Thursday, July 01, 2004

Why not Kant?

Some of you are probably wondering why, in my post on rights and autonomy, I didn't just fall back on Kant and his second formulation of the Categorical Imperative as acting so as to treat people "always as an end and never as a means only" as a grounding for valuing autonomy and hence rights. There are two reasons for this.

Firstly, because the Categorical Imperative is based on just such an assertion of value: the intrinsic worth of human freedom. So it doesn't really get us anywhere, except maybe providing moral support from one of philosophy's biggest names.

But more importantly, it's because Kant is only interested in rational autonomy. Autonomy is about self-determination, being free from external influences and governed by one's own mind. But according to Kant, this means being governed solely by rational thought. Our wants, goals and desires are all "external influences" which enslave us. This is really a peculiar form of incompatibalism about free will, one which identifies the self solely with the rational faculties.

I disagree vehmently with this conception. Quite apart from the fact that it leads to the nightmare of second-guessing and "false consciousness" and opens the door to totalitarianism (as laid out by Berlin in "Two Concepts of Liberty"), it is simply mistaken. Our wants, goals, and desires are not an external influence; they're part of us, a vital part of who we are. Just as decisions made in accord with and in pursuit of them are free despite the universe (and more importantly, our brains) being generally deterministic, decisions made in pursuit of our goals are free despite their not being the sole product of reason. Our ability to reason is simply another part of us, a tool that evolved to help us better navigate our world and achieve our goals.

Because of his conception of autonomy, I'm wary of using Kant. If I'm trying to provide a grounding for liberalism, then the last thing I want to do is open a backdoor to second-guessing. Far better to use a conception of autonomy where people's choices are not valuable by virtue of being rational, but by virtue of being their choices, and freedom includes not just the freedom to be right, but also the freedom to be wrong.