Kantian Compatibilism?

Spring Break is winding down for me and so I must soon quit the life of discussing philosophy and playing Assassin’s Creed IV and get back to discussing philosophy and playing Grand Theft Auto V. Since I have recently been bashing compatibism I figured I would do some small penance and write down some thoughts that first occurred to me when I read Joshua Green and Jonathan Cohen’s recent-ish paper For the Law, Neuroscience Changes Nothing, and Everything and which occurred again after my discussion with Gregg Caruso and Pete Mandik for SpaceTimeMind. The idea is that if one is going to be a compatibilist one should be a Kantian Compatibilst if at all possible.

As any reader of Kant knows, Kant himself was no fan of compatibilism, at least not of the kind that was floating around in his day. He says,

This is a wretched subterfuge with which some persons still let themselves be put off, and so think they have solved, with a petty word-jugglery, that difficult problem, at the solution of which centuries have laboured in vain and which can therefore scarcely be found so completely on the surface. (Critique of Practical Reason p 189-190)

And indeed it seems that many philosophers think that any kind of compatibilism (or determinism) forces one to a consequentialist account of morality and moral responsibility. But why? I think it is mostly because Kantians have traditionally been Libertarians about free will, but there doesn’t seem to be any principled reason for that.

A Kantian Compatibilism, as I am imagining it, is a view that asserts that free will is compatible with determinism and that free will is still a real feature of the world, just one that we discovered something surprising about. Once this basic move is made one can then go and interpret Kant’s writing in this way, substituting the compatibilist notion of freedom for Kant’s libertarian notion. How would this work? Here is a typical passage from the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, “Autonomy of the will is that property of it by which it is a law to itself (independently of any property of the objects of volition”. This lends itself nicely to a compatibilst interpretation: Autonomy is simply the will being determined by the Categorical Imperative rather than something ‘foreign’ to the C.I. “morally good actions are just the ones that are determined by the supreme moral law” has a very Kantian ring to it, and if one accepted it then one could say most, if not all, of the things that Kantians want to say. Some actions are free (determined in the appropriate manner), some are not (determined some other way), and we are morally responsible for the free ones, the ones that are determined or caused in the right way,and finally, morally good actions are the one that are determined via the Categorical Imperative.

I am not endorsing this view but if I were ever forced to be a compatibilist I would defend it, so what’s wrong with it?


3 thoughts on “Kantian Compatibilism?

  1. Wouldn’t the problem be that the only free actions, and hence, the ones you are responsible for, would be good ones, so that no one is ever responsible for doing anything bad? That might not be a terrible result, and would be somewhat in line with the principles of psychotherapy, but might strike some as counterintuitive.

    • D’oh! I see that I made a mistake here. I shouldn’t have said that free actions are determined by the CI but rather that free actions are produced in the normal compatibilist manner and so you will be responsible for them but then someone will have the Good Will when their actions are determined by the CI…I was in a hurry this morning when i wrote this and should have been more careful!

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