Immanuel Kant's Theory of Moral Responsibility

Dissertation, Columbia University (1982)
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Immanuel Kant's theory of moral responsibility is an important explicit effort to deal with the conflict between the presuppositions of modern science and the presuppositions of genuine moral action. It is also the key to understanding the structure of Kant's entire philosophy. Modern science requires, in Kant's view, that all events be subject to natural causality; genuine ethical action requires, again, according to Kant, that moral agents be free from such natural causality. Kant uses transcendental idealism, the "two worlds" doctrine, to resolve this conflict. He places moral agents, or persons, in the noumenal world, a world of things in themselves where agents are transcendentally free of natural causality. The events which are governed by natural causality are limited to the phenomenal world, the world of mere appearances. The relationship between these worlds is one of causality, but of causality through freedom, not of natural causality. Moral agents freely act in the noumenal world by selecting maxims which determine action in the phenomenal world. Such action both conforms to the requirement of universal natural causality and also has moral significance. To this point Kant's theory is self-consistent and satisfies his own requirements for a theory of moral responsibility. In addition, however, Kant requires that such a theory, in order to account for responsibility for evil, also allow that agents could always have acted otherwise than they actually did. Transcendental idealism fails Kant at this point. That an action is the result of natural causality and, at the same time, of causality according to freedom, which is all that transcental idealism allows for, does not imply that agents could have done otherwise. Further, transcendental idealism, by placing genuine action as well as the person or true self in the noumenal world, comes into conflict with Kant's account of temptation as an influence of the phenomenal upon the person. Thus, although Kant's theory of moral responsibility is largely self-consistent and, to a great extent, lives up to the requirements that Kant imposes upon it, it ultimately fails on these terms



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