Deconstructing Our Understanding Of Freedom: Kant, Autonomy & The Categorical Imperative

What does it mean to be free? I would imagine that most people would think that freedom is the ability to do what you want to do and be unhindered by others while doing it. All societal structures are built to allow limited forms of freedom, i.e. you are free to do as you wish as long as it does not impact or harm another person’s freedom, health or wealth. Social structures are also built on the idea of free will. Every person is held accountable for his or her actions precisely because they have a free will. To punish crimes if the perpetrator had no free will would be illogical. In truth, a person is free to harm others and limit their freedoms, however society is also free to punish and reprimand them for this. Thus freedom is one of the pillars on which all societies are built.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant found our conventional understanding of freedom to be lacking and believed that what we imagine to be freedom is not freedom at all. The reason for this is that we are not actually free to choose what we want and enjoy. Let us use the example of food. My favorite desert has always been chocolate. I did not choose to like chocolate. I tried it and instantly liked it. There was no higher thought process at work. At the same time my favorite food is mulukhiyah, a leafy Middle Eastern curry served with rice. Without even trying it, I shudder at the thought of having mulukhiyah mixed with chocolate. Once again, this revulsion was instantaneous. There was no higher thought process at work. I had no choice in my enjoyment and my revulsion. Thus I cannot say that I am free to choose what I enjoy. I am merely a slave to my natural inclinations in this regard.

It is because of this that Kant argues that the ability of a person to do what they want is not freedom but in actuality can be considered a form of self-slavery. If a person is driven to act by a set of desires that they have no freedom in choosing this person cannot be free as they are simply obeying the commands of their master i.e. their natural inclination. As such Kant has a much more demanding understanding of freedom.

Kant’s idea of freedom is based on the human capacity to utilize reason. Kant argues that when reason governs our actions we are not held captive by the desires of our natural inclination. This in turn necessitates that reason allows us to act in manner that is beyond simply seeking pleasure while avoiding pain, which in turn elevates us humans from merely being creatures of appetite. The debate of whether our actions are dictated by nature (our inherited genetics) or nurture (through social conditioning) does not matter to Kant. He argues that we are not free to choose our genetics nor our social conditioning thus to act on them, or to have the ability to act on them, cannot be considered freedom.

For Kant being free means acting, and having the ability to act, autonomously. What does it mean to act autonomously? To Kant it means to live under a moral and ethical law that you decide for yourself. This ultimately forces us to ask the question, how does a person decide or develop a moral and ethical law that is not driven by our natural disposition for seeking pleasure and avoiding pain or dictated to us by an external force?

According to Kant, actions must be prompted by an imperative. An imperative is simply the driver behind a certain action. He classifies imperatives into two groups, hypothetical imperatives and categorical imperatives. A hypothetical imperative is the driver behind an action that is done in order to achieve a desired end. For example if a person wants to pass an exam they must study. On the other hand, a categorical imperative is an absolute driver, based on reason and not on personal desires, that is an end onto itself and is applicable to all situations and circumstances. If a person’s actions are to be driven by the categorical imperative then they must, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

You might now be wondering, how exactly does the categorical imperative relate to freedom? Kant’s demanding view of freedom led him to believe that for a person, and by definition their will, to be considered free, they must have the ability to act and cause change without being caused to do so. If a person kicks a football, the ball is not moved by itself but rather due to an external influence, the person kicking the ball. Like the football, humans are driven to action by forces they do not control i.e. internal desires and social pressures. This necessitates the question, how does a person act and cause change without being caused to do so by forces they do not control? He argues that it is inconceivable for a person to act and cause change without being caused to do so by any driver, just as it is inconceivable for the football to move itself. Thus a free will is the will that acts upon a law that it gives itself. The law must be based on pure reason and not be influenced by internal desires and social pressures. In order to do so a person must willingly subject himself or herself to the categorical imperative, i.e. “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” In Kant’s view a person can only be considered free if they are acting according to the categorical imperative.

It is my personal belief that Kant’s argument in regards to freedom is somewhat lacking in terms of the way that he understands hypothetical imperatives. It is my person opinion that a person can cultivate, autonomously, desires that are individual to them while at the same time having that desire be in alignment with the universal principle of morality, the categorical imperative.

First we must start with the statement, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” From that a person reasons that they should act morally and aim to aid in the cultivation of a better world. From this one person reasons that they should to commit themselves to a life of helping others. This motivates a person to decide that the best way of doing so is to practice medicine. Thus such individuals cultivate for themselves an inner desire to study to become a doctor. Another person may desire that the best way for them to cultivate a better world is through environmental protection, while another decides to do so through writing and another decides to do so through art.

These people have decided to desire to become doctors, environmental scientists/engineers, writers or artists. Their desires are not automatic but rather a conscious decision. Thus freedom, in its truest sense, is to live under a law that I give myself and act upon desires that I cultivate for myself, motivated by the categorical imperative.