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Should Kant Be Canceled?

Mark Couch wonders where we should draw the line with historical thinkers.

How should we evaluate controversial thinkers of the past? This issue has been raising many concerns recently. One difficulty is that we are tempted to judge people in the past according to our current views of morality, but this is sometimes problematic, and we need to be careful that people aren’t wrongly canceled.

Kant cancelled

A good example of this is the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who is esteemed for his fundamental contributions to moral theory, among other things. Indeed, his theory of the Categorical Imperative means that he is generally counted among the greatest moral philosophers of all times. So it may come as a surprise to learn that Kant also wrote things that would today be characterized as seriously immoral, as some academics have been noting for a while now. For instance, Kant wrote of his belief in the superiority of white Europeans over other races (‘Of the Different Human Races’, 1777). Most folk today find this view objectionable for reasons that don’t need to be explained. The question we have to answer in light of such statements is, What standards should we have for the thinkers of the past?

There are some common answers that I think are too simple, and the reality is that working out how to respond is more difficult than some have realized. I’d like to explain how I try to address these sorts of concerns in my own work. I will focus on Kant since his is an important case that raises particularly interesting issues, although much of what I say about him can be applied more broadly.

An Important Distinction

When confronted by some especially problematic statement, people will often focus on the individual who made it, and the aspects of the individual themself. This makes some sense since, after all, it helps us clarify what they might have done, and what their motives might be. But I think focusing on the person is not the right way to proceed with thinkers in the past, since there is more to consider than their personal life.

What I think we need to do at this point is make a distinction between a person and their ideas. Specifically, there is a difference between an individual, and the ideas or theories written or documented in their work. For instance, an individual exists at a particular place and time, but ideas are more general or timeless.

This distinction matters because what we are primarily concerned with are the contributions a person has made with their ideas and theories, and not simply the person as an individual. Thinkers like Kant are remembered in the first place because of how their theories have contributed to the advancement of human understanding, not because of how they lived. This point is important, because the fact that an individual said something morally wrong does not necessarily show that a theory of theirs is objectionable and should be rejected. We should allow that people who are utterly wrong about something can still be right about other matters.

One way of illustrating this is to consider Albert Einstein. It was noted recently by Peter Dreier (‘Was Albert Einstein a Racist?’, The American Prospect, 2018) that Einstein at one point held some opinions unacceptable by today’s standards; in his personal writings he made inappropriate statements about certain groups. Although this is saddening coming from such an otherwise inspiring scientist and human being, I presume it does not disprove his General Theory of Relativity nor imply that we should no longer teach it.

I suggest that a similar sort of approach can help us in evaluating philosophers such as Kant. We should allow that there is a difference between someone’s individual statements, and (say) their moral theory. Whether his moral theory is true or valuable is not dependent upon whether he only said things in his life that we find morally blameless. On the contrary, whether a theory is true is something to be evaluated based upon the claims the theory itself makes, and how it fits with the evidence.

Which Criteria?

Once we’ve made this distinction between philosophers as individuals and their theories, we have to consider the criteria we should use in making our evaluations. My suggestion is that in evaluating a thinker of the past, we should start by considering the theories they’ve offered, and then try to deal with any problematic statements they’ve made.

One standard we should use in doing the latter concerns whether the problematic statements are central to the theory. We can think of there being a range of possible cases to consider here. I would say that if someone says something objectionable in a way that’s not related to their theory – as in the Einstein case – then that statement doesn’t mean the theory itself is problematic. In this case, we can think of the statement as at worst being incidental or tangential to the theory. Next, if someone says something objectionable that is of marginal relevance to their theory, this is unfortunate, but this also should not confuse us over the truth or value of the broader theory. In a third case, if someone says something objectionable that is centrally related to their theory – think of someone defending eugenics, for example – then we have reason to believe the theory itself is problematic and should be rejected. This approach will permit us to dismiss views that are ‘centrally’ problematic, while still leaving room for discussion in other kinds of cases. Just how central a statement has to be before causing concern is something to be considered in one’s evaluation of the theory. Determining this requires carefully considering both the content of the theory and the nature of the statement in question, and how they’re related. In all this we want to avoid dismissals based on quick evaluations without consideration of the broader view, as cancelers are prone to do.

I take this to be the approach of many scholars who work with Kant’s ideas but who are unhappy with his problematic statements (see for example ‘Kant Was a Racist: Now What?’, David McCabe, APA Newsletter, 2019). The issue is not whether Kant said something that was racist – that is acknowledged – but whether this racism plays any role in his enormously influential ethical theory. Many have thought that Kant’s unfortunate statements needn’t be seen as affecting the central aspects of his moral theory when understood in its generality. For instance, Kant’s core ethical principle, upon which his entire approach hinges, is that we should “Always treat people as an end, and never merely as a means.” This proposition is general enough to apply to everyone on Earth, and still valuable despite some of Kant’s other statements – and despite him perhaps not applying this principle himself clearly in those cases. Therefore I think we should continue to recognize the importance of Kant’s broader contributions to moral philosophy, even as we note the problems with some of the things he said. (If you are unconvinced, it may also help to note that later in his career Kant made statements which suggest he had changed his mind about his earlier views about race, and was groping towards a more modern view of the issue (see for instance Toward Perpetual Peace, 1795)).

Canceling the Past

This approach will also be helpful with other cases we read about regularly. Given our differences in attitudes with the past, it should not be surprising that we will find historical people making statements we disagree with. What matters is not the occurrence of these statements alone, but their centrality to the contributions the person made to society. Approaching the issue this way will enable us to leave room for discussion where needed, while also helping us to avoid the kinds of knee-jerk dismissals of someone’s whole body of work that have become too common within cancel culture.

Our present difficulty exists because the past is comprised of individuals who are flawed, like all humans, and how people respond to their historical circumstances can be complicated. In reflecting on historical thinkers like Kant, we need to engage with that complexity, including the complex relationship between the individual’s prejudices and the more timeless theories they have left for posterity. We should not oversimplify the issues by adopting a rigidly dismissive attitude towards how to treat thinkers of the past. What we need is nuance and care in dealing with both the good and bad in philosophy’s history.

© Mark Couch 2022

Mark Couch is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, where he teaches ethics and other subjects.

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