Allison on Kant on Freedom

Eminent Kant scholar Henry Allison writes in the introduction to his Kant’s Theory of Freedom (1990), “Kant’s theory of freedom is the most difficult aspect of his philosophy to interpret, let alone defend. To begin with,… we are confronted with the bewildering number of ways in which Kant characterizes freedom and the variety of distinctions he draws between various kinds or senses of freedom” (p. 1).

Kant advocates “not only a strict determinism at the empirical level but also a psychological determinism” (p. 31) at the level of desires and beliefs. Nonetheless he also famously argues for the pure spontaneity of reason at a transcendental level, and wants to link this to a distinctive “causality of reason” entirely separate from empirical causality. As I’ve said before, I think Kant often presents both the determinist part of this and the indeterminist part in terms that are too strong.

Kant intensifies this difficulty by apparently arguing that the very same human reason that is transcendentally utterly free also has an empirical character that is completely determined. According to Allison, Kant distinguishes between empirical and intelligible “character” (considered as general ways of being, not implying personality) in two different ways. Empirical character is sometimes presented as merely the phenomenal effect of intelligible character, but at other times as the sensible schema of intelligible character. The latter version is interpreted by Allison as implying that “empirical character involves not simply a disposition to behave in certain predictable ways in given situations but a disposition to act on the basis of certain maxims, to pursue certain ends, and to select certain means for the realization of those ends…. Clearly, the causality of reason, even at the empirical level, is inherently purposive. Consequently, explanations of its activity must be teleological rather than mechanistic in nature” (p. 33).

Allison argues that for Kant, not only moral but also prudential judgments exhibit a teleological causality of reason. An end understood in a context generates a moral or prudential “ought”. Allison says that acting on the basis of an ought is for Kant (at least in the first Critique) the defining characteristic of free agency.

“A helpful way of explicating what Kant means by the spontaneity of the understanding in its judgmental activity (epistemic spontaneity) is to consider judgment as the activity of ‘taking as’ or, more precisely, of taking something as a such and such” (p. 37). “[E]ven desire-based or… ‘heteronomous’ action involves the self-determination of the subject and, therefore, a ‘moment’ of spontaneity” (p. 39). “[T]he sensible inclination, which from the point of view of the action’s (and the agent’s) empirical character is viewed straightforwardly as cause, is, from the standpoint of this model, seen as of itself insufficient to determine the will. Moreover, this insufficiency is not of the sort that can be made up for by introducing further empirically accessible causal factors. The missing ingredient is the spontaneity of the agent, the act of taking as or self-determination. Since this can be conceived but not experienced, it is once again something merely intelligible” (ibid).

The association of spontaneity with “taking as” (which is Kant’s independent reinvention of Aristotelian practical judgment) rather than some kind of arbitrariness is a breath of fresh air. (See also Freedom Through Deliberation?)

For Aristotle, there could be no contradiction between determination by ends and a complementary determination by “efficient causes” or means. But for Kant, ends are noumenal or intelligible, while means are phenomenal or empirical.

But in his previous work Kant’s Transcendental Idealism, Allison argued that Kant wanted to distinguish between phenomenal and noumenal interpretations rather than to assert the literal existence of ontologically separate phenomenal and noumenal worlds. The noumenal or the intelligible is not otherworldly, but a different way of interpreting the same world we experience.

Multiple Explanations

One of the great strengths of Aristotle’s approach to things is the way it makes use of multiple, complementary kinds of explanation. The paired modalities of actuality and potentiality and the four “causes” (ends and means, form and materiality) all interweave together to create rich tapestries of understanding. Aristotle famously said that to know is to be able to explain, and his notion of explanation is clearly hermeneutic and expansive, rather than reductive. (See also Interpretation; What and Why.; Difference; Classification; Definition.)

Respect for All Beings

Not just all people but all beings whatsoever deserve our respect. Many additional specialized considerations apply to beings subject to ethical appraisal (“us”), and a lot of the time I focus on these. Mutual recognition in the strong sense applies only between ethical beings, and thus only between potentially rational or talking animals, but the ethical significance of mutuality is much broader than that.

I want to say that a good ethical being claims no unequivocal mastery over any other being, period. Every being — even including inanimate objects — is to some extent an end in itself, and not simply a means to our ends. Of course, we are not unequivocally subordinate to the ends of any being, either, so it it not always wrong to sacrifice other beings to our ends. (We must eat, for instance.) But as ethical beings, we ought to be careful and thoughtful about how we achieve our ends. We are stewards, not masters.

There can be no simple rule about whether the end justifies the means. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. The answers are in the details of each case. Full evaluation of such questions could only be achieved by the universal community of all ethical beings, but the universal ethical community and its principles are not a finished achievement, only a work in progress. Nonetheless, ethical beings implicitly deliberate on behalf of all beings, not just on behalf of themselves. (See also Natural Ends.)

Choice, Deliberation

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics book 3 chapter 2 concerns choice. Choice is something willing, but not everything done willingly is done by choice. Things spontaneously done by children and animals and things done on the spur of the moment are done willingly and so are subject to praise or blame, but they are not done by choice.

Choice is not desire or spiritedness or wishing or opinion. It is involved with reason and thinking things through. It is the outcome of deliberation, the subject of chapter 3. It is the deliberate desire of things that are up to us (Sachs translation, p.43). It comes from desire combined with a rational understanding that is for the sake of something (p.103); it is “either intellect fused with desire, or desire fused with thinking, and such a source is a human being” (p.104). (The phrase “fused with” is actually an interpolation by the translator — the Greek actually just has “intellect and desire”, without specifying how they are related.)

We deliberate about things that are up to us and are matters of action. Deliberation is neither knowledge nor opinion. Inquiry about exact sciences or general truths or ends is not deliberation, but deliberation is a kind of inquiry. Deliberation applies to means for achieving ends, when outcomes can be predicted with some confidence, but are still uncertain. On big issues, we consult others. When there is more than one means to an end, deliberation seeks the one that is easier and more beautiful.

Deliberation may also examine how a thing will come about through a particular means, what other means are required for that means, and so on. Aristotle says the analysis of dependencies of means and ends in particular works just like a mathematician’s analysis of a geometrical diagram.

Deliberating well overall belongs to people with good practical judgment (p.112). “What is deliberated and what is chosen are the same thing, except that the thing chosen is already determined, since the thing chosen is what is decided out of the deliberation.” (p.43.) Aristotelian choice is therefore anything but arbitrary. It is a normative and rational determination, emerging from an open, fallible, and pluralistic process. (See also Brandomian Choice.)