The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy [Book Review]

Review of Metaphysics 53 (2):474-475 (1999)

The key statement made at the outset of Schneewind’s comprehensive investigation of early modern moral philosophy is that “Kant invented the conception of morality as autonomy”. Schneewind supports this strong historical claim by distinguishing sharply between the concept of autonomy and the various notions of moral self-governance found in seventeenth and eighteenth century ethics. Generally speaking, we are morally self-governing when we are equipped, cognitively and emotionally, so as to require neither external sanctioning authority nor external instruction for the regulation of our actions. Yet to base one’s moral theory on this kind of account of selfgovernance does not necessarily make one an advocate of autonomous ethics. We are autonomous only when, in addition to satisfying the requirements of self-governance, we are self-lawgiving. For Kant, we are morally self-governing because we are autonomous. Schneewind argues persuasively that this conception of moral autonomy is simply not present in the history of ethics prior to Kant. The book examines the historical context out of which Kant’s account of morality as autonomy emerged. It thereby brings to light the novelty of the Kantian approach to the question of moral self-governance. Yet it also makes plain the essential continuity of Kant’s theory of virtue and doctrine of right with traditional ethico-theological concerns underlying the systems of seventeenth and eighteenth century moral philosophy. A crucial key to understanding early modern moral philosophy in view of the theory of autonomy is to know exactly Kant’s place in a theoretical terrain determined largely by debates about how God can be kept essential to morality. Thus, Schneewind makes the question of voluntarism versus intellectualism the central guiding theme of his highly detailed analyses of individual ethical theories. In particular, Schneewind’s treatment of the relation between voluntarism and intellectualism allows him to show how late seventeenth century and eighteenth century moralities of self-governance emerged from criticism of the motivational assumptions behind modern natural law theories, the common distinguishing characteristic of which is the endorsement of a morality of obedience requiring external sanctions for the establishment of obligation.
Keywords Catholic Tradition  Contemporary Philosophy  General Interest
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ISBN(s) 0034-6632
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