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Immanuel Kant defines autonomy and general freedom as when a human makes a decision that is not to satisfy a dispositional end (when a decision is made to such an end, he defines it as heteronomy). An example of heteronomy would be choosing what to eat, as it to satisfy hunger in the fullest, which is not an end that the individual has explicitly chosen to be subject to. However, I can't think of an example of Kantian autonomy with this definition. In any situation I consider, the human is bound by their desire to maximize their own pleasure (a heteronomous end), whether it's choosing the happiness brought on by "choosing" morality or making any other real world decision guided by an involuntary master. Kant defines that humans are worthy of rights because of their capacity for autonomy, so what would be an example of a true autonomous decision?

EDIT: I realize now that my terminology may be somewhat skewed. The 'end' I mention refers to that which one strives to achieve, as in "means to an end." So it refers to a maxim in a specific case. So, restated, eating is simply a mean to an end (i.e. hunger). So the question is as follows: If truly autonomous decisions are only made to fulfill ends or maxims that innately chosen in autonomy and choices even made out of moral consideration are made to satisfy one's moral compass (an end/maxim that individual did not choose but was innately given), how are any decisions truly autonomous? Or does Kantian philosophy categorize morality as a different pleasure than hunger or thirst, which allows the origin of an autonomous decision to be where that individual choses to satisfy his morality over another end/maxim?

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    I find your notion of what constitutes an end is a little confused. – Mozibur Ullah Aug 13 '16 at 3:44
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    I think some are a bit fast here with their close votes. Philosophy is hard work and sometimes you get things wrong. The question obviously is based on some effort understanding the text. – Philip Klöcking Aug 13 '16 at 6:46
  • I mean that an end is something one can choose; to eat or not to eat is not a real option and hence not an end given our biological nature, though of course there are prisoners who use hunger strikes to make a political point, but there their end is political. – Mozibur Ullah Aug 13 '16 at 21:14
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You seem to mix up something here. Auto-nomos could be translated to self-ruling, i.e. giving oneself laws of one's own. And Kant refers to autonomy of the will.

Autonomy has therefore nothing to do with the source of ends, as all ends but the highest good are heteronomous (see Critique of Practical Reason, Ak. 5:109-110). Autonomy is to give the will a law (rule) that is not determined by external factors or ends:

Autonomy of the will is the characteristic of the will by which it is a law to itself (independently of any characteristic of the objects of willing). (Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Ak. 4:440)

The law the will imposes on itself, the categorical imperative, is a law that determines how to choose maxims (not ends!), which is made quite clear in the definition of heteronomy, that also endorses the points i made just before:

If it is in anything other than the fitness of its maxims for its own universal legislation, hence if - as it goes beyond itself - it is in a characteristic of any of its objects that the will seeks the law that is to determine it, the outcome is always heteronomy. (Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Ak. 4:441)

Therefore, and that's the point in all of the Groundwork, if autonomy can be found, it can only be found as a case of acting where the maxim of the act is chosen by the categorical imperative as the law the will, because the categorical imperative as such is that abstract that it cannot contain empirical contents that makes it heteronomous (see Groundwork, Ak. 4:402 and 4:419-21). It is pure and can therefore only be imposed by reason alone.

Or to put it in another way: Every act is autonomous that is done only because its maxim did pass the test by the categorical imperative. That has to be the primary reason behind acting, not achieving an end. Because then, the law of the will is a law that is given to the will by itself (in the form of pure practical reason).

Edit because of the edit of the question

For Kant, you should destinguish between ethics and morals. Moral choices are indeed only those in which you stand back and at least ask yourself what the right thing to do would be (see e.g. Groundwork, Ak. 4:421-3). And all Kant is saying is that if you ask this by the means of applying the categorical imperative and act accordingly because of the positive outcome, this is autonomy and morals proper (everything else is pretty much selfishness/ethics in disguise). Doing this in every moment a decision is needed would be totally impractical, wouldn't it?

Now, of course not every act is autonomous or even morally relevant. Happiness is a necessary end of all humans (see Groundwork, Ak. 4:415), but nevertheless the pursuit of happiness and the operations of reason at work there are clearly destinguished from morals (see Ak. 4:415-7). This is ethics in the narrower sense.

To make it even more complicated: In the Critique of Practical Reason ethics are in some sense reintegrated into morals by the concept of the highest good, i.e. persuit of moral perfection is necessarily linked to the fulfillment of happiness. But not within mortal life. That's where Kant's take on religion is founded in, but this would take us too far from the original question by now.

Regarding the feeling that is linked to morality as something different from pleasure, see for an extended answer this answer of mine to another question. In short: For moral acts, we feel respect, a feeling that is self-imposed (by our practical reason).

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    So, one way an act is autonomous in this sense is that it actually frustrates the actor's ends, while following a law -- say keeping a promise which you now wish you had not made. But reading OP's question a little more broadly, a lot of us wonder how ordinary actions like eating lunch, or choosing between a blue plaid shirt and a red plaid shirt in a department store, can possibly be autonomous in this sense. Or do you read Kant as meaning to say only acts unpleasant to the agent can be autonomous? – Colin McLarty Aug 13 '16 at 19:34
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    @ColinMcLarty Part a) Autonomous can only be actions that are morally relevant, i.e. that possibly violate the freedom of moral agents. Eating lunch or choosing a shirt hardly qualifies at all. Part b) Noone says that you have to neglect enjoyment totally. It should only not be the primary reason if choosing morally. Kant clearly did think that morals and joyful life are not excluding each other (see Religion, Ak. 6:23-4 fn.). But he also held the opinion that moral acting will be way harder to destinguish from immoral acting in these cases (see e.g. Groundwork, Ak. 4:404-5). – Philip Klöcking Aug 14 '16 at 1:42
  • Well, eating lunch costs money, which I could be giving to the poor. So I think it does have moral relevance. Maybe it is possible for me to make that choice without thinking of how good the food might be, but can I make it without regard to my comfort (and eventually health)? – Colin McLarty Aug 14 '16 at 15:49
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The objection you are raising is a common both among students and scholars with respect to Kant. Some versions of the objection are better worded and structured than others, and some versions seems to misunderstand Kant pretty badly.

I'm going to parse some pieces of your first paragraph here:

An example of heteronomy would be choosing what to eat, as it to satisfy hunger in the fullest, which is not an end that the individual has explicitly chosen to be subject to.

Yes, this would be an example of heteronomy for Kant. But it's important to realize that heteronomy is not per se immorality. For Kant, heteronomy happens whenever we commit ourselves to an action apart from what our own reason dictates we should do.

Here, it's important to qualify that by "our own reason", Kant does not mean "by using our own reasoning" if that is at all to mean that we would come to different conclusions than what he takes to be the one true form of reason dictates.

In any situation I consider, the human is bound by their desire to maximize their own pleasure (a heteronomous end), whether it's choosing the happiness brought on by "choosing" morality or making any other real world decision guided by an involuntary master.

Here, you are expressing what is a fundamental disagreement with Kant about what humans can do. Kant expressly believes that humans can using reason in conjunction with a free will elect to pursue an action on the basis of reason alone.

In the Groundwork, Kant calls the choice to pursue happiness "imperatives of prudence" and sees these as a form of hypothetical imperatives (perhaps the best form). The text is not super clear on what these look like, but it seems to mean something like: if I want to be happy, then I should exercise regularly.

And then acting on that is heteronomous since the goal is contingent on an "if." Conversely, he thinks moral ends are those dictated by pure reason and we act morally when we choose to pursue those ends for the reason reason supplies.

There are several different variations on the objection that Kant's idea does not work. One version is that to realize an end requires us to pursue it in the world (Hegel's objection). Another family of objection is to the picture of how we choose actions, specifically, whether we can act for multiple ends at once (this is considered in detail by Marcia Baron in Kantian Ethics Almost without Apology). A third objection group is to suppose that Kant's idea of reason doesn't really exist (also raised by Hegel among others; taken up by Habermas).

People differ greatly in how effective they think these objections are: Allen Wood started by writing about Hegel's Ethical Theory but by the time he wrote Kant's Ethical Theory he found the objections thoroughly unconvincing. Dudley Knowles (a Hegel scholar) did not think they were any good. Charles Taylor, on the other hand, seems to find them impressive -- at least in Hegel (Cambridge University Press, 1975).

A fourth objection is to simply assert that we always act for happiness. I think this is a poor route of objection, because it involves making a big positive claim about how people work. And if there's one empirical fact it is that people work in many seemingly different ways. Why go here specifically when you can attack Kant on other grounds?

Moreover, if we say people act for happiness, we to some extent need to figure out what we mean by "happiness" and whether this is closer to Aristotle or Mill/the Epicureans (i.e., does it have robust objective features or is it pleasure?).

Kant was not unaware of this (seeming?) problem with views. One unfortunate reality about most people's exposure to philosophy is that they only read the Groundwork. The Groundwork among other things takes a dimmer view of happiness than later works where Kant incorporates happiness as a part of the "complete good" (vs. the "highest good"). Moreover, later works do more to suggest that we can be concerned with the cultivation of our own virtue (See Nancy Sherman, Making a Necessity Out of Virtue).

Still, Kant never shakes the idea that the right thing to do is the thing reason dictates it, and the right way to do it is with the objective feeling of respect for the moral law.

One way that Kant tries to handle the fact that people always act for their own happiness is that Kant believes there is a good who will give people the degree of happiness their actions merits. This promise in part is supposed to enable us here and now to act morally -- since we don't need to concern ourselves with getting the happiness befitting moral action. This point echoes the Christian image of a just God.

Kant defines that humans are worthy of rights because of their capacity for autonomy

This could potentially be reworded to remove some ambiguities but is basically correct. For Kant, humans have rights because they are rational entities. These rights are metaphysically present whether or not they are realized on the Kantian view.


In your second paragraph, you are exactly right when you suggest Kant thinks our moral actions are different than ends-means action.

When you state the following:

If truly autonomous decisions are only made to fulfill ends or maxims that innately chosen in autonomy and choices even made out of moral consideration are made to satisfy one's moral compass (an end/maxim that individual did not choose but was innately given), how are any decisions truly autonomous?

There's an important piece missing here (or at least obscured). The phrase "innately chosen in autonomy" strikes me as problematic. For Kant, reason dictates the content of morality in the form of the categorical imperative (which Kant defines in multiple ways that work out to clusters around universalizability, treating rational beings as ends-in-themselves, and the idea of a community of such beings). But the basic idea is that Kant doesn't take this to differ by subject. Part of the problem is that the word autonomy has taken on a different meaning than what Kant meant. For Kant, what makes something autonomous is that the subject used their reason (a necessary and objective form of reason) to draw the conclusions reason dictates and then used their free will to follow the conclusions of this reason. (Contemporary autonomy literature has to balance the question of free choice against the sort of "innate" or "culturally-received" ideas of what to do).

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The modern way of looking at hedonism through utilitarianism is simply false. (I would lay the blame for this misunderstanding at the feet of the sort of economics we serve religiously. But, whatever the reason, the idea is just wrong.) It is not really hard to find proof that is just not how animals (including human ones) function.

Humans are not naturally driven to maximize their own pleasure, any more than the things other animals are driven to do necessarily give them pleasure. As a male spider is being ripped apart by its mate so that it can reproduce, I don't think it has some recourse to rationalizations that make that event pleasant, even if it is something that serves his own genetic ends. He accepts that what is happening is proper for some unrelated reason.

Our own determination of our ends is often equally distant from pleasure. We surely don't raise our children in the way that gives us the most pleasure, or they would end up pretty terribly malformed characterologically. We realize that both we and they suffer through their development for reasons that may well pay off for them only after we are dead, if ever. The pleasure we get from them does not really offset the sacrifices we choose to make, and we would make those same sacrifices for a child that caused us only pain, even if we could not tortuously rewrap that behavior into some convenient feeling that we could relabel as pleasure.

We are driven in this way, and in others, instead, by a need for faith, and a resulting dedication to rules and consistency outside our wish to be happy. And that is what Kant is attempting to speak to throughout his ethics. Autonomy is simply making decisions for ourselves, and not being driven to make them by some outside force.

When we try to raise our children as we ought, because we genuinely feel there is a way we ought to raise them, we are asserting autonomy. If we bowed entirely to any force, be it our own pleasure or social norms, without considering what we consider proper in our own eyes, we would be driven by heteronymy.

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