chapter  12
Autonomy and Heteronomy: Kant and Levinas
Pages 12

Kant, in his Groundwork of the metaphysic of morals, defi nes autonomy as a positive freedom of the will (1953, 446).1 Therefore, autonomy of rational beings cannot be understood simply as a negative freedom of their wills, that is, as an ability of rational beings to act independently of determination by external causes (446),2 but rather as a positive freedom, that is, as a capacity of the free will for self-determination (447; O‘Neill 1995, 53). A truly free will, and not only an arbitrary one, is then a will which is under law. Negative freedom as an independence from external causes is not suffi cient for autonomy, although rational beings cannot be autonomous if they subordinate themselves to something external (for instance, to someone in authority or to their own passions and sensible inclinations). If they want to be autonomous agents, they need something more: they must act by “adopting a self-imposed law” (O‘Neill 2000, 42), or, in other words, they must act by adopting moral principles (maxims) “that can be universally adopted” (because they have the form of law), and rejecting the “principles that cannot be universally adopted” (because nothing can be a moral principle which cannot be a principle for all) (42-43; italics in the original). Autonomy, understood in this way, is therefore identifi ed with conformity to the categorical imperative (Kant 1953, 447).3 More precisely, one of its formulations requires us to “act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” (421).4