On Autonomy of the Will in Kant’s
Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals
The autonomy of the will is its guarantee of Deciding Precedence in all moral dilemmas. Kant, in his exploration of the value of the will has sought to determine the ideal function of that faculty. Kant’s Categorical Imperative provides the groundings of libertarianism akin to that which later emerges in the works of Wollstonecraft, Wilde, Crowley, and others. In their systems of thought which intertwine philosophy, art, and lifestyle, a great debt to Kantian ethics can be discerned. It is the autonomy of our wills which liberates us. Individualism can exist, really, only in how we act on our inclinations, and those inclinations are determined by what our will dictates, as its own law. We are only as free as our loyalty to our will is true.
“If the will seeks the law that is to determine it anywhere but in . . . its own legislation . . . then heteronomy always results,” and this is where internal conflict arises (Kant, 45). In consideration of the Categorical Imperative, Kant warns, one must never ignore the will. While is it the Categorical Imperative that should determine all moral action, it is the will, when recognized as having the autonomy Kant says it has, that should determine action. “The imperative derives the concept of actions necessary to [its] end from the concept of willing [its] end,” which is why so much priority should be placed on the inclinations of our will; the Categorical Imperative is derived from that autonomous realm we call the will (Kant, 27). No end can be reached without first being willed, this is the means, and justifies the experience which this consideration’s corresponding action brings.
This gives rise to the question of the necessity of the action. One can argue either that the action is done of necessity or whim, though in a Kantian worldview, whim is not equal to will. Similarly, Kant’s view commands the tenet that all action, while a phenomenon of every animal in nature, is either borne of a rational being or not, and that which is borne of the rational must be willed. Since desire “ . . . is possible only through the powers of some rational being”, already the elevation of its action to the height of being an Intelligent Pursuit—an Intelligent Influence—is implied, and the rational “ . . . can be thought of as a possible purpose of some will” (Kant, 25). Only rational beings are capable of having desire, and this desire is rooted in will. There is nothing wrong in desiring something if it is one’s will which regulates the temptation, so to speak. Indeed, Kant argues that in assigning and recognizing the inherent autonomy of the will, we can avoid moral dilemma. Internal dilemma arises from a perceived conflict of the rationality of willed actions. It is in solving this dilemma of morals-versus-desires that the successors of Kant, a few of whom named above, found an attainable ideal.
Though it has since been assigned the label of Decadence, the pursuit of experience and its importance to fulfilling the journey of life, is neither so vulgar nor excessive when viewed alongside the context of its obvious, Kantian precursor. Kant views the validity of any law to lie in its necessity, and by expressing the universality of this, “[e]veryone must admit that if a law is to be morally valid . . . then it must carry with it absolute necessity[,]” he says (Kant, 2). Every “ . . . precept which is founded on principles of mere experience . . . can indeed be called a practical rule, but never a moral law” and because practicality lies in its necessity, then experience is definitely a law, though not a moral one (Kant, 3). Experience can solve the internal battle between morals and desires by not only standing as it does, according to Kant, as a law in and of itself, but in continually renewing—updating—itself through the will, which in its autonomy, is able to command experience. In this capacity, the will’s autonomy is its Deciding Precedence, ensuring the will’s influence over all other faculties, if a life is lived properly according to this interpretation of Kantian ethics.
The “ . . . concept of obligation, which is certainly not moral” is reason even more why experience, and its dictation and determining by the autonomy of the will, is its own form of law above any law (Kant, 4). Living with the sentiment that a certain obligation is owed to others in our behaviour transfers the control of one’s own to the control of that of another’s will which should be autonomous, and “ . . . is all that can be expected from a philosophy which never decides regarding the origin of all possible practical concepts” (Kant, 4). The correct practical concepts can only be those which we will, and since it has been established that the will is found only in rational creatures, then that we will at all is a sign not only of rationality in its consideration, but practicality in its execution. We are bound only by an obligation to do what is right, and it is context which leads or misleads as the means to that end; Kant’s reasoning tells us that we create our own systems of reason and rationality, and thereby create our own system not necessarily of morals, but of priorities, or obligations. We are obligated to ourselves to be ourselves, and we can not progress without viewing along the way those facets of just who we happen to be. Experience is this journey, and the will its patron; morality its vehicle. Just as the contemporary vacationer is at liberty to choose their personal mode and style of transport, so too is man to select his.
Since the will is itself a law, and laws exist to Kant only if they are borne of necessity, then it becomes obvious that desire and its fulfillment is supreme, even obligatory in its practicality. Man “ . . . perceives himself as a phenomenon in the world of sense (as he really is also)” and because of this, is himself an experience (Kant, 57). The realm of experience is limited to the sensuous, while its benefits are relegated either both to the physical and mental, or singularly to either or. The relevance of the will as the dictator of experience is evident in its legality, so to speak; since the will is a law, and laws are only able to exist if necessary, and practicality is borne strictly of necessity, then the will should logically be the cause of practice. Now, the actual nature and demand of that which is to be practiced is determined of course by the will; what one wills always has the potential of being acted upon, and if one’s internal cognition of morality and desire finds a balance, then a beneficial act can be put into practice. Of course, very often man does not seek such discriminate, scrutinizing internal counsel for every action, but regardless, since the will is law, anything, whether its effect is contemplated beforehand or not, in its execution, it is legal. Experience is the inescapable outcome of actions borne of will, and though this will obviously produce effects perceived as either negative or positive, that an experience has been had is the true benefit. The will automatically adjusts itself only when experience occurs, so though the internal dilemma of morality and desire may hinder acting on that will, in its autonomy, the will must at some point be attended to, and acted on. The will can only develop when it is fulfilled, even if but scarcely, it will not correct, but rather, perfect itself as the guiding internal light of man, in time, in use.
Ironically, through Kant, liberty is attained through the limits prescribed by law. Individualism can exist, but only in that we are each following, however faithfully, the dictates of our autonomous wills. All of this can now be recognized to be tainted not with malignant motive, but with truth, and likewise, so too can all of our actions, so much as that they are the pure product of being willed.
Kant, Immanuel, Grounding for the metaphysics of morals. Trans. James W. Ellington. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993.