Defending Kant’s Classical Liberalism

Because he is widely regarded as a strict and demanding moralist, and because his political philosophy is not as well-known as his ethics, Immanuel Kant is not as frequently mentioned as a classical liberal as are John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith, and Friedrich Hayek. In this essay, I will argue that he should be, based on a survey of his views of the moral roles of the individual and the state. First, I will explain that the portrayal of Kant’s ethics as cold and rigid is a caricature (much though not all of it due to Ayn Rand), when in fact they represent a commonsense morality, grounded in the dignity of the individual, with a surprising degree of flexibility. Then I will discuss Kant’s view of government, which represents the classical liberal ideal: a minimal state restricted to protecting individuals from wrongful interference from each other and the state, allowing them to pursue their ends with maximal liberty and freedom.


Kant’s Focus on the Individual

The starting point for Kant’s ethics is autonomy.[1] According to Kant, autonomy is the ability to make moral choices without undue regard or deference to either external authority or internal inclinations. Each of us should decide what to do in ethically fraught situations according to our own moral code, not what the government, church, or community tell us to do—unless we agree independently that it is the right thing to do. (For someone living under a dictatorship, as well a powerful church to which he belonged, Kant’s stance reflects well on his courage.) We should likewise not act merely according to our personal preferences or desires, which may pull us in directions opposed to our sense of morality. Both of these conditions ensure that our moral choices align with what we believe to be the right thing to do in our personal conception of what morality demands, in the sense of self-government that the term autonomy implies. To Kant, autonomy is not only an ability but also a responsibility, specifically to live up to our own moral standards without deferring to anybody else’s desires—or to our own.

Of course, no one exercises their autonomy perfectly all the time—none of us is perfectly moral, rational, or strong-willed. Nonetheless, based on our capacity for autonomous choice, every person is imbued with dignity, an unconditional, incalculable, and incomparable worth that not only distinguishes persons from things but also renders each person of equivalent moral value with every other. Again, given the rigidly hierarchical social structures at the time, the concept of the moral equality of all persons that Kant endorsed was very progressive, even if Kant himself did not live up to it in all of his personal opinions.

The autonomy and resulting dignity of each person is the basis for Kant’s categorical imperative, the bane of introductory philosophy students everywhere. There is no need for me to rehearse the details here, but I will mention several aspects of the procedure that generates moral duty. Perhaps the best-known version of the categorical imperative involves universalization: we should act on those plans of action or maxims that we could rationally will everyone follows. While this seems to be an empty exercise in logic—and a notoriously difficult one to put into practice—the reason why we universalize is inherently normative. Because all persons have dignity, we cannot allow ourselves moral license that we could not and would not extend to everybody else. Because no one is more special or worthy than anyone else, we must hold ourselves to the same standards to which we hold others, which is guaranteed by the thought exercise of universalizing our maxims.

The other well-known version of the categorical imperative puts dignity front and center: we must never treat other persons (or ourselves) merely as means to our ends, but always at the same time as valuable ends in themselves. This statement embodies Kant’s distinction between persons and things: things (which lack dignity) may be used simply as means to our ends, but persons (which possess dignity) cannot. This is not to say that we can never use other persons for own ends, but only that we must do so with respect. I use my local baristas to get my coffee fix in the morning, but I am polite (and, on a good day, even charming) and I readily exchange my money according to the terms laid out on the menu. I do not cheat, lie, or force my baristas to give me coffee, as coercion and deceit are the primary ways to treat a person merely as means. Of course, this goes the other way also: my baristas (or their employer) use me to earn wages (or profits), but they do so by offering to sell me a product I like (or I will go elsewhere for it).

Kant wrote that his categorical imperative was nothing but a formalization of the moral intuitions of the common person on the street: treat everyone the same and, if you need their cooperation, convince them to work with you, rather than lying or forcing them to. This is the social context of mutual and reciprocal respect that Kantian ethics requires, and it is very much in line with classical liberal thought.


Defying the Caricature of Kant as a Rigid Moralist

Much of the reason Kant is not widely acknowledged as a classical liberal may be that the duties he promotes seem rigid and demanding. Ayn Rand is well known for accusing Kant for demanding extreme altruism; not only is this is a misunderstanding of Kant’s views of beneficence, but of the nature of  moral duties in general in the Kantian paradigm.

In short, the categorical imperative generates two types of duties. Perfect duties, also called strict duties, allow for no exceptions in one’s own interests, and are normally negative in nature: do not lie, do not steal, do not kill, and so forth. Imperfect duties, or wide duties, do allow for exceptions or latitude because they do not demand certain actions (or abstention from certain actions), but only lay out attitudes that must be maintained and acted on when possible. (In this sense, they resemble how virtue ethicists conceive of virtues and virtuous action; this is no accident, and indeed imperfect duties are often called duties of virtue.[2]) Accordingly, these duties are normally positive in nature: help others, cultivate your talents, and so forth.

If any Kantian duties are rigid, perfect duties are. But note that these duties prevent us from taking actions that fail to respect the dignity of other persons, speaking both directly (in terms of personal impact) and indirectly (by carving out personal exceptions and thereby treating other person as being of lesser worth), so their rigidity is in service of basic classical liberal principles of noninterference. By contrast, imperfect duties are hardly rigid—quite the opposite, as they allow us to choose when and how to act on them. We need not help everyone we possibly can; we should take into account our other duties and responsibilities as well, including those to ourselves, as persons with dignity equivalent to all others.

Kant was very clear about the limited nature of duties of beneficence, saying for instance that we should never give so much that we become in need of help ourselves.[3] Neither are we required to take those actions that require the most sacrifice on our parts—Kant merely said that duties must be practiced for the sake of duty, not self-interest, to reflect a truly moral character. He recognized that we often have mixed motivations for our actions, including duty and self-interest, so we can never be sure we’re acting for the right reasons, although the actions may still be moral.

He also wrote that the duty of beneficence merely requires that we not be completely indifferent to the suffering of others—this is surely no extreme altruism that requites heroic selflessness on the part of agents (as Rand wrote). More generally, this reminds us that technically all Kantian duties are negative in that they derive from a maxim of action being rejected by the categorical imperative. The perfect duties “do not kill” and “do not lie” are clearly negative, but the positive duty of beneficence is actually a duty not to be indifferent to the needs of others, resulting from a rejection of a maxim of indifference by the categorical imperative. As long as we are not indifferent to others’ suffering, and do what we can when we can within our other life circumstances (for the sake of duty), we are moral agents.

When we recognize that all Kantian duties are negative in nature, we see that, when making recommendations for moral action, Kant was much more interested in telling us what we ought not do than what we ought to do. For instance, we must not lie, but we need not be completely forthright either: we are free to prevaricate, change the question, or be silent, as the circumstances dictate, provided we do not deceive outright. By the same token, we must not ignore completely the hardship of our fellow persons, but we are free to decide how and when to offer assistance, given our other commitments.

Abstaining from what you should not is fairly straightforward, but choosing what to do instead is more difficult, and Kant offers little guidance, other than to point to judgment, “a peculiar talent which can be practiced only, and cannot be taught.”[4] There are no rules or formulae to guide judgment, but only one’s intuitive sense of the moral law. Judgment is necessary not only in deciding how to act within our duties, but also to choose which of two or more conflicting obligations is one’s true duty. For instance, if I promised to help my best friend move today, and then my mother calls and needs my help, only my judgment can tell me which obligation to act on: my duty to keep my promise to my friend or my duty to help my mother. Kant wrote only that we must act on whichever has “the strongest ground of obligation,” and we must use judgment to decide which that is.[5]

Given the negative nature of duties and the ubiquity of conflicts among them, our judgment ends up being more useful than the duties themselves, which are just the building blocks of moral behavior. The need for judgment to decide how to implement and balance duties and obligations also has the effect of highlighting the surprising degree of flexibility in Kant’s ethics, where even perfect duties can be overridden by an imperfect duty if the latter has a stronger ground of obligation. This flexibility belies caricatures of Kant as a cold, rigid moralist, and reveal him to be a true supporter of freedom within the bounds of sociality.


Kant’s Minimal Government

One reason Kant’s political philosophy is often overlooked may be that it is nearly inseparable from his moral philosophy, both based on the inviolable dignity of the individual.[6]

Kant holds the state to the same moral standards as he does individuals: all must respect the dignity of persons and not use them merely as means while not at the same time as ends. His binding principle of governance, the Universal Principle of Justice, is almost identical to the universalization formula of the categorical imperative: the state can take only those actions that are consistent with the rightful freedom of all. To Kant, the state only exists to protect the autonomy of persons from wrongful interference from others; in other words, the only legitimate use of state coercion—and, to Kant, a necessary role of the state—is to prevent the coercion of one person by another. The enforcement of the individual’s right to noninterference, a central principle of classical liberalism, is the central role of the state in Kant’s political philosophy.

Furthermore, Kant did not support forced beneficence, either as a matter of virtue or justice. Because beneficence is an imperfect duty, there is no required or “due” amount of help that one person owes another, and therefore there can be no correlative right to assistance. Beneficence, to be truly virtuous, must be given freely, and cannot be coerced on the part of the needy by the state. This rules out any state welfare system, because any government assistance given to some citizens would represent forced beneficence on the part of others. As with many classical liberals, libertarians, and fiscal conservatives, Kant hoped that voluntary charity would be sufficient to help the poor and needy, but the minimal state he describes in his work, much like that of Robert Nozick that followed, does not demand it.

Kant’s minimal system of government, enforcing individuals’ rights of noninterference from each other as well as the state, should be sufficient to assure his reputation as a pre-eminent classical liberal. It only enhances that reputation to recognize that his moral philosophy embodies the same spirit of liberty and freedom, allowing maximal exercise of individuals’ autonomy to pursue their own ends, while helping others when we can, provided we do not interfere with the right of others to do the same. Together, the moral and political philosophy of Immanuel Kant seem to represent the ideal statement of classical liberalism, and I hope this essay contributes to his appreciation in that context.



[1] Kant presented the core of his ethical theory in his Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, translated by James W. Elling­ton (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1785, 1993 edition). An excellent overview is provided by Roger J. Sullivan in An Introduction to Kant’s Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

[2] For more on the links between Kant and virtue, see my “The Virtues of a Kantian Economics,” in Economics and the Virtues: Building a New Moral Foundation, edited by Jennifer A. Baker and Mark D. White (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 94-115 (and references therein).

[3] Kant’s discussion of beneficence can be found in The Metaphysics of Morals, translated and edited by Mary J. Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1797, 1996 edition), 452-454 (Academy pagination).

[4] Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, translated by Norman Kemp Smith (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1781/1787, 1929 edition), A133/B172.

[5] For more on Kantian judgment, see my “Judgment: Balancing Principle and Policy,” Review of Social Economy, 73(2015): 223-241.

[6] Indeed, Sullivan’s Introduction to Kant’s Ethics begins with his political theory before moving to his moral theory. Kant presented the bulk of his political theory in the first part of Metaphysics of Morals (“The Doctrine of Right”), as well as other sources collected in Kant: Political Writings, 2nd ed., edited by H. S. Reiss and translated by H. B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

Also from This Issue

Response Essays

  • Is Kant the Ideal Statement of Classical Liberalism? by Gregory Salmieri

    Gregory Salmieri argues that Kant’s duty-based ethics leaves no room for the pursuit of happiness considered as a good - and thus it leaves no room for individual rights. Moreover, an ethics of duty can coexist quite happily with an authoritarian regime, in that individual duties may still be observed even under authoritarianism. Salmieri also questions the cohesion of the classical liberal tradition overall, for while that includes many people with common interests and influences, their diverse philosophical foundations should not be forgotten, and it may prove that many of us are more adversaries of one another than we realize. Salmieri holds that while liberalism after Kant has accomplished a good deal, its work has been on flawed foundations.

  • Does Kant Have a Place in Classical Liberalism? by Stephen R. C. Hicks

    Stephen R. C. Hicks argues that if our case for liberty comes from a mysterious other realm, then perhaps we have no case at all. He describes how this was true of Kant’s idea of freedom, which proceeded from the noumenal realm – a realm whose very existence Hicks, like most others, denies. It should be little surprise, then, that Kant himself was a racist, a sexist, a foe of the “commercial spirit,” an enemy of smallpox vaccines, and in many other key respects a proponent of human bondage. Kant’s idea of freedom was otherworldly, and as a result, he held that freedom in this world can be restricted without doing any injury to the “true” freedom of the individuals in question. Beginning from this foundation and proceeding to classical liberalism is arbitrary and unwarranted.

  • Kant: Liberal, Illiberal, or Both? by Roderick T. Long

    Roderick Long offers a complex view of Immanuel Kant, who emerges as more often liberal in principle than in practice. Kant approved of taxation, a welfare state, and even forced conscription; he opposed the right of revolution, opposed women’s civic equality, and warmly supported capital punishment. One might always say that a person with Kant’s fundamental principles should not have approved of these things, but the fact remains that Kant did. In Long’s typology, liberalism can be imminent, in which it is concerned with the freedom of action in everyday life; or it can be vicarious, in which it is concerned with abstract social theory. He argues that Kant shows the influence of both Rousseau and Hobbes in tending toward vicarious liberalism, which makes him insensitive to the realities of state action and other forms of coercion.

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