Kant, Morality, and Freedom, Part Two


Two Men Contemplating the Moon (1825-30) by Caspar David Friedrich (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In my discussions of Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy, I have been emphasizing the foundational role played by the notion of autonomy. In Part One, I explored Kant’s rigorous conception of autonomy as the capacity of the will to bind itself to a law that it itself has authored. Any such law would have to be universal and impartial, for it would have been constructed by abstracting away from all empirically contingent desires and inclinations that characterize one’s particular situation. I pointed out how this notion of universal impartiality coincides with our intuitions about fairness. Thus, Kant ingeniously links the ideals of freedom and autonomy with the moral values of fairness and universal impartiality.

In a later post, I will show how John Rawls constructs a theory of social justice that extends Kant’s moral insights into the political domain. As we will see, Rawls’s conception of “justice as fairness” also links autonomy with universal impartiality, and this universal impartiality is also achieved by abstracting away from all particular, contingent features of ourselves. I also hinted that I’ve become dissatisfied with Rawls’s theory of justice. As a touch of foreshadowing, I’ll just mention that I am now convinced that any satisfactory theory of justice must be one that builds its conceptions of fairness and universality on precisely those concrete, particular characteristics of ourselves that Rawls abstracts away from.

But before we can get to Rawls, I must first present a dimension of Kant’s moral philosophy that is crucial for understanding Rawls’s theory, namely, the emphasis that Kant places on the dignity and intrinsic worth of every person, which requires that we respect one another as “ends in themselves,” never treating each other as mere “means” to our own ends. We shall see why Kant believes that we are only acting autonomously when we commit ourselves to respecting each other in this way.


The Dignity, Value, and Intrinsic Worth of Humanity

Recall Kant’s formulation of the moral law that we discussed in Part One: “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (Kant 88). Kant names the moral law the “Categorical Imperative”. An imperative is a command, and “categorical” means unconditional. Thus, the Categorical Imperative is unconditionally binding on us (Kant 87). This is in contrast to a “hypothetical imperative”, which is only binding on an agent if they hold a certain desire or inclination. Such hypothetical imperatives have an “if-then” form. If you want to be a competitive swimmer, then you must practice swimming laps. If you do not have such a desire, then the imperative (the “must” statement) is not binding on you. A categorical imperative, on the other hand, is binding on an agent simply in virtue of the agent’s nature as a rational being. Since everything external to the will – all empirically contingent desires and inclinations – have been abstracted away in constructing the imperative, the only thing left is that which expresses one’s nature as a rational being. To obey the Categorical Imperative, then, is to obey a law one has given to oneself, free of all heteronomous influences, and thus constitutes the essence of autonomy.

If a categorical imperative is binding on an agent simply in virtue of the agent’s nature as a rational being, then it follows that nothing with merely conditional value could serve as the basis of such an imperative. Something merely has conditional value if its worth is not intrinsic; perhaps it is only regarded as valuable insofar as it allows us to achieve some further end, in which case we call it “useful.” Or perhaps its value is contingent upon us having a desire for it. But if a useful thing ceases to achieve the purpose for which we value it, or if that purpose itself is no longer sought, then the thing ceases to be useful and hence loses its value. And since our tastes and desires are constantly changing, a thing which is regarded as valuable only insofar as it is desired will quickly lose its value once the desire disappears (Kant 95). It is clear that none of these things can bind the will unconditionally, apart from any particular desires or inclinations one might happen to have, since any imperative derived from them will merely be hypothetical, and would lose its normative force (its “ought-ness”) once the desires and inclinations that attract us to them disappear. What is needed is something that is intrinsically valuable, independently of our attitudes toward it. Such a being would have unconditional worth and would thus be capable of grounding a categorical imperative.

Kant declares that persons, “and in general every rational being,” are intrinsically valuable and possess unconditional worth (Kant 95). Unlike mere things, which only possess conditional value, contingent upon their usefulness or our desire for them, a person is that “whose existence has in itself an absolute value” (ibid.). This is what we mean when we say that persons have dignity. Since persons are not mere things, but rational beings endowed with dignity, then it is wrong to treat them as if their worth derived solely from their usefulness, merely as a means to some further end. Instead, we must treat one another in such a way that we recognize each other’s unconditional value. Thus Kant derives the second formulation of the moral law, or the Categorical Imperative: “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.” (Kant 96). Since the dignity of the person is unconditional, then our duties to other persons (and ourselves) are categorical, without needing to be based on any desire or inclination we happen to have, unchosen by our rational wills. To treat humanity as an end in itself in the way that the Categorical Imperative requires is therefore to act autonomously; it is the will governing itself according to a law it has given itself.


Humanity as a Source of Reasons

Throughout this discussion, the concepts of “reason” and “rationality” have appeared repeatedly. I have been emphasizing our nature as rational beings and the autonomy of the rational will. Furthermore, a central idea shared by Kant and Rawls is that respecting humanity as an “end in itself” means regarding one another as free and equal rational beings. It is this emphasis on reason and rationality, I believe, that makes some critics of Kant and Rawls feel uneasy. Defining our capacity for reason as that which is worthy of respect seems to be a cold, dessicated picture of the human person. Surely there is much more that is of value within us than the capacity for calculation.

However, I hold that this is a misinterpretation of the word “reason” when it is used by Kant and Rawls. When they ask us to regard one another as beings with the capacity for reason, they do not mean picturing ourselves as walking calculators. “Reason” here is not being used in the sense of the ability to do calculus, but rather the ability to act according to reasons. It is this meaning of “reason” that is used when we ask someone, “What was your reason for doing that?” When we say that a person is a rational being, we mean that they are the kind of being that has the capacity to set ends and purposes for themselves, and act in order to attain those ends. They are capable of having a plan of life and a conception of the good – an idea of the kind of person they strive to be and a notion of what they ultimately find valuable in life – and that they have the ability to order their actions in accordance with these conceptions.

What Kant calls “humanity” – the “humanity” that has unconditional worth, demands respect, and must never be treated merely as a means – is precisely this capacity to act according to reasons. Thus, we can say that humanity is a source of reasons in two ways. First, humanity is a source of reasons in that it is the person’s capacity to give reasons to themselves and act accordingly. Second, this very capacity – the person’s humanity – gives reasons to others; the dignity of this humanity demands that they always be treated by others with respect as an end in themselves, and thus provides reasons for others to act in such a way that respects the person’s dignity.






_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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