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Why is it both possible and valuable for an individual to be autonomous according to Kant? Discuss the extent to which you think his arguments are convincing. In this essay I am going to look at Kant and discuss why he thinks it is possible to be autonomous and then look at the ethics involved in promoting individual autonomy as valuable. I will then discuss the arguments for and against promoting individual autonomy as the basis of morality. One definition of individual autonomy is the rational ability to formulate life plans that give meaning and purpose to an individual’s life allowing for the pursuit of individual goals and aspirations.
According to this definition, for an individual to be autonomous he must firstly be rational, and he must believe that there is purpose and meaning from fulfilling his plans. Immanuel Kant lived 1724-1804. He is a highly influential philosopher and moralist who gives a physical and rational justification for the value of individual freedom and individual autonomy. This is linked with the rise of liberal ideology and liberal individualism, which believes that an individual has the right to choose his own life and that society has a responsibility to protect these rights against non-liberal governments or tyrants.
Kant believed if we are to understand the individual self as being free and responsible then we must first recognise that an autonomous will exists prior to or separate from our individual experience, social background or physical make-up. Without asserting this we cannot call ourselves truly free and therefore responsible for anything that we do. Kant believed that this free and responsible self was our ‘true self’. It exists as an autonomous will behind or beyond the facts of our social and physical background. It is a metaphysical self.
For Kant to be rational and free willed we cannot follow laws or maxims that are determined by what we feel or experience. If we are determined by what we feel then we become a ‘slave to our desires’, our will ceases to be free. This is because individual decision-making becomes fragmented and heterogeneous. For Kant being truly rational is not about devising plans that fulfil our strongest desires best as this would be self-defeating in the sense that your free and rational will would be undermined by these plans as having any kind of independent purpose and meaning of life would be undermined as a result.
The autonomous will exists behind a mixture of desires including the strongest. It formulates life plans over and above desires, arbitrates between those desires that constrain and those that enhance chosen life plans, and it identifies with those desires that enhance the chosen life plan. For Kant the basis of moral law is to be found within the individual as a subject of ends. An individual as a free and responsible agent is capable of choosing his own values defined by him to be good or evil. The ends we choose are not important, rather it is our capacity to choose them.
Individuals should all be treated as ends, not as means to another’s ends. This means that we should treat others, as we would want to be treated ourselves. We should not use people as a means to getting what we want as this would be treating them as if they were not the authors of ends. Kant created the categorical imperative as a moral principle that doesn’t impose ends on others but allows them to choose their own ends, and is consistent with individual autonomy to pursue their own ends being guaranteed for all.
The first formulation of this categorical imperative is that a proposed course of action can be universalised, i. e. everyone can follow it. The second formulation is that individuals must be treated as ends in themselves and not means to another’s ends. For Kant these formulations provide the basis of all morality based on individual freedom and autonomy. To Kant a moral action is one that is performed out of a sense of duty, rather than simply acting on a feeling. His categorical imperative delivers objective rules that have nothing to do with inclination, but are based on morality for its own sake.
His approach is a deontological one, where we generate rules on the basis of what is right. The consequences of an action are not important, but the reason behind an action is. To Kant the foundation of moral law is that individual freedom and autonomy are promoted equally so that individuals can pursue their own conceptions of the good. What is right or just exists prior to conceptions of the good held by individuals, it is a basis for them to choose their own conceptions of the good. The metaphysical self exists behind our social and physical self and it has an autonomous will.
The individual self is only truly free when it first obeys the laws of the categorical imperative out of duty-bound respect for the law and others as autonomous agents. For Kant then it is possible for an individual to be autonomous as human beings are rational and have the capacity to make life choices. Kant thinks autonomy should be valued as all individuals are the authors of ends and so should be treated as such. They should be free to make their own conceptions of the good and not made to follow rules imposed on them by others.
Autonomy is valuable as it forms the basis of moral conduct, as each individual decides what is right. We should all follow the categorical imperative so that we treat others as ends. One of the main problems with Kant’s arguments is that it is hard to imagine a society where everyone can be free and autonomous. To be truly free according to Kant everyone has to make there own life plans and follow them accordingly, but this may not be possible for many people. Freedom can mean either negative freedom or positive freedom.
Negative freedom is freedom from constraint so the individual is not prevented from doing what they want or desire and is responsible for fulfilling their desires. Positive freedom is about having the power or ability to do or be. It is not the responsibility of the individual to provide the resources necessary for them to achieve their ends so a government could provide this. Kant has been interpreted as having a positive freedom approach as he thinks that everyone should be equal in their ability to implement their life plans.
Negative freedom would not allow this, as not everyone would have the resources available to them to follow their life plans. Positive freedom would mean that a society would be equal in that individuals had the resources available to them to have an equal chance at succeeding in their goals. Berlin has criticised positive freedom because it can impose goods on others in the name of the ‘true self’. He believes that it is easy for ‘higher’ self to coerce others in the name of true freedom and therefore providing a justification for tyranny.
Kant’s categorical imperative would not allow others to be treated as means to an ends though so Berlins argument fails. We cannot impose goods on others, as this would be treating them as if they were not autonomous agents. A utilitarian would disagree with Kant that there exists a metaphysical self that is autonomous and that this should be valued above all else. They believe that the self is a vessel for experiencing happiness and that this is what should be valued. To them the foundation of moral law is that an action is right if it leads to the greatest amount of happiness overall.
They do not consider the meanings of an action but are only concerned with the consequences. There is equality in this approach in that everyone is considered equally and individual autonomy would only be increased if it leads to more happiness. I do not agree with the utilitarian view because I think the self is something more than a vessel for experiencing happiness and morality should have some kind of meaning behind it rather than just looking at the consequences of an action. In conclusion I think that Kant’s arguments are quite convincing.
There is something more to the self than just our wants and desires. There is a metaphysical self that’s exists behind our physical self. This has an autonomous will that is capable of making life plans. This can be seen from the way in which we argue with ourselves over our strongest desires and our true-life plan. It is valuable for an individual to be autonomous as they can make their own conceptions of what is good and not have rules imposed on them by others. This sees that we treat others, as we would want to be treated ourselves. This is a good conduct for moral behaviour.