A Thematic Compilation by Avi Sion

17. Chapter Seventeen


1.     Against Kant on Freewill


Various comments against Kant’s view of freedom of the will.

As I explain elsewhere[1], freedom of the will should not be conceived as “doing what you want”, in the sense “doing what you desire”, for being moved by random desires is not freedom but slavery. It does not follow that, as Immanuel Kant suggests, freewill is “doing what your reason tells you to do”.

The colloquial definition of freedom, “doing what you want”, should be clarified to mean that our actions express our personal will. It is the “you” rather than the “want” which is at the center of that popular definition. “Want” is here not intended to refer to values, wishes or purposes (be they rational or irrational) that may have preceded the “doing”, but is merely a post factum inference from such doing; i.e. it is an interpretation of the will that did occur after it occurred. The doer or author is thereby held responsible for such “want”.

Freedom of the will refers to our willing irrespective of influences, such as desires or rational judgments or whatever. The point in characterizing will as free is to stress it is the agent that wills, and the influences are not determining causes. In that case, whether the agent wills in accord with or against some ethical injunction, he is indeed responsible for his action.

Kant seems to claim that the will is only free when it is aligned with the dictates of reason, suggesting that the only alternative to that is slavishly following your passions. He argues: if you disobey reason, you are a puppet, therefore, obey it, and be free. Non sequitur!

Logically, if Kant’s thesis on volition is true, people have no freedom or responsibility either way, and can neither be blamed nor praised for whatever happens to them. In this perspective, if reason is heard and obeyed, its ethical injunction (or whoever suggested it) becomes the causative of virtuous action, and the subject does not merit praise – just as, if reason is ignored or disobeyed, the subject’s desires and impulses take control, and he is devoid of blame. Thus, Kant did not think his proposal through sufficiently.

Clearly, we must say that the choice to submit to reason implies an anterior act of freewill, which has to be spontaneous, otherwise reason would be controlling the agent against his will. Some people are unmoved by rational arguments, even if reason does influence many of us. Thus, the will is fundamentally as independent of reason as it is of passions. The agent has a choice between the two. If he fails to follow reason, he is drawn by passions; if he follows passions, he ignores reason. But ultimately the choice is spontaneous: that is freedom of the will.

It is interesting to note that some post-Kantian philosophers have come to the contrary conclusion that we are ‘free’ only when we act against reason. This very postmodern posture is in a way a predictable outcome of Kant’s rationalist-moralist stance. If one realizes that rigid adherence to principles like that proposed by Kant is just another form of slavery, the only space left for freewill seems to be moral anarchy.

But this “anything goes” position is just the hedonist side of the same coin; it is not a logical answer to Kant. It merely reverts to the idea that freedom is “doing whatever you wish”. Kant’s objection to that remains valid[2] – even if his proposed alternative, “doing what reason orders”, is also objectionable.

The dilemma can only be overcome through deeper understanding of the relation between agent and volition, and influences like desires or rational-moral insights.

It is important to distinguish one’s self (or soul or spirit) from one’s body and mind. The latter include all one’s involuntary thoughts and emotions, i.e. all one’s felt affections and appetites. It is a cognitive error to identify with any such passive body and mind event, i.e. to think: “this is me or an expression of me”. The self may be dissociated from such events; they are essentially ‘outside’ it. (The self is “empty” of such relatively material and mental events, to use a Buddhist phrase.)

However, this does not mean that we may dissociate ourselves from our voluntary physical or mental actions. The latter must be viewed as extensions and expressions of the self that wills them; the self is responsible for them, however much influenced by passive body-mind factors. We cannot, in an attempt to act viciously without taking on blame, argue: “since this body-mind is not wholly me or mine, all its actions are not me or mine”. This too – i.e. the failure to identify with active body and mind events – is an error of judgment.

The role of reason here is thus clear: it serves primarily to honestly distinguish the active from the passive, i.e. the areas of responsibility from those of non-responsibility in the life of the self. Such lucidity does not guarantee morality, though it is a precondition of it (and therefore in itself a moral act). Reason here acts as a counterweight to the influence of emotion. The self must still thereafter intuit the ‘moral’ choice and exercise freewill in that direction.

An act of will may be considered as most ‘free’ and ‘responsible’ when its Agent is maximally aware of all the positive and negative influences impinging on him, and of his having freedom of action and responsibility for his actions all the same.

By definition, influences are conditions of which one is more or less aware, and which thereby play a role in the volition concerned. Here, we note that the degree of such awareness affects the degree of freewill. A fully awake person has more freedom and responsibility than someone who functions half-asleep.

Note well the radical difference between freedom through awareness and freedom from awareness. People who affirm the existence and freedom of the will do so with the good intention to take control of their lives. Whereas, people who deny or doubt it generally do so in order to excuse themselves for past shameful or evil acts, or in order to facilitate such acts in the present and future. They reject freewill so as to liberate themselves from their conscience, by putting it to sleep. They cunningly use such philosophical denial as a bad influence on their will, making possible unbridled pursuit of unethical values.


2.     Alleged Influences


An alleged influence on volition is not necessarily an influence in fact. The mere saying that something was an influence on one’s action does not imply it to have indeed been so; i.e. it does not make the alleged influence ex post facto become an influence. This may seem obvious – but the issue is worth raising, because people confuse initial influence with later influence.

For instance, a debtor may tell a creditor “I couldn’t pay you off today because of my son’s wedding”, when in fact the wedding did not actually influence the decision not to pay, or take so much time that payment was impossible, but was used as a false excuse, a pretext. If neither the wedding itself nor the thought of the wedding in fact affected the non-payment in any way, the latter event cannot truthfully be said to have been caused or influenced by the former. However, this does not imply that the creditor cannot thereafter be influenced by the excuse given, if he has believed it or even if he has disbelieved it.

For X to ‘influence’ some volition Y, it is necessary that the thought of X precede the action Y, as well as make it easier or harder to some degree. If the thought of X only occurred after Y (e.g. as when X is falsely declared ex post facto as the reason for Y) – the reality of X not having influenced Y is not changed. However, X may well thereafter, after such false declaration has been made and mentally registered, begin to influence other, subsequent actions of the initial agent (the agent of Y) or of some other agent(s).

Saying something is so, doesn’t make it so – even in the realm of the spirit. There is ‘objective’ truth, even with regard to ‘subjective’ relations. One may, for lack of attention or introspective skills, or due to weak memory, not be sure as to what one willed, or what influenced one’s will. In such cases, one’s witness concerning one’s inner processes, even if sincere, may be erroneous. Additionally, in some cases, even knowing the truth, one may deliberately lie, wishing to manipulate someone somehow with one’s lies.

An external observer is of course very disadvantaged in assessing the will of someone else and the influences impinging upon it. In such contexts, we often rely on what could be construed as post hoc ergo propter hoc thinking, but more precisely (usually tacitly, of course) consists in eliminating all thought-of alternative explanations of perceived behavior but one, or opting for the most likely looking explanation in our present perspective.

(This is of course a whole field of logic by itself, which I cannot hope to cover in a few comments.)

Incidentally, when we speak of someone having a certain ‘spirit’, we originally mean that the person concerned functions with a certain attitudinal pattern, i.e. we refer to aspects of his own volition. For examples, a person may have ‘a good spirit’ (e.g. be hard working, enthusiastic) or ‘a bad spirit’ (e.g. be constantly complaining, resisting).

But some people have reified this sense of the word ‘spirit’, implying that some external non-material entity (something like a ghost) invades and inhabits people, forcing them to behave in this way or that. The actions of the person concerned are in that case no longer his own, but someone else’s. The person’s soul has lost its freewill, and been subjected to a spiritual takeover.

This mode of explanation is found in the Christian religion and among African shamanists, for examples. ‘The holy spirit’, ‘the devil made me do it’ – are cases in point. Another common belief is that wine or liquor instills a ‘spirit of drunkenness’ into the drinker.

The trouble with such explanations, logically, is that instead of explaining volition by the influence of non-determining conditions, they ipso facto annul volition and void responsibility.


Drawn from Ruminations (2005), Chapter 8 (sections 8 & 9).



[1]           Again, see Volition and Allied Causal Concepts, chapter 5-7.

[2]           Kant here is of course reaffirming an ancient wisdom, found in the major religious traditions. When 20th Century Western man rejected Judeo-Christian religion in favor of the ‘pleasure principle’, Kant’s wise insight came to seem like old-fashioned, rigid ‘moralism’. But now, perhaps thanks in part to the spread of Buddhist ideas in the West, many people are beginning to realize again that the unbridled pursuit of pleasure is ugly, weak, and destructive of self and others. The characterization of hedonism as slavery is increasingly perceived as accurate, once one reflects on the many ways commercial and political interests use this cunning means to exploit and control the populace. The “hippy” revolution of the late 1960’s was not the liberation it claimed to be, but a thorough enslavement to drugs, sexual promiscuity (ending in depravity), and rock and roll music (i.e. omnipresent loud noise).

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