Legislating for a Realm of Ends: The Social Dimension of Autonomy  pp. 214-239


By Andrews Reath

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Shortly after Kant claims autonomy for the moral agent, the argument of the Groundwork takes a turn that leads one to question what this autonomy amounts to. In attributing autonomy to rational agents, Kant regards them as a kind of sovereign legislator with authority over the use of their rational capacities. He holds that they have (in some sense) the power to enact law through their wills, without being bound to any external authority, and are subject only to their own legislation. Kant also says that this conception of the moral agent leads to the concept of a “realm of ends”:

The concept of every rational being as one who must regard himself as legislating universal law by all his will's maxims, so that he may judge himself and all his actions from this point of view, leads to another very fruitful concept, which depends on the aforementioned one, viz., that of a realm of ends.

(G, IV: 433)

The subsequent discussion makes it clear that Kant believes that autonomy is exercised by enacting principles that could serve as law for a community of agents, each of whom possesses the same legislative capacities as oneself (G, IV: 433–40). It would then seem that the laws enacted by such an agent must be able to gain the agreement of all members of this community of ends. But how is one autonomous if the laws that one wills are subject to the constraint that they can be accepted by, or justified to, all members of a realm of ends? This question is an instance of the general problem of how Kant can combine the universal validity of moral requirements with the autonomy of moral agents.