In the Kantian view, a free choice is by its very nature irreducible to conditioning factors. Since to explain is to spell out conditions for the conditioned[1], it is a category mistake to expect a causal explanation of why I chose what I chose, if this choice really stems from free will; a free act of the will is an uncaused cause, one that inserts something into the causal series of the world without being constrained to do so by a chain of events. However, we rightfully anticipate that for any event that happens in our experience there is a cause that precedes it in time. Kant reconciles the tension between the intelligibility of the natural world we experience and morality’s need for free will by arguing in his Third Antinomy that free will’s status as a noumenal and not phenomenal idea means that free will cannot be proven or disproven to exist. His account of this in the Third Antinomy of the Critique of Pure Reason is famous, so I won’t reconstruct it here.

For my purposes, it suffices to point out that freedom is not the sort of the thing that could ever show up in the world of sense-experience. As Kant writes, “The concept of freedom is the stumbling block [der Stein des Anstoßes] for all empiricists, but also the key to the most sublime practical principles for critical moralists, who thereby see that they must necessarily proceed rationally.”[2] Freedom is a stumbling block, or in ancient Greek, skandalon—a scandal is what trips people up, something they can’t get past. The recurring torrent of breathless reports in popular outlets that science has proven we have no free will might be testimony to the inability of any inquirer to decisively show our decisions are unfree.

Free will sends empiricists into a tizzy not because it’s some indisputably evident phenomenon but because it isn’t, and the idea that something should alter the given world according to something which is no thing and which never shows up is anathema to the empiricist project (part and parcel of which is to not think of itself as having a project, that is to say, an agenda, but to regard itself as innocently “following the evidence”). When we inspect the range of the psychological motivations within ourselves, we are given again and again to drives to happiness in manners both subtle and great. It is fairly easy in this regard to conclude that what conduces to the greatest happiness for the greatest number constitutes the most ethical system, and all others are of no consequence. This is the conclusion not only of Mill but of many others long before him, including Hume and his philosophe friends such as Voltaire and Baron d’Holbach—all of whom found free will a useless metaphysical abstraction.[3]

When Kant advises we use pure reason to arrive at the principle of morality, he is trying to articulate a theory that will do justice to the unconditionality of human rights and individual freedom. Patrick Frierson nicely explains how attributing empirical conditions to the moral law etiolates its capacity to speak against given material conditions:

… most fundamentally, Kant’s concern with an empirical basis for morality is related to wonder. Whether one derives ethics from human nature or shows how what is ethical is ultimately what will make human beings happy or even ties ethics to divine rewards, in all of these cases, one tries to provide a reason for what is unconditionally good. And in the process, one makes morality more understandable and more appealing to the senses, but also less pure and ultimately less wonderful. Morality in all its purity is a source for wonder, and wonder at the moral law gives rise to a respect that is truly unconditional.[4]

Kant’s search for an a priori moral principle comes from a place of wonder at how it can be possible that we can ever act without our self-interest or even the subtle advantage of the “weak egoism” served in Leibniz’s style of altruism. Whereas for Leibniz the object of the will determines how the willing can be done, Kant’s search for a purely formal principle is an attempt to obviate this way that the content predetermines the worthiness of an action at the same time and for the same reason that it constricts the moral agent.

As we have seen in the previous post on Leibniz, a non-sensible or intellectual object does not save moral action from being surreptitiously egotistical, as Leibniz thought it would. Here it helps to go run through Kant’s criticism of this as a “material determining ground.” A “determining ground” (in German, Bestimmungsgrund, also translatable as “determining basis” or “reason for determining”) is a technical term Kant is drawing from his predecessor Christian August Crusius, who came up with it as a way to describe how I can make a choice between two options without the intellectual content of the options in my mind constraining me into making that choice. Leibniz says “choice follows the greatest inclination,”[5] and since we have the inclinations we have through the myriad and minute ways my individual essence (my quidditas) has been preestablished by divine providence to self-generate, this means that I choose what I choose not because of free will but as a result of what we might nowadays call “moral luck,” or in a more theologically inflected vocabulary, predestination. For a devout Pietist such as Crusius, the mockery that Leibnizian fatalism (especially in the Wolffian form popular in his day) makes of our ethical responsibility to become good people is unacceptable. Perhaps in the future I’ll explore Crusius’ theology, but for now I think a synopsis from Courtney Fugate will suffice:

In contrast with Leibniz, Crusius thinks freedom is most properly understood to be conscious self-determination, and an action of freedom is in fact one whereby we determine our actions, not through an eternal essence that we may never even become conscious of, but rather through the very ideas we are conscious of, and nothing besides. …To put the matter most briefly, Crusius’ main contribution to the discussion lies in his emphasis on the essential link he sees between absolutely spontaneous, but also conscious, self-determination and the very notion of a responsible agent that is also governed by a categorical law. He recognizes, in other words, that there can be no pure moral individualism, such as Leibniz offers, since without the idea of an absolutely self-determining or causally self-transparent subjectivity at its basis, the individual would not possess the essential freedom of subjectivity from all determinations of its individuality; yet this is precisely what is required for a genuine sense of responsibility and law.[6]

Crusius’ “determining ground of the will” is his way to do justice to two aspects of our ethical experience: 1) that we have to be choosing freely if we are to be in any way responsible for our own choices, and 2) that we have an idea of what we are doing when we choose without that idea itself doing the choosing for us. Leibniz is certainly right that we have to have some idea in our heads whenever we make a choice, but his intellectualism leads him to the hasty conclusion that it is clear attention to the idea of the option that is identical to my selection of it. Crusius instead affirms what Leibniz calls “indifference of equilibrium”; Crusius would say that the donkey in Buridan’s example can choose between identical piles of hay.

For Crusius, I am free to reject even the most thoroughly comprehended good option, otherwise responsibility for choosing such is just a will o’ the wisp, and my virtue or my vice are just byproducts of the ultra-subtle ways my psychology gets determined by my surrounding environment. There is no real me in that Leibnizian kind of choice; it is not I who choose but the butterfly flapping its wings in a distant galaxy that chooses for me—or really not even that, for nothing and no one truly acts without some antecedent cause predetermining it. Agency then is just transference of antecedent force through a ghostly shell of an agent, one after another in the phantasmagoria of pseudo-individuals, causal relations without genuinely existent relata.

Some see this as a good thing, as it takes away the vindictiveness of blaming people for their vice since no one is responsible—not even one.[7] (Anecdotally, I notice that deniers of free will are very comfortable with taking credit for their own virtue, usually by giving virtue a different and amoral name, even as they celebrate the disappearance of evil. Funny how that works.) Crusius and Kant are most decidedly moralizers, for better or for worse (whatever that would mean).

For that reason both stress the importance of holding fast to the idea of genuine self-determination, although Kant is a good deal less hard-nosed about it than Crusius is (which only makes sense given Kant’s overall epistemic humility and theoretical agnosticism about the soul and about free will). It has to be at least possible that our actions can be spontaneous in the good sense of being self-caused without also being spontaneous in the bad sense of being chaotic and blind. It is this possibility that the terminology of a determining basis of the will opens up for them.

Here we see that you make this or that the determining basis of your will, it does not simply happen to you. For Crusius, when presented with the choice between the sensually tempting and divine commands, we ought to make God’s commands the determining basis of our will, and not simply because the latter promises more happiness than the former, but because we see for ourselves its intrinsic rightness and voluntarily affirm that rightness. In this way, we replicate within ourselves and for ourselves God’s law as our own law; we have to legislate the divine law within ourselves for our obedience to count as genuine.

For Kant, we must make the moral law the determining basis of our will, and this means we must decide on the basis of disinterested rationality and not because of some happiness or improved state that the option promises. Kant repudiates with stentorian tenacity Leibniz’s claim that choice follows the greatest inclination; this not only makes possible Kant’s (in)famous distinction between duty and inclination, but gives substance to the very idea of duty itself. Morality cannot simply consist in the path of least metaphysical resistance, that is, predestination.

Yet how does one make one’s duty the determining ground of one’s will? Assuming that it exists, how can free will impact or alter the course of events in phenomena, such that a free decision (which, being noumenal, is made outside of space and time) shows up as a determinate and unbroken causal chain of neural network and environment? If it cannot be the idea of the good itself that makes us choose it, then how do we choose it? Kant’s account in the Third Antinomy demonstrates why our curiosity about this can never be rationally satisfied, which is fine so long as we have the free time to debate it, but there comes a time for action. The world and the desperate need of others call upon us to choose to make sacrifices that respect their dignity, and we already know how to make ourselves make these choices—we just don’t like making them—and so sometimes skepticism about our free will can function as a fig leaf for irresponsibility, and could be a sophisticated way of stalling.

Nonetheless, nobody can explain how we make duty the determining ground of our will—we just have the conviction that we can. It is this conviction (rather than comprehension) that reason demands us to reach: to behave as if one is free is a necessary component of treating people as if they are free, that is that they are to be respected as fellow choosers, as autonomous beings. This is the scandal of freedom that, if taken to its utmost conclusion in the idea of the kingdom of ends, condemns the disrespect and egoism of our social order as falsehood, the normal paling in comparison to the august resplendence of the normative.

While it seems a wispy thing for parlor room conversation in the jargon-laden pages of Kant’s books, the scandal of freedom implies to maintain moral idealism requires willingness to defy the pressing demands within our academies for certain answers and within our society for certain results, because none could ever be given in the first case and because the end never justifies the means in the second case. It is no sophomoric or thoughtless defiance Kant advocates, but a rational one, one whose rationality the Third Antinomy (and the critical project generally) demonstrates: “Thus I had to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith; and the dogmatism of metaphysics, i.e., the prejudice that without criticism reason can make progress in metaphysics, is the true source of all unbelief conflicting with morality, which unbelief is very dogmatic.”[8] While we keep wanting to objectify free will, to turn it into a kind of object determined by other objects, Kant’s moral project embarks from the possibility that free will is independent of any object, as is the formal principle through which freedom can be self-consistently exercised: autonomy.


[1] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Paul Guyer and Allen Wood. New York, NY: 1998. A303/B359—A305/B361, pp. 389-390.

[2] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason in Practical Philosophy, trans. and ed. Mary J. Gregor. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. 1996. 5:7-8, page 143.

[3] It is significant in this regard that Kant’s mature critical philosophy is profoundly steeped in Rousseau’s critique of the Enlightenment narrative of progress, as well as its attendant anthropology and epistemology. For a vibrant account of Rousseau’s influence on Kant, see Richard Velkley’s Freedom and the End of Reason.

[4] Patrick Frierson, “Kant and the End of Wonder,” in Philosophy Begins in Wonder: An Introduction to Early Modern Philosophy, Theology, and Science, ed. Michael Funk Deckard and Péter Losonczi. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications. 2010. Page 299

[5] Leibniz, letter to Coste, 19 December 1707, in Philosophical Essays, p. 194

[6] Courtney David Fugate, “Moral Individuality and Moral Subjectivity in Leibniz, Crusius, and Kant” in Cultivating Personhood: Kant and Asian Philosophy, ed. Stephen R. Palmquist. De Gruyter. 2010. Pp. 280-281

[7] Romans 3:10-12

[8] Kant, Bxxx, Critique of Pure Reason 117