Richard C. Dean
A Fifth and More Basic Question: "What Will I Do?"

Instead of talking directly about any of the four questions that the weltfragen Project identifies as central, I'm going to focus an a different question. The question is similar to the question, "What should I do?" but isn't the same. The question I'll focus on is "What will I do?"

First, as background, let me say more about the difference between the two questions. In German, I think "Was soll ich tun?" always is asking what one is obligated to do, or what is the right thing to do. So if "What should I do?" is a translation of the German question, it also has some sort of moral demand built into it. "What will I do?" is not as morally loaded - it is just me asking myself what to do next. Maybe what I actually will decide to do is the right or best thing, maybe it's not, maybe in this case there's no particular moral reason to do one thing rather than another (for example, if I'm choosing between vanilla and chocolate ice cream). What I'll try to explain is how the non-moral question "What will I do now?" is more fundamental to Kant's philosophy than the moral sense of "What should I do?"

The reason "What will I do?" is more basic is not because of any particular answer to "What will I do?" Instead, it is because we are absolutely and unavoidably stuck with this question itself. We can not help but ask it, and it turns out that the fact that we can not avoid this question is what tells us that we should think there's any answer at all to "What should I do?" I'll try to explain, step by step, how Kant thinks being stuck with the question "What will I do?" leads to the conclusion that moral questions must have an answer.

Step one is to show that we're each inescapably stuck with the question "What will I do?" I'll start with an example. After this symposium is finished today, you'll have to decide what to do. Maybe first you'll stand up without thinking about whether to stand, maybe you'll even walk outside without wondering what you'll do next. But then what? Will you get a manouche at Barbar, or will you decide not to because you're fasting? Will you call a friend on your cell phone? Will you go home and nap? Of course, there are limits to what you can do choose to do - no one would say you can fly to the moon simply by choosing to. And maybe you'll go a long time without consciously thinking about what to do next. (...) The point is not that you are consciously making choices at every moment. You're not. But you'll have to make some eventually, and probably a great many every day.

And there is no way to escape this activity of making choices. Suppose you want to prove me (or, more accurately, Kant) wrong about this. So after the lecture you continue sitting quietly in your chair, thinking, "No, I'm not going to make a single choice." Of course, by doing this, you are making a choice at every instant either to continue doing it or to give up sitting there and get up and do something else. The fact that you're making a choice to keep sitting there will become more undeniable once you have to go to the bathroom. After a few minutes, you'll really become sharply aware that you're exerting your will in order to keep sitting silently, and when you finally give up, you will be choosing to run to the bathroom. Furthermore, even when one of us is doing something so routine or so obvious that it doesn't really involve conscious choice, any other one of us will probably be able to force us to make choices. Usually it can be a simple matter of saying, "Hey, are you sure you want to do that?" It's hard for the listener not to take this question seriously enough to start thinking about whether to continue. So, not one of us typical adult humans can avoid asking the question "What will I do now?" That's the first step in Kant's argument for the conclusion that moral principles apply to us.

Step two is to show that if we unavoidably engage in the activity of deciding what to do, then we must also accept the idea that we are free - free to choose what we want to do. Kant points out that when we try to decide what to do next, we must assume that we can actually make choices between different possible actions. That is built into the activity of making decisions - if one could not choose different courses of action, then the activity of making decisions would not be possible. In other words, for practical purposes of deciding what to do, we must accept and rely on the idea that we have the power of free choice. Each of us must regularly accept and employ this idea of being free, because if someone did not accept the idea of freedom, then she would be paralyzed, and would never make a choice. Of course, this non-choosing paralysis is not really an alternative for any of us, at least if we're sane (people with the psychiatric disease catatonia can do it). So it must be the case that all of us actually regularly accept and act on the idea that we're free. This is true even of someone who accepts theoretical philosophical arguments for determinism, which is the idea that no one ever really makes a free choice because every event (including human actions, desires, etc.) has causes, and we are not ultimately in control of the causes of our action. Even if theoretically you think that you are not free, you can not help but use the idea of freedom for practical purposes in your every day decisionmaking. So each of us does accept the idea of freedom, when we are engaged in making choices.

Kant's step three is to argue that if you accept the idea of free choice, you also must think that moral principles apply to you. He points out that if you are acting freely, then your actions can not be determined by any events outside your control. Nothing that has happened in the past forces you to decide necessarily on one option instead of the other. So when making decisions, you must accept the idea that your actions are not caused by something besides your own will. But, although the actions are not caused by any previous state, the actions can not just happen for no reason at all. An action that happened for no reason, as if you just find yourself doing option A instead of option B, is not really a chosen action at all. It is just an event, like a flipped coin coming up heads instead of tails. This kind of event which you perform randomly might be counted as free, but it wouldn't count as a free choice, because no choosing is involved. To choose requires having some reason to choose one option over another. So there is only one possibility left. Since your action can not be caused when you are making a choice, but also must be chosen for some reason, the reason must be a reason you freely give yourself. Your own will must present you with reasons for choosing one action over another. But what kind of reason could your will come up with on its own? The reason could not come from any pre-existing state of the world, because then the reason would not count as freely given - your choice would be determined. The reasons provided freely by your own will must instead be some kind of law or principle of action that does not depend on the influence of previous states of the world or your desires for some object in the world. But, Kant argues, that is exactly what a moral principle is - a principle that is given by your own will to you as an unconditional, absolute, reason to act in certain ways, regardless of the influence of the world on your desires.

So, Kant's argument is complete (though not necessarily convincing to everyone, or entirely free of possible problems). We inevitably engage in the activity of choosing what to do, and when engaged in this activity of choosing, we must take ourselves to be free. And this freedom of choice implies that our choices are neither determined by any previous events, nor random. The only alternative is that when choosing, we recognize that self-given moral principles provide us with reasons to choose some actions and avoid others. So when engaged in the activity of deciding what to do, we must recognize that moral principles apply to us and really give us reasons to act on them. This only applies to us for purposes of choosing what to do, so it is only the fact that we are stuck with the activity of making choices that gives us any reason to accept that there are moral principles. And, of course, the moral question "What should I do?" only has a meaningful answer if there moral principles. So, the unavoidable nature of the question "What will I do?" is what makes it possible for "What should I do?" to have an answer.

Richard C. Dean
A Fifth and More Basic Question: "What Will I Do?"

© Dean 2006

weltfragen in lebanon

weltfragen im libanon
edited by Andrea Schwarzkopf & Roland Kreuzer
Berlin 2006
With contributions of Sélim Abou, Henry Cremona, Richard C. Dean, Roland Kreuzer, Fitnat Messaiké, Angelika Neuwirth, Doumit Salameh, Ridwan al-Sayyid, Andrea Schwarzkopf, Georges Zeynati.
English, German and Arabic, 80 pages, 50 photographs., 21 x 25 cm, costs including delivery: 10 €