Liberty, Autonomy, and Kant's Civil Society

Abstract
Morality, as Immanuel Kant understands it, depends on the capacity of a person to be the agent and owner of his own actions, not merely a conduit for social and psychological forces and influences over which he has little or no control. As a result, Kant’s moral philosophy focuses primarily on the topic of individual freedom and the necessary preconditions of the possibility of that freedom. In the Groundwork and second Critique, Kant’s discussion of the connection between morality and freedom centers on autonomy of the will. He identifies autonomy as the supreme principle of morality and defines it as “choos[ing] only in such a way that the maxims of your choice are also included as universal law in the same volition” (Gr 4:440). In this paper I argue that according to Kant the possibility of autonomous action requires that certain preconditions be met. Satisfying these preconditions requires an individual to be a member of civil society (status civilis), and, specifically, a civil society maintained by a strong, sovereign power. This connection between freedom and civil society exists on two levels. First, one precondition of autonomy (i.e., internal freedom) is liberty (i.e., external freedom), and an individual can secure his liberty only once he is a member of civil society. Second, an individual is free only when others recognize him as a being with the capacity for autonomous action, and joining civil society is the process by which this recognition takes place.
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