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Kant and the Freedom to Do What We Want

Tuesday, January 28, 2020, 3:30 pm – 5:10 pm


Even a good moral agent does not only act from the recognition of moral duty. Often, she acts to satisfy desires for particular, material ends that are not intrinsically moral. But if freedom, as Kant claims, consists in acting from the recognition of rational principles, how can agents freely act on such particular desires at all? I contest the standard answer to this question, the so-called Incorporation Thesis, on both textual and philosophical grounds. The freedom to act for a non-moral end, I argue, is not grounded in the ability to step back, reflect and decide whether an extra-rational desire is, or can provide, a reason to act. I argue, instead, that the poles of the moral and non-moral distinction should not be defined by the contrast between rational, moral commitment and extra-rational desires, but by the contrast between practical rationality (morality) and instrumentality. On my account, the freedom to pursue desires for particular ends is grounded in the agent’s organization of her practical principles. In particular, in the subordination of material, particular ends, pursued according to instrumental principles, to the formal, moral principles of reason—or vice versa. Insofar as this subordination of principles determines the agent's entire moral disposition, the freedom to satisfy particular desires is grounded in the responsibility we bear for the constitution of our own moral character.