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Kantian and existentialist conceptions of freedom

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Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), best known for his work Critique of Pure Reason, was an instrumental philosopher in his contributions to moral philosophy. A devout Catholic, he firmly believed in the existence of God. Existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), however, countered Kantian philosophy in their stance on the meaninglessness of existence. For existentialists, life had no greater purpose as humans lived in an infinite universe unconcerned with human existence. Despite this fundamental difference, however, the Kantian and existentialist concepts of freedom had more in common than the rest of their philosophic components.

Though rooted in opposing bases, both Kantian and existentialist freedom had more similarities than differences. Kantian free will and the existentialist liberation from responsibility both stipulated that man was only constricted in his choice by his own conscience. Both philosophies’ concepts of freedom are rooted in human consequence, but where Kantian freedom differs is the calculus of Christian morals and sin.

Though his philosophy was deeply rooted in religion, Kant did not try to reduce human freedom, emphasizing the Christian concept of free will (Guyer 1992, p. 2). Though free will theoretically empowers man to any action he so desires, Kant believed in inextricably linking human freedom to the moral law indoctrinated by the specter of an all-knowing, all-seeing God (Guyer 1992, p. 4). Unlike Sartre, Kant believed in a fundamental problem posed by human freedom. Because of the unlimited possibilities and anarchy posed by the free will of millions, Kant endorsed a priori, moral-based philosophy limiting the boundaries of human will to ensure preservation of the greater good. Kant’s ultimate view of freedom was one that emphasized the importance of limitation as the use of freedom led to the dangers of materialism and determinism, from which the principle of freedom had to be saved at all costs (Guyer 1992, p. 52). Perhaps most concrete about Kantian philosophy is its argument that man cannot exist without God; man’s actions exist because God allowed him free will, and for no other reason.

Existentialist philosophy revolves around the precept that there is no God on whose behalf man’s actions ought to be relegated. God did not create man. Instead, man created God. With no God upon whom humankind relies, there can be no limit to the potentiality of freedom. Existentialism dictates that there is no predetermined end to man’s actions, that, unlike in Kantian philosophy, existence is meaningless. Man is a creature like any other creature in the universe, and though endowed with certain mental capacities, exists only to perish leaving no great imprint on the infinite universe. Furthermore, every person is unique from the existentialist standpoint, and no two people can be subject to the exact same moral conduct. As a result, the existentialist conception of man developed, portraying the individualessentially still free even when in chains[as] master of his own fate (Howells 1992, p. 68). The limits on human freedom are those of a conscious, self-implemented nature. Man’s actions are limited only by the conscious decision of man, wherein he/she is obliged to practice good will (Howells 1992, p. 33).

In his The Transcendence of the Ego, Sartre examines his moral objectivist predecessor Kant, focusing on individuality as a pivotal point in existence. Sartre asserts that Kant says nothing concerning the actual existence of the [statement] I think, purporting that in Kant’s notion of free will and limitation, Kant does not take into serious account the possibility of man to dismiss the a priori system altogether (Sartre 1988, p. 32). Sartre argues that Kantian philosophy relies on man as being compelled to follow a series of moral laws, which in essence limits human freedom. Sartre argues that true freedom comes without fear of consequence. Only in the existential acceptance of the futility of action and existence can true freedom to act exist. A priori laws are a binding code, and though they exist for the greater good, they still limit the boundaries of the Christian concept of free will. Essentially, acting on compulsion through an intermediary such as religion still fetters man’s range of action, thought, and ultimately inhibits freedom.

Despite Sartre’s contentions of the greater freedom of existentialist philosophy, both the Kantian and existentialist philosophies have much in common. Kant believed in free will as granted by God to man; man, in turn, has the complete freedom to do as he pleases. Though the consequences levied by religion are made clear, man has the choice to accept the consequences of his actions and can decide whether or not to endeavor to exercise free will as he sees fit. Existentialist freedom, through the acceptance of existence as meaningless, endows man with a free will as well, though of a different nature. In existentialist freedom, man’s actions are meaningless in the grand scheme of the universe, and he is totally free to do as he pleases. However, man is bound by the consequence of moral transgression, implicating that he ought not to act in certain ways on behalf of his fellow man. The only differentiating aspect is the utilization of a priori laws in Kantian philosophy, as opposed to the consideration of others in existentialist philosophy. Both philosophies perceive man as bound by knowledge of his consequences, which inhibits freedom in the same manner. Whether aware of an afterlife or the effect of actions on others, both philosophies feature the same countermeasures to free will.

The similarities between existentialism and Kantian philosophy are evident only when examined in a broader sense. The more intimately examined, the fewer similarities hold. Under scrutiny, the two philosophies are complete opposites, yet the direction of the two essentially remains the same. Both philosophies dictate the limitations necessary on man’s freedoms in order to peacefully co-exist with his surroundings. Where they differ is the source of limitations. For Kant, the limitation comes from the a priori moral objectivist laws attributed to God. Existentialists, on the other hand, find the same freedoms, but from a different approach as they embrace the concept of the universe’s indifference toward man and the inconsequential existence of humankind.

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