Choice Worship

The second pitfall, choice worship, relates to a central theme in neoKantian liberal thinking. Kant is enlisted to the liberal cause mostly through the centrality to his moral theory of the idea of a free will. A liberal sensibility that celebrates individual choice can easily assimilate Kantian ideas by embracing autonomy as its fundamental value. The result is a tendency to identify autonomy with choice and to see choice as the seat of dignity as well. On this line of thought, to respect persons is to respect their choices. But whatever the attractions of this bit of liberal dogma, it cannot be sustained on Kantian grounds. The Kantian support for the valorization of autonomy is linked to a rather specialized conception of autonomy. A wide gulf separates this system of ideas from the liberal celebration of individual choice.

Doubts that choice as such, as the expression of the individual’s will, is of moral value arise when we consider that to value choice is to give at least some positive valence and pay some respect to the will’s determination to kill, rape, or steal. A choice-liberal need not, of course, condone such choices: these choices violate other people’s rights, rights that themselves can be seen as expressing or protecting these people’s autonomy. But invoking such countervailing considerations is an unsatisfactory response, in that it implies that the nefarious choices have some moral value, whereas they have none. The choice-liberal is committed to saying that qua a determination of a person’s will, any choice is pro tanto valuable. But our moral and legal judgments go the other way: the fact that an act of homicide, rape, or theft represents the agent’s considered choice and reflects a genuine determination of his will serves to aggravate the moral and legal severity of the action rather than mitigate it.24

It will be said in response that the Kantian liberal I describe is a straw man. The more likely position held by liberals, Kantian or otherwise, is more qualified. They do not simply value any choice or, for that matter, all displays of autonomy. Rather, they deem choice or autonomy valuable only subject to a limiting generalizing proviso—that is, when it is consistent with equal choice or equal autonomy for all. Under this formulation, choices that strip others of their autonomy lack moral value from the start. But as an interpretation of the moral injunction to respect people, this restatement of the liberal position is unsatisfactory for two reasons. First, the valorization of the will must be content independent:25 to defer to people’s wills is to assign to them at least some prima facie value as they are, no matter what their content. And, as it turns out, the actual content of the will does not always abide by the strictures imposed by the generalizing proviso. To insist that only choices respectful of others’ autonomy have any value at all is to subject the will to an external evaluative standard, one that is patently at odds with ascribing to the will intrinsic value of its own. Second, the generalizing proviso does not apply to self- regarding choices, which are left unfettered. But, at least within a Kantian framework, not all self-regarding choices are morally permissible. Kant maintains that one ought to respect not just others’ humanity but one’s own humanity as well. This gives rise to duties toward oneself, such as, in Kant’s view, a prohibition against suicide. Since these self-regarding duties may impose constraints on the actual content of the will, they manifest a conflict between dignity and choice, a conflict that the generalizing proviso is unable to remove.

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