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In his new Book Virtues of Freedom, the renowned Kant scholar Paul Guyer presents a collection of previously unpublished and published essays on the moral philosophy of Kant, which have one theme in common: a probing analysis of the function and role of Kant's conception of freedom within his moral philosophy.
For Kant, every human being possesses in his rationality the source of an irreducible and unconditional moral law, which makes the difference between good and bad. Listening to this inner moral law by letting the will be determined by this law (against the impact of the inclinations), human beings effectively experience that they are free and what freedom amounts to. Obviously, seeing that rational beings such as humans are finite beings possessing a will that is also affected by inclinations, their sensible side requiring attendance to its inclinations and urges, nothing guarantees that it will listen to the voice of reason and perform the moral laws that pure practical reason prescribes independently of all empirical conditions.
Human beings thus find themselves always at a crossroad: Either deciding to readily pursue the satisfaction of the inclinations and passions – thereby being controlled by heteronomous reasons from outside of their own will – a feeling of "enslavement". Or deciding to implement the moral law that practical reason prescribes itself in full autonomy – thereby freeing the will from the power of inclinations and subsuming the inclinations and passions to the guidance of the moral law. This decision will ultimately decide whether humans choose the path of radical evil or the morally good.
Kant himself was amazed about the capacity of human freedom and in awe of this possibility of human experience: "Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not seek or conjecture either of them as if they were veiled obscurities or extravagances beyond the horizon of my vision; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence."
Of course, Kant did not come to his philosophical insights about freedom and the human will out of the blue. In fact, he had to grapple throughout his whole academic career to settle his mature view on moral philosophy and especially the concept of freedom. The student and reader does not customarily get an insight into the probing philosophical search and thought developments of Kantian moral philosophy when he or she reads the mature published works on Kantian moral philosophy such as the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), Critique of Practical Reason (1788), Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793) and Metaphysics of Morals (1797). It is here that Guyer's collection of essay offers a refreshing look at Kantian moral philosophy by reconstructing the development this notion of freedom took in Kant's reflexion over the formative years.
Guyer writes: "My approach to Kant's moral philosophy is based on the assumption that he revealed its premise most clearly in lectures given around the time that he was writing the Groundwork, p. vi". His main thesis being that the material of these unpublished lectures most readily show what Kant basically had in mind when publishing his mature works in moral philosophy. As Guyer develops his arguments in his essays, the conclusion becomes clear: Kant's deepest premise in his moral philosophy is the unconditional value of freedom, the ability of human beings to set their own ends. He sees this confirmed in important passages of Kant's lectures on moral philosophy. In transcriptions of a lecture on "natural rights" in 1784, Kant was recorded as saying: "The inner worth of the human being rests on his freedom, that he has his own will … If only rational beings can be ends in themselves, it is not because they have reason, but because they have freedom. Reason is merely a means. (Fey., 27:1319,1321)."
Every essay in Guyer's book tries anew to grapple with unresolved issues of Kantian moral philosophy by adducing material of the lectures. In his essay "Kant, Autonomy, and Modernity", for example, Guyer asks the question what is distinctly modern in Kant's practical philosophy by contrasting the specifics of Kantian moral philosophy with ancient conceptions of the role of reason in the control of our inclinations and passions developed by the Stoics. In his essay: "Is and Ought: From Hume to Kant, and Now", furthermore, Guyer calls into question the commonly held view that David Hume set modern meta-ethics on its path by demonstrating that "ought" cannot be derived from "is", but must have some entirely different sort of foundation. Guyer tries to show that Kant himself, at least in the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, held a view that "ought" could indeed be derived from a (metaphysical) description of the structure of the human condition – a view he gave up in his Critique of Practical Reason, where Kant famously declared that the binding status of moral law is just an immediately given "fact of reason" that cannot be inferred from anything else.
At his best, Guyer enables and empowers the reader to enter into a dynamical process of thinking about human freedom from the Kantian base of the published works. Again at his best, Guyer is able to show how Kant himself further developed his thoughts and clarified his views about moral philosophy and human freedom in the time between his published works. Engaging with Guyer's essays, the reader is able to understand that the Kantian views on freedom were steadily in flux and might not have found a definitive form even in his last major book on moral philosophy – which incidentally explains the still ongoing importance of Kantian moral philosophy even today, more than 200 years after the publication of his books.
While Guyer's essays are most fruitful in deepening our understanding of the place of freedom or autonomy in Kant's moral philosophy, they are not as convincing in some of the conclusions Guyer wishes to draw from his own analysis of the concept of freedom. This becomes most evident where Guyer tackles the controversial issues of how Kant proposed to argue for the conception of value (of freedom and the moral law) that underlies his entire moral philosophy. Here Guyer surmises that Kant remained attracted throughout his career to a position Guyer calls "normative essentialism". As he explains: "This is the position, whether it can be understood empirically, as Kant did in the 1760s, or can only be understood through the metaphysics of transcendental idealism, as he did after 1770, that human beings are capable of setting their own ends and that to treat them otherwise is as it were to deny the most obvious truth about them, the impermissibility of which needs no explanation other than logic alone." (p. viii preface).
But Guyer does not systematically explore his concept of "normative essentialism" in respect of Kant's moral philosophy in any detail. He leaves somewhat open in his essays what he means to show by that concept or what Kant's "attraction" amounted to on a philosophical level. Guyer seems to want to argue that Kant held on to a view in which human beings essentially are marked out by their rationality, which offers us normative laws of morality. This view is linked to Kant's insights that the normative status of the moral law cannot be further argued for either by reason (as it is unconditioned, not amenable to further inference from higher principles) or experience (as the moral law belongs to the a priori constitution of human beings which cannot be adequately shown in experience).
As Guyer traces the Kantian changes in his argumentation into the un-derivability of the normative status of the moral law in his analysis of the progression from the Groundwork to the Second Critique, he sees Kant as developing: "…the avatar of a new conception of philosophical argumentation, one that recognizes the impossibility of proving foundational principles without prior assumptions (for if one did appeal to prior assumptions, then the foundational principles would not be foundational after all) and instead confines itself to reconciling contradictions among our foundational commitments … In other words, while Kant goes beyond the ancient ideal of tranquility as the fundamental principle of normative ethics, perhaps he here introduces reflective equilibrium as the fundamental methodology of meta-ethics. This, I think, would be as much of a modernist innovation in the methodology of morals as Kant's positive conception of autonomy is in the context of morals" (p. 18). It is a pity that Guyer does not further elaborate on this point in his essays and argumentatively develop his proposition with systematicity. As it stands, the proposition is thinly backed up and remains a suggestion. The philosophical impact of this method within Kant's moral philosophy is left unanalyzed.
A similar proposition of Guyer lies with his analysis of Kant's view on moral feelings in his essay "Kant on Moral Feeling". After a fruitful analysis of Kantian views on moral feelings and specifically on the feeling of respect in relation to the moral law, in which Guyer clarifies the possible empirical workings of moral feelings on the determination of the will by the rational moral law, he draws his conclusion: "But if one is willing or even happy to leave Kant's transcendental idealist theory of the freedom of the will in the dustbin of history, then one is left with an empirical but plausible theory of the role of feelings in the general commitment to the moral law, the commitment to particular maxims of duty, and the initiation of particular actions in light of those maxims that seems interesting and promising, although some of its details certainly remain fuzzy." (p. 259) Obviously, Guyer tries to show that Kant had a plausible view at hand about the (empirical) role of moral feelings in his philosophy and that this could be had without Kant's central philosophical position of transcendental idealism – a position Kant himself saw as the central piece of his newly established critical philosophy, which for the first time secured metaphysics as a scientific discipline and secured freedom for philosophical analysis.
But, unfortunately, Guyer does not really show whether that is even possible and what the consequences on Kantian moral philosophy would be, if transcendental idealism would truly be thrown in the "dustbin of history". Would freedom or autonomy still stand as Kant conceived of them in his general work? Would he still have the required methodological tools to argue for the systematic place of freedom within his grander philosophy?
These are important shortcomings in Guyer's essays on Kant. But once one concentrates exclusively on Guyer's specific insights into Kantian moral theory by adding the lecture notes in the reconstruction of Kantian arguments, his collection of essays are illuminating. From one essay to the next, working his way from different sides and angles, Guyer helps the reader to dive deeper into Kantian moral philosophy and add interesting insights into controversial and unresolved issues of Kantian moral philosophy.
© 2017 Harry Witzthum
Harry Witzthum, Ph.D. did his doctorate in Philosophy at the University of Sheffield (UK). His research interests comprise the philosophy of mind and psychology, philosophy of language, and cognitive science. He currently lives in Switzerland.