The Pathos of Politics (35) Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant

There is only one innate right: freedom (independence from being constrained by another’s choice), insofar as it can coexist with the freedom of every other in accordance with a universal law. ~ Immanuel Kant

Prussian speculative philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) was a dyed-in-the-wool republican libertarian. To Kant, politics was a practical facet of morality. Politics should be subsumed by ethical values, not define them.

Kant’s moral universe was grounded in reason. He was utterly un-utilitarian in rejecting the satisfaction of desires as a basis for morals. Hence, Kant’s system of ivory-tower abstractions was in a different ethical constellation than contemporaneous English and French philosophers.

In law a man is guilty when he violates the rights of others. In ethics he is guilty if he only thinks of doing so. ~ Immanuel Kant

To Kant, ethical examination establishes the justness of political actions. Justice must be universal and can only be brought about by law. A coherent political order must therefore be a legal order.

As in ethics, political policies ought to be based upon maxims capable as being formulated as universal laws.

Any action is right if it can coexist with everyone’s freedom in accordance with a universal law, or if on its maxim the freedom of choice of each can coexist with everyone’s freedom in accordance with a universal law. ~ Immanuel Kant

Kant rejected any basis for a state to exist beyond granting freedom; an odd paradox, since the very nature of the state is to restrict freedom, especially certain forms of violence. Kant particularly argued that the welfare of people cannot be the basis of state power, as to do so would treat citizens as children (what is now called the “nanny state”); another odd paradox, as many adults act as wayward whelps.

Freedom was not the only basis for principles underlying a state. He also asserted equality, albeit in limited form.

Individuals must be treated equally under the law, without exception. Kant attacked feudal privilege and rejected slavery.

Kant’s equality was circumscribed to treatment under the law, not in participation. Kant regarded women as passive citizens, unfit to participate in political affairs.

For Kant, active citizens were those who were financially independent. Dependents were “passive”: unable to vote. Kant philosophically restricted voting rights to male property owners, as others could not be expected to retain their convictions, lacking tangible interests.

Republican government was Kant’s ideal form. He differentiated it from despotism, where the executive had law-making power. Kant also distinguished republicanism from democracy, which could be despotic by functioning on the basis of majority rule.

From such crooked wood as that which man is made of, nothing straight can be fashioned. ~ Immanuel Kant

Antithetical in his opinion of man’s nature and mankind’s potential, Kant believed that the history of humanity could be viewed as a progression toward morality and a perfect political constitution: the very premise which propelled the Age of Enlightenment. He asserted there was reason to believe that social evolution supported the ultimate goal of perpetual peace.

For peace to reign on Earth, humans must evolve into new beings who have learned to see the whole first. ~ Immanuel Kant

A philosophic idealist who barely pondered politics, Kant was unrepresentative of most German political thought.

The continued attraction to Kant owes to his attempt to construct a political philosophy based on what ought to be. It differs diametrically with the Anglo-Saxon tradition of liberalism, which rejected Kant’s paradoxical concept of imperfect humans evolving toward perfection.

With the recent exception of Rawls, Kant was the end of the line in the social contract tradition of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. Although a deep thinker, Kant’s politics were surprisingly naïve.