In order to understand Kant’s way of thinking we have to remember that although it may seem important what we ought to do due to a rule or norm, it is more what we have to do according to intrinsic elements. “A good will is not good because of what it effects or accomplishes […] that is, good in itself ”. For instance, when we decide not to harm or steal someone it should not be because we would otherwise receive a sanction but because we know that actions are by all means wrong: “[…] its true function must be to produce a will which is good; not as a means to some further end, but in itself […] ”.
Of course here Kant is developing his ideas in two levels: law and moral. One prerequisite to analyze any possible situation is that the actions carried out by the subject must be autonomous. “Autonomy of the will is the sole principle of all moral laws and of the duties conforming them; any heteronomy of the power of choice, on the other hand, not only is no basis for any obligation at all but is, rather, opposed to the principle of obligation and to the morality of the will ”.
The problem of freedom will be present throughout his work (as we shall see). “The will is a kind of causality belonging to living beings in so far as they are rational, and freedom would be this property of such causality that it can be efficient ”. We can classify the causes in necessary and efficient. Necessary causes are all the ones needed in order to obtain a final result (i.e.: each and every subject within the career of law to achieve a law degree); efficient cause is the outcome itself (i.e.: in the example given, the degree).
From the above we can follow that “[…] we must attribute to every rational being which has will that is has also the idea of freedom and acts entirely under this idea ”. In other words, so to have a subject morally and legally speaking acting in any of these normative spheres it is a necessary condition that he is a rational being with understanding of his/her actions and omissions and his/her will is free from any external constriction.
In Kant’s own words: “I must regard itself as the author of its principles independent on foreign influences. Consequently as practical reason or as the will of a rational being it must regards itself as free, that is to say, the will of such a being cannot be a will of its own except under the idea of freedom ”.
The author includes at this point the notion of duty: but not as a legal obligation that prescribes the way the rational beings have to behave under certain circumstances. His concept of duty is intimate linked with the idea of freedom already explained. He “[…] therefore take[s] up the concept of duty, which includes that of a good will, exposed, however, to certain subjective limitations and obstacles. […] [T]he greater part of mankind […] protect their lives in conformity with duty, but not from the motive of duty ”.
As it may well seem a word game, it is not within his theory and will be key for the understanding of his later developments. Every single action and/or omission may have legal and/or moral consequences. Once again he asks us to separate the act/omission itself from the outcome: “[a]n action done from duty has its moral worth, not in the purpose to be attained by it, but in he maxim according with which it is decided upon; it depends therefore, not on the realisation of the object of the action, but solely on he principle of volition in accordance with which, irrespective of al objects of the faculty of desire, the action has been performed ”.
Do you behave rightly because you know is right or in order to avoid something?
Quotes from Kant, Immanuel (1976), The moral law, translated by H. J. Paton, Hutchinson of London; Kant, Immanuel, Critique of practical reason (2002), translated by W. S. Pluhar, , Hackett Publishing Company Inc., Indianapolis/Cambridge; Kant, Immanuel, Selections (1929), edited by T. Meyer Greene, London, Charles Scribner’s Sons Ltd., 1929.