Dignity and Freedom Theories by Immanuel Kant


In his criticism of previous ethical theories, Kant was reacting to two major movements in the history of early modern philosophy which are Empiricism and rationalism. He argued that both movements contain flaws which are of serious concern because Empiricist tried to use senses to obtain knowledge from the external world.

Kant argues that a person should escape out of confines of his mind and those contents that are known to him in order to acquire knowledge of the world outside him. Rationalist tried to use reasoning that was based on experience of events from the world to obtain information. on empiricism, Kant says that the blank slate of mind known as tabula rasa is not enough in explaining believes that we have about objects and therefore part of components in our believes must originate from the mind and then be applied to experience. (Wood, 2008 pp 341-343)

How Kant distinguishes between autonomy and heteronomy

According to Kant, these are two types of will that are totally different. Autonomy is a type of free will that refers to the freedom that a person has and it enable him to act independent of any rule from external authority. In his autonomous ethical theory Kant says this is a condition necessary for a human being to make a moral choice and an autonomous person has self-determination in making his will. Heteronomy on the other hand means the opposite where a person who is heteronymous has his will determined by external factors like emotions which are overwhelming.

Kant’s formulation of the categorical imperative

Categorical imperative of Kant’s moral philosophy refers to the philosophical concept that is central. He argues that a human being has a special place he occupies in creation and therefore it is possible to sum up morality in one commandment of reason that is ultimate and from this commandment, all duties can be derived. Kant says an imperative is a preposition declaring the necessity of a particular action.

His first formulation is of universal law which requires maxim to be chosen as holding universal laws of nature. The law in this formulation is that, a person should act in accordance to a maxim which even if it is made to be a universal law, he would still be willing to exercise it because he considers it to be right.

He argues that an action that is right is by nature universally acceptable. He says that a true moral proposition should not be tied to a particular condition, not even to the identity of the one who does the moral deliberation. In this way Kant says when a person makes a will he does it out of his believes and it is his will for it to be made a universal law. According to this, a person’s action is a product of what he believes and therefore his autonomous ethical choice is the subjective principle guiding his actions. (Paton, 1948 pp 283-285)

In his second formulation known as the end in itself, Kant says that the rational being is by nature an end and therefore has a role in every maxim to restrict all the other relative ends. He implies that the rational being forms the basis in all maxims. Every action that is rational must set an end before itself and human beings should treat each other as an end but not as a means to an end. For all rational actions, free will should be the source. For example, a slave is denied his status of being an end in himself.

Lastly is the formulation of autonomy which is a combination of the first two formulations. It states that a person should act as if his maxim serves as the universal law thinking as one of the members of the universal realm. All rational being should act as if they were through their maxim legislating members of the universal kingdom.

How adherence to the categorical imperative provides for autonomous ethical choice

Kant defined autonomy as the freedom to choose without being influenced by external determination. He said for a human act to be moral in itself, it is necessary for him to have autonomy because external determination interferes with the freedom of one to choose by taking away his capacity to reason according to the nature’s law. He argued that a man makes a good will if faced with amoral choice but his argument however did not recognize that the best will is that of God.

Reflection on Kant’s ethical theories

Kant’s theory on autonomous ethical decision is incorrect because if people are not checked, they would become lenient and fail to have self discipline concerning moral transgressions which means the full rigor of moral law would not be exercised. The other challenge faced by his theory is about telling the truth being universal, as he was challenged by Benjamin constant in his argument concerning an enquiring murderer.

Because telling truth according to Kant must be universal, if one is asked by a murderer about the whereabouts of his prey, then he should disclose and in this case it is not ethical to do so. Kant responded to this challenge by saying that a person is supposed to have a right to tell a lie due to philanthropic concerns, a response that was contradictory to his theory. (Aune, 1979 pp 47-50)


Aune B. (1979): Kant’s theory of morals: Princeton University press pp. 47-50.

Wood W. (2008): Kantian ethics: Cambridge university pp. 341-343.

Paton J. (1948): the categorical imperative: university of Chicago press pp. 283-285.

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