Is Morality Self-Evident?
Up until now we have just taken it on faith that Kant is right in that the supreme principle of morality is the Categorical Imperative (CI) in its various incarnations (i.e., formulation of universalization, of natural law, and of humanity as an end). Now Kant begins his argument for why the CI is the only fundamental moral law. For Kant it is not enough to give evidence for the CI, he wants to give a logical proof. In philo-speak, Kant wants an a priori proof of the CI rather than a synthetic proof; that is to say he wants to prove the CI without any appeal to the experiential world; he wants to show that we can come to know the CI simply through rational/logical reflection of concepts.
An obvious question is, why is Kant so hung up on avoiding appeal to experience? The general answer is that if we appeal to external reasons to support moral thinking then if those reasons change, so will our moral laws. For example, suppose after cooking you dinner your friend asks you how the meal was. In fact, it was terrible but you know telling him this would break his precious heart, so you lie; that is, you lie for the reason that you don’t want to hurt your friend’s feelings.
A few weeks later the same friend announces they will be a contestant on a cooking show and would like your feedback on a dish they will enter in the competition. He serves you the same dish they served you the previous week; this time you tell your friend that the dish isn’t so good for the reason that you want to help them win the competition. This also seems like a perfectly normal thing to do but the problem is we are left no clear guide to determining the “correct” moral action in situations where people ask for your opinion.
Every time our reasons to act change, so do our actions; and reasons are contingent upon our (often) ephemeral desires. How can morality be so fickle and still have any worth and meaning? And besides in both situations there are multiple, sometimes contradictory reasons according to which we could have acted. Maybe in the first dinner I could have told him the truth based on the reason that I think my friend wants to improve his cooking and can’t do so without honest criticism. Of course one could reply that the rule according to which we are acting is “do whatever is going to produce the most happiness for the most people”; and this might be true, but this maxim comes with a boat load of its own problems and discussing them will take us far afield from the task at hand, so I leave it for now. The essential point is that, for Kant, if we appeal to circumstantial reasons for choosing our behaviour, then what is moral is at the mercy of our circumstances.
The Concept of Freedom as an Explanation for Autonomy of the Will
Lets get a couple of definitions out of the way: The first is ‘will‘; by will Kant means the ability to cause yourself to act (provided you are a rational being!); for example when you get up in the morning you are acting on your will to wake up. Freedom is the property of the will that allows you to act independently of external causes. If we were merely subject to external causes we’d be no different than a ball of tumble weed getting blown around. Within philosophy the notion of free will is by no means a settled matter; but Kant assumes it nonetheless because it is required for morality. For example, if we didn’t have freewill (our actions were nothing but the total effects of external causes) how could be be culpable for our actions? It is an entirely reasonable position that morality only makes sense if we have freewill; but the degree to which we have it, if at all, is still an open debate. The essential point is that in our actions we are (to varying degrees) free from the influence of external causes–through our will and the fact that our will is freewill,. The technical term for this type of freedom is negative freedom–that is, freedom from external causes.
Kant is not satisfied with this feeble notion of freedom and argues for a more robust positive freedom as well. Positive freedom is not just freedom from external causes but the ability to be the cause our own actions (i.e., act on our will). But although our freedom (USA! USA! USA!) somehow grants us exemption status to external causes (i.e., natural laws which apply to objects) it does not mean our freedom is “lawless”. Along with causation (i.e., we can cause our own actions) comes the notion of laws according to which causation must conform. For if our freedom of action were lawless our actions would be random, and that is to be no more free than to be subject to external causes; rather our freedom must be a force that conforms with “a special kind” of immutable laws.
I’m a little skeptical of this claim. It seems pretty ad hoc; I mean, isn’t it convenient that there are special kinds of immutable laws to which our will ought(?) to conform? How does Kant know? Is he Jesus? And doesn’t it seem strange that, although we are (as far as we can tell) comprised of only matter, yet we are somehow exempt from the laws of nature (causal chains) when it comes to determining our own action? These are some problems but are tangential to the issue so lets move on…
So, given that the special causal power that rational beings have (freewill) conforms to some special kinds of laws Kant defines freedom of will as autonomy. “What else can freedom of will be but autonomy–that is, the property which will has of being law to itself?” What he means here is that freedom is the ability to act on the laws that you make. This idea can be a bit tricky to wrap your head around but it is a powerful one: every time you act, you act according to some principle; so every action is, in a sense, an instance of you writing a law.
For example, The other day I inadvertently dropped my phone. A person who saw me drop it ran after me to give it to me. In doing this action they wrote a law of the will which might be: “if someone inadvertently drops their phone, return it to them”. As I mentioned before, this is an idea I really like, and sometime I like to go through my day thinking (before I act) that what I do will become a law–try it! It’s fun!
Next Kant takes, as he will later admit, a logical jump; he goes from the plausibly defensible “what ever action I do becomes a law” to “I should only act in a way such that whatever I do will be a good universal law”. And the joy does not stop there; if we do make this step we can see that “a free will and a will under moral laws are one and the same.” I think what he means is that a will that is free will always act in such a way that its actions make universalizable law and a (rational) will will always follow the “special laws” governing the will (which magically turn out to line up exactly with the CI–i.e., the universalizable laws). It all sounds a bit too good to be true…
Remember, the whole passage started with the intent of trying to extract, a priori, purely from concepts the principle of morality. Kant says if we analyze the concept of freedom of the will (aka. autonomy) we can, without reference to the empirical matters, deduce the principle of morality (CI); that is to say, the notion of the CI in contained in the notion of freewill. But not so fast. First of all, this whole thing only works if we suppose freedom of the will. And second, even if we suppose freewill and from freewill deduce the notion of morality, this does nothing to guarantee we can discover the content of morality–i.e., “a good will is one whose maxim can always have as its content itself considered as a universal law”–there is no reason why the content of morality might not be different; what if if it is, “act only in such a way that will maximize happiness for the greatest number of people?” Simply analyzing the concept of freewill doesn’t give us any indication either way…
Recap: We started by saying that rational beings have free will in a negative sense (I can cause myself to act), then we said we also have positive free will (I can do the things I freely chose to do and I am not subject to external causes on how I act) and since positive freewill causes things to happen, it must be subject to some “special” causal laws (i.e., other than the laws of objects). Because I have the ability to chose what I want (negative freedom) there is such a thing a morality; morality arises out of the fact that I can chose between “good” and “bad” things/courses of actions; i.e., the concept of morality can be known from rational reflection of the concept of negative freedom. Regarding what can be known from the concept of positive freedom, we can know that there are (moral) laws that govern the will (because anything with causal power must act according to laws); however, even Kant admits that we cannot know what these laws are purely by examining the concept of positive freedom; we can only know that they exist, thus we need to look elsewhere for an a priori grounding of the CI…