I have read the following book on Kant: Kant on the Right to Freedom

This is my understanding of Kantianism and freedom:

  1. Reason must be the basis of all morality. (Moral realism fails).

  2. This implies that freedom is a prior question, because we must respect people's values as rational agents.

However, there are two versions of the categorical imperative:

1.The First Formulation: Formula of Universality

"Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction"

2. The Second Formulation: The Formula of Humanity

"Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end."

The first one says all actions must not be contradictory/internally incoherent.

The second one says we must respect freedom.

These two things seem to be unrelated or contradictory. I am trying to understand how Kantianism determines if an action is acceptable. For example, what if an action respected freedom but was internally incoherent.

What if, by lying you could save two people, while lying is not universalizable, wouldn't preventing two people from dying respect their freedom?

I guess the key question is, "from what I have read it seems that freedom is the most important right, however why does that mean we should have universalizability within our actions?"

  • 3
    Short answer: Freedom is not to do whatever you want. Long answer: See below ;)
    – Philip Klöcking
    Nov 29, 2016 at 3:50

3 Answers 3


Freedom is a transcendental condition for the Categorical Imperative to be real. And the four different formulations mean exactly the same for him.

I will argue how for Kant, the possibility of the experience of a categorical imperative presupposes freedom as necessary in his mature ethical system. Before that, the systematic relation between freedom and the CI changed as I want to illustrate by slides I made for a presentation recently to illustrate the transition (they are simplifying things, although it might not look like it).

The question why the formulations are identical and in which sense is - obviously - answered within the Groundwork. Note that autonomy and being an end in itself is not freedom in a liberal sense. It essentially is being able to subdue oneself under the CI and through this being able to give universal laws (that are truly universal).

There is no inner conflict between the right of freedom and the Formula of universal law, as you may see directly from the following quote:

The latter principle [=the CI] must undoubtedly take precedence; for, as a principle of right, it has unconditional necessity. (Towards Perpetual Peace, 8:377)

Also, it is in the very quote Hodgson provides:

Freedom (independence from being constrained by another’s choice), insofar as it can coexist with the freedom of every other in accordance with a universal law, is the only original right belonging to every human being by virtue of his humanity. (Doctrine of Right, 6:237)

I will nevertheless provide an answer that tries to fully answer both the title question as well as digressions within the question.

All quotes from the Cambridge Editions of the works.

Critique of Pure Reason

In his first Critique, he raises the point that imperatives as such transcend the realm of nature and its standing under the Law of Causality, because they express something that is not existent in nature and therefore laws of freedom:

Hence this [i.e. considering what is good per reason] also yields laws that are imperatives, i.e., objective laws of freedom, and that say what ought to happen, even though perhaps it never does happen, and that are thereby distinguished from laws of nature, which deal only with that which does happen, on which account the former are also called practical laws. (A802|B830, emphasis mine)

This is why

Practical freedom can be proved through experience. (ibid)

because we obviously do know imperatives and occasionally act according to them. Nevertheless, transcendental freedom (and its reality!), i.e. "a faculty of absolutely beginning a state, and hence also a series of its consequences"(A445|B473) remains a problem:

We thus cognize practical freedom through experience, as one of the natural causes, namely a causality of reason in the determination of the will, whereas transcendental freedom requires an independence of this reason itself (with regard to its causality for initiating a series of appearances) from all determining causes of the world of the senses, and to this extent seems to be contrary to the law of nature, thus to all possible experience, and so remains a problem. (A803|B831, emphasis mine)

He does something pretty messy to justify the reality of freedom afterwards, using God both as a starting point as well as His reality as conclusion and therefore not tackling the possibility of all of this being mere illusion, as illustrated in the slide:

The System of Morality in CPR

Groundwork for Metaphysics of Morals

Here, Kant learned out of the mistakes of CPR and sees it as his first and foremost task to justify the reality of freedom (which he tries in Chapter three!).

In the first two Parts and the first two subheadings of the third part he still does only argue why and how things relate to each other, ending with the statement that (the idea of) freedom, i.e. transcendental freedom, may be a necessary condition for free will and morality and that the Categorical Imperative is an expression of a free will ("a free will and a will under moral laws are one and the same", 4:447). But we in no way proved that we have free will, i.e. that the CI is binding for us:

We last traced the determinate concept of morality back to the idea of freedom; which we could not, however, prove as something actual even in ourselves or in human nature; we saw only that we must presuppose it if we want to think of a being as rational and endowed [...] with a will; and thus we find that on just the same grounds we must ascribe this property of determining itself to action under the idea of its freedom to every being endowed with reason and will. [...] But why, then, ought I to subject myself to this principle, and do so as a rational being as such, and hence thereby also all other beings endowed with reason? (4:449, emphasis mine)

I think this partly answers the question regarding the difference. If we see freedom as necessary for rational beings, we have to presuppose it for every rational being, at least in principle. If we do this, there is free will. If there is free will, there is autonomy. If there is autonomy, there is CI (see also 4:447). This is how he comes to the Kingdom of Ends Formula: If every single rational being is autonomous and in fact giving universal laws through its free will, they are systematically connected to each other through these laws:

The above three ways of representing the principle of morality are fundamentally only so many formulae of the same law, one of which of itself unites the other two within it. However, there is yet a dissimilarity among them, which is indeed subjectively rather than objectively practical, namely to bring an idea of reason closer to intuition (according to a certain analogy) and thereby to feeling. For all maxims have

l) a form, which consists in universality, and then the formula of the moral imperative is expressed as follows: that maxims must be chosen as if they were to hold as universal laws of nature;

2) a matter, namely an end, and then the formula says: that a rational being, as an end according to its nature, and hence as an end in itself, must serve for every maxim as the limiting condition of all merely relative and arbitrary ends;

3) a complete determination of all maxims by the that formula, name- ly: that all maxims from one's own legislation ought to harmonize into a possible kingdom of ends as a kingdom of nature. (4:436)

The unifying formula is the Formula of Universal Law:

But in moral judging it is better always to proceed by the strict method, and make the foundation the universal formula of the categorical imperative: act according to the maxim that can make itself at the same time a universal law. (ibid)

The question why the CI is binding is not to be answered here, but I think it has become clear that if we have a CI that is real, freedom will be real as well, since it has to be presupposed. But he thinks he does deduce (i.e. in the legal sense of justify) the reality of the CI later.

All this can be illustrated as follows:

Moral system of GMM

Critique of Practical Reason

This is the most mature moral system of Kant, where he again rearranges his concepts and includes the other transcendental ideas, namely the immortal soul and God, into the system. It may suffice to say that he undertakes a bit of a shortcut here, stating that the CI is a 'fact of reason', i.e. also a fact of experience and therefore real (regarding this relationship see Critique of Pure Reason, A 156|B 195), and so freedom is real as well (5:32).

Another remarkable difference is that he rejects that the Universal Formula is directly applicable, but needs forms accesable through intuition, i.e. exactly one of the forms mentioned above (he explicitely uses the Formula of Law of Nature).

For the sake of completeness, my slide illustrating this system:

System of Morality CPrR


As opposed to Utilitarianism, where one can accept the misery of a few for the happiness of the many, in Kanthian ethics, because people are an ends in their own right, it is not ok to use people to achieve that goal.

I think that is the intended interpretation of the second formulation, it permits to patch holes of reasoning where a "greater good" could be achieved while sacrificing some few, which Kant considers unacceptable, that might not be covered by Universalizability.

You might also try to look up how he resolves different types of conflicts.

For example, there's also a distinction between the lying to save the two persons lives and the fact that you yourself are not taking their lives. In that case, one would suppose you're not doing the killing yourself, but rather your lying might prevent them from being killed by a third party. Lying is wrong, and killing is wrong, and you could chose to do neither.

Also see: What would Kant do when two categorical imperatives conflict? Could he ever justify lying?

  • Kant does not approach this by parts. There is no 'patching'. All four forms of the CI are, given Kant's underlying assumptions, logically equivalent.
    – user9166
    Nov 28, 2016 at 20:23
  • I'm not saying that Kant is patching his own CI, but rather that he was a strong critic of Utilitarianism and the CI is in strict disagreement with the "greater good" when it comes to lying to save someone, for example, since the means matter as much (if not more) than the ends. (except if the means are people)
    – GettnDer
    Dec 1, 2016 at 20:24
  • @GettnDer: The point jobermark is (rightfully) making is that the "second formulation" (which is actually the third, after Universal Formula and Formula of Natural Law) is perfectly well covered by the Universal Formula. Every formula different from it is merely a different approximation to intuition, but the outcome and content are essentially the same (see 4:436, quote in my answer). Another point is that your terminology is a bit confusing, bc the necessary end in moral acting is the Highest Good (as argued in the second critique), for which acting according to the CI is the only mean.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Dec 2, 2016 at 17:47

(It is not quite freedom, but autonomy in which Kantians place value. The 'freedom' to be insane and run around making trouble is not autonomy, because you are actually enslaved by a disease. You might be more autonomous if you are captured and pressured to enter treatment.

We might have been freer, but less autonomous, if none of us went to school. We have been given tools that make us more powerful, by being made to put up with a limitation on our freedom.

I will stick with your vocabulary, but bear in mind that it is not quite literally what Kantians mean.)

There are two questions here, and I will give separate answers:

If I choose to universalize a rule about how to treat people, then at least some of us want to be treated as beings capable of making our own decisions. So any universalizable rule would have to allow for that freedom in general. So 1 -> 2

If I want to accord everyone freedom, then their perspective matters whenever I consider a given issue. I can only adequately respect their freedom to contradict my rule if I consider it from their perspective. So I should only make a rule after considering everyone's perspective and dealing with whether any contradiction they would propose is the real choice of someone acting as an end-in-themselves, or whether it is an accidental consideration through which they are being misled as means to some other end. If I get any genuine contradiction, I need a better rule, or I am not treating the person being ignored as a mere means. So 2 -> 1.

If two things imply each other, they are equivalent logically. So even if these do not seem related, they are.

Closed questions like "Would you lie to save someone's life?" force false dichotomies, in that they have simplified answers that do not consider all possible resulting actions. Often what you need to find a solution that respects everyone's autonomy is a creative solution you would never imagine because you have accepted the terms in which the problem has been framed.

One of the positive aspects of Kantian ethics is that it does not believe in a real conflict between duties, so it encourages creative ad hoc solutions over choosing between two outcomes that only seem to conflict.

In that spirit, the problem with choosing to lie to save someone is that everyone else exists, too. What if the reason someone is intending to kill those people is that they are carriers of plague, and you are lying to the CDC to protect them, they are likely to infect millions of others, who will die?

Then some other way, like negotiating a voluntary quarantine, might save them and everyone else. Most likely, the person with the power to implement this alternative solution is someone who would never get the opportunity if you lied. Then lying to save them is not better than not lying.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .