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Henry Allison on Kant's Theory of Freedom*

  • Marcia Baron (a1)

Henry Allison's very challenging and very rewarding book provides an analysis and defence of Kant's theory of freedom in both its theoretical and practical dimensions. His defence is qualified, acknowledging some “details” which are not defensible and some inconsistencies; however, “given a sympathetic understanding of transcendental idealism, a good case can be made for Kant's incompatibilistic conception of freedom” (p. 3). In addition to arguing that the notion of transcendental freedom is intelligible, Allison seeks to show that it is essential to Kant's theory, taking issue with those who would replace it with a more palatable, compatibilist conception. He thus has two targets: those who doubt the profundity and coherence of Kant's theory of freedom, and those who seek to defend Kant by trying to “gain a hearing for his views by depicting him as anticipating contemporary forms of compatibilism” (p. 249).

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1 Allison explains this via the Incorporation Thesis, which I discuss below. “[J]ust as it must be possible for ‘I think’ to accompany all my representations in order for them to be ‘mine,’ that is, in order for me to be able to represent anything through them, so too it must be possible for the ‘I take’ to accompany all my inclinations if they are to be ‘mine’ qua rational agent, that is, if they are to provide motives or reasons for acting” (p. 40).

2 Ibid., pp. 39–40; Kant , Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, translated by Greene Theodore M. and Hudson Hoyt H. (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), p. 24 (with a slight modification of the translation: Allison says insofar, they say so far). Italics Kant's.

3 Note that the IT also undermines the widely held view that, as Philippa Foot puts it, Kant “was a psychological hedonist in respect of all actions except those done for the sake of the moral law” (Virtues and Vices [Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978], p. 165). Allison discusses this view, which he traces to T. H. Green, in Chapter 5.

4 Herman Barbara, “On the Value of Acting from the Motive of Duty,” Philosophical Review, 66 (1981): 359–82.

5 Ameriks Karl and Simmons Keith both touch on this point, however: Ameriks, “Kant on the Good Will,” in Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten: Ein Kooperativer Kommentar, edited by Höffe Otfried (Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann, 1989), pp. 4565, esp. pp. 59–60, and Simmons Keith, “Kant on Moral Worth,” History of Philosophy Quarterly, 6, 1 (January 1989): 85100, esp. p. 96. See too Reath Andrews, “Kant's Theory of Moral Sensibility,” Kant-Studien, 80 (1989): 284302, and Allison's comment, p. 268, on Reath's article.

6 There is an exception; as often happens, Kant's remarks on belief in God complicate matters. In his Lectures on Philosophical Theology, translated by Wood Allen W. and Clark Gertrude M. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978), Kant asserts that it is a very good thing that we cannot know that God exists (even though we should believe that God exists). For if we did know, “all our morality would break down. In his every action man would represent God to himself as a rewarder or avenger. This image would force itself involuntarily on his soul, and his hope for reward and fear of punishment would take the place of moral motives” (p. 123). The last sentence is at odds with the Incorporation Thesis. According to it, hope for reward and fear of punishment motivate us only if we let them, i.e., only if we incorporate them into our maxim.

7 See, e.g., Grundlegung, pp. 397–99. Likewise, Greene and Hudson translate aus Pflicht as “for duty's sake” in Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), p. 25.

8 In correspondence Allison has indicated that the remark that I quote was not a slip. However, he explains that by the claim that if we are tempted, it is, on Kant's view, only because we allow ourselves to be, he did not mean that we have the desires that we have only because we allow ourselves to, but rather that a desire constitutes a genuine temptation—or a reason to act—only because the individual allows it to. So, the idea is not that we are responsible for having a particular desire, but rather that we are responsible for its constituting a temptation.

9 Kant, Religion, p. 25.

10 Ibid., p. 25.

11 See Ibid., p. 25 and especially p. 31.

12 Ibid., p. 25.

13 It is sometimes suggested that one can be said to act from duty—and to act properly—if one “judges that a given act is one's duty, thinks that this thought provides one with sufficient reason to perform the action, but finding oneself insufficiently motivated to actually do it, searches out ways of motivating oneself.” Judith Baker puts this forth as a reconstruction of Kant's position. See Baker Judith, “Do One's Motives Have to Be Pure?” in Philosophical Grounds of Rationality, edited by Grandy Richard and Warner Richard (London: Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 457–73. The quotation is from p. 470. The problem is that such conduct is that of an “impure will.” Inaddition, it is part of Kant's view of freedom that we are always able to do what we judge to be our duty, and do not need to seek out extraneous reasons to motivate us to do so.

14 See Kant, Religion, p. 25.

* Henry Allison, Kant's Theory of Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), xii + 304 pp., $15.95 paper. Page references are to this work.

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Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review / Revue canadienne de philosophie
  • ISSN: 0012-2173
  • EISSN: 1759-0949
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