Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Kantian Autonomy and the Moral Self

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Kantian Autonomy and the Moral Self

Article excerpt

KANT'S ACCOUNT OF AUTONOMY is not designed to solve the traditional problem of free will. It is a response to the problem of heteronomy rather than the problem of determinism. And the former pertains to concerns about the structure of practical reason rather than the scope of nature's causal laws. So his theory of practical reason, rather than his metaphysics, provides the proper context for understanding his account of autonomy.

Unfortunately Kant did not always appreciate this feature of his own views. He says conflicting things about the relation between the practical concept of autonomy and the theoretical concept of "transcendental freedom." He sometimes claims that the former depends on the latter, which he characterizes as "the faculty of beginning a state from itself, the causality of which does not in turn stand under another cause determining it in time in accordance with the law of nature." (1) In other words, he sometimes says that our autonomy depends upon our ability to exempt ourselves from the workings of nature in order to initiate a chain of events that does not itself function as a link to earlier causal states. Yet on other occasions he claims that autonomy and transcendental freedom are two separate issues: "The question about transcendental freedom concerns merely speculative knowledge, which we can set aside as quite indifferent if we are concerned with what is practical, and about which there is already sufficient discussion in the Antinomy of Pure Reason." (2)

Kant himself did not always follow through on this claim, but I propose that we take him at his word here. Further remarks recommend this interpretive approach. Consider, for example, his review of Johann Heinrich Schulz's work, Attempt at An Introduction to a Doctrine of Morals for all Human Beings, which Kant wrote and published in 1783, just before the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. After summarizing Schulz's views in a friendly and not unsympathetic manner, Kant draws the reader's attention to "the general fatalism which is the most prominent principle in this work and the most powerful one, affecting all morality, [since it] turns all human conduct into a mere puppet show and thereby does away altogether with the concept of obligation." (3) What is interesting is that Kant criticizes Schulz's position not by insisting on the reality of freedom, but, rather, by arguing that the viability and legitimacy of our moral practices do not depend on fatalism or determinism being false. (4) Despite having claimed in the Critique of Pure Reason that autonomy depends on transcendental freedom, and thus a solution to the free will problem, he says here that "the practical concept of freedom has nothing to do with the speculative concept, which is abandoned entirely to metaphysicians." (5) Bearing in mind that Kant regards autonomy as a species of practical freedom, this claim is worth repeating in a way that makes its relevance to his moral theory crystal clear: the concept of autonomy, he tells us, has nothing to do with the concept of transcendental freedom.

This line of thought will surely not impress those who are committed to the importance of the traditional problem of free will. They will insist that the will is either free or not--no matter the perspective or standpoint from which one chooses to examine the issue. And whether the will is free or not depends either on the truth or falsity of determinism or on whether freedom can be made compatible with determinism. In the same review of Schulz Kant indicates a line of response to this objection that he will pursue throughout his practical philosophy:

   The most confirmed fatalist, who is a fatalist as long as he gives
   himself up to mere speculation, must still, as soon as he has to do
   with wisdom and duty, always act as if he were free, and this idea
   also actually produces the deed that accords with it and can alone
   produce it. … 
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