Kant, Morality, and Freedom, Part One


The Voyage of Life: Old Age (1842) by Thomas Cole (National Gallery of Art)

Over the next several weeks, I would like to explore and evaluate the tradition in moral and political philosophy known as liberalism, primarily as this doctrine has been expounded by John Rawls (1921-2002). When I transferred to UC Berkeley three years ago, I was a committed, card-carrying Rawlsian liberal, intent on writing a thesis defending Rawls’s doctrines. But over the next few years of study and thinking, I grew aware of the shortcomings of Rawlsian liberalism. Although I still hold Rawls in the highest regard, and my thinking is still largely inspired by his philosophy, I realized that I could no longer remain wholly within his system, and that, if I were to remain a liberal in some form, it would have to be with a liberalism that was corrected and revised in a more radical direction.

But before I can begin discussing Rawls’s philosophy, and the reasons that led me to at least partially abandon it, I will first discuss its deeper moral foundations. These foundations were provided by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the quintessential thinker of the Age of Enlightenment. So, in this post, I will put Rawls to the side and instead explore Kant’s moral philosophy, which provides the grounding upon which Rawls’s work can be fully understood. What distinguishes Kant and Rawls is the unique way in which both of these philosophers link morality and justice on the one hand with freedom and autonomy on the other.

Let me first take a moment to make a quick clarification. Often, when we hear the words “morals” and “morality”, we associate them with a set of rules and restrictions that are encoded in the teachings of a religious tradition or in the social norms of a culture, and are associated with attitudes of judgment, shame, and guilt. I would like to ask the reader to put this association aside, however. In philosophy, “morals”, “morality”, and “ethics” take on a much broader meaning, referring to all aspects of right and wrong, goodness, justice, fairness, obligation, virtue, and “ought-ness” in general. In fact, it is the perennial hope of moral philosophers that, from the standpoint of philosophical argumentation, we can evaluate the more familiar “moral codes” of traditional religion or social custom and see if they themselves are unjust or oppressive.


Towards a Principle of Universality

With that clarification out of the way, let us dive into Kant’s work, and see how he attempts to derive a universal moral principle without appealing to religious tradition and divine commandments or to social custom. In his 1785 work entitled Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant develops an account of morality founded on the ideal of autonomy. At first glance, the word “autonomy” may suggest the notion of unhindered personal freedom, in which one is able to do whatever one wants, without the interference of obstacles imposed by other people or by external conditions. But this is not what Kant means by “autonomy”; his conception of freedom is far more rigorous than the libertinism suggested by our ordinary usage of the word. Instead, Kant takes seriously the literal meaning of the word “autonomy”, which is derived from the Greek words “autos”, which means “self”, and “nomos”, which means “law”. Thus, to be autonomous is to give a law to oneself. Living autonomously is not to be equated with living lawlessly, but living according to a law that you yourself have authored. An autonomous person is a self-governing person.

Kant’s demanding conception of autonomy entails the counterintuitive conclusion that to live autonomously is to live in a manner that is independent of one’s desires and inclinations. For if one is to be self-governing, then the principles of one’s actions must have been chosen by one’s own will. But consider for a moment the things that you are inclined to want – your favorite food and drink, your favorite pass-time, or the traits that attract you in a romantic partner. Although you can choose if and when to satisfy those desires, you did not choose to have those particular desires themselves. Somehow, you find them already within you, rooted perhaps in some biological inheritance or socialization process. Either way, they are empirical contingencies, for they do not flow necessarily from one’s nature as a rational being. To paraphrase Arthur Schopenhauer, you can choose to do what you want, but you cannot choose to want what you want. Thus, to live in a way that is wholly driven by these empirical contingencies, acting solely to satisfy this want or that thirst, is to be governed by forces external to one’s will. Kant coins the word “heteronomy” to describe this failure of self-governance (“heteros” is the Greek word for “other”). A heteronomous person has betrayed their own nature as a rational being – a being capable of choosing the principles which determine their actions. They have failed to respect their own moral worth.

How, then, can one be autonomous? What is the alternative to acquiescing in one’s desires and inclinations? Kant’s answer is that one must act according to a principle that is not dependent on any desire or inclination that one happens to have, unchosen by one’s will. In order to arrive at such a principle, one must abstract from all empirical contingencies that characterize one’s particular situation. Because these features of oneself were not chosen by one’s will, and are not derived just from one’s nature as a rational being, they are therefore regarded as irrelevant from the moral point of view. This process of abstraction culminates in a principle of universality, for since empirical contingencies that characterize our particular situation are what distinguish ourselves from other persons, a principle that abstracts from these particular features would be universal in its content. Hence we arrive at the surprising yet appealing conclusion that when one looks deep into one’s innermost self, at what one truly wills, one will find that it is united with the true wills of all persons. Therefore, to act according to a principle that is universalizable in this way is to act autonomously, in accordance with one’s own nature as a rational being. Thus Kant gives his first formulation of the moral law: “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (Kant 88).

“Maxim” is Kant’s term for the principle that underlies the motive for a given action. Such a principle encodes the ends one is trying to achieve through the performance of that particular act, as well as the circumstances that are directly relevant to one’s deliberations in that situation. The general form of a maxim is “I will perform act X in circumstances C in pursuit of end Y.” So when one is deliberating on whether a possible action is morally right or wrong, the moral law requires one to identify the maxim underlying the proposed action, and test that maxim to see whether it can be universalized. If it can, then the maxim conforms to the moral law, and the action is permissible; otherwise, it is immoral.

What does it mean for a maxim to be “universalizable”? For Kant, it means that one could imagine a hypothetical scenario in which that maxim were made into a “law of nature”, without contradicting or nullifying the original motive behind the maxim. Kant’s formulation of the moral law can be read as prescribing a decision procedure for testing whether the maxim of a proposed action is “universalizable” in this way. The following may be a bit dry and technical, but bear with me – in a bit I will try to draw out how this seemingly abstract and formulaic exercise coincides with some of our deeply-held intuitions about fairness.

Suppose you are trying to figure out whether a possible action would be morally right or wrong. Kant’s decision procedure requires you to engage in a kind of hypothetical thought experiment. First, identify the maxim of the proposed action: “I will perform act X in circumstances C in pursuit of end Y.” The next step is to transform your particular maxim into a hypothetical law of nature: “Everyone always performs act X in circumstances C in pursuit of end Y.” Now consider a hypothetical world in which this law of nature holds. Would you be able to act on your original maxim if you were in this hypothetical world? Could you even conceive of acting on your maxim in such a world? Could you will that such a world be actualized, without contradicting your original motive for action? If you can answer “yes” to all of these questions, then your maxim passes the test of universality. Only then can the proposed action be said to conform to the moral law.


False Promises and Cheating Athletes

In an effort to demonstrate that this decision procedure parallels our ordinary moral deliberation, Kant presents the example of the lying promise. Imagine a person who considers borrowing money from someone else. This person knows that the only way anyone would agree to lend them money is if they agree to repay the debt within a certain amount of time. However, this person is certain that there is no way they can acquire the money within the requisite time in order to repay the debt. Thus, they consider lying to the potential lender, promising to repay the debt in order to acquire the money, while knowing full well they will not be able to repay it. In this situation, the person can easily use Kant’s decision procedure to come to the conclusion that such an action would violate the moral law. First, they would identify the maxim of their action: “I will make a false promise to repay a loan in this circumstance in which I want some money, in order to acquire the necessary funds.” They then transform this particular maxim into a hypothetical law of nature: “Whenever anyone wants money, they always make a false promise to repay a loan, in order to acquire the necessary funds.” Now consider the hypothetical world in which this law of nature holds. Can this person conceive of acting on their original maxim in that world?

It is clear that they cannot. Such a world in which false promises were a normal feature of daily affairs would be one in which no one would believe any promises of that kind. Any potential lender would know with certainty that they were merely being taken advantage of whenever anyone asked for a loan with a promise to pay it back. So attempting to act on the original maxim (making a false promise in order to acquire funds) in this world would be futile, for there would be no way for them to achieve their ends in that hypothetical world. Thus, it is clear that the person’s maxim, when universalized, eliminates the very grounds upon which the original maxim can be acted on. In other words, the very nature of the maxim logically resists universalization. To act on that maxim would therefore be in violation of the moral law.

This whole exercise might seem abstract and formulaic, but let me try to tease out the intuitive insights revealed in this example. When one makes a false promise, one does so under the presupposition that other people do not act likewise. After all, one makes the false promise in the hope that the other person will believe you, and this can only be the case if most people regularly tell the truth when they make promises. This idea of “opting out” of promise-keeping for one’s own benefit, on the presumption that everyone else continues to “cooperate”, is the feature of the false-promising maxim that truly troubles Kant. In taking advantage of the established trust of other people, one is privileging one’s own interests above everyone else’s, and thereby displaying an immoral egoism.

This clearly coincides with our ordinary moral intuitions. The fundamental moral value on display here is fairness; we hold that to act fairly is to take into account every person’s interests when deliberating on what to do. This implies a certain impartiality – one must refuse to privilege oneself, and must instead consider whether a situation where everyone acted the same way would be compatible with one’s original motive. In acting only according to those maxims that can be universalized, one is purging oneself of egoistic motivations, which is in essence what fairness requires.

Let’s think of another example. Suppose you are a runner preparing for a race, and you consider taking performance-enhancing drugs to give yourself a competitive edge. To determine whether such an action would be moral, you ask yourself if you can rationally will that such a maxim be universalized – whether you can will that every other competitor in the race take performance-enhancing drugs as well – without contradicting your original motive. Of course, your cannot, for if everyone were to take the drugs, you would lose the advantage that was your reason for taking the drugs in the first place. The very nature of your motive is such that it cannot be made into a universal law. To act on such a motive would therefore be in violation of the moral law.

Bringing this back to the theme of autonomy and heteronomy, we can see that taking the performance-enhancing drugs would constitute a fall into heteronomy, since you would have ignored the voice of your autonomous will, abstracted from all empirical contingencies. Instead, you would have acted solely to quench those self-regarding desires which are empirically contingent. The autonomous will – the will that conforms itself to the moral law – possesses an attitude of impartiality in its interactions with others; it refuses to favor itself by taking advantage of others.

We can now see the genius of Kant’s project. He endeavors to ground a universal morality on the ideal of autonomy, based on the insight that the desires and inclinations that divide us, tempting us to take advantage of each other, are empirical contingencies that were never chosen by our wills, and are separate from our nature as rational beings. Thus Kant declares that “a free will and a will subject to moral laws are one and the same” (Kant 447).

I have shown how Kant connects the idea of autonomy with that of universality. In Part Two of this post, I will explore another dimension of Kant’s moral philosophy, one that emphasizes the dignity and intrinsic worth of every person. This dignity requires that we respect one another as “ends in themselves,” never treating each other as mere “means” to our own ends.






_Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Trans. Mary J. Gregor and Jens Timmermann. 2nd ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2012. Print.

_Korsgaard, Christine M.

  • Creating the Kingdom of Ends. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1996. Print.
  • Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.
  • The Sources of Normativity. Ed. Onora O’Neill. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1996. Print.
_Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2005. Print.
_Sandel, Michael J. Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010. Print.
_Wallace, R. Jay. Ethical Theories. Philosophy 104. Undergraduate lecture course. UC Berkeley. Fall 2014.





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