Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is one of the famous philosophers whose ideas on freedom, rights, duties, justice, morality, etc. continue to have considerable effects on the regime of universal human rights and post-modern thoughts. Study of Jurisprudence in law schools is considered incomplete without lectures on Kant.
In conventional terms, freedom is said to be coterminous with the idea of non-interference and absence of obstacles in pursuit of one’s wants and desires. But this is not true freedom according to Kant because in pursuing one’s wants and desires, one is only choosing the means and not the ends. He means that the ends in form of those wants and desires have already been predetermined by various social and biological needs. We sleep and eat because of our biological needs and if we are choosing the place where we can sleep or the food which we can eat, we are only choosing the means and not the end which is sleep. Similarly, our desires to progress, to earn money, to live a good life, etc are conditioned by the social circumstances in which we are brought up. True freedom according to Kant lies not in choosing the means but the ends. To enunciate upon this idea, Kant draws a contrast between heteronomy and autonomy. If I do certain things because of something else, it is heteronomy which is not freedom. For example- I am studying in a medical college because I to want to become a doctor; I want to become a doctor because I want to earn good money; I want to earn good money because I want to live a good life, etc. Even if my motive behind becoming a doctor is to serve poor and needy, it is still a heteronomy.
To act freely according to Kant means to act autonomously and to act autonomously means to act according to a law which I give to myself and not according to the motivations or inclinations determined by social or natural conventions. An act is also not moral if done for any motivation or inclination such as pleasure, satisfaction, love, jealousy, hate, anger, etc. Only if an act is done for the sake of itself and not as a means for something else, it is moral. In other words, something is moral when done as a duty and not because of some inclination/motivations behind it. If my act of doing something is motivated by its consequences, neither I am acting freely nor morally. This is indeed a tough and unique standard of morality and freedom which is not easily demonstrable or practicable in a day to day life. That’s why the philosophy of Kant is known as transcendental idealism.
But Kant believes that Human beings possess this capacity to act freely and autonomously and this is what gives them a special dignity which must be respected in all cases. Respecting human beings according to Kant means treating Human beings as an end in themselves and not as a means for pursuing an agenda whatsoever. This understanding is said to have inspired the idea and concept of Universal Human Rights.