Published online by Cambridge University Press: 07 September 2010
The role of autonomy
Kant takes autonomy to be recognizably valuable. In claiming that non-Kantian views of morality treat the morally good will as heteronomous, he intends to present an objection to these views. He expects proponents of these views to recognize that the implication of heteronomy is a serious objection; his task is not to convince them that heteronomy is bad, but to convince them that their views imply heteronomy.
If this is the right way to understand the dialectical role of Kant's claims about autonomy and heteronomy, we need to be convinced that his concept of autonomy is a concept of something that we can recognize as valuable even if we have not already accepted Kantian moral theory as a whole. We ought to be able to grasp this concept, and see why autonomy is good, without having already been convinced that, for instance, the autonomous will cannot be determined by any temporally prior events or states. We discover that the autonomous will is noumenal, once we combine our previous grasp of autonomy with Kantian metaphysics; but we must have this previous grasp if Kant's argument is to begin in the right place.
According to Kant, ‘autonomy of the will (Wille) is that property of it, by which it is to itself (independently of any property of objects of volition) a law’ (Grundlegung 440). Heteronomy results if the will ‘goes outside itself and seeks the law in the property of any of its objects’ (441). In this case ‘the will does not give itself the law, but the object through its relation to the will gives the law to it’.