(p.177) Appendix Freedom, Moral Responsibility, and Motivation in the Critique of Practical Reason
(p.177) Appendix Freedom, Moral Responsibility, and Motivation in the Critique of Practical Reason
I shall examine an argument in Kant's Critique of Practical Reason for the claim that the existence of the freedom to act independently of natural causes is a necessary condition for the existence of morality. This argument is different from the one which is usually discussed of Kant's, namely the argument which assumes that the freedom to act independently of natural causes is a necessary condition of moral responsibility; and before examining it, I shall indicate how it differs from the more usually discussed argument about moral responsibility and the bearing it has on the freewill–determinism debate.
The core of the usually discussed argument can be found in the Critique of Pure Reason, in Kant's solution to the Third Antinomy. There Kant tried to reconcile what he took to be two conflicting doctrines, the claim that determinism is true and the claim that it is justifiable to praise and blame agents for their actions. It is clear that Kant was an incompatibilist: he saw determinism as a threat to moral responsibility. And he also believed that the principle of causal determination is constitutive of experience. So he concluded that it was only possible for praise and blame to be justified if human beings were not just members of the causally determined world of nature, but also members of a non-causally determined, non-spatio/temporal ‘noumenal’ world, a world which was in some way linked with the world of nature. Kant felt that by establishing the possibility that men were members of such a world, he had established the possibility of their freedom and that by establishing the possibility of their freedom, he had established the possibility of moral responsibility.
But Kant's proposed solution is rightly regarded as unsatisfactory. For one thing, his claim that human beings are moral (p.178) agents by virtue of their membership of the noumenal world gives us no reason to assume that we can hold them morally responsible for what they do in this world; particularly since, according to Kant, in the natural world all human actions are causally determined. For another, it is not clear how agents in the natural world could be identified with agents in the noumenal world which is ex hypothesi a non-spatio/temporal world. Also, the doctrine of ‘noumenalism’ involves incoherencies like non-temporal ‘choices’ and ‘acts of will’.
Of course, the unsatisfactoriness of Kant's solution cannot be used as an argument against his incompatibilist intuition that there is a conflict between unqualified determinism and moral responsibility. If Kant is wrong about this, then his wrongness must be established on different grounds. On the other hand, in the Third Antinomy, Kant does not argue for his incompatibilist intuition; rather, he more or less assumes that the freedom to act independently of natural causes is a necessary condition of moral responsibility1 and the compatibilist can legitimately criticize him for this absence of argument.
In the Critique of Practical Reason, Kant does provide an argument for the incompatibilist intuition, but it is an indirect one. It is indirect because Kant does not argue for the claim that the justifiability of blame for the flouting of moral requirements (or of praise for fulfilling them) would be threatened by determinism; instead he argues that unless the absence of causal determination is possible, there can be no moral requirements.
Now, this second claim, which Kant does not always clearly distinguish from the first, is more fundamental than the claim that if determinism is true it is not justifiable to praise or to blame agents. Nevertheless, it presents just as much of a challenge to the compatibilist belief that praiseworthiness and blameworthiness are compatible with determinism. For if there can be no requirements then, of course, there can be no praise or blame for their fulfilment or non-fulfilment. Thus if Kant's belief could be substantiated that the requirements themselves depend on freedom from causal determination, then the incompatibilist intuition that determinism poses a threat to moral appraisal would be vindicated.
But, for the purposes of this discussion, the most important (p.179) respect in which Kant's argument differs from that in the Critique of Pure Reason is in the reason for which freedom is held to be necessary. In the Critique of Pure Reason, it is assumed to be necessary in order to ensure that agents could have acted otherwise. This is the familiar, traditional, incompatibilist belief about moral responsibility. But in the argument we are considering the claim that morality requires the falsity of unqualified determinism is thought to follow from the claim that morality requires the existence in human beings of a desire-independent ability to act. And the power of this latter claim lies in its appearing to follow from the incontrovertible assertion that there are moral requirements.
I shall argue that the claim that morality requires the falsity of determinism does not follow from the claim that it requires the existence of a desire-independent ability to act and thus that Kant fails to establish that morality and determinism are incompatible.
But this still leaves the argument about desires intact and, although Kant does not realize it, this argument, even when detached from the claim about determinism, has an important bearing on the debate about determinism. For it implies that the existence of moral requirements depends on the falsity of a belief about human motivation which is widely thought to be true—the belief that human beings could never act unless they had certain desires. So if the argument about desires succeeds and the belief about human motivation is true, then there are no moral requirements. And if there are no moral requirements, then the age-old debate between the compatibilist and the incompatibilist about the relationship between moral responsibility and determinism is superfluous.
The elements of Kant's argument are to be found mainly in the first chapter of the second Critique.2 While many of the elements are immediately accessible, some of them are submerged in the sense that they are not explicit assertions but can be said to follow from what is explicitly asserted. Because some of the elements are submerged and because they are not presented by Kant in the order in which I shall present them, I cannot be certain that this is the argument he saw himself as offering. At the least, it can be said that it is an argument he would have been (p.180) committed to endorsing since it follows from much of what he says in the first chapter. For this reason, I feel it is justifiable to refer to the argument as ‘Kant's argument’.3
My examination of Kant's argument will proceed in three stages. In Stage I, I present a bare outline of the argument (a), followed by (b) a more detailed presentation and finally (c) a criticism of it. In Stage II, I examine those elements of the argument which survive the initial criticisms of (c). It is at this stage that I argue that the claim about determinism does not follow from the claim about desires. In Stage III I discuss the claim that morality requires the existence in human beings of a desire-independent ability to act and the belief that human beings cannot act without desires. (I call this belief ‘the psychological thesis’.)
For those who want to see at a glance what happens to Kant's argument as it proceeds through each stage, I have added a description in outline form at the end of the Appendix.
(a) A bare outline of the argument
1. There are moral requirements.
2. Moral requirements are essentially unconditional, universal, necessary and a priori.
3. No requirements based on the desires and inclinations of agents could have the nature of moral requirements, that is they could not be unconditional, universal, necessary and a priori.
4. If men could not fulfil moral requirements, there could not be moral requirements (ought implies can).
5. To fulfil moral requirements, men must act independently of their desires and inclinations.
6. All and only acts caused by desires and inclinations are causally determined.
7. Therefore, to act independently of desires and inclinations men must be free from causal determination.
Conclusion: Agents' freedom from causal determination is a necessary condition of the existence of moral requirements.4
(p.181) (b) A more detailed presentation of the argument
1. There are moral requirements
Kant speaks on page 117 of ‘the moral law of which we become directly conscious’ and he says on page 120 ‘We may call the consciousness of this fundamental law a fact of reason’. Of course, these claims refer to the supreme moral requirement, the requirement that we act only on maxims which we can will as universal laws. But implicit in the recognition of this supreme requirement is the recognition that there will be a multiplicity of moral requirements which are generated by it, a host of true statements about what we ought and ought not to do in different situations.
2. Moral requirements are essentially unconditional, universal, necessary and a priori
They are unconditional in the sense that the truth that agents ought to perform a certain action (say ϕ) does not depend on the presence in those agents of any particular desires or aims (pp. 106, 107, 117, 119, 120, 121, 123). They are universal in the sense that they apply to all agents in relevantly similar situations (pp. 105, 106, 107, 115, 120, 123–4). A statement on page 107 which partly captures both of these points is the following: ‘rules are objectively and universally valid only when they hold without any contingent subjective conditions which distinguish one rational being from another.’ When Kant says that moral requirements are ‘necessary’ he means two things by this. First, he means that they are categorical (p. 106), that is that they are unconditional and that they command absolute obedience. Thus, he describes the moral law on page 119 as commanding that: ‘We absolutely must proceed in a certain manner. The practical rule is therefore unconditional, and hence it is conceived a priori as a categorically practical proposition by which the will is determined absolutely and immediately.’
Kant calls such ‘categorical’ necessity ‘objective necessity’ and contrasts it with ‘subjective necessity’, the necessity a rule has for those for whom following it is a means to some end they desire (pp. 107, 114, 126). But Kant also uses the term ‘necessary’ to mean ‘non-contingent’. Thus, on page 106 he says: ‘the necessity is wanting which—if it is to be practical must be independent (p.182) on conditions which are pathological and are therefore only contingently connected with the will.’ And on page 113, he denies that a universal desire for happiness and a universal agreement on what would constitute it could be the basis of a moral law because (he says) such unanimity would be contingent.
Finally moral requirements are a priori in the sense that they can be known without consulting experience (p. 114). Kant says on page 114 ‘practical laws … must be known by reason a priori, not by experience …’
3. If moral requirements were based on the desires of agents, they, could not be unconditional (pp. 113–4, 122, 123), universal (pp. 113, 122, 123, 125), necessary (pp. 107, 113, 114, 23, 124, 125, 126) and a priori (pp. 108, 113).
For then the truth of statements expressing them, that is the truth that agents ought to do such and such, would depend on the truth of the claim that agents had certain desires and inclinations. And if the truth of moral ought statements did depend on the truth of claims that agents had certain desires or inclinations then those statements could not have the particular features which distinguish moral from non-moral requirements. For instance, since claims about the existence of certain desires and inclinations are contingent, any claims based on them could not be necessary. Kant says at page 97: ‘It is a clear contradiction to try to extract necessity from a principle of experience and to try by this to give a judgement true universality.’ There are a number of other passages in which Kant makes the point that desire-based rules could not have the logical features of moral requirements, but I shall quote just one:
On the basis of these remarks, we are justified, I think, in assuming that Kant would have endorsed the following interim conclusion: The truth value of claims that agents ought morally to (p.183) perform certain acts is independent of the truth value of claims that agents do I do not want to perform those acts.
Even supposing, however, that all finite rational beings were thoroughly agreed … still they could by no means set up the principle of self–love as a practical law for this unanimity itself would only be contingent. The principle of determination would still be only subjectively valid and merely empirical, and would not possess the necessity which is conceived in every law, namely, an objective necessity arising from a priori grounds (p. 113).
4. The truth of the claim that agents ought morally to perform certain acts depends on the truth of the claim that agents can perform those acts
Of course, Kant does not put it like this, but he says enough to indicate that this is what he believes. Thus, on page 120, he claims that principles of morality can only apply to those capable of acting according to principles and, on page 126, that agents must be capable of knowing how to fulfil requirements if these requirements are to apply to them. But on page 119, Kant's endorsement of the ‘ought implies can’ principle is at its most explicit. He says there of an imaginary agent: ‘He judges, therefore, that he can do a certain thing because he is conscious that he ought …’ I want to pause for a moment to consider what has been established. Since (by step 3) it can be true that agents ought morally to perform certain acts even if it is false that they want to perform those acts, and since (by step 4), it can only be true that agents ought to act if they can act, and since (by step 1), it is true that agents ought to perform certain acts, it follows that agents must be able to act even if they do not want to act. It must be true that agents can fulfil moral requirements whatever they happen to desire.
If we assume for the moment that premisses 1 to 4 are acceptable, the argument so far can be said to have established only that human agents can act independently of their desires in order to act morally, it has not established that men have to act independently of their desires in order to act morally. From the fact that the moral ‘ought’ applies whatever you desire, it does not follow that it cannot be fulfilled as the result of a desire. To claim that it did follow would be to confuse questions of justification with questions of motivation, that is to confuse claims about what justifies the statement that an act is morally required with claims about what it is that motivates an agent to fulfil a moral requirement.
But Kant need not be seen as guilty of this confusion. For he also holds that immanent in all moral requirements is the requirement-to-act-independently-of-desires. He says of the moral law on pages 117–9 not just that ‘reason presents it as a (p.184) principle of determination not to be outweighed by any sensible conditions, nay wholly independent of them’, but also that ’we can become conscious of pure practical laws … by attending to the necessity with which reason prescribes them and to the elimination of all empirical conditions which it directs. Thus, in addition to the claim that the moral requirement is unconditional in nature we have Kant's claim that
5. The moral requirement commands an unconditioned response, a response unconditioned by desires and inclinations
6. All and only acts caused by desires and inclinations are causally determined
(Remarks which add up to textual evidence that Kant believed this can be found on pp. 107–8, 109, 111–2, 114, 116, 122, 133, 166, 187.) Kant believed that the will was determined exclusively either by desires and inclinations or by pure reason. He also believed that it was only desires and inclinations which could be called empirical determining influences (pp. 107–8, 109, 114, 116, 187). On the basis of these beliefs and his belief that in the empirical world all events were causally determined, he seems to have concluded that acts were causally determined iff they were determined by desires and inclinations. (On page 122, Kant speaks of ‘the physical law that we should follow some impulse or inclination.’)
7. Therefore, to act independently of desires and inclinations men must be free from causal determination
(See pages 122 and 165.) Kant assumes that he has demonstrated that the fact of freedom follows from the fact of morality. And he assumes that the agent who sees that he is bound by a moral requirement must also see that he is free. On page 119 he says: ‘He judges, therefore, that he can do a certain thing because he is conscious that he ought, and he recognises that he is free, a fact which but for the moral law he would never have known.’ The conclusion that freedom follows from morality is at the same time a conclusion that: the existence of freedom (from causal determination) is a necessary condition for the existence (p.185) of morality. As Kant says on page 88: ‘Freedom is the ratio essendi of the moral law.’
(c) Criticism of the argument
One of the most contentious premisses is step 5, the claim that we are always morally required to act independently of desires, that is that any requirement does not just consist in an injunction to do something, but consists in an injunction to do something desirelessly. One's immediate reaction to this is to deny it and to insist that our awareness of a particular moral requirement is an awareness simply that we ought to do something or other, and not an awareness that we ought to disregard desires and inclinations in order to do it. It is tempting to assume that Kant has simply confused the claim that the moral law commands action unconditionally with the claim that it commands unconditioned action, action unconditioned by desires. But there are hints in the first chapter of the Critique of Practical Reason that Kant felt he could support step 5. For he explicitly endorses the belief that all desires are self-regarding (pp. 108–12), and that qua creatures of nature, human agents are necessarily and always motivated by self-love (p. 112). Such beliefs would be prima-facie reasons for assuming that to be motivated by a desire is ipso facto to be motivated in a way which is inimical to the fulfilling of a moral requirement. And it might seem to follow from this that in order to fulfil any moral requirement we must disregard desires. But even if the foregoing were true, this still would not license the conclusion that any moral requirement is always a requirement to disregard desires. Indeed, Kant himself could be said to have a reason for not accepting the claim that underlying all moral requirements is the requirement to disregard desires. For this claim is incompatible with the belief that it is possible to act in accordance with the moral law, but not for the sake of it; that it is possible for one's actions to have ‘legality’ but not ‘morality’ (see p. 164, Ch. 3). One's intuitive understanding of this claim is that it is possible for an agent to do the right thing from a selfish motive. But if doing the right thing consists (in part) in disregarding one's desires and inclinations, then this is impossible. It would seem impossible to do the legal thing without doing the moral thing.
(p.186) However, it might be held that if to be motivated by a desire is ipso facto to be motivated in a way which is inimical to the fulfilling of a moral requirement (as suggested above), then in order to fulfil any moral requirement agents must disregard desires. And since the ability to fulfil moral requirements is a condition of their applicability, the ability to disregard desires would be a condition of their applicability. Kant would still be entitled to this conclusion although he would not be able to claim that the requirement consisted in a requirement to set aside desires.5 But is there any reason to accept that to be motivated by a desire is ipso facto to be motivated in a way which is inimical to the fulfilling of a moral requirement, once we have rejected the claim that the requirement consists in a requirement to disregard desires? Even if, for the moment, we accept Kant's claim that all desires are self-regarding (a claim which is inconsistent with his acknowledgement elsewhere that men can be moved by benevolent desires), it would be perfectly possible for someone to be moved by a self-regarding desire to fulfil a moral injunction such as ‘Help others’. Of course his motive would not be moral, but his action would constitute a fulfilment of the moral requirement.
What I have just said might seem to contradict one of Kant's most insistent claims, that to act morally is necessarily to act-for-the-sake-of-duty. But if this means that only action-for-the-sake-of-duty can fulfil a moral requirement, then as we have seen there is reason not to accept this claim. Nevertheless, we can distinguish between an act which is ‘moral’ in Kant's terms, that is one undertaken for the sake of duty, and an act which fulfils the moral requirement. The argument we are examining is an argument which begins from premisses about the nature of the moral requirement and moves to claims about the nature of the will which is needed to fulfil such requirements. We have seen that there is reason to reject the claim that the requirement consists partly in a requirement to be motivated in a certain way. If therefore, requirements are purely requirement-to-act, then there is prima facie no reason for denying that agents can fulfil these requirements as the result of all sorts of motives, selfish desires and inclinations included. This does not mean that we have to reject Kant's claim that only morally motivated action is praiseworthy, this is consistent with our intuitions (p.187) about such things,6 although many do not accept Kant's doctrine that benevolent desires cannot be part of such a motivation.7
But in addition to acknowledging the possibility of benevolent desires and then discarding them as sources of moral motivation, as we have seen, Kant also, and inconsistently, claims that all desires are self-regarding. In rejecting this belief, we find further reason to reject Kant's belief that to be motivated by a desire or inclination is ipso facto to be motivated in a way which is inimical to the fulfilment of moral requirements.
It is not just Kant's fifth premiss which presents problems. The second and fourth premisses contain elements which are inconsistent with one another. Thus if, as is claimed in premiss 4, the truth value of ‘ought’ statements depends on the truth value of ‘can’ statements, then statements expressing moral requirements cannot be known a priori (as claimed in premiss 2), because our knowledge of what particular agents can do is empirical.
It might be objected that to say this is to overlook the fact that, despite appearances, moral requirements do not enjoin agents to succeed in bringing about a particular state of affairs, but to try to do so (see Chapter 2). And, the objection would continue, while it is true that we don't know a priori whether people can succeed in doing things, we do know a priori that people can try to do certain things, and in knowing this a priori, we can know a priori that the moral ought applies to them.
But the claim that we know a priori that people can try to do certain things seems to me false. The ability to try to do certain things depends both on anagent's motivational propensities and his capacity to envisage a way of bringing about a state of affairs which he can engage in. We do not know a priori that any particular agent has the right motivational propensities or the capacity to envisage how he might try.
It might be further objected that nevertheless Kant was right in thinking that there are things we know a priori about moral requirements; for instance, we know a priori that moral requirements must be universalizable. This might be true, but it does not count against the claim that knowledge of whether individual requirements apply to individual agents cannot be a priori if applicability depends on ability. Furthermore, statements (p.188) about an agent's abilities are contingent: so, if moral ‘ought’ statements depend on ‘can’ statements for their validity, then they cannot be ‘necessary’ in one of the senses in which Kant thought that statements expressing moral requirements are necessary, that is in the sense that they are not based on any contingent claim. I shall assume at this point that the fourth premiss is true and that Kant's second premiss must be revised to avoid contradiction. Deprived of its fifth premiss, and of those elements in the second premiss which render it inconsistent with the fourth, what elements remain of Kant's argument and can these remaining elements be used to support any conclusions about freedom?
We are left with the following claims:
1. that there are moral requirements;
2. that these requirements are unconditional and universal;
3. that if these requirements depended for their legitimacy on the presence of desires and inclinations in potentially responsive agents they could not be unconditional and universal;
4. that all agents to whom the moral requirement applies, that is to whom the ‘ought’ statement is rightfully addressed, can comply with that requirement;
6. that all and only acts caused by desires and inclinations are causally determined;
7. that to act independently of desires and inclinations is to manifest one's freedom from causal determination.
Now to examine these premisses. The first premiss needs neither explanation nor justification, it is both self-explanatory and true. It seems also to be true that moral demands are unconditional, in the sense that their legitimacy as moral demands does not depend on our having any particular desires or inclinations. But it might be objected that there could be occasions when what constitutes a person's moral duty depends on what he happens to desire. One can envisage situations in which it might be morally wrong for someone to perform a certain action because he lacks or has certain desires and inclinations.8 (p.189) For example, it might be wrong for a person who has an ineradicable aversion to sights of physical disfigurement to seek work with those who have been physically disfigured; or it might be wrong for someone who values intellectual ability above all else to become a teacher of the mentally handicapped. For having these particular likes and dislikes could militate against their treating the patients or pupils in their care with humanity and kindness. Thus, it seems we have sometimes to take account of our desires and inclinations in order to decide what our moral duties are.
But this point does not threaten the general claim about the unconditionality of the moral requirement. The examples rely for their force on the principle that we ought not to harm others. The person who values intellectual ability above all else would run the risk of harming his mentally handicapped pupils by being unable to respond to them with genuine liking or affection. But his duty not to harm them is not a duty which is conditional on his having or lacking a particular desire—that duty is unconditional. The relevance of his inclinations is not that they determine whether or not he ought to fulfil the basic moral principles. Rather, his knowledge of his inclinations can help him to gauge how best to conform to those principles.
It also seems to be true that moral demands are universal in the sense that what is a requirement for one person in certain circumstances is a requirement for all persons in relevantly similar circumstances, and the notion of ‘a relevantly similar circumstance’ does not include the idea that agents who are morally bound by the requirement must have similar desires. This third premiss appears to be a negative restatement of the second premiss, but it contains a hidden assumption which the second premiss does not contain, namely that men differ in their desires and inclinations. Only this can explain why it should be thought that the basing of moral assumptions on human desires would itself deprive these requirements of their universality. However, the assumption that men do so differ is plausible. The fourth premiss also seems to be true. Premisses 1 to 4 taken together appear to rule out the possibility that a man's ability to conform to the moral requirement could depend on his having any particular desires or inclinations.
We take it that the agents to whom moral demands are (p.190) addressed often can fulfil them. If, as the argument suggests, this ability does not depend on their having desires and inclinations, then it follows that such agents can act independently of their desires and inclinations. Let us assume for the moment that this conclusion is justified. Even so, there is some way to go before we can reach the conclusion expressed in the seventh premiss that the ability to act independently of desires and inclinations is a manifestation of freedom from causal determination. This claim depended on premiss six, the claim that all and only acts caused by desires and inclinations are causally determined. But why should we accept this? There is nothing in the doctrine of determinism per se, in the doctrine that every event is causally necessitated, which implies that all acts are caused by desires and inclinations. The doctrine of determinism would be consistent with the claim that agents are moved to act solely as the result of their perceptions or beliefs. An agent's causally determined and determining motivational states could consist in a perception of the moral requirement or in the thought that something was morally required of him and in his decision to act as the result of this perception or thought. Such an agent would fulfil Kant's criterion for true morality; he would be moved to act solely for the sake of duty, solely because such action was morally required of him, and his fulfilment of the requirement would take place within the natural world governed, if Kant is right, by deterministic laws. (See my further comment at the end of the Appendix for a more detailed look at Kant's beliefs about moral motivation.)
At this point Kant might invoke a curious and rather bad argument in the Critique of Practical Reason in order to object to the claim that an act which is motivated by the thought of duty could be causally determined. The argument goes like this: since the form of law is not an appearance, not an object of experience, the idea of the form of law is also not an appearance. Therefore any will which is moved by the thought that its maxim can be universalized (can have the form of law) is a will which, in being moved by something which is not an appearance (in this case, the thought containing the idea of the form of law) is not causally determined and, therefore, free (see pp. 116, 166).
There is an obvious criticism of this, which is that, since the (p.191) idea of the form of law occurs in time, it must be an ‘appearance’, an item in experience. And if, as Kant believes, all appearances are subject to deterministic laws, then the thought or perception of the moral requirement could constitute the sole determining cause of an agent's action.
And this means that even if Kant is right that morality requires the existence in human beings of a desire-independent ability to act, it does not follow from this that it requires the falsity of unqualified determinism.
So Kant does not succeed in establishing that if unqualified determinism is true, there can be no moral requirements. But his argument still leaves us with a worrying problem. For it implies that if a widely held belief about human motivation and a very plausible belief about human action are true then there can be no moral requirements as we conceive of them. The widely held belief is that men cannot be moved by thoughts alone, but need some desire or inclination, some ‘passion’ as Hume would have put it, to move them to action. The very plausible belief is that men cannot act unless they are moved to act, that is that all action requires motivation. These two beliefs entail the claim that desires are necessary for action. I shall call this ‘the psychological thesis’.
(Before I go on to discuss the problem which the psychological thesis poses, I want to stress how independent that thesis is from the doctrine of determinism. Just as the psychological thesis could be false and determinism true, in the case where action is motivated by cognition alone, so determinism could be false and the psychological thesis true. Thus it might be true that human beings can be moved to act only if they have certain desires and false that every act is determined by desires or determined by anything else. For (as I argue in Chapter 3), there is no a priori justification for assuming that all causes are necessitating. Also, necessary conditions are not sufficient conditions.
I turn now to the problem which is posed by Kant's argument and the psychological thesis.
This arises in the following way. The psychological thesis, in (p.192) conjunction with the ought implies can principle, is in conflict with Kant's claim that moral requirements are unconditional. This is because according to the second and third premisses of Kant's argument, moral requirements are unconditional in the sense that the truth of moral ‘ought’ statements is independent of the truth of any claims about the desires or inclinations of agents; and according to the fourth premiss of Kant's argument moral ‘ought’ statements do depend for their truth on the truth of the claim that agents can act to fulfil them. But, according to the psychological thesis, the ability of agents to fulfil moral requirements depends on their having certain desires. Thus a contradiction arises between the claim that the moral ‘ought’ statements are not conditional on the truth of claims about desires, and the claim that they are conditional on the truth of such claims (via the assumption that ought implies can).
Now it might be thought that there is a rather quick way of disposing of this argument. And this would be to object that the ability to act does not depend on desires. Someone who endorsed this objection might point out that it is considered quite acceptable to say things like ‘It is not that he lacks the ability, he just doesn't want to’; and that we would think it absurd if someone were to say ‘He couldn't do it because he didn't want to do it.’9
But against this, it can be argued that it would seem equally absurd to say, ‘Although he could not have been moved to respond to the moral requirement, he could nevertheless have responded to it.’ And the absurdity of this claim lies in the suggestion that someone's ability to be motivated to do something is not relevant to his ability to do it. So if motivation is essential for action and if desires are essential for motivation, then it follows that the ability to act does depend on the presence of desires.
One traditional objection to this sort of claim is that it confuses what is necessary for the existence of an ability with what is necessary for its exercise. Thus, it is argued, while desires might be necessary for the exercising of the ability to act, they are not necessary for the existence of the ability to act.
But to concede that desires are necessary for the exercising of the ability to act is to concede that without desires there is no (p.193) possibility of action and if there is no possibility of action without desires then an agent cannot act without them. So the impossibility of action without desires would be enough to support the claim that, given the four premisses of Kant's argument, there is a threat to the belief that the moral ought is unconditional.
In any event, the claim that the existence of the ability to act does not depend on desires can be objected to on the grounds that it seems to refer exclusively to physical abilities and to ignore what one might call ‘psychological abilities’. A physically healthy but severely depressed person who cannot be induced to get out of his chair is ‘able’ to get out of his chair only in the sense that there is nothing physically wrong with him and there are no external physical impediments to his doing so, but is he not psychologically unable to do so? It does not seem inappropriate to say that the apathy he suffers from, an apathy which leaves him wanting nothing (except perhaps to die), has rendered him incapable of wanting to do anything and therefore incapable of acting. (See the brief discussion of the severely depressed at the end of Chapter 5.)
So, given the ought implies can principle, we seem still to be left with the conflict between the belief that moral requirements are unconditional and the claim that they cannot be if it is true that desires are essential for action.
In Chapter 5, I argued that desires are essential for motivation. I then went on to argue that, while evidence relating to very depressed people suggests that unmotivated action is not empirically possible, the evidence cannot be regarded as conclusive. So the arguments there support the conclusion that it is highly likely that the psychological thesis is true; that it is true that desires are necessary for action, but they do not entirely rule out the possibility of desireless action.
This leaves me with a choice. I can ignore the fact that there is no conclusive ground for suggesting that such action is empirically impossible, stress the likelihood, given the evidence, that it is impossible and confine the rest of the discussion to the implications for morality (given Kant's argument) if all action must be motivated. Or I can ignore the likelihood that it is impossible, stress the fact that I have no conclusive ground for ruling (p.194) it out, and discuss the implications for morality if it is possible. Or, finally, I could discuss the implications for morality of each of these hypotheses. This is what I propose to do.
In other words, I shall consider two questions: first suppose it is true that all actions must be motivated, then, given Kant's argument, what follows? and secondly suppose it is true that some action can be unmotivated then, given Kant's argument, what follows?
As we shall see, the truth of either of these claims, in conjunction with Kant's argument, would have extremely disturbing implications. Let us take the possibility of unmotivated action first. The arguments at the end of Chapter 5 suggest that if it is possible, it is so only for agents in whom all feeling is dead. Since this is so, the upshot of its possibility would be a travesty of what Kant wanted. For given Kant's conclusion that desireless action is necessary for morality, it means that the existence of morality depends on the existence of agents who cannot be moved by any consideration. And any agent like this who acted in accordance with a moral requirement would be someone who only happened to do so. The possibility of such haphazard moral action is hardly what Kant wanted to serve as the basis for morality. He wanted moral requirements to be motivational influences. (See my further comment at the end for more on Kant's views about moral motivation.)
Suppose, on the other hand, that all action must be motivated. Then since, as has been argued, being moved to act requires desires, there are no moral requirements, if Kant's argument is correct.
So it looks as if our best hope of avoiding either of these disturbing implications is to find something wrong with one or more of the four premisses which generate the conclusion that morality requires a desire-independent ability to act. It is time, therefore, to re-examine them and since the first premiss seems incontestable, this leaves the second, third and fourth premisses.
All of these premisses concern statements like, ‘Agent X ought morally to do such and such’. Taken together, the second and third premisses assert that the truth of such a statement is independent of the truth that agent X does/does not have the desire to do such and such; while the fourth premiss asserts that it is only true that agent X ought morally to do such and such if (p.195) he can do it. But what does it mean to say that an agent (X) ought morally to do something when this is understood as a claim which relates to a specific situation? I think this involves two thoughts:
1. that agent X is in a situation in which a specific moral response is demanded; I shall call this ‘claim 1’; and
2. that the moral response demanded by the situation can legitimately be demanded of him (X). I shall call this ‘claim 2’.
For claim 1 to be true all that is required is that X be in the vicinity, within viewing or hearing distance, when an occasion for morally obligatory action presents itself. This would be sufficient to make it appropriate to say that he was ‘in’ a situation which involved a moral requirement. For claim 2 to be true more is required than that X be ‘in’ a situation which demands a moral response. For it to be true that the response demanded by the situation can legitimately be demanded of him, X must have both the capacity to see that something is morally required of him and the capacity to respond appropriately. Claim 2 also involves another claim, that if X does not respond as required he deserves to be blamed for not doing so.
Returning to premisses 2, 3 and 4, these can now be restated as follows. Premisses 2 and 3 become:
(p.196) But whether or not the second implication is true depends on whether action must be motivated. If all action must be motivated then, given the argument at the end of Chapter 5, the capacity to fulfil the moral requirement which is mentioned in premiss 4 depends on the agent's having some desire or affective disposition. So, given premiss 4, the second implication of premisses 2 and 3 would be false. On the other hand, if action can be unmotivated, then the capacity to fulfil the moral requirement does not depend on the agent's having any desires. In this case, the second implication of premisses 2 and 3 could be true.
The statement that X is in a situation which contains a moral requirement is true whether or not X has desires which would induce him to fulfil that requirement.
I shall call this ‘the first implication’ of premisses 2 and 3.
The statement that the response demanded by the situation can legitimately be demanded of X is true whether or not X has desires which would induce him to fulfil that requirement. I shall call this ‘the second implication’ of premisses 2 and 3. Premiss 4 (which clearly relates only to Claim 2 above) becomes:
The statement that the response demanded by the situation can legitimately be demanded of X is true only if X can fulfil the requirement.
The first implication of Premisses 2 and 3 is obviously true.
It might be objected that the possibility of unmotivated action of the kind envisaged would not make the second implication true for such action would not be a response to the agent's knowledge that something was morally required of him. Indeed, the whole point about such action is that it would not be a response to anything. However, it could be argued that it is arbitrary to insist that the word ‘response’ be included in the description of the second implication. If we substituted the word ‘act’ for the word ‘response’ than the second implication would be compatible with the claim that action could be unmotivated and if unmotivated action is possible, then the second as well as the first implication of premisses 2 and 3 would be true.
Turning to premiss 4, this, as restated, involves the following two thoughts:
(a) that it is only appropriate to demand that someone act morally if he can and
(b) that it is only legitimate to blame someone for not acting morally if he could have acted morally.
Thought (a) expresses what we might call the ‘exhortative’ or ‘response-inducing’ role of some moral ought statements; while (b) expresses the blame-conferring role of some moral ought statements, for example, statements like ‘You ought to have done such and such’ said in a reproachful way.
Thought (a) seems true. It would be inappropriate to say to someone that he ought to do something if he could not do it because one means to induce him to do it by speaking. Obviously, therefore, it would be inappropriate to say to someone who could not be motivated by any consideration that he ought to do something since the purpose of saying this to him (p.197) would be thwarted by the fact that he could not be moved by your saying it. And this suggests that to endorse 4 (a) is to be committed to denying that moral action can legitimately be demanded of someone who is immoveable even if such a person is able to act without being moved. So Kant's argument is partly responsible for implying that the existence of moral requirements might depend on the existence of people who can act without being moved to act and yet the fourth premiss of that argument suggests, at the same time, that moral requirements do not apply to such people. This leaves us with the following options:
1. to accept both the argument and the claim that unmotivated action is possible and to conclude that the possibility of unmotivated action is needed to ground the possibility of morality for those who can be motivated; or
2. to reject the claim that unmotivated action is possible; or
3. to reject the argument.
To adopt option 1, would be to accept that those who make morality possible are not the subjects of moral requirements, and this is surely unacceptable, indeed absurd. As for option 2, I have already argued that while it is likely that the claim about unmotivated action is untrue, I have no conclusive grounds for saying this.
This leaves option 3, to reject Kant's argument. The case for rejecting Kant's argument can be made if we can make a case for rejecting premiss 4 (b), the claim that it is only legitimate to blame someone for not acting morally if he could have acted morally. This is, of course, the traditional claim about moral responsibility that it is a necessary condition of an agent's deserving to be blamed that he could have acted otherwise.
In Chapter 2, I argued that this claim was false. If that argument is correct, then we can reject premiss 4 and thus Kant's argument and the disturbing conclusions which it appears to warrant.
At the beginning of the Appendix, I said that Kant's argument (p.198) for the claim that determinism is incompatible with the existence of moral requirements could be seen as an indirect argument for the claim that it is incompatible with moral responsibility.
We have seen that Kant fails to establish that morality requires the falsity of unqualified determinism, but, as I indicated at the beginning, the argument about human motivation which he mistakenly thought would lead to that conclusion has an independent bearing on the debate between the compatibilist and the incompatibilist about the relevance of determinism to moral responsibility. For if that argument were to succeed then, granted the truth of the claim that desires are necessary for action, there could be no moral requirements as we think of such requirements and so any debate about moral responsibility would be pointless.
I have argued that desires are most probably necessary for action, but it might be thought that the small possibility that they are not necessary is enough to justify the belief in the existence of moral requirements and, therefore, the debate between the compatibilist and the incompatibilist about moral responsibility. But even if we were to ignore the reasons I have already cited against endorsing this possibility, given its unlikelihood it is surely far too tenuous a basis on which to pin the belief that morality, and thus the possibility of moral responsibility, exist.
The only strong ground for believing that the debate about moral responsibility is not pointless is a demonstration that Kant's argument has failed. Such a demonstration has been provided in the first three chapters of this book, where I have considered the role of the could-have-acted-otherwise claim in the debate and have argued that there is not a could-have-acted-otherwise condition for moral responsibility. It is this which constitutes the case for rejecting Kant's premiss 4.
A Further comment on Kant's argument
Some of the conclusions I have reached in the discussion of Kant's claim that morality requires a desire-independent ability to act presuppose my earlier discussion in Chapter 5 of Nagel's thesis that desires need not be the sources of motivation.
(p.199) It will be remembered that Nagel offered two alternatives to the Humean belief that desires are the bases of all motivation, the logical reducibility thesis according to which claims about desires in action can be restated as claims about being moved to act by cognitions (Thesis II); and the thesis that while a desire must always be present when action occurs, the desire need not be the source but could instead be the effect of the agent's having first been moved by a cognition (Thesis I).
There are some striking analogies (and disanalogies) between Nagel's Thesis I picture of motivation and Kant's beliefs which are worth considering for the added insights they will give us into Kant's views about motivation and the bearing these have on the argument we have just discussed.
Kant believes that feelings or inclinations (he tends to use the words interchangeably) must always be part of the motivating psychological states which lead to human action (see pp. 166, 177, 187). This he takes to be a consequence of the fact that human beings have sensible (as well as rational) natures. But like Nagel and unlike Hume, Kant does not hold that in all cases of human action, the feeling or inclination must be present before the cognition can do its work. On the contrary, he believes that in all cases of truly moral action—and only in cases of such action—feeling is produced by cognition, namely awareness of the moral requirement. To use Nagel's way of speaking, Kant believes that when someone acts morally both the act and the feeling which leads to the act are motivated by awareness of the moral requirement. Kant says:
It is clear that Kant's picture of motivation resembles Nagel's Thesis I in its belief (a) that an inclination of some kind must underly all human action, and (b) that the inclination need not be the source but could be the effect of a motivational source which consists purely in cognitions.
While the moral law … is a formal determining principle of action by practical pure reason … it is also a subjective determining principle, that is, a motive to this action, inasmuch as it has influence on the morality of the subject and produces a feeling conducive to the influence of the law on the will. There is here in the subject no antecedent feeling tending to morality. For this is impossible, since every feeling is sensible and the motive of moral intention must be free from all sensible conditions. On the contrary, while the sensible feeling which is at the bottom of all our inclinations is the condition of that impression which we call respect, the cause that determines it lies in the pure practical reason; and this impression therefore (p.200) on account of its origin must be called not a pathological but a practical effect … Thus the respect for the law is not a motive to morality, but is morality itself subjectively considered as a motive … now it is to be observed that as respect is an effect on feeling, and therefore on the sensibility of a rational being, it presupposes this sensibility and therefore also the finiteness of such beings on whom the moral law imposes respect; and that respect for the law cannot be attributed to a supreme being, or to any being free from all sensibility and in whom therefore this sensibility cannot be an obstacle to practical reason. This feeling (sentiment) which we call the moral feeling is therefore produced simply by reason, (pp. 168–9.)
But it differs from Nagel's in at least two respects. First, Kant believes that cognition can only be the motivational source of truly moral action (that is action which is motivated solely by the thought of duty), and Nagel does not suggest that moral action alone is motivated by cognitions. Secondly, the desires and cognitions Nagel discusses are supposed to be ordinary desires and cognitions, at least in the sense that they are supposed to be a part of the every day natural world. But for Kant, the feeling of respect (or reverence) which is produced by moral awareness and the awareness which produces it are not ordinary. In the passage just quoted, Kant says that the moral feeling is produced simply by reason. And reason for Kant is a faculty which places human beings in some sense ‘outside’ and transcendent of the natural, sensible world including their own natural selves. (He seems to have regarded the exercise of reason as something which is not causally determined and which does not ‘take place’ in space or time (see B575, the Critique of Pure Reason.) And since Kant also holds that recognition of the moral law is necessarily involved in being rational, he is committed to the view that we are free in virtue of our awareness of moral requirements.10 This helps to explain why Kant believes that reverence is very different from ordinary feelings and inclinations: (p.201) ‘Yet although reverence is a feeling it is not a feeling received through outside influence, but one self-produced by a rational concept and therefore specifically distinct from feelings of the first kind all of which can be reduced to inclination and fear.’11
But despite Kant's belief in the ‘specialness’ of this feeling, he sees it as one which plays the same kind of role as other inclinations, namely that of a motivating force towards action within the sensible world. For while the cause which determines it is not sensible, reverence is sensible (remember that in the Critique of Practical Reason he says, ‘the sensible feeling which is at the bottom of all our inclinations is the condition of that impression which we call respect’). Later in the passage from the Groundwork which I have just quoted, he says that reverence is ‘analogous’ to fear and inclination. And in the Critique of Practical Reason, he makes clear his view of it as a motivating force towards moral action and against countervailing inclinations when he says that it is a motive which is necessary since ‘the being requires to be impelled to action by something because an internal obstacle opposes itself’.
So the Kantian picture of truly moral motivation which emerges is this: the reason-produced feeling of reverence is because reason -produced, the effect of a non-natural and therefore non-determined awareness of the moral law but, because it is a feeling and thus a part of human beings as members of the sensible world, it is able to do battle with other feelings.
What bearing do Kant's views about motivation have on his claim that morality requires a desire-independent ability to act and hence on the argument we have just considered? I have pointed out that Kant regards the claim about desires and the claim that morality requires freedom from causal determination as necessarily linked, that is he believes that we can only be free from our desires if we can be free from causal determination. Kant might have thought, therefore, that if he could show that moral motivation has its source in a cognition which is not determined, then he would have thereby demonstrated our freedom from causal determination, and hence our freedom from desires and thus the existence of morality.
But I have argued that the claim that morality requires a desire-independent ability to act and the claim that it requires (p.202) freedom from causal determination are not necessarily linked and furthermore that it is the first claim and not the second which represents a threat to the existence of moral requirements. For if it is true that morality requires a desire- independent ability to act and if it is also true that desires are necessary for action (the psychological thesis), then there can be no moral requirements as we conceive of them (that is as requirements which are unconditional).
So Kant's views about motivation could only be of help in countering this threat if they implied that desires were not necessary for action. But they do not imply this. Instead they imply that acting in accordance with moral requirements is conditional either on the existence of ordinary desires and inclinations (in which case such action would be in our terms ‘moral’ but in Kant's terms merely ‘legal’), or on the production of a feeling of reverence, and since Kant views reverence as a kind of inclination (in that he sees it as a sensible moving force towards action) he is committed to the view that some inclination or inclination-like state is necessary for human action.
(1.) Kant assumes that because judgements of the form ‘X ought to have done such and such’ imply that ‘X could have done such and such’, reproachful ought judgements are inconsistent with the truth of determinism. But it is precisely the assumption that the (p.223) could-have-acted-otherwise claim can only be interpreted in a way which is inconsistent with determinism which the compatibilist contests. (See B562, 579 (n. a) and B583 in the Critique of Pure Reason.)
(2.) All textual references to the Critique of Practical Reason are to T. K. Abbott's translation, 3 rd edn. (London, Longmans, Green 1883).
(3.) One further respect in which Kant's argument in the Critique of Practical Reason differs from that in the Critique of Pure Reason is that in the latter work Kant believed he was only able to establish the possibility of freedom, whereas in the Critique of Practical Reason, he claims to establish the fact of freedom. He claims that in knowing we are bound by the moral law we know that we have free-will. I have mentioned but not emphasized this because it is not relevant to my interest in the argument which lies in its claim to show that freedom from determinism is a necessary condition for morality (via its claim to show that a desire-independent ability to act is a necessary condition of morality). But this neglected aspect of the argument is simply the other side of the coin from that side which I am considering. For the argument that freedom is a necessary condition of the existence of moral requirements is at the same time a demonstration that it follows from the existence of moral requirements.
(4.) Very near the beginning of chapter. 1, Kant explicitly links his notion of free will with the existence of moral rules, claiming that there cannot be such rules, unless pure reason can be practical, i.e. unless the human will can be moved independently of desires and inclinations, by reason alone. He says: ‘Supposing that pure reason contains in itself a practical motive, that is, one adequate to determine the will, then there are practical laws; otherwise all practical principles will be mere maxims’ (p. 105). According to my interpretation, much of what follows in the first chapter is a defence of this claim.
(5.) It might be thought that Kant was proclaiming the existence of a supreme moral principle in the form of a demand that we should work towards the suppressing of our desires and inclinations so that we would be able to fulfil moral requirements when the occasion demanded it. This would run counter to Kant's insistence in the Critique of Practical Reason that desires and inclinations can provide some of the content of a moral volition, so long as they are being acted on because to do so is in accordance with the moral law. Leaving aside the question of whether the endorsement of such a principle would have been inconsistent on Kant's part, there is something curious about the suggestion. We could (p.224) not say of such a principle that it commanded its own motivation, i.e. that it required that we set aside desires in order to set aside desires. We would have to take it that the act of setting aside desires was a moral act, whatever the motivation. And yet, this way of putting it, the suggestion that one could fulfil such a demand as the result of a desire, seems paradoxical.
(7.) But there are difficulties in reconciling the belief that benevolent desires can form the core of a moral motivation with the belief that the agent whose act is motivated by such desires is praise-worthy because his act was motivated by them. For we take it that, for the most part, the desires we have, we have as a matter of luck. And (as I have argued in ch. 7) it seems counter-intuitive to claim that what we have as a matter of luck can be the reason for our deserving praise or blame. (See Nagel's ‘Moral Luck’ and Williams's perceptive remarks about Kant in ‘Morality and the Emotions’, p. 228, and ‘The Idea of Equality’, pp. 234–6.) It is (partly) this difficulty to which I think Kant was reacting when he insisted that action as the result of desires could not be morally praise-worthy. If Kant equated the notion of ‘moral action’ with the notion of an ‘action for which the agent deserves praise’, then this could, to some extent, explain what to many philosophers is his counter-intuitive insistence that the act which results from benevolent desires cannot be moral.
(9.) In ch. 1 , I suggested that the absurdity of the claim lies in the fact that it contains an implicit contradiction and not, as might be thought, in its attributing of a desire-dependent ability to act.
(10.) In this respect too, there are strong analogies between Kant's position and one of the main themes in Nagel, The Possibility of Altruism. Nagel holds that rationality is central to ethical motivation and that it allows each individual to stand back from his own desires and inclinations. But he does not suggest that rationality is supersensible, although he sees it as something which enables us to engage in metaphysics.
(11.) Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, pp. 66–7 n. 16. in the Paton translation Moral Law.