct but related problems: (1) in which way the synthetic/analytic distinction is to be applied to Groundwork III; and (2), which construal of the argument, if any, can be elaborated as an alternative to Guyer’s. Both are crucial issues and I shall comment on them in subsequent posts.

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