Kant's Moral Proof Of Freedom

(Paragraph 3 of Section 6 of Kant's Critique of Practical Reason)

A Translation and Commentary by Philip McPherson Rudisill on Sentences 5 through 13 of Paragraph 3

Written sometime before January 31, 2000 and last edited 1/24/2017


Kant has just established (in this Section 6) that the consciousness of the moral law must necessarily precede the consciousness of our freedom. He now undertakes to explain our awareness of this moral law and freedom.

3.5* But how is the consciousness of that moral law possible?**

* The 5th sentence of the 3rd paragraph of this Section 6 of the Critique of Practical Reason (CPrR).

** I.e., how is it that the moral command is understood as a binding law?

3.6 We can be conscious of pure practical laws in exactly the same way that we are conscious of pure theoretical principles; we attend to the necessity with which reason prescribes them, and to the isolation of all empirical conditions, which these indicate.

How then am I conscious of theoretical principles (in order to catch the analogy)? It is a theoretical principle that there is a something (= the object) which abides unchanged in its unity, and whereof I am obtaining only a glimpse (a appearance/Erscheinung), i.e., not the object itself but only a view of the object. By means of this principle I am able to validate a production of my own looking, namely pure space and time,* into which (space and time) I insert all that I spy about me, in whatever form or sense, and add to it, to this sensitive picture, the consciousness of it being a view at a point in that (real) space and time (which I still have imagined to myself) such then that this picture were merely a perspective of an object and not that object as a thing on its own; and that is a pure theoretical principle.**

* See B Version of the Transcendental Deduction, paragraph 3 and footnote, i.e., TDB.26.3. Regardless of how much reality we may now subsequently ascribe to both the object and to the space and time in which that object is to be found, both the object and the space and time are originally and subjectively sheer contributions of the human mind; and it is by means of this conception that we are able to derive all of our looking as the way that objects appear to us in space and time.

** Incidentally, why is this theoretical principle better or more imposing than the alternative principle that what I see is what is on its own independently of my looking? It is better in this regard: it is only by means of this principle that experience is possible, i.e., whereby we are able to differentiate the rainbow as something special; for it is only by means of this principle that the second look is possible which is called perception.***

*** See "Circles in the Air" in Kant-Studien 1996 or also on my web site.

Well then, in what way could our discovery/recognition of the moral law be the same as the discovery/recognition of this pure theoretical principle? Is it possible that Kant is asserting that we consciously dream up a moral (free) realm in order to explain our own conduct and conscience to ourselves, just like we dream up space and time in order to position within it an abiding, independently existing, empirical and physical realm? We just invent it? And that gives it credence? as opposed to other absolute laws, e.g., chewing gum incessantly [which we reject because they are absurd*] and other a priori, gratis inventions like the Theosophist's dream of angels causing or aggravating the violence of hurricanes through the use of their wings!?

* And why are they absurd? for the very reason that they are absolutes, i.e., absolutes are ipso facto absurd. To follow any rule without reference to some purpose cannot make the least sense to an entirely prudent, i.e., rationally self-serving, being. And no purpose is presupposed for a moral law in order to render it compelling and binding.

The fact of the matter is this (and Kant alludes to this in 3.4): that we are prompted (perhaps at the onset of puberty, as Rousseau asserted*) to fashion maxims so that our conduct might be derived and universalized. In doing this, we come to consider our maxims as though they were the maxims of all persons, and we see that we might be very ill treated if that were the case, and that prompts us further to consider (dream up) a realm in which the importance of each person (including, therefore, also ourselves) were both absolute and derivative, i.e., I am important because all people are important, and we find that the moral law is necesarily the sole rule of that realm, i.e., act in a way that promotes that conception.** And so it is as easy to see how we might dream up the moral realm and the moral law as the necessary motivant of our conduct as free beings, as it is to see how we might dream up space and time as the "containers" for all that we see and sense.

* Where we come to consider not so much how we feel about others (the orientation of our childhood) as now far rather how others feel about us.

** Essentially we universalize the personal principles of actions (called maxims) and know that we must conform our own actions to those universalized principles.

3.7 The concept of a pure will arises out of the first even as the consciousness of a pure understanding from the latter.

And so now, for example, we look back at what we have done and we see that we must have utilized the notion of causation to come to the conclusion regarding the otherwise merely curious behavior of the bow (in the sun-smitten rain) that appears suddenly, and without approaching us as we might approach it. All objects (we are wont to say) approach us (and gradually grow larger in appearance) as we approach them. But not the rainbow! it suddenly is; and then suddenly is not, without having withdrawn.* Likewise then we will have dreamed up a moral realm and will have found that this conception requires and explains our notion of freedom (subjectively speaking), which is in conflict with the causation of nature (but which Kant reconciles in the Third Antinomy).**

* And so we validate the notion of causation by means of the experiments which we undertake with regard to empirical matters as a result of the notion. For it is only by means of the conception of cause that we would ever have felt ourselves warranted in turning back, as it were, and taking a second look at anything in order to make sure, which is the proper understanding of perception. See the cited essay on "Circles in the Air."

** In order for the analogy to be appropriate, in the same way then that we come to the notion of the pure understanding by considering the pure laws of causation, for example, we will have stripped away from the moral law all reference to personal interests and inclinations and thereby end up with the pure will.

3.8 a That this be the true subordination of our concepts, and that morality first reveal the concept of freedom, thus practical reason first pose the most insolvable problem to speculative reason with this concept in order to place it in the greatest embarrassment through that; all this becomes clear from the following consideration:

And now we come to the so-called proof of freedom per the scientist.

3.8 b since nothing in the appearances can be explained through the concept of freedom [for here mechanism of nature must always constitute the guide; and beyond which the antimony of pure reason, if it seeks to ascend in the series of causes to the unconditioned, entangles itself in incomprehensibilities as much with the one as with the other of these concepts {but where the latter at least (i.e., mechanism) still has applicability in explaining the appearances}], the hazardous undertaking of introducing freedom into science would never have occurred to anyone, had not the moral law and with it practical reason arrived at that and forced this concept upon us.

There is no place in any of the sciences for freedom, because the very principle needful for experience and science in the first place, i.e., unexempted necessity, totally excludes any use of freedom in an objective sense. And yet, even though, objectively speaking, the conception of freedom is no more applicable than the dreams of the Theosophists or other mystics, nevertheless scientists treat this notion differently from these dreams. On its own a man who seriously considered himself to be free should be treated by science as a man who, like Locke's "glass man," seriously considered himself to be made of glass, i.e., he should be sent to the medical profession for help in disuading himself of this fantastic idea. But this scientists will not do* ** and they consider the man who thinks of himself as free as totally sane while the man who thinks of himself as made of glass as totally insane. This distinction is only possible due to the irresistible import of the moral law on all people, including therefore the scientists.

* And furthermore scientists feel themselves violated if some colleague steals an idea and gives it out as his or her own. But this anger is only possible if there is a moral law as a basis, for mere envy or imprudence, while they may produce unhappiness, cannot result in outrage.

** The Appendix below contains a communication with regard to the experience of one teacher at a technical university who lectured one hour on ethics.

It is for this reason that people have actually proposed including the admission of freedom in the sciences, because the moral law, unlike the law of the tooth fairy, is not irrational, but is a rational idea.

Now while this completes the "scientific" proof of freedom, I will continue with a commentary on the "popular" proof which follows immediately in this section of the CPrR, for it adds, I think, credence to the logic above.

3.9 But even experience certifies this order of the concepts within us.*

* The order being: first we conceive of the moral law and then, based on that and on the respect we have for that moral law, we recognize our freedom.

3.10 Suppose that some one were to aver of his most passionate desire that it were irresistible if the alluring object and the opportunity to it were at hand; ask him whether he might not be able to master this desire if a gallows were erected before the house where he is to avail himself of this opportunity, in order that he might be hanged thereupon immediately after his savored passion . . . it won't take long to guess his answer.

And so here the human sees that he loves life more than any given passion of that life (and we are not here speculating about the total of all the passions, but only on this one, e.g., sex or revenge or whatever it is that tempts a man so" irresistibly").

3.11 But inquire of him further: suppose his sovereign, threatening him with the same, inexorable death penalty, should require him to bear false witness against an upright man whom the king very much wishes to ruin through trumped up charges; and given how much his love for life might be, ask him whether he would consider it possible that he might overcome this love of life?

The man who has no conception of the meaning of freedom, except merely as a sheer (negative) definition,* like that of a triangle, for example (but which [triangle], we discover elsewhere, i.e., in the sensitivity, is an actuality); such a man as this will assume that with such a question you are "putting him on", i.e., making fun or sport of him, or else he will assume that you are insane. There is not any other course for a rational, nature-necessitated (= also amoral) person, assuming there be such.

* A person who is not necessitated by laws of nature.

3.12 Whether he would do it or not, he may not be able to say; but that it be possible for him to do so, this he will admit without hesitation.

The very fact that a man will pause to consider this matter is already an indication that he is free, for a rational man, who was not free, would not be able to distinguish such an odd question from asking him whether he would prefer to have his attached arm removed and cooked and served for supper, or would he rather have a pork chop. A man who were not free would pause, but only in order to blink "are you putting me on? I don't get it. what am I missing? tell a lie or die? What's the question? What's the choice?"

3.13 Therefore he judges that he can do something for the simple reason that he is aware that he ought to do so, and recognizes within himself the freedom which otherwise, without the moral law, would have remained unknown to him.

It is interesting to me that Kant uses the example of an innocent man. It is more reasonable to expect a sacrifice for an innocent person. Jesus, in passing contrast, who reflects the concept of love as opposed to justice, dies for Barabbas, the murderer (according to the Christian scriptures--See Romans 5:7), and thus saves the criminal from a just fate, unlike the example used by Kant.



It is only by means of the moral law that we can speak of free, conscious and hence responsible, actions in a meaningful sense and not as though we were talking to the insane, like Locke's glass man. Both the free man and the glass man act in accordance with their conceptions, the one berating himself occasionally for a lie, perhaps, and the other for imprudence in playing football (let us say); but only the glass man is considered insane. The only reason for this distinction is the universal compulsion of the moral law and the notion of freedom that it and practical reason press upon the human psyche.

 Note: The reader may wish to read a more comprehensive abbreviation of Kant's work in Kant in a Nutshell.


A Note to a Teacher Concerning his Experience with Lecturing on Ethics in his Electronics Course

I am taken with the report of your experience with the ethics lecture to the electronics class; and review it briefly for purposes of record: in your course you spent a whole hour jabbering about ethical ideas of yours and Kant in an effort to get the class to commit to some code of ethics, or at least to make them aware of the option. And they didn't ask any questions or seek to take part in the discussions; and afterwards a foreign (Chinese) student came up to ask you anxiously if he had to study Kant in order to get a credit for the (electronics) course, and seem relieved when you told him that it was merely for show or peripheral purposes (or whatever it was that you told him); or at least this is the way I understand your report; and that for this reason you think that it was a waste of your (and their) time, and that this indicates that the students were not only disinterested but perhaps even amoral.

You have actually just provided me with the key to what I was looking for as I sought to understand a very important (the 3rd) paragraph of the Sixth section of the Critique of Practical Reason (Problem II) where Kant, in a rather off handed way, proves the validity of the moral law in our psyches and thus of our recognition of our incomprehensible freedom. And it is in this wise I now think that he would suggest we should analyzie this experience with your class: You got away with mere boredom on the part of the class, for you are telling them what they already know (conceptually), and they wonder what you are driving at, for it is all simply "old hat" (the only question being a technical question regarding the requirements of an otherwise unknown curriculum--coupled with a bit of horror, I am sure, about what Americans require in electronics courses). Suppose instead you had been seriously discussing how electronics might be helpful in discerning the work of angels' wings in the aggravation of hurricane violence. They would begin snickering, of course, and at first would think you were clowning. Later they would grow indignant at having to listen to absurd (Theosophic or even religious) nonsense. And so you have essential proven that it is possible to "dare to introduce freedom into science," because otherwise, without the validity of the moral law in each soul, it would have been impossible to separate you from a man who babbled nonsense, and your students would have left the class in disgust and horror at your idiosyncrasies and how it was that they were coming to have to accommodate themselves to a madman. And although the young Chinese was concerned, he obviously did not think you were insane.

That is the difference that Kant wants to make in both of the proofs of our recognition of our practical freedom which are contained in this fabulous paragraph. You ought to read it, by the way, and the methodology appendix to the Critique also to see how your young daughter will come to moral consciousness, something Kant knows a great deal about, as you do too--only he is more thorough and systematic in his thinking in this area.

In brief: what was insane about Don Quixote was not wrong in his heart in searching for opportunities to end captivity (per his own personal understanding of decency and duty); his problem was the ease with which he convinced himself that windmills were evil giants in disguise and intending to nefarious purposes; and that convicts were falsely imprisoned noblemen, taken by brigands and no-counts (actually guards and police). [Funny that psychologists don't try to eliminate respect for the moral law, but only aid in ways of getting around it. Thus they permit themselves an exception, but are unable to will away the law; for it is the only guarantee they have of a derivative importance, i.e., one which all must recognize, e.g., all men are created equal, i.e., universal dignity.]

In their text books psychologists will help us see quite rightly that any code of conduct is an acquired thing; and then, by having shown this and how it is that we happened to acquire our moral thinking, will think to have ended the matter; for to them there is then nothing more to be said. Therefore they will not there engage themsleves in a discussion with regard to whether this law might also be valid or not on its own.* And now with regard to their clinical practice the same psychologists are ready to help people who think that they are made of glass** to come to think differently, but they will not help a person with a moral code come to think that moral aversion to premeditated murder needs likewise to be healed, unless they themselves have no sense of the moral.

* As though a psychological grasp of what made Freud or Einstein tick were somehow important with regard to the validity of their respective thoughts and conceptions.

** I am referring to the reference that Locke made of a man who honestly thought he were made of glass, and then who lived in perfect rationality in accordance with that envisagement/Anschauung,*** i.e., he studiously avoided situations where he might be struck some blow.

 *** See Kant and the meaning of the Anschauung.

PS This interpretation of the so-called "science proof" of the fact of freedom is consistent with a "popular" proof immediatley following in the same paragraph (although Kant does not call it a proof), i.e., the so-called "gallows proof'" namely that every one knows (upon reflection) that their love of life is greater than the satisfaction of any given passion or desire. Then we are asked to consider whether or not we might be willing to give up that all-precious life for a merely moral reason and against all prudence; and while we may not be able to say for sure that we would actually act in accordance with the moral law, there is not the least suggestion by us that Kant is insane or daft for asking such. But if in fact we were not free and so if in fact we could not fathom a moral law (which, as any absolute rule, is ipso facto absurd from the standpoint of prudence), then we would not be able to make any more sense out of Kant's question than if we had been asked to seriously consider walking on air from a thirty story building window.

In both the science and the gallows proofs the individual considering an action is simply aware of his freedom due to the immediate compulsion of the moral law,* and the matter is treated entirely differently than otherwise sheer inanities. It is almost like the difference between the rain and the rainbow, i.e., with regard to retinal (or spectral) material, they are one and the same and the difference is therefore transcendental. With regard to absolute rules, the moral law is not considered inane, although, in terms of absolute rules,** it is of one cloth with the absurd.

* which is reflected either in the self-respect we acheive by conformity to this sheer (intellectual) invention of pure practical reason, or else in the rationalizations/vernuenftelei we dream up to excuse ourselves in our weakness, or else in the contempt with which we hold ourselves (internally at least) in our failure to comply.

** like driving 50 MPH regardless of conditions; or saying "Birdie" or whatever whenever you looked at someone, i.e., as a parrot might do.

Hence it is no marvel that Kant marveled at the moral law.

To contact the author or translator, please e-mail: pmr##kantwesley.com
and where ## is to be replaced by @
To The Table Of Contents on Kant Studies