Kant was concerned that the argument he was developing in Groundwork III might appear circular. Yet it can be hard at first to see how he might have introduced a circle with his argument there; and as a consequence, it is hard to see also how he avoided a circle, as he claims.
Exactly what is the circle? The circle is presented in a somewhat cumbersome way in the quotation above (Kant 1997, 55/4:450). A few pages later Kant redescribed it as follows:
we perhaps took as a ground the idea of freedom only for the sake of the moral law, so that we could afterwards infer the latter in turn from freedom. (57/4:453)
Stated in more contemporary language, the circle amounts to: (1) taking freedom as a necessary condition for subjection to morality;
and then (2) taking morality as a necessary condition for freedom. The result of assuming both (1) and (2) is that freedom and morality turn out to be what Kant called “reciprocal concepts.” Each is necessary and sufficient for the other, which is fine. Only, it is circular to argue from one to the other without providing some independent proof of the one. We can argue for example from freedom to subjection to the moral law, but only provided we have some independent ground for assuming we are free. The circular reasoning Kant imagines would be arguing from our subjection to moral requirements to our freedom, and attempting to prove that we are subject to morality’s requirements on account of our being free.
Free in a practical respect. In Groundwork III Kant aims to show that there is a categorical imperative. By this he
means that the moral law is objectively valid for our conduct, or that the restrictions expressed by the categorical imperative do, in fact, apply to us. In Section I of Groundwork III he shows why freedom is autonomy—meaning that the categorical imperative as expressed in the principle of autonomy can be derived from freedom. But then how can he show that we are free? If he will show that the principle of autonomy makes valid demands of us, he must show that we are free. In Section II of Groundwork III, his argument is that we are free in a practical respect provided we cannot act except under the idea of freedom. It now begins to look as if he may be reasoning in a circle. “Acting under the idea of freedom” seems to mean taking oneself to be responsible for what one does. That is something we do only once we see ourselves as deserving praise or blame, credit or demerit—and these presuppose a standard of judgment like the moral law. So it begins to look as if Kant’s basis for thinking we are free presupposes subjection to the moral law. It is plainly circular to argue that moral restrictions are objectively valid for us provided we are free, and that we are free provided we take ourselves to be morally responsible for what we do. Some non-moral reason must be given for thinking we are free, or for thinking we cannot act except under the idea of freedom. But that is not so easy to supply, especially to skeptical determinists who think that acting under the idea of freedom is an illusion.
A step into metaphysics. The way Kant attempts to remove the appearance of circular reasoning is by appealing to the transcendental distinction he had introduced in the Critique of Pure Reason: the distinction between appearances and things in themselves (see Kant 1998, A235-60/B294-315). He thinks that an independent case can be made for freedom, and therefore for the reality of the categorical imperative, by pointing out how, in addition to the natural world, we belong also, as rational beings, to an “intelligible world.” This is the confusing argument of the two standpoints.
Kant, Immanuel (1997), Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Mary Gregor
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
_____ (1998), Critique of Pure Reason, trans. and ed. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Allison, Henry E. (1990), Kant“s Theory of Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 218-21.
Paton, H. J. (1948), The Categorical Imperative, A Study of Kant’s Moral Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 255-6.
Department of Philosophy & Religious Studies
East Carolina University
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