Is Kant the Ideal Statement of Classical Liberalism?

Mark White thinks that Immanuel Kant has given the “the ideal statement of classical liberalism,” and that this statement is often overlooked both because Kant’s political philosophy is not well known, and because of the impression that his ethics are “cold” and “rigid.” White calls this impression a “caricature,” and he oddly attributes its prevalence to Ayn Rand’s influence. (I say “oddly,” because worries about Kant’s ethics being unduly rigid and cold have been pervasive since his own time, and they’re commonplace today in many circles where Rand has had no appreciable influence; in any case, Rand’s criticisms of Kant, which I’ll come to later, are distinct from the ones against which White defends him.[1]) To counter this impression, White interprets Kant as a “flexible,” “commonsensical” ethicist who valorized the freedom of the individual and, far from preaching radical selflessness, held that individuals have only modest obligations to one another, including most importantly the obligation to respect one another’s autonomy. This obligation stands at the heart of Kant’s political theory, and White describes how it led Kant to oppose the welfare state which, in effect, forces individuals to fulfill (what Kant takes to be) their duty to be charitable.

I am no expert on Kant or on early modern political thought, but my impression is he’s received comparatively little attention as a specifically political thinker because he did not write much specifically on politics, and what he did write is not widely thought to mark a great departure from or advance over the work of such earlier natural rights theorists such as John Locke, Hugo Grotius, and Samuel von Pufendorf. If these thinkers count as classical liberals, then at least insofar as his views are like theirs, Kant counts as a classical liberal. It would be interesting to consider whether the respects in which Kant’s politics differs from these earlier thinkers represent contributions to the classical liberal tradition or departures it, but I leave specifying these differences to those more knowledgeable than I.

White’s statement that Kant’s politics “is nearly inseparable from his moral philosophy” suggests that his primary contribution was not a new specifically political position, but a new ethical foundation for the idea of rights. This seems right to me, but doesn’t Kant already get the credit he deserves? In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which is surely the most cited 20th-century work on this subject within academia, Robert Nozick is explicit that the avowedly Kantian “principle that individuals are ends and not merely means” underlies his own defense of a strictly limited government.[2] And the Kantian character of Nozick’s position is often remarked on by sympathetic 21st-century scholars.[3]

Of course, proponents of contrary political positions have also sought to ground their views in Kant’s moral philosophy. Nozick and John Rawls are often seen as the primary antagonists in late 20th-century analytic political philosophy, and Rawls’ debt to Kant is acknowledged and unmistakable.[4] So, if the reason for thinking that Kant represents “the ideal statement of classical liberalism” is that his ethics provides the most compelling defense of classical liberal political principles, then, to assess this claim, we’ll need to weigh alternative views of what Kant’s ethics really implies. (I’ll only have a little to say about that below, but I hope to say more in later replies.)

More importantly, we’ll need to think about what we mean by “classical liberalism.” Is there really a single, determinate position here, such that we can ask whether it is implied by a certain moral theory? As I understand the term, it primarily denotes a tradition or movement that emphasizes freedom as a political value and that stretches from the 17th-century natural rights philosophers and continues through 19th-century political thinkers like John Stuart Mill, but doesn’t include the proponents of socialism or of the welfare state who came to be called “liberals” in 20th-century America. Rather than being united by some clear-cut principle, these thinkers are united by shared interests; by relations of influence; by institutional affiliations (e.g. with political parties); and by related goals, allegiances, and adversaries that shifted gradually from one generation to the next, as classical liberalism faded into modern liberalism.

The same points apply to the sundry 20th- and 21st-century thinkers who (sometimes unwillingly) get labeled “classical liberals” or “libertarians.” This lot includes, inter alia, Rand and Nozick, who support a state with the sole function of protecting rights; Rothbard and other anarcho-capitalists who oppose the state altogether; and Hayek, Friedman, and the recent “bleeding heart libertarians” who embrace aspects of the welfare state. And it includes the four of us who have been invited to take part in this issue of Cato Unbound. Perhaps this will be a controversial claim, but I don’t think that there is any principle that unites all of us to whom these labels are applied, only a loose set of overlapping interests and influences. This sort of loose shared context often forms an excellent basis for conversations; and, especially, in the context of a culture where all our views are outside the intellectual mainstream, I am glad that there are organizations like Cato to facilitate such conversations. But I think it’s a mistake to conduct these conversations on the premise that we are fundamentally ideological allies, and I worry that this premise is presupposed in the question of whether Kant (or Locke or Mill or whomever) represents the best statement of classical liberalism.  I prefer to engage one another and the philosophers of the past with the goal of better understanding of the similarities and differences between our positions and the relative importance of these similarities and differences. This requires keeping in mind throughout that we may turn out to be adversaries with respect to the issues that turn out to matter most.

Towards that end, let me sketch briefly and without much argument my non-expert understanding on the classical liberal tradition, and how Kant’s ethics relates to it.[5] I see the liberalism of Locke and other 17th-century thinkers as the political expression of a broader movement, the Enlightenment, that valorized reason and the individual’s pursuit of happiness on earth. Jonathan Israel quotes a 17th century cleric who deplored this attempt to base politics on “life in this world.”[6] The Enlightenment flew in the face of the common sense of the time, according to which we are inherently sinful creatures who owe obedience to a God, in whom we must have faith, and to the clergy and kings who are His representatives on earth.

Kant coopted some of the Enlightenment’s language and used it to defend a purified form of the dogmas that had long been accepted as common sense but were newly under attack.  In particular, by defining morality in contradistinction to prudence, Kant gave a new prominence to the idea that morality requires sacrifice. The “freedom” (or “autonomy”) he extols is not the Enlightenment’s freedom to conceive and pursue ambitious, life-affirming goals, nor is it the freedom to follow one’s whims. Rather, it is the ability to obey a morality the entire content of which Kant derives from the notion that there must be something for the sake of which one must be always ready to sacrifice the whole of one’s happiness. Though a softer face is often put on it by present-day Kantians, this point is crucial to his derivation of the first formulation of the categorical imperative.[7]

It is this observation about the structure of Kant’s position, rather any concern about rigidity or heroic amounts of charity, that is the essence of Rand’s objection to Kantian ethics.[8] She recognized that Kantian ethics is flexible in many of the ways White describes, and she did not consider it a point in Kant’s favor.[9] (This is as good a spot as any to mention one interpretive claim White makes about Kant’s ethics that was new to me: he writes of “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.” It would certainly be surprising if Kant thought this, especially given his insistence that motives of philanthropy give us no right to lie to murderers who inquire after the locations of their intended victims.[10] I’d be interested to hear more about which texts support this interpretation.)

This Kantian conception of morality as something essentially different from prudence was widely adopted by subsequent ethicists, who disagreed with Kant on specific content of morality. This includes Mill and other members of the classical liberal tradition, and it was one of a few related causes for this tradition’s gradually departing from its pre-Kantian roots. For Locke, rights defined the freedoms a rational and industrious person needs to pursue his happiness in the world. The Kantian conception of morality, which accords no value to this pursuit as such, leaves these rights with no foundation. Appeals to Kantian dignity are of no help, because a person has this dignity only qua being able to act dutifully, and acting dutifully has little to do with charting one’s course through the world or supporting oneself in it. How is one’s ability to be dutiful infringed upon by, for example, a political system that redistributes money? Perhaps the system eliminates some opportunities for dutiful action and creates others, but it needn’t treat anyone’s will (i.e., duty-following-faculty) as a means to anyone else’s (non-duty-based) ends. Kant himself may have regarded such a system as an affront to dignity, but he also thought this about almost all sex acts. What reason does a present-day Kantian have to follow Kant in the former case but not the latter?

By creating a gulf between morality and prudence, Kant undercut the moral basis for Lockean individual rights, and put in its place a moral framework that entails a different sort of society. Subsequent 19th- and early 20th-century liberals discovered much about the mechanisms of a market economy, and some of them did a great deal to extend freedom to women and racial minorities, but with regard to liberalism’s basic ideological orientation, I think the whole post-Kantian liberal tradition represents a series of steps away from a defense of genuine freedom. I expect that some readers and contributors will disagree, both because they understand the historical figures differently and, perhaps, because we have different views of what freedom is and what sort of society it requires.



[1] For evidence of the prevalence of these criticisms in Kant’s own times, see Jeffery Gauthier’s (1997) discussion of “Schiller’s Critique of Kant’s Moral Psychology” (Canadian Journal of Philosophy 27:4 513–544).

[2] Nozick, Anarchy State and Utopia 30–31. Kantian character of Nozick’s views on the moral foundations of his political stance is pointed out by Lester Hunt, Anarchy State and Utopia: An Advanced Guide (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015 pp. 11, 19–2) and by several contributors to The Cambridge Companion to Nozick’s Anarchy State and Utopia (Bader and Meadowcroft, eds. Cambridge 2011, see index s.v. Kant, Immanuel).

[3] See Lester Hunt, Anarchy State and Utopia: An Advanced Guide (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015) pp. 11, 19–2 and Bader and Meadowcroft (eds.) The Cambridge Companion to Nozick’s Anarchy State and Utopia (Cambridge 2011), index s.v. Kant, Immanuel.

[4] A more dramatic example of political adversaries both turning to Kant for justification can be found in Germany in the 1930s, when Kant was appealed to both by Hitler and Eichmann and by critics of Nazism like Kurt Huber. Yvonne Sherratt discusses this in Hitler’s Philosophers (Yale, 2013). For an argument that Kantian philosophy is the root cause of Nazism and other political horrors, see Leonard Peikoff’s The Ominous Parallels (Stein and Day, 1982).

[5] When I say non-expert, I mean that I am not a scholar of these particular figures or this period. My views are based on close readings of a few key texts, cursory readings of other parts of their corpuses, and what I’ve come to understand from secondary and tertiary sources. Since no one can be a universal scholar, this is by necessity the nature of most philosophers’ views on most figures and trends. The only alternative is taking no view of anything but a few brief episodes that one has studied in detail, and it’s doubtful that anyone with such limited horizons could think competently about philosophical issues.

[6] Radical Enlightenment (Oxford, 2001) 5.

[7] See especially Ak. IV 405–407 and Ak. V 73.

[8] See the discussions of this in Gotthelf and Salmieri (eds.) A Companion to Ayn Rand (Wiley-Blackwell, 2016) 141, 333–334, and the sources sited therein, especially “Causality vs. Duty” and “Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World” (both in Philosophy: Who Needs It).

[9] See Objectively Speaking 163–165.

[10] See Ak. VIII 425–430.


Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Defending Kant’s Classical Liberalism by Mark D. White

    Mark D. White praises Immanuel Kant’s political philosophy and recommends it to modern classical liberals. Kant’s ethics has often been caricatured as one of rigid, unthinking duty, and also of absolute altruism; White rebuts both of these claims and insists that Kantian ethics gives individuals the space to exercise mature, thoughtful, contextually appropriate judgments. Kant’s politics held that they should have the liberty to act on the products of their deliberation; political liberty, then, is a natural outgrowth of individual autonomy, or the capacity for reasoned self-rule.

Response Essays

  • 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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