Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, Vol 1, No 2 (2005)

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The Freedom to Design Nature: Kant's Strong Ought→Can Inference in 21st Century Perspective

Edward Eugene Kleist


Kant’s attempts to formulate a conception of the harmony of nature and freedom have two logical presuppositions. The first presupposition is separation of ought and is, which provides a logical formulation of the separation of freedom and nature. Kant might well have settled on the view that the separation between nature and freedom cannot be bridged. Why did Kant attempt to overcome said separation? The second presupposition of Kant’s project to bridge nature and freedom involves an ought→can inference, stating that moral obligation implies the possibility of its fulfillment. There are at least two ways this inference can be understood. There is a weak sense of the inference, stating that no one is obliged to do the impossible. There is also a very strong sense of the inference, stating that if a moral obligation is found to obtain, it must then be possible to fulfill it. Kant interprets the ought→can inference in this strong as well as in the weak sense. Nature, the law-governed totality of what exists, must be understood as able to provide a suitable field for moral realization. The isomorphism between the lawfulness of nature and that of moral freedom animate Kant’s account of moral judgment, and will provide the main focus of the current investigation. Kant conceives of nature and freedom as twin kingdoms, thus providing a theoretical model validating this ought→can inference. The weaker sense of this ought→can inference does justice to moral judgment without requiring the awesome task of bridging nature and freedom. Why, then, should we maintain the strong ought→can inference in our post-Kantian situation? I suggest that Kant’s insistence on the strong ought→can inference may yield an ethical approach to the ever more powerful ways in which human beings technologically transform nature, including human nature itself.

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