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Immanuel Kant

Kant’s Political Philosophy

Matt Qvortrup explains how the Enlightenment’s leading philosopher went looking for a bit of peace.

The newspaper Gothanische gelernte Zeitungen was slightly sarcastic when it wrote about Immanuel Kant in 1784, “It is a favourite idea of Herr Professor Kant that the ultimate goal of the human race is the establishment of a perfect constitution.” But in fairness, Kant did get rather carried away when he wrote about politics. “It is so sweet to dream up state constitutions that meet the demands of reason,” he wrote almost wistfully (Conflict of the Faculties, 1794, p.159).

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was clearly obsessed with politics, especially in the later stage of his life. Yet for most students of philosophy he is not seen as a political philosopher. Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was not alone in opining that, “Unlike so many other philosophers – Plato, Aristotle, Thomas [Aquinas], Spinoza, Hegel, and others – he never wrote a political philosophy” (Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, 1982, p.7). This assessment is not quite fair. In fact, Kant’s books The Metaphysics of Morals (1797), Towards Perpetual Peace (1795), and the shorter essay The Idea of Universal History (1784) are all works of political theory. And elsewhere in his Werke there are references that are overtly political and some that certainly fall under the heading of social commentary. For starters, few philosophers have written more famous political lines than “It is the spirit of trade [der Handelsgeist], which cannot coexist with war, which will sooner or later take hold of every people” (Towards Perpetual Peace, p.65).

Kant by G Campbell
Immanuel Kant by Gail Campbell 2022

Even in his supposedly purely theoretical treatise the Critique of Pure Reason (1781) – a book on the limits of human knowledge – Kant made pronouncements on political philosophy. He also took a swipe at Plato (428-347 BC), whom he treated none too reverentially: “The Platonic Republic, as a supposedly striking example of dreamy perfection…can only have its seat in the brain of the idle thinker.” He added polemically that “it was ridiculous that the philosopher claims that a prince would never rule well if he did not partake of ideas” (Critique of Pure Reason, B373).

Instead of Plato’s totalitarian utopia, Kant proposed a liberal alternative, namely, “a constitution of the greatest human freedom according to laws which ensure that each freedom can coexist with the other” (374B). Yes, it was Kant not John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) who first formulated the concept of the purpose of laws being to maximise individual freedom, although the British philosopher was onto the same idea. As Mill wrote, “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others” (On Liberty, 1859, p.15).

Politicians and others in power have always been purveyors of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’. For Kant, the aim of philosophy was to counter this. As he set out in the Preface to his Critique of Pure Reason, it is “the first and most important concern of philosophy, once and for all, to avoid any adverse influence by blocking the source of errors” (XXVII). Or writing on the Enlightenment – when people ‘dared to follow reason’ – he says that everything ought to be liable to a rational debate (What is Enlightenment?, 1784, p.17). The cultural situation changed when philosophy started to become critical after the Renaissance. When “religion and… legislation… seek to except themselves from [criticism]… they awaken suspicion and cannot claim the sincere respect which reason accords to that which has been able to sustain the test of free and open examination” (CPR, XXVII). As this shows, Kant’s aim in his first Critique was not merely epistemological, or even philosophical, but aimed at “the arrogant pretensions of the schools” and against those “who claim to be the sole possessors of truth.” (XXXII).

Practical Problems & Transcendental Truths

Certainly Kant was a theoretical philosopher, but his three fundamental questions posed towards the end of the Critique of Pure Reason (B833) – “What can I know? How ought I to act? And what may I hope for?” – were all practical problems.

In his three Critiquesof Pure Reason (1781), of Practical Reason (1786), and of Judgement (1790) – he set out so-called ‘transcendental’ conditions for answering these questions. By ‘transcendental’ Kant means an enquiry into the conditions necessary for any possibility of an answer.

He started with epistemology, the philosophy of what we can know, and concluded that, among many other things, we can only observe the world in terms of time and space (CPR, p.71). Unless we had mental categories of ‘space’ and ‘time’ we’d have no possibility of making sense of our environment at all. In the Critique of Practical Reason he used similar ‘transcendental’ thinking to ask when and under which conditions we can say that something is morally right. His conclusion was that we can only determine if something is morally desirable if we compare it with what we consider to be good. But being fundamental, ‘the good’ cannot itself be dependent upon something else. For instance, a purely ethical system must not promise rewards (Belohnungen): “it cannot set out as if to offer to bribe men to pursue a good course of life”, as Kant wrote in a essay from 1794, The End of All Things (p.521). Such a system would be based on a ‘hypothetical imperative’, which is “a possible action as a means to achieving something” (Metaphysics of Morals, 1797, p.4). Whether this motivation is rewards in the ever-after or riches in this life, the motive is selfishness, not goodness itself, and so cannot be the basis of ethics.

This is important to point out, especially as some modern philosophers who claim to be Kantians are at odds with him on this. The American philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002) is often cited as a Kantian because in his famous book A Theory of Justice (1971) he asked that people compared their actions with a set of ethical principles. But the principles he came up with were not, like Kant’s, based on purely moral ideals, but on self-interest. Rawls asked the reader which social ideals they would come up with if they were behind a ‘veil of ignorance’: What sort of society would you choose if you did not know whether within that society you’re going to be rich or poor, black, or white, etc? Rawls argued that from this ‘Original Position’, individuals would agree that “those who are at the same level of talent and ability… should have the same prospects of success regardless of their initial place in the social system” (A Theory of Justice, p.63). However, these and other Rawlsian principles were explicitly based on what Kant called ‘hypothetical’ statements. You would choose based on a your realisation that you might be poor, for instance. For Kant, in contrast, ethical rules are ‘categorical’, not ‘hypothetical’. This means, how I ought to act must “represent an action as objectively necessary by itself, without reference to another end” (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, 1785, p.52). He argues that the only principle which meets this requirement is his famous Categorical Imperative, which tells you to “act as if the maxim of your action were to become by your will a universal law of nature.”

In the Metaphysics of Morals which he built upon this Groundwork, Kant set out to apply the Categorical Imperative both to moral decisions in the private sphere – for example, between parents and children – and to decisions made by society as a whole. As a philosopher who lived under a (supposedly Enlightened) monarch, Kant was brave enough to argue for checks and balances, and the then-novel view that ‘the legislator cannot be the ruler’. He even went as far as arguing for the principle that “the people judge themselves through freely elected representatives” (Metaphysics of Morals, A171).

Laws & Peace

Yet Kant was not merely a philosopher who wrote about what the world ought to be. He was also interested in how we see the present world. In modern parlance, he was a political scientist as well as a political theorist. So not only did he pen dense treatises on theoretical subjects, he was also a public intellectual, who uttered his opinion in an absolutist Prussian state where it took courage to speak your mind.

Kant with map

The Critique of Judgement (Kritik der Urteilskraft) is often seen as Kant’s contribution to the philosophy of art. With its perceptive analyses of both the sublime and the ridiculous (it even has a section on the philosophy of laughter) it is that, too. But Kant understood ‘aesthetics’ in the original Greek meaning of the word, as ‘perception’, and the book is more about how we perceive and then make judgements about the world than about beauty. And as he put it in an earlier Critique, “judgment is the ability to subsume under rules, i.e. to distinguish whether or not something is subject to a given rule” (Critique of Pure Reason, B172). The core tenet of the Critique of Judgement was that whenever we experience we are “compelled to ascend from the particular to the universal” (p.15). As Kant grew older, he added to his transcendental prerequisites to thought the idea that we have an inbuilt tendency to see the ‘purposiveness of nature’ (p.27). So we seek for causes and effects, and, rising, we try to see ultimate goals. But even here Kant could not contain himself, or conceal his near obsession with political institutions. Hence he concludes that “the final end of creation is such a constitution… as harmonizes with what we can only definitely specify according to laws, namely the practical reason” (p.282).

Kant was someone who made a habit of looking for laws of nature, including the laws of society. In some ways he was a bit of a positivist, in that he applied natural science methods even to non-physical domains: “the relevant statistics compiled annually in large countries demonstrate that the events that occur [in society] are just as much in accordance with constant laws as… the weather” (The Idea of Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Perspective, p.385, 1784).

One of the social ‘laws’ he discovered was that of ‘the democratic peace’. This law is often shortened to the proposition that ‘democracies do not wage war against one another’. But that is not exactly what he wrote. Rather his contention was more radical. His view was that,

“If the consent of the citizens is required in order to decide that war should be declared (and in this [perfect democratic] constitution it cannot but be the case), nothing is more natural than that they would be very cautious in commencing such a poor game, decreeing for themselves all the calamities of war”
(Towards Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch, p.75).

There are few examples of countries that have allowed its citizens to vote on war and peace (certainly not modern-day Russia). But the two referendums in Australia on conscription during the First World War proves him right. The voters twice said no to being cannon-fodder on the fields of Flanders.

Selfishness & Sociability

Although Kant was inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), he disagreed with him on fundamental points. That Genevan philosophe idealized the ‘noble savage’ and lamented so-called amour propre – ‘self-love’, that is, selfishness. Kant, by contrast, made ‘vanity’ (as amour propre can also be translated) into the engine of human progress. History, he held, was driven by human beings’ “insatiable appetite for property and even power.” Our species shares elements both of Aristotle’s zoon politicon (‘political animal’) and Adam Smith’s Homo oeconomicus (‘economic man’). For this reason, men and women seek to “establish a position for themselves among their fellows, whom they can neither endure nor do without” (Universal History, p.394).

The idea of self-love as a political driving force was one Kant held throughout his life. Thus, it was Kant, not Adam Smith, who first wrote that humans

“have their best loved selves fixed before their eyes as their only point of reference for their exertions and seek to turn everything around self-interest… Nothing can be more advantageous than this, for these are the most diligent, orderly, and prudent; they give support and solidity to the whole while without intending to do so they serve the common good.”
(Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime, p.46, 1764)

As he matured, these ideas were incorporated into his larger system. In Universal History (1784) he went on, “without these characteristics of unsociability which are indeed quite unattractive in themselves… human beings would live the arcadian life of shepherds, in full harmony, contentment, and mutual love” (p.394); for, “all the culture and art that decorates humankind, as well as its most pleasing order, are fruits of an unsociability that is forced by its own nature to discipline itself, and thereby fully develop the seeds of that nature.” Kant – who declined an offer to become a professor of poetry – was poetical when he summed up this belief: “…just as trees in a forest, precisely by seeking to take air and light from all others around them and thus to grow up straight and beautiful while those that live apart from others and sprout their branches freely grow stunted, crooked, and bent” (p.396).

However, the competitive spirit must be kept in check, and not only by the more elaborate version of the Categorical Imperative – that you must always “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end” (Groundwork, p.36). This is not enough to keep the ‘unsocial sociability’ in check. The system that would best allow human progress would be “realised in a society that possesses the greatest degree of freedom” – that is, “one in which its members continually struggle with each other and yet in which the limits of this freedom are specified and secured in the exact manner”; in other words, in “a just civil constitution” (Universal History, p.395). Such a legal framework could not, Kant bravely contented, be one with an absolutist monarch or a single ruler, “for such a person will always abuse his freedom if he has no one above him” (Toward Perpetual Peace, p.12). Rather, Kant fundamentally believed that a political constitution should be founded upon the will of the people. In language that was nothing short of revolutionary for a man who lived in an absolute monarchy, he declared that a “Republican constitution is… the only kind that follows from the idea of an original contract, upon which all laws legislated by a people must be based” (p.75). Based on these ideas he could formulate a good constitution, which would utilise “the mechanisms of nature on human beings in order to direct conflict between their hostile intentions… in such as way that they compel each other to submit themselves to coercive laws” (p.59). Yet as much as he believed that history was progressing, Kant was not a utopian. He freely admitted that it was impossible to create the perfect society. Or in perhaps his most famous phrase, “nothing straight can be fashioned out of the crooked timber of humanity” (Universal History, p.398).

© Prof. Matt Qvortrup 2022

Matt Qvortrup is Professor of Political Science at Coventry University.

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