Autonomy, ethical

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L007-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 22, 2024, from

2. Kant’s conception of the autonomy of rational agents

Two different senses of autonomy emerge in the above theories. One is the capacity to guide one’s conduct by one’s grasp of moral norms. The other is ‘sovereignty over oneself’ – a basic right to self-governance, which is the basis of further rights and standards of justification. These aspects of autonomy come together in Kant’s moral theory. Kant takes the autonomy of rational agents to be the fact that they have the ability to legislate universally valid principles (the principles of morality) through their will, and are bound only by principles that originate in their own reason. This is a capacity for self-determination because action guided by such principles follows self-given laws. Finally, the autonomy of agents is the basis of specific duties, which are requirements of respect for autonomy (see Kantian ethics; Kant, I. §9).

Kant writes: ‘Autonomy of the will is the property that the will has of being a law to itself (independently of any property of the objects of volition)’ ([1785] 1903: 440). One implication of this claim is ‘that man [humanity] is subject only to his own, yet universal, legislation and that he is bound only to act in accordance with his own will’ ([1785] 1903: 432). Autonomy has both a negative and a positive aspect. Rational agents are not bound by any principles that do not originate in the exercise of reason, or by any sources of authority external to reason. That is, considerations such as desire, convention, the will of God, or uncritically accepted authorities are not inherently reason-giving; they provide reasons for action only if the agent takes them to. Positively, rational agency is the source of authoritative normative principles (see Normativity). A deliberative process expressing the basic features of rational agency generates authoritative principles of action, in particular, the basic principles of morality (see Practical reason §§2–3). Kant’s conception of autonomy reflects the political origin of the concept in that he regards rational agents as a kind of sovereign authority who can give universal law through their willing. So understood, autonomy presupposes certain deliberative and motivational capacities: the capacities to assess critically any proposed reason for action and to be motivated by reasons that are independent of one’s desires and presently held values.

Comparisons with earlier moral theories bring out the full dimensions of Kant’s conception. In contrast to empiricists, Kant recognized reasons and principles that are not desire-based. Like rationalist theorists, Kant thought that morality consists of necessary desire-independent principles. But he did not think that such principles represent an objective order of values existing independently of rational volition. Rational deliberation is not the discovery of objective principles, but rather the process by which they are generated. Thus, Kant held that agents who act on moral principles act from self-given laws, since these are principles that originate in the use of one’s reason. Kant argued that earlier attempts to ground obligation in, for example, the will of God, an objective order of values or obligations, or features of human psychology, all lead to ‘heteronomy of the will’, because such theories would subject rational agents to an authority external to reason.

Kant thought that the autonomy of rational agents is consistent with moral objectivity. The categorical imperative is the basic principle to which any agent with autonomy is committed, and generates universally valid principles of action. Agents express their autonomy by deliberating and acting from the categorical imperative because it is a rational procedure through which any agent can arrive at principles that other agents can acknowledge as authoritative; that is, it enables one to give law through one’s will. Though Kant conceived of autonomy primarily as a feature of persons, individual actions guided by the categorical imperative are autonomous in a derivative sense, since they are guided by self-given principles. By contrast, actions determined by desires or uncritically accepted values are guided by principles external to reason.

Kant’s conception of agents as having autonomy determines the content of his normative theory. Kant held that the capacity to give moral principles through one’s will is the basis of human dignity, and that all agents are committed to valuing the exercise of their rational capacities. These assumptions underlie his general principle that rational nature should be treated as an end, and never as a means only (see Respect for persons §2). The application of this principle leads to requirements not to undermine the exercise of rational agency through, for example, coercion, deception, paternalistic interference, or contempt and ridicule, as well as positive duties to support the exercise of rational agency through mutual aid and perfection of one’s talents. Thus, the autonomy of rational agents is the basis of specific duties to respect the exercise of rational agency.

Citing this article:
Reath, Andrews. Kant’s conception of the autonomy of rational agents. Autonomy, ethical, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L007-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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