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The Inaugural Address: Autonomy: The Emperor's New Clothes

Author(s): Onora O'Neill


Source: Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes, Vol. 77 (2003), pp. 1-21
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The Inaugural Address

AUTONOMY: THE EMPEROR'SN


CLOTHES
by Onora O'Neill
ABSTRACT

Conceptions of individualautonomyand of rationala

playedlargepartsin twentiethcenturymoralphilosophy,yet it
how eithercouldbe basicto morality.Kant'sconceptionof au

ically different.He predicatedautonomy neither of individualsel


cesses of choosing, but of principlesof action. Principlesof action
autonomousonly if they are law-like in form and could be univ

if, althoughlaw-likein form,theycanno


theyareheteronomous

scope. Puzzles about claims linking morality, reason and autono

of Kantianautonomy
reducedby recognising
the distinctiveness

In the lasthalf-centuryappealsto aut


Introduction.

played a larger and larger part in ethical an


debate. Yet the advocates of autonomy still disagree
it is, and why it is important. At times it seems tha
only that autonomy has a noble, Kantian pedigree
closely to morality.
They are certainlyright that Kant links autonomy
For example, he claims both that 'Morality is thus
of actions to the autonomy of the will' and that 'A
the will is the sole principle of all moral laws and
keeping with them.'2 However, I believe that there
dence for strong links between morality and twent
conceptions of autonomy. Recent conceptions of aut
no claim to be 'the sole principle of all moral laws a
in keeping with them', and their claims to Kantian a
greatly exaggerated. We have been admiring a nak
of questionablelegitimacy.3

1. Kant, 1785,4:439.
2. Kant, 1787,5:33.
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3. to
are often
Differences
pointedout;yet the persistenceof claimsto K
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and Conditions
suggeststhatmanycontemporaryprotagonistsof autonomyoverloo

ONORAO'NEILL

These negative claims tell us nothing about Kan


omy, or about its supposed links to morality and rea
test the links that Kant thought he had establishedon
back to the Kantian texts. I hope that a short can
those texts will reveal a more interestinglandscape th
ited terrainso energeticallycharted in recent decade
II

Autonomyas Independence.I first realisedquite how


the array of differingconceptions of autonomy in co
debates had become when I read Gerald Dworkin'
Theoryand Practice of Autonomy.Dworkin offers a l
a dozen differentconceptions of autonomy, which, he
variously been equated with

Liberty(positiveor negative)... dignity,integrity


andself-knowledge
... se
responsibility
independence,
criticalreflection... freedomfromobligation... absen
causation...and
knowledgeof one'sown interests.4

This list is far from complete. For example, Ruth


Thomas Beauchamp in their interesting work The
Theory of Informed Consent note that autonom
equated with a quite different list of concepts, includ

privacy, voluntariness,self-mastery,choosing fre


one's own moralpositionand acceptingresponsib
choices.5

Dworkin contends that despite all these variations


tions of autonomy share two features:

The only featuresthat are held constantfrom on


anotherare that autonomyis a featureof persons
desirablequalityto have.6

moral debatesas well as in the discussionof Kant;but the only th


completelyclearabout autonomyin these contextsis that it means
to differentwriters'(76).
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7.
5. Fadenand

AUTONOMY:THE EMPEROR'SNEW CLOTHE

I doubt whether either claim is true. It is certainly n


all conceptions of autonomy view it as a feature of p
original use of the term autonomy-literally self-leg
antiquity referredto a property not of persons, but
Autonomous city-states made their own laws; co
given laws by their mother cities. And, as we have a
Kant ascribesautonomy not to persons, but to the w
accurately,to determinationsof the will or principles
some twentieth century writers-structuralists, beh
dismiss the very idea that autonomy could be a featu
persons or of the will.
There is also no general agreementthat autonomy
able quality to have'. On the contrary,many distingu
writers maintain that there is something morally
about autonomy. Often they condemn autonomy a
than a form of individual independence whose ma
may be morally admirable,corrupt or merely trivial

III

RationalAutonomy.Many late twentieth century pro


autonomy have taken this point and do not identif
with mere independence, of the sort advocated by p
tialists. They often insist that autonomous action mu
be chosen (so to some extent independent),but ration
They have advocated one or another form of rationa
Rational autonomy (unlike autonomy conceived as
independence)might, it seems, be linked to morality
The principal source for most conceptions of rat
omy is, I think, not Kant, but John StuartMill's On L
explicitly repudiates the thought that mere, sheer in
or choosing is morally important. He ascribesvalue t
and reflective choosing, by persons of well-develop
ality and character.He claims that
A person whose desires and impulsesare his o
expressionof his own nature,as it has beendevelop
fied by his own culture- is said to havea charact
desiresand Fri, 19 Feb 2016
are not
his own, has no chara
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steam
thanaTerms
has a character.7
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ONORAO'NEILL

He then argues that the choosing of persons with g


viduality and character benefits each and all, and so
tarians have reason to promote and protect the li
promote reflectiveand intelligentchoosing, and there
ality and character:

In proportionto the developmentof his individuali


becomesmore valuableto himself,and is therefo
beingmorevaluableto others.8

However, Mill does not call choosing that reflects i


or character autonomous. So far as I can discove
speaks of the autonomy of persons or of autonomo
although I have found references to the autonomy
suspect that for Mill the term autonomywas a term
belonged either in constitutional discussions, or in K
naturalisticaccount of action, and had no place in hi
ralistic account of action.10
Despite this divergencein terminology, I think th
century advocates of rational autonomy are close to
they say that what is ethically importantis not mere
mere independence,but specificallyrationalchoosing,h
version of) rational autonomy." However, unlike
recent admirersof rational autonomy are not Utilita
do not view intelligentand reflectivechoosing, or the
respects and protects it, as valuable because it is
means to human happiness. Some of them promote
'rational autonomy' not as an instrumentalbut as a f
human good or value.
The twentiethcenturywriterswho follow Mill in c
some version of rational autonomy (ratherthan mere
pendence) is ethically important, also disagree abou

8. Mill, 1859,192.
9. Mill, 1862,Ch. 16.
10. Mill rejectedKant's ethics becausehe thoughtthat the Catego
was not action-guiding,so concludedthat ethicsmust be basedon c
wouldhaveclassifiedas heteronomousratherthan autonomous.
Millno moreon
ofFeb
thanhe speaksof auto
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rational
speaks
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and both
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hisJSTOR
termsin reportinghis position.For exam
of to
interpreters

AUTONOMY: THE EMPEROR'S NEW CLOTHES

For example, Harry Frankfurtin a now classic paper


lished in 1970 distinguishedbetweenroutine choosing
ing that reflectssecond-orderdesires, and argued tha
for the latter sort of choosing set persons apart and
significant. His famous example contrasts the wan
who in choosing her fix is driven by mere desire, with
who also has second-order desires to be a person w
immediatedesires (the determinedaddict who both w
and to be an addict, the admirable addict who wan
addicted and struggles with her first-orderdesire). A
choosing has been variously characterisedby othe
choosing that is well informed, or fully informed, o
or reflectively endorsed, in short as choosing that,
mately based on desires or preferences,follows cert
processes.
I will not linger on the many ingenious accounts tha
of various conceptions of rational autonomy provide
per processes for rational choosing. I suspect that
hard to show that rationally autonomous choosing
even generally) leads to ethically superior choices. R
ceptions of rationally autonomy allow desires and
as well as rational proceduresfor choosing, to determ
autonomously chosen: why then should we suppose t
autonomy secures ethical acceptability?Indeed, as o
autonomy often point out, hunch, tradition and intu
times do better; they may reach ethically sound
choosing with rational autonomy may fail to do so.
On reflection it should not surprise us that pro
rational autonomy, whose theories of action build n
conceptions of rationalitybut also on specificaccoun
ation, find that motivation duly reflected in ration
omous choices, often with ethically disturbing i
Choosing that is rationallyautonomous is likely to en
ever individualsprefer, and to veer towards egotistic
At best, rationally autonomous choosing is likely to
with egotistical motivation towards more 'enlightene
est. Many of the ethical objections raised about aut
ceived of as on Fri, sheer
then recuras o
independence
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rational
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conceptions
autonomy.

ONORAO'NEILL

And there is worse to come. Proponentsof rationa


may hope to show that certain rational processesf
generally produce more valuable choices. But they
able to show even this much without independent
identifyingvaluable choices. In Mill's hands, where
choices is settled by Utilitarian arguments,there is a
arguing that some ways of choosing are more likely
to producevaluablechoices. But without an independ
of valuable choices, it is unclear how we could sho
or another way of choosing, such as those favoured
conceptions of rational autonomy, is more valuabl
to promote rational autonomy as a fundamentalrat
instrumentalvalue need quite differentsorts of suppo
not myself at all sure where it could be found.

IV

Kantian Autonomy in Context. Both Kant's admir


detractors agree that Kantian autonomy is distinc
view it differs markedly both from mere, sheer indi
pendenceand from conceptions of rational autonom
inescapablelinks to preference-ledand desire-driven
motivation.
Kant's views on autonomy were also innovative
writer had made such strong claims about the moral
of any conception of autonomy. Jerry Schneewindi
correct when he writes at the beginning of his recen
Inventionof Autonomy, that 'Kant invented the co
morality as autonomy.'13But what he invented ha
little to do with twentieth century conceptions of
either as individualindependenceor as rational aut
most convincing evidence that Kant was thinking o
quite differentis that very few of his centralclaims a
omy make much sense if we equate Kantian auton
with individual independence or with current con
rational autonomy.
On the surface, Kant may seem to be promoting s
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rational autonomy.
example,
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in
other
and
works, he predicates a
Reason,
many

AUTONOMY:THE EMPEROR'SNEW CLOTHE

reason and links the autonomy of reason to morality


for example, that 'the moral law expresses nothing
the autonomyof pure practical reason.'14 In some te
his late essay, The Conflictof the Faculties, he goes e
and equates all reasoning, not only practical reas
autonomy, remarkingthat 'the power to judge auton
that is, freely (according to principlesof thought in g
calledreason.'15
Taken out of context these claims could be-and
read as very strong and very confused versions of th
autonomy is some form of rational choosing. They
less plausible than contemporaryaccounts of rationa
because they require us to read Kant as making
assertionsabout the links between autonomy, reason
ity. Rather than dismissing Kant's account of au
bizarre on this account, I shall consider a reading th
specificclaims about the structureof autonomy serio
The context of Kant's account of autonomy is a
view of action. Kant looks at action from the agent's
that is, from a practical point of view. He depicts ag
ing a power of choice (Willkar)that they can use in i
ways. Agents exercise their power of choice by adop
another determinationof the will. In doing so they f
some practicalprinciple(or rule, or law, or plan) ma
maxim.16 Maxims specify at a fairly general level som
the way agents set about leading their lives: I may
maxim to build a mill,17 or to save for my old age,18
funds,19 to avenge insults,20 to overcharge gullible c
to pursuemy self-interest,22 or not to make false prom
heterogeneous sample includes maxims that Kant t
14. Kant, 1787,5:33.
15. Kant, 1798, 7:27.

16. Timmerman,2000, 39-52.


17. Kant, 1787,5:26.
18. Ibid., 5:20.
19. Ibid., 5: 28.
20. Ibid., 5:19.
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21.toKant,
4:397.
1785,
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ONORA O'NEILL

morally worthy and others that he thinks of as moral


able, and some that he thinks merelyoptional or at m
of prudence.
In speaking of agents' maxims or determination
Kant is not making a claim about the efficient cause
The principle (law, rule, plan) that an agent adop
cause him or her to do anything(how could abstracte
as principles(laws, rules or plans) be efficientcauses?
principle (law, rule, plan) that is adopted is the form
action: it articulateswhat an agent chooses to do. T
of action does not requireKant to deny that (from a
standpoint) action can be causally explained: he sa
passages that acts have efficient causes. But in choos
do we do not identify the causes of our future action
Determinations of the will are a promising fo
account of reasons for action. Since any principle,
plan that is or could be adopted as a determinatio
must have propositional structureand content, it wi
reasoned assessment. Moreover, reasoned assessme
be confined to judging whether proposals for action
or effective means to given ends: for Kant instrum
ality need be only one aspect of practicalreason. Her
his account of instrumental reasoning on one side
concentrateon the basis of his distinctionbetweenhe
and autonomous reasons for action.
V

KantianAutonomy:Heteronomyas a Clue.The contr


heteronomyand autonomy is a useful way into un
Kantian autonomy. Heteronomy is not a term we
life, so may not seem a promising clue. However-f
Kant offers a helpfully simple account of what he
writes:

If the will seeksthe law that is to determineit anyw


in the fitnessof its maximsfor its own givingof un
heteronomy
always
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AUTONOMY: THE EMPEROR'S NEW CLOTHES

The differencebetween heteronomousand autonomo


is a differencebetween the sorts of principlesadopted
nations of the will. Heteronomous choosing and
autonomous choosing are both a matter of seekin
adopting or willing, some principle (law, rule, pla
adopting some determinationof the will. The differe
them is not that those who choose heteronomously
agents, or not capable of any independence in act
they have no rational capacities, or that they ca
choose, adopt or will laws or principles.Heteronomo
is choosing. Agents with the power to choose (Willk
able both of autonomous and of heteronomous ch
differencebetween them is that agents look in differe
in choosing autonomously and choosing heteronom
two types of principle are drawn or derived from dif
of assumption.
Kant frequently contrasts heteronomous and a
principlesby saying that the former take their justif
elsewhere,whereas autonomous principlestake their
from nowhereelse. Yet here we may well lose patie
justificationsmust begin somewhereelse: isn't the wh
justificationto deriveauthority?And if a principleco
derivative, why would that make it morally special,
to especially arbitrary?Why should a principle tha
non-derivative (whatever that means) have any s
alone be fundamental to a conception of reason? H
ended up with something worse than the fantasy tha
autonomy is the basis of morality?Have we not desc
pop existentialismto postmodernism?
Kant's examples of principles or laws adopted by
choose heteronomously are extremely varied. He
agents may defer to the dogmas of a Church, to t
rulers, to immediate inclination or to the will of the
The common core to all these examplesis that the he
chooser makes some arbitrary,hence unreasoned,mo
ing a determinationof the will, whereas the autonom
does not. A heteronomously chosen principle is 'j
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authority
something
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10

ONORAO'NEILL

authority either no reasons, or (at most) incomplete


given. Any reason to act on such principlesreflectsth
assumption,and heteronomous reasons for action a
always conditional upon it. Kant puts the point as fo
Whereveran objectof the willhas to be laiddownas
the rulethatdeterminesthe will,thereth
prescribing
otherthanheteronomy;the imperativeis condition
or becauseonewillsthisobject,oneoughtto actin su
way;henceit can nevercommandmorally,thatis, ca
So the common core of all sorts of heteronomo
that it is not fully reasoned. It depends on arbitrar
authority to something or other: a desire or a dogm
of Church or State. Kant often depicts those who
impute authority to such assumptionsmetaphoricall
ting to alien or foreign authorities.
Kant's numerousaccounts of heteronomouswilling
damental differencesbetween lacking individualauto
ing rationalautonomyand lacking Kantianautonomy
wholly lack individualautonomy will not be able to c
heteronomously or autonomously. In Kantian vocab
beings lack the power of choice, so lack free wi
incapable of moral choice or action. Having a pow
is a precondition for heteronomous as well as for
autonomous choosing, so cannot be equated wi
autonomy. Kant speaks of beings without a powe
who cannot act either heteronomouslyor autonomou
ing no more than animal capacities to choose, an ar
tum as opposed to arbitriumliberum.27
A person with power of choice can choose ei
omously or heteronomously. Agents who choose
ously, so defer to arbitrarilyselected standards and
can give at most conditional reasons for their actions
not, however, be wholly capricious, and often emb
other version of what Kant calls heteronomous
example, they may choose not to follow immediate
but to live with an eye to long-term personal adva
or to the Fri, 19 Febhappiness
or t
(Utilitarianism)
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26. Kant, 1785, 4:444.

AUTONOMY:THE EMPEROR'SNEW CLOTHE

of a supposedmoralsense,or to someconceptionof p
Kant would view twentiethcenturyproponent
autonomyas endorsingvariousformsof heterono
They do not admiremere, sheer wilfulness;they
rationallyautonomousagentscan offer reasonsfor
theyalso acceptthatthesereasonsarealwaysless tha
Heteronomous
choosersultimatelyhaveto fall back
to
desire
or ideology,publicopinionor cer
authority
that be.
Althoughheteronomouschoosersmakean arbitr
accordingcertaindesires,demandsand dogmas th
reasonsfor action,theymayhavequitea lot of mora
heteronomouschoicesare often expressedin moral
action (the shopkeeperwho is honest for the sake
chooserwhose interestsco
tation, the self-interested
altruisticchoices).Butin othersituationsheteronom
may act in capricious,self-centredor even malignw
mon or gardenheteronomyis reflectedin livesthatw
morally conformist, but without luck may b
unacceptable.
VI

Kantian Autonomy and Self-Legislation. The limitatio

onomousreasonsareeasilyseenandconstantlynote
chooses heteronomouslyby adopting a principle
achievesomethingfor whichhe offersonly conditio
But can we expectmore?Kant thinksso. He claims
omous choosersadopt principlesof action that a
ditionalon anyarbitraryassumptionor posit.In the
he puts the matteras follows:

Autonomyof the will is the propertyof the will b


a law to itself (independently
of any propertyof t
volition).29

In this and many similarpassages,we meet the m


aspectof Kant'saccountof autonomy.What is a '

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28.toKant,
see Kant, 1787, 5:39-41, for a more differe
1785,
4:442-3;
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cation of heteronomous ethical positions.

12

ONORAO'NEILL

the will by which it is a law to itself (independentlyo


erty of the objects of volition)'? How can the will ad
mination simply on the basis of 'the fitness of its
its own giving of universal law'? Kant's claims hav
reflexivity that is often perplexing and hard, but n
impossible, to sort out.
A common approach to Kantian autonomy harks
etymology of the word autonomy,and identifiesauton
ling with some conception of self-legislation.What s
assign to Kant's use of this venerablephrase?Far the
lar way of looking at the matter is to interpretself-l
legislationdone by a self or subject.On this individu
ing we pictureeach of many wills as legislatingfor all
tions immediately arise. First, why should the legisl
of my will and your will point in the same directi
why should we think that the 'legislative action' of
will must point in a morally acceptabledirection,and
such 'legislativeaction' convince us that the 'princip
omy is the sole principle of morals.'3 If Kantian a
pictured merely as legislation by individualselves,
nation of differentwills remainsa mysteryand the mo
ance of autonomy is just as obscure as it is in con
individual autonomy that make no mention of self
Unsurprisingly,many passages in Kant's writings are
nonsense, or at the very least to implausibility,if we
conception of autonomy with 'legislation' by
although this reading remainsvery popular.
Could this problembe resolved if Kantian autonom
tured as legislation by co-ordinatedindividualselves?
strategy of Rousseau's famous account of self-legisl
the problem of possible divergencebetween numero
lating wills is resolved by positing an extraneous sou
vergence. On Rousseau's view 'The generalwill is alw
common good'31 and 'The general will is always u
always tends to the public utility.'32
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Terms and Conditions

31. Rousseau,

8.

AUTONOMY: THE EMPEROR'S NEW CLOTHES

Of course, Rousseau did not think that individu


will as the General Will demands. On the contrary,
gence of particularwills on the GeneralWill is a con
vergence of 'corrected' wills, not necessarily or eve
mirrored in real time by the will of each or the wi
Kant would see it, Rousseauian self-legislationis a fo
onomy: it assigns authority to a conception of the ge
and defines 'corrected'wills as pointing in this direct
the problem of divergence were solved by this strat
sonally think that Rousseau defines the problem out
rather than solving it-we have not been shown an
think that the supposed point of convergence defin
or is morally significant. Rousseau's account of le
co-ordinatedselves resolves indeterminacyand disag
positing the authority of the general will or of the ge
for Kant this is heteronomy.

VII

Kantian Autonomy: Law-Like and Lawless Willing


alternativeinterpretationof the idea of self-legislatio
ter sense of Kant's claims, and avoid conflating aut
heteronomy?It may seem that we are faced with a
we view self-legislationsimply as a matter of choosin
for oneself (independently,or even using some ration
then the very distinction between heteronomy an
autonomy is erased. If we view self-legislation as
choosing or willing principleswith a certainsort of co
we apparentlyfall into heteronomyby arbitrarilyascr
weight to that content or aim.
As is apparent from countless passages, Kant thi
essential feature of autonomous willing is that it ha
of law, so is expressed in law-likedeterminationsof
contrasts law-like choosing with choosing determina
will are literally lawless. But what, we may wonder,
lem with lawless choosing? Why shouldn't we embra
extremeforms of lawlessnessor lack of structureboth
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action?Isn't
claim
thought
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law-like,

14

ONORAO'NEILL

dispense with all and any requirementsor structur


the claims of law-like form surely need arguing.
It is fascinatingto find Kant engagingwith the pos
of his day-the advocates of spiritual enthusiasm
merei-to show why the postmodernist fantasy of
with all authorities, with all reasons, with all princi
for organisingthinking or action, is deceptive.Like p
ists, Kant sees clearly why people imaginethat 'lawle
is not merely feasible but attractive;but he also sees w
atens. He depicts the pleasuresof the advocates of la
ing with pointed irony:
Firstgeniusis verypleasedwith its bold flights,sin
off the threadby whichreasonused to steerit. Soo
otherswithits triumphant
andgrea
pronouncements
and now seemsto haveset itselfon a throne,which
gracedby slow and ponderousreason,whoselangu
it alwaysemploys.Thenits maximis that reason'ss
givingis invalid- we commonhumanbeingscall thi
whilethosefavouredby beneficentnaturecall it illum
Kant believes that this heady liberation ends not me
fusion, but in cognitive and practical disaster:

Sincereasonalonecancommandvalidlyforeveryon
of languagemust soon ariseamongthem;each one
his own inspiration.34
Communicationbreaksdown and superstitionrides h
ity and civil society fail. Attempts to achieve unlimi
in thinking and acting prove self-defeating.Lawless
mines thinking and acting because it undercutsthe ve
ity of offering others reasons for believing or for act
As Kant sees it, any reasoned use of human freedo
ing and in acting must be law-likerather than lawles
Freedomin thinkingsignifiesthe subjectionof reaso
exceptthosewhichit givesitself;and its oppositeis t
a lawlessuseof reason(in order,as geniussupposest
than one can underthe limitationof laws).The n
quenceof declaredlawlessnessis that if reasonwil

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33.

8:145.

AUTONOMY:THE EMPEROR'SNEW CLOTHE

itself to the laws it gives itself, it has to bow unde


laws given by another;for withoutany law, nothi
nonsense-can play its game for long. Thus the
consequenceof declaredlawlessnessin thinking(of
from all the limitationsof reason)is that freedom
ultimatelybe forfeitedand-because it is not misfor
gancewhichis to blamefor it-will be trifledaway[v
the propersenseof the word.35

Only law-like thought and action offers others with


live, think and interactproposals that they can follow
or action, so could potentiality evaluate as reasons
Whateverelse reasons are, they must befollowable by
hence the sorts of things that we can offer and refuse
challenge. This is why practical reasoningcannot cut
law-likedeterminationsof the will. If we are cavalier
likeness, we no longer deal in reasons for acting or
believing.
Needless to say, the demand that we act on law-lik
is an extremelyweak constraint, that is met both by
ous and by autonomous action. Those whose princip
are heteronomous through and through act on la
ciples. Even if Kant is right in diagnosing lawlessnes
and action as catastrophic, heteronomy might be th
option for conducting our thinking and acting. Per
Kant, morality is at most a system of hypothetical i
Perhaps all reasons for action are ultimately conditio

VIII

Kantian Autonomy:A Law to Itself. If Kantian aut


possibility, there must be two sorts of law-like pri
reasons for thinking that heteronomous principle
offer insufficientreasons for action. Kant's constant r
practical philosophy, from the first Chapter of the
onwards, is that morally important principles must
law-likeinform, but universalin scope. Since heteron
ciples arbitrarilytake for granted specific desires, co
or specific
or UTC
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16

ONORAO'NEILL

of being principles for all. By contrast, law-like pri


are capable of being principlesfor all, that have univ
are Kantianly autonomous principles.
Kant connects the demands of scope and lawinsisting that

It is requisiteto reason'slawgivingthat it shouldne


pose only itself,becausea ruleis objectivelyand uni
only whenit holds withoutthe contingent,subject
thatdistinguishone rationalbeingfromanother.36

Kantian autonomy is not a matter of persons being i


(although, of course, Kant holds that persons are ind
a degree, since they have a power of choice). Rath
autonomy is a matterof adopting law-likeprinciplesth
pendentof extraneousassumptionsthat can hold onlyfo
notfor other agents. Kant often encapsulatesthis req
phrases such as a 'lawgivingthat needs to presuppos
or in compressed referencesto the notion of 'a lawg
own' or 'non-derivativelawgiving'.Principlesthat me
dard are not merely law-like, but 'hold without the
subjective conditions that distinguish one rational
another'. They are potentially principles for all, and
for those who uncritically assume the authority of
or a particulardogma, some local institutions of pow
who can at most converge on heteronomousprincip
The idea of a 'lawgiving that needs to presuppos
is I think the key to Kant's distinctive understand
legislation. As he presentsthe matter, it is the princip
or legislating, and not the agent, that 'presupposes
For Kant the term self-legislationcannot mean tha
some terrificacts of the self (or terrificacts of the t
that are morally important, or definitive of morali
that there are some principles of action that are no
from supposed, but ultimately arbitrary 'authoritie
these are morally important. The element self in th
self-legislationis reflexiverather than individualistici
certainjustificationsof principlesratherthan to certa
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AUTONOMY:THE EMPEROR'SNEW CLOTHE

'legislators'. Kant takes himself to be giving an acc


sort of law-giving that is reason's own, and not an
lawgivings that are an agent's own. His understan
legislationplaces the emphasison the notion of legisla
than on any notion of the self. Kantian autonomy
lawgivingratherthan the lawgivingof individualagen
that might mean).
Reason's lawgiving is not merely a matter of adop
another law-like determinationof the will: heterono
does as much. Kantian autonomy is expressedin ad
ciples, willings, reasonings that are both law-like in
form and do not derive that law-likenessfrom arbitr
tions that are open to some but not to others.
Heteronomous reasoning, by contrast, relies o
assumptions about the basis of morally significan
which may be available to some and not to others. H
ous principlesmay be widely shared:those who take
the authority of Churchor state, public opinion or lo
will generallyhave plenty of company. Unlike postmo
tures, heteronomous practical reasoning does not en
prehension or cognitive shipwreck. Its defect is o
intelligibility coasts on arbitraryassumptions that s
cannot share, so cannot provide reasons for action fo
Heteronomous reasons do not aspire to be
a law-giving
of its ownon the partof pureand, as su
reason[which]is freedomin thepositivesense.37
Hence, in Kant's view, heteronomous reasons are
defective, incomplete or 'private'reasons. Reasons n
principlefollowable by their presumed audiences;fu
claims and demandsmust be followable by all and an
That is why they must be law-like, or have the fo
Heteronomousreasons are law-like in form but presu
shared desire or belief, or other cultural or institut
of agreement.They may provide in-groupreasons to
who have deferred(heteronomously)to the same 'au
they offer no basis for reasoning among those who
allegiance
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18

ONORAO'NEILL

hence no basis for reasoningwith the world at large,


fully 'public' reason, hence in Kant's view no suffici
morality or for justice. This too is perhapsquite a w
tion of practical reason: but it is not covert r
heteronomy.38
Correspondingly,the phrase 'a lawgiving of its ow
ene Gesetzgebung)is no mere awkwardness of l
expresses the requirementthat anything that can c
self-legislationof practical reason must be a not onl
(gesetzgebend)but also non-derivative(eigen). It is t
for living by principlesthat could be describedas la
reason, so fit for all (regardlessof their particularfa
ogy, desires or culture), that underpinsKant's distin
the metaphor of self-legislationand that links his co
autonomy to fitness for universal law. It is this p
allows him to claim that autonomy and universalisab
alternative formulations of the Categorical Imperat
able from one another and equally, indeed equivale
mental to morality. As Kant puts it,
The principleof autonomyis, therefore:to chooseo
waythatthe maximsof yourchoiceareincludedas u
in the samevolition39

As Kant sees it, combining a formal requirement(l


with a scope requirement(universality)allows us to de
substantive constraints, which he views as basic p
morality. Morality is fundamentally a matter of s
principles of action that could not be adopted by a
not be universal laws. If we adopt only law-like det
of the will that could be universallaws, we must adop
ciples that (we judge) all and any others too could ad
must reject many tempting and interestingprincipl
Kantian autonomy bypasses the problem of possible

38. Indeed,Kant sometimespresentsit as the basis of all reasoning


practicalreasoning,includingthat partof practicalreasoningthat sup
'To makeuse of one's reasonmeansno more than to ask oneself,w
supposedto assumesomething,whetherone couldfindit feasibleto m
the ruleon which
one19assumes
it 17:12:14
into a universal
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AUTONOMY:THE EMPEROR'SNEW CLOTHE

of individual choices, which would have to be reso


legislation were a matter of each individual legisla
The key to Kant's thought is the explicit identifica
legislation or autonomy with adopting only law-lik
that can 'hold without the contingent, subjectivecon
distinguish one rational being from another'.
Once we have shifted our conceptions of self-legis
way that a coherent reading of the Kantian texts re
no longer so hard to see why he thinks that aut
demand of practical reason. If we think of reasons a
received, exchanged or refused, accepted or challeng
reasons that cannot be followed by some of those to
are offered will be defective or incomplete: they off
ited, incomplete reasons for action.

IX

From Practical Reason to Morality. Practical reas


demands that principles we offer to others as basic
action are indeed fit to be reasons for others, so ar
autonomous. Kant, I think, assumes that once w
adequateaccount of practicalreason, an account of m
not be far away. He writes in the Groundwork'Tha
principleof autonomy is the sole principleof morals
shown.'40

I think this too optimistic;and it is certainlya task


day. Although I hope I have set out why the Kanti
of autonomy is fundamentalto reason giving, it would
work to determinewhether it is the sole principle of
equivalent to the other formulations of the Categor
tive, and to set out the role of other consideratio
reasoning. This task constitutes the programmeof Ka
and political writings. There he aims to show that

Autonomyof the will is the sole principleof all mora


dutiesin keepingwith them;heteronomy
of choice,
hand,not onlydoesnot groundanyobligationat all b
opposedto the principleof obligationand to the m

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20

ONORAO'NEILL

will. Thatis to say, the sole principleof moralitycon


pendencefrom all matter of the law (namely,fro
object)41and at the same time in the determina
throughthe mereformof givinguniversallaw thata
be capableof 42

In the fairy tale the emperor processed stark naked


child dared to point this out. As I see it, the newer
autonomy that have played so large a part in discuss
ality and politics since the mid-twentiethcentury, an
penetrated the innermost and outermost reaches of
professional life (especially in the English speaking
pretty scantily clad. Neither mere, sheer independe
called rational autonomy has much to commend it, t
no doubt, can be contrasted with even nastier poss
face a choice. Either we accept some contemporary
of autonomy, so must conclude that it is at best a
sometimes suspect) aspect of the moral life. Or we
the Kantian conception of autonomy seriously, and h
reason to consider whether it just might be 'the sole
all moral laws and of duties in keeping with them'.
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tutions that 'distinguishone rationalbeingfromanother'.

AUTONOMY:THE EMPEROR'SNEW CLOTHE

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