In Kantian system, murdering is nonrational because it cannot become a universal law. Yet Kant insists that it's immoral to lie to murderers. This is the same with saying they are rational being, because we have a moral obligation to respect rational beings by telling the truth. Is this a contradiction? Why is that?

Similarly, in the modern doctrine of personal autonomy (not Kantian anymore), according to the hierarchy model of autonomy, an agent is regarded as non-autonomous when their second-order volition doesn't approve their first order desire. For example, a smoker who has a desire to light up but does not want to desire it doesn't have a coherent thinking, therefore their choice of smoking is non-autonomous. Yet, it seems to me that we have a moral (or even legal) obligation to always regard them as autonomous, in every time in every choice. Why is that?

How do addiction and fear affect patient's decisional-making capacity?
What would Kant say about treating people who lack strength of will?
Read more: Autonomy: Normative | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

  • 2
    I think there are two things mixed here that should not be mixed...there is missing autonomy in a given context and intolerance against the intolerable. The latter can be seen as retributive philosophy of law à la Fichte, which said that since they autonomously decided to do so, their autonomous decision entailed our right to punish them accordingly. The former does not entail a justification for patronising an otherwise autonomous person. At least I am not aware of any author who argues for that.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Nov 24, 2020 at 20:48
  • People do not do things they do not want to do. If a smoker has lighted it he slipped at one moment to the decision, because he suddenly saw there was "something in it" for him. It doesn't matter that this was againts his (previous) will, for he autonomously has just decided to betray that "oath" not to smoke. Hence you, an interferer, should never regard him non-autonomous, though might regard him as indulgent towards self.
    – ttnphns
    Nov 24, 2020 at 22:10
  • Also, one ought not to confuse "to respect" with "to recognize". We (dis)respect for an "appearance" one has/displays/acts, objectively as is. We (un)recognize a motive/desire as what one is not (because realization of a decision negates the actor's being what he is into what he is not yet).
    – ttnphns
    Nov 24, 2020 at 23:04
  • Finally, "regard" and respect" are semantically close enough to leave an impression of tautology: "If I consider an agent non-autonomous ... then do I consider them not in autonomy?", and the etiquettish fleur of the word "respect" doesn't help much against it.
    – ttnphns
    Nov 24, 2020 at 23:22
  • 1
    @ttnphns People do not do things they do not want to do – yes they do. People can change their mind, yes, but in this case they don't. The smoker can still betray their oath and feel shame or guilty even after the action is done.
    – Ooker
    Nov 25, 2020 at 2:26

3 Answers 3


Kantian autonomy is determined by the faculty of reason, not by rational acts

In a strictly Kantian setting, the person is autonomous. Full stop. That is because there are two aspects in the will which are competing: the strictly rational part which makes laws (rules for the willing) and is self-determination of the will (therefore autonomy) and the part which contains all the desires and habits (in German "Willkür"). The will of finite beings is free because they have both aspects and can willingly choose between them. This choice (transcendental freedom) is taken as a given as soon as a person has the potential to have reason, regardless of whether they are acting rationally in any particular situation.

If a person decides "I want to stop smoking" and does not actually accomplish that, it means two things:

  1. The person is autonomous since they make their will a law, ie. stopping to smoke.

  2. The person lacks strength of will, ie. is unable to enact that rule against their own desires.

What you imply is that a person who lacks strength of will is completely unable to choose otherwise. This pessimist view of determinism (and be it only in small part) is what the Kantian conception strives to argue against in the first place.

Thus, you would under no circumstances be allowed to paternalise a person simply because you decide they lack free will and autonomy in that regard just because you think they should choose differently. Who are you to decide that? If the person seeks help themselves, they chose to do so, and that is a completely different matter.

For the same reason, the murderer is assumed to be able of rational acts and hence is autonomous even if they do obviously not act rationally when they murder someone.

Note: I tried to make it clear that I do indeed speak about Kantian concepts. The contemporary takes are as muddled as it gets, with hardly a clear-cut definition at all. They fail to fundamentally address what autonomy really is and how it relates to habitual patterns / neurological states determining behaviour. Basically, you end up with the whole free-will discussion where you either are determined regardless or, if one thinks it through, are always autonomous since otherwise, compatibalism makes no sense.

  • Strength of will, I see. However, it's the hierarchy model of autonomy suggests that the person who lacks that strength of will (or in the model's term: incoherence between first-order and second-order thinkings) that the person is not autonomous. What do you think? Also, can you comment about the killer? Killing cannot be a universal law, thus it cannot be a rational action, thus the killer cannot be autonomous?
    – Ooker
    Dec 5, 2020 at 6:48
  • @Ooker Both questions are answered by what it means to be autonomous: to have practical reason which gives our volition rules at all. For Kant, the murderer, in his heart, actually wants to be good. Because he knows the moral law. Because he is autonomous. If not, we had no right to punish them in the first place.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Dec 5, 2020 at 8:13
  • just to be clear, is your answer only about Kantian autonomy? Because I see that the the contemporary take on personal autonomy, say, the hierarchy model, specifically states that the smoker who wants to stop but fails is non-autonomous in relation to smoking
    – Ooker
    Dec 5, 2020 at 14:56
  • I tried to make it clear that I do indeed speak about Kantian concepts. The contemporary takes are as muddled as it gets, with hardly a clear-cut definition at all. They fail to fundamentally address what autonomy really is and how it relates to habitual patterns / neurological states determining behaviour. Basically, you end up with the whole free-will discussion where you either are determined regardless or, if one thinks it through, are always autonomous since otherwise, compatibalism makes no sense.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Dec 5, 2020 at 15:26
  • 1
    @Ooker The Frankfurt model is widely accepted as a model of authenticity, not necessarily as one of autonomy. That is basically due to him being one of the few, if not the only, author with such extensive work on that topic. Kant would say that they are autonomous, but lack character, which is exactly his term for habitual rational (moral) acting. Writing this, I realise that what the IEP article calls 'personal autonomy' is pretty much the same as Kantian 'character', but the latter only involves rational/moral principles, whereas the former does not.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Dec 7, 2020 at 6:35

This question conflates the 'capacity' for rationality with the 'execution' of rational acts. The execution of acts takes place within a complex, contingent, an often information-poor environment that makes simple, absolute judgements pragmatically impossible. Smokers, for instance, might rationally understand that smoking is dangerously self-destructive, but they also might rationally understand that misery and suffering are things to be avoided. Moreover, there is no rational way to determine whether the avoidance of long-term harm or of short-term misery is more desirable; such evaluations are based on preconceived assertions or emotions that preceded and underlie rational analysis.

We cannot reduce this complex interplay of competing rational assertions to mere non-autonomy, because we can only say that someone made a decision against their own interests from within our own worldview, which does not necessarily comprehend what rational interests that person weighed.

We don't treat others as though though they are always rational; we treat other s as though they always have the capacity for rationality. It's immoral to lie to a murderer because:

  • We hold that murderers are intrinsically capable of rationality, even if they did something (i.e., murder) that we believe is irrational
  • We hold that murderers are capable of distinguishing between moral and immoral acts on some level, assuming that they came to believe their act of murder was (on some grounds) moral.
  • Our philosophical goal is to make it clear why their act of murder was not moral, so that they (or more pressingly others like them) can properly exercise their autonomy and avoid committing such acts.

If we lie to a murderer, we are dismissing the first two points and betraying the third, since a lie cannot make anything philosophically clear to anyone. Lying pushes us back towards the amoral posture that anything one can pragmatically get away with is ipso facto moral.


This is answered in the article Autonomy in Moral and Political Philosophy (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), section 2.1 Autonomy as an Object of Value. I'll quote a wall of text for context, but you can skip to the last paragraph for the answer. I still digest it though.

It may also be unclear why autonomy — viewed here as the capacity to reflect on and endorse one’s values, character and commitments — should have value independent of the results of exercising that capacity. Why is one person’s autonomy intrinsically valuable when she uses it to, say, harm herself or make rash or morally skewed choices? More generally, how can we take account of the systematic biases and distortions that plague typical human reasoning in valuing people’s capacity to make decisions for themselves (see, e.g., Conly 2013)? This question becomes more acute as we consider ways that autonomy can obtain in degrees, for then it is unclear why personal autonomy should be seen as equally valuable in persons who display different levels of it (or different levels of those abilities that are its conditions, such as rationality).

Indeed, autonomy is often cited as the ground of treating all individuals equally from a moral point of view. But if autonomy is not an all-or-nothing characteristic, this commitment to moral equality becomes problematic (Arneson 1999). It can be argued that insofar as the abilities required for autonomy, such as rational reflectiveness, competences in carrying out one’s decisions, and the like, vary across individuals (within or between species as well), then it is difficult to maintain that all autonomous beings have equal moral status or that their interests deserve the same weight in considering decisions that affect them.

The move that must be made here, I think, picks up on Korsgaard’s gloss on Kantianism and the argument that our reflective capacities ultimately ground our obligations to others and, in turn, others’ obligations to regard us as moral equals. Arneson argues, however, that people surely vary in this capacity as well — the ability to reflectively consider options and choose sensibly from among them. Recall what we said above concerning the ambiguities of Korsgaard’s account concerning the degree to which the self-reflection that grounds obligation is idealized at all. If it is, then it is not the everyday capacity to look within ourselves and make a choice that gives us moral status but the more rarified ability to do so rationally, in some full sense. But we surely vary in our ability to reach that ideal, so why should our autonomy be regarded as equally worthy?

The answer may be that our normative commitments do not arise from our actual capacities to reflect and to choose (though we must have such capacities to some minimal degree), but rather from the way in which we must view ourselves as having these capacities. We give special weight to our own present and past decisions, so that we continue on with projects and plans we make because (all other things being equal) we made them, they are ours, at least when we do them after some reflective deliberation. The pull that our own decisions have on our ongoing projects and actions can only be explained by the assumption that we confer status and value on decisions simply because we reflectively made them (perhaps, though, in light of external, objective considerations). This is an all-or-nothing capacity and hence may be enough to ground our equal status even if perhaps, in real life, we exercise this capacity to varying degrees.[3] Much has been written about conceptions of well being that rehearse these worries (see Sumner 1996, Griffin 1988). Such a view might be buttressed with the idea that the attribution of autonomous agency, and the respect that purportedly goes with it, is itself a normative stance, not a mere observation of how a person actually thinks and acts (for discussion of this position see Christman 2009, chap. 10 and Korsgaard 2014)

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .