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Kant on Moral Autonomy is an excellent collection of essays on one of the central concepts of Kant's moral philosophy: the notion of autonomy, of (moral) self-legislation. The book is dedicated to Onora O'Neill, whose writings on Kant's moral theory has influences many contemporary Kantians and Kant-inspired philosophers, including several of the contributors to the present volume. Many of the contributors pay their respect to O'Neill's work by implicitly or explicitly discussing themes and ideas from her oeuvre, and the volume's final essay is a short piece by O'Neill, which discusses the relation between heteronomy and autonomy in Kant's moral theory.
However, acquaintance with O'Neill's contributions to recent Kant-scholarship is no pre-requisite for understanding or enjoying the contributions to Kant on Moral Autonomy. The primary focus of almost all of the essays is Kant's own writings, in particular of course the Groundwork (Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten), where Kant first introduces, develops and explains the moral importance of the concept of autonomy.
It is probably no exaggeration to claim that the concept of autonomy is one of Kant's most important and enduring contributions to moral theory. However, autonomy is also one of the most complex and elusive notions in Kant's moral philosophy. Furthermore the way in which Kant defined and employed this notion clearly differs from, and perhaps even contradicts, many contemporary accounts of autonomy within e.g. medical ethics, political philosophy and moral theory.
There is thus more than sufficient reason to dedicate a whole book to elucidate Kant's understanding of autonomy, and critically compare his view on the matter with contemporary notions of autonomy. In his introduction the editor, Oliver Sensen, thus defines the primary aim of the book as an attempt to answer three distinct but closely related questions: "...how does Kant conceive of autonomy? What is the relation of Kant's conception of autonomy to contemporary notions of autonomy? And what exactly is the significance of Kantian autonomy for morality?" (p. 1).
Kant on Moral Autonomy is divided into three parts. Part 1 aims to elucidate Kant's conception of autonomy; part 2 investigates The history and influence of Kant's conception of autonomy and part 3 discusses The relevance of Kant's conception for contemporary moral philosophy. The editor seems to have based this division on the three questions mentioned above. The essays in part 1 are intended to address the first question; the essays in part 2 the second question, and the essays in part 3 the third question.
However, when the reader delves into the essays this division, which at first sight seems both reasonable and relatively clear-cut, quickly begins to dissolve. It is true that the four essays in part 1 (by Thomas E. Hill, Andrews Reath, Karl Ameriks and Paul Guyer) all provide insight into and hence elucidate Kant's own understanding of autonomy. But the essays by Hill and Ameriks also explicitly discuss how Kant's conception of autonomy relates to later, 20th and 21st century, conceptions of autonomy. And the starting point for Paul Guyer's essay is a question raised by Onora O'Neill (and other contemporary Kantians), namely how understand the relationship between autonomy and moral cultivation/education.
Of the five essays in part 2 the last one (by Katrin Flickschuh) is not concerned with development of the Kantian conception of autonomy, but rather with 1) the difference between Kant's conception and contemporary version on of autonomy, and b) a number of systematic problems with autonomy-based conceptions of morality and political philosophy.
The remaining four essays all focus on the development of Kant's conception of autonomy, but from wildly different perspectives. Richard Velkley discusses Rousseau's influence on Kant's conception of autonomy. Susan Meld Shell investigates the relationship between Kant's pre-critical cosmology and the conception of autonomy he presents in the Groundwork. Henry Allison provides a succinct summary of Kant's views on freedom and autonomy and traces the development and transformation of these views in Kant's immediate successors Fichte, Schiller and Hegel. And in a veritable tour de force Jerome Schneewind provides an historical overview of the decline and (surprisingly) recent resurgence of interest in autonomy within the English-language moral philosophy from Kant to the present day, and discusses the possible reasons for this renewed interest.
As for the five essays in part 3, only one, the essay by Philip Stratton-Lake, explicitly tackles the question of whether Kant's conception of autonomy is relevant for contemporary moral philosophy, and his answer to this question is a resounding no. "I think the Kantian attempt to establish an essential link between morality and autonomy fails, and that no such necessary link can be established" (p. 261). Nor surprisingly Stratton-Lake prefers an intuitionist (I would say pluralist) account of morality, which bases moral normativity not on autonomy but on basic reason giving properties or features of actions.
The rest of the essays in part five seems to be more concerned with Kant's own conception of moral autonomy than with the contemporary relevance of this conception. Heiner Klemme presents an interesting analysis of the relationship between the discussion of autonomy in the Groundwork and Kant's discussion of reflective judgment and teleological principles in the Critique of Judgment. Jens Timmermann focuses on Kant's so-called "Formula of Humanity, discusses the relation between autonomy and ends, and uses this discussion to provide an explanation of the moral attraction of autonomy. Dieter Schönecker develops an interesting and sophisticated new interpretation of Kant's (notorious) remark, in the third section of the Groundwork, that "A free will and a will under moral laws are the same". And Oliver Sensen attempts to spell out precisely why Kant takes autonomy to be of the utmost importance for a proper understanding and justification of morality.
As should by now be clear the division of Kant on Moral Autonomy into three distinct parts is somewhat artificial. Most of the essays of the book, no matter which part they are included in, have as their primary aim to elucidate and explain Kant's conception of autonomy. Many of these essays rely solely or primarily on Kant's own writings and a few also include the writings of Kant's predecessors and contemporaries. Only a few of the book's essays explicitly relate Kant's conception of autonomy to contemporary discussions within moral theory.
The book's essays are thus heavily biased in favor of the first of the three questions mentioned above: the question of how Kant himself conceives of autonomy. The other two questions (What is the relation of Kant's conception of autonomy to contemporary notions of autonomy? And what is the significance of Kantian autonomy for morality?) are not nearly as central for the discussions in the book as the introduction and the overall structure of the book seem to (somewhat misleadingly) suggest.
With this caveat in mind how are we then to judge the quality and value of Kant on Moral Autonomy? The individual essays, written by some of the most renowned Kant-scholars of today, are mostly of a very high quality, and provide interesting and illuminating discussions of and perspectives on one of the most important and influential concepts of Kant's moral philosophy. On this account the book succeeds admirably.
There clearly is a lot more to be said about how the notion of autonomy has developed and changed from Kant to the present day, and how Kant's conception of autonomy differs from, and can fruitfully be used as a critical corrective to, contemporary understandings of autonomy, than what is hinted at in this collection. This lack would have been less noticeable (and less frustrating) if the reader's expectations had not been raised by the editor's promissory remarks in the introduction. One could thus have wished that the editor had done more to make sure that the ambitions laid out in the introduction were in fact fulfilled.
However, everyone interested in Kant's moral philosophy and his conception of autonomy should find something of interest in this book. As the essays in Kant on Moral Autonomy clearly demonstrate we are still trying to fully grasp the complexities and intricacies of Kant's moral theory. We have not yet left Kant's legacy behind, and there is little evidence that we shall do so soon.
© 2014 Carsten Fogh Nielsen
Carsten Fogh Nielsen, Ph.D., post graduate student, University of Aarhus. Main interests: Kant, moral philosophy and the philosophy of popular culture.