It is 3:00 a.m., and your college roommate asks you why you are up late pondering moral dilemmas involving runaway trolleys.
“To write a good paper in Ethics 101,” you reply.
“But why write a good paper?” your roommate asks.
“To get a good grade.”
“But why care about grades?”
“To get a job in investment banking.”
“But why get a job in investment banking?”
“To become a hedge fund manager someday.”
“But why be a hedge fund manager?”
“To make a lot of money.”
“But why make a lot of money?”
“To eat lobster often, which I like. I am, after all, a sentient creature. That’s why I’m up late thinking about runaway trolleys!”
This is an example of what Kant would call heteronomous determination – doing something for the sake of something else, for the sake of something else, and so on. When we act heterogeneously, we act for the sake of ends given outside us. We are instruments, not authors, of the purpose we pursue.
Kant’s notion of autonomy stands in stark contrast to this. When we act autonomously, according to a law we give ourselves, we do something for its own sake, an end in itself. We cease to be instruments of purposes given outside us. This capacity to act autonomously is what gives human life its special dignity. It marks out the difference between persons and things….
Sandel, J. Michael (2009) Justice: What’s the right thing to do? New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.