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  • Kant on Moral Autonomy ed. by Oliver Sensen
  • Frederick Rauscher
Oliver Sensen, editor. Kant on Moral Autonomy. Cambridge-New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. xii + 301. Cloth, $96.95.

This rich collection of essays, many inspired by or referencing the work of Onora O’Neill, offers various perspectives on autonomy in Kant with some effort to draw relations to other issues in moral theory. The essays are divided, somewhat artificially, into three parts.

Part one contains essays defining Kant’s concept of autonomy. Thomas Hill updates his argument that contemporary applied ethics uses a concept of autonomy very different from Kant’s, yet often mistakenly attribute their concept to Kant. Hill allows that Kant’s conception of autonomy can provide a basis for and so enrich the contemporary approaches. Andrews Reath usefully provides a summary of the position he has developed in other writings about the nature of autonomy as the activity of self-legislation of rational beings. Karl Ameriks expands on O’Neill’s rejection, in the term ‘autonomy,’ of, on the one hand, radical existentialist theories that emphasize the auto as any choice and, on the other, strict theories demanding obedience that emphasize the nomos. Ameriks shows that less extreme [End Page 552] versions of these two tendencies would be acceptable, arguing that Jean Paul Sartre does provide such a quasi-Kantian existentialism. The empirical realization of the nomos side of autonomy is treated by Paul Guyer, who argues that autonomy in the positive sense comes in degrees as the actual agent struggles to make the moral law the guiding principle of her action.

Part two includes essays about the historical development of the concept of autonomy in Kant’s philosophy and after Kant. Richard Velkley argues that Rousseau greatly influenced Kant by starting the process of thought that ultimately led Kant to his mature conception of the autonomy of reason in both the practical and theoretical spheres. Susan Shell also sees autonomy partly in relation to theoretical concerns. She takes Kant’s pre-critical career as working to combine an independence of substances with a real interaction among them. In the mature ethics, this problem is transformed into finding a way for the genuine independence of agents who unite into a community; and the autonomous giving of laws for such a community is the solution.

The trail of autonomy after Kant is traced by Henry Allison through the German Idealists, who try to balance self-determination using rational law with some role for inclinations and particularity, a trail extended by J. B. Schneewind through the nineteenth century, when autonomy was neglected, to its contemporary resurgence and central role in bioethics, feminism, and political philosophy. While Allison and Schneewind offer mostly historical exegesis, Katrin Flikschuh argues persuasively against a tendency she sees in contemporary liberalism according to which the value of personal autonomy grounds an endorsement of “collective self-legislation” in which individuals must not only have voices in public debate but further be able to regard themselves as subject only to laws they can view as a result of co-legislation, that is, specific laws to which they could actually agree. She shows that Kant would disagree both with the claim that personal autonomy is itself the highest value and with the move to a “Republic of Autonomous Lawgivers,” since for Kant the sovereign represents the common will rather than the set of individual unilateral wills, even if the latter entirely agree.

The third part of the book is supposed to cover the relevance of Kant’s conception of autonomy for contemporary moral philosophy, but the first three papers in this section instead concentrate on the interpretation of Kant. Heiner Klemme does hint that his look at the third Critique, where Kant places morality in nature through purposes, “naturalizes” autonomy in a way foreign to contemporary reductionist naturalism. Jens Timmerman also thinks contemporary philosophy can benefit from his interpretation of the thought of autonomy as playing a pedagogical and motivational role in Kant. But their papers do not engage contemporary ethics. Dieter Schönecker’s paper—a detailed argument that Kant’s claim “a free will and a will under moral laws are the...


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