Kant, Immanuel (1724–1804)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB047-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2004
Retrieved February 20, 2019, from

9. The value of autonomy and the foundations of ethics

In his theoretical philosophy, Kant argued that we can be certain of the principles that arise from the combination of the forms of our sensibility and understanding, as products of our own intellectual autonomy; but he also argued that any attempt to see human reason as an autonomous source of metaphysical insight valid beyond the bounds of human sensibility leads to illusion. But in his practical philosophy, Kant argues that human reason is an autonomous source of principles of conduct, immune from the blandishments of sensual inclination in both its determinations of value and its decisions to act, and indeed that human autonomy is the highest value and the limiting condition of all other values.

Traditionally, Kant has been seen as an ethical formalist, according to whom all judgments on the values of ends must be subordinated to the obligatory universality of a moral law derived from the very concept of rationality itself. This interpretation has drawn support from Kant’s own characterization of his ‘paradoxical’ method in the Critique of Practical Reason, where he holds that the moral law must be derived prior to any determination of good or evil, rather than vice versa (5: 62–3). But this passage does not do justice to the larger argument of Kant’s practical philosophy, which is that rationality itself is so valuable precisely because it is the means to freedom or autonomy. Kant expressed this in his classroom lectures on ethics, when he said that ‘the inherent value of the world, the summum bonum, is freedom in accordance with a will which is not necessitated to action’ (27: 1482), and even more clearly in lectures on natural right given in the autumn of 1784, the very time he was writing the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, where he said that ‘If only rational beings can be ends in themselves, that is not because they have reason, but because they have freedom. Reason is merely a means’ (27: 1321). Kant makes the same point in the Groundwork when he says that the incomparable dignity of human beings derives from the fact that they are ‘free with regard to all laws of nature, obeying only those laws which’ they make themselves (4: 435).

The strategy of the Groundwork is by no means obvious, and the real character of Kant’s view emerges only gradually. In Section I, Kant tries to derive the fundamental principle of morality from an analysis of ‘ordinary rational knowledge of morality.’ The key steps in his analysis are: virtue lies in the good will of an agent rather than any natural inclination or any particular end to be achieved; good will is manifested in the performance of an action for the sake of fulfilling duty rather than for any other end; and what duty requires is the performance of an action not for the sake of its consequences but because of its conformity to law as such; thus the maxim, or subjective principle, of virtuous action can only be that ‘I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law’ (4: 402). In Section II, Kant apparently tries to reach the same conclusion from more philosophical considerations: by arguing on the one hand that a moral or practical law must be a categorical rather than hypothetical imperative, that is, one commanding unconditionally rather than depending upon the adoption of some antecedent and optional end, and on the other hand that happiness is too indeterminate an end to give rise to such an imperative, Kant concludes that a categorical imperative can contain ‘only the necessity that our maxim should conform to this law’, thus that ‘there remains nothing to which the maxim has to conform except the universality of a law as such’ (4: 421). This version of the categorical imperative is known as the Formula of Universal Law.

Kant then furnishes further formulations of the categorical imperative, especially the Formula of Humanity as an End in Itself - ‘Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end’ (4: 429), which at the very least requires the possibility of rational consent to your action from any agent affected by it - and the formula of the kingdom of ends, the requirement that any proposed course of action be compatible with ‘a whole of all ends in systematic conjunction (a whole both of rational beings as ends in themselves and also of the personal ends which each may set before himself’ (4: 433). The usual interpretation is that these two formulations are supposed to follow from the Formula of Universal Law. However, several factors suggest that Kant did not mean the derivation of that formula from either common sense or ‘popular moral philosophy’ to be self-sufficient, and it is only with the introduction of the notion that humanity is an end in itself because of its potential for freedom, that the real ‘ground of a possible categorical imperative’ is discovered (4: 428). If so, then this is Kant’s theory: the ultimate source of value is human freedom as an end in itself, manifested in interpersonal contexts in the possibility of freely given consent to the actions of others; conformity to the requirement of universal law is the way to ensure that this value is preserved and fostered; and the ideal outcome of the observation of such a law would be a kingdom of ends as a system of freedom, in which all agents freely pursue their freely chosen ends to the extent compatible with a like freedom for all.

Citing this article:
Guyer, Paul. The value of autonomy and the foundations of ethics. Kant, Immanuel (1724–1804), 2004, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DB047-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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