Kant’s Hobbesian Side

I’ve previously discussed some of the ways in which Kant deviates from Lockean liberalism in a Rousseauvian direction. I now want to discuss some of Kant’s deviations in a quite different direction: the Hobbesian one.

One of the crucial differences between Locke and Hobbes is that Hobbes sees cooperation, or at least anything approaching large-scale or long-term cooperation, as irrational, and consequently unstable, in the absence of government, since no one has any reason to cooperate unless they first have reason to expect the other party to cooperate as well, and this they cannot reasonably expect unless there is a state system in place to punish non-cooperators. Hence for Hobbes the state of nature is inevitably a state of war.

Locke, by contrast, thinks people have the capacity to recognize, and be motivated by, the moral law even when government is absent. Hence, while he has his own objections to the state of nature, Locke denies that it is necessarily a condition of violent conflict.

Given Kant’s insistence that human beings do have the capacity to be motivated by duty alone,[1] one might expect him to side with Locke. And sometimes he seems to, as when he says that “[w]hat is opposed to a state of nature is not a condition that is social,” for “in the state of nature, too, there can be societies compatible with rights ….”[2]

But while cooperation in the state of nature may be possible, in Kant’s view it is not rational. Given the pervasiveness of motives for predatory behavior (even though it is possible to resist those motives), we have no reason to cooperate until we first have evidence that the other party is cooperative, which without the state we can rarely have:

No one is bound to refrain from encroaching on what another possesses if the other gives him no equal assurance that he will observe the same restraint toward him. No one, therefore, need wait until he has learned by bitter experience of the other’s contrary disposition; for what should bind him to wait till he has suffered a loss before he becomes prudent, when he can quite well perceive within himself the inclination of men generally to lord it over others as their master …. And it is not necessary to wait for actual hostility; one is authorized to use coercion against someone who already, by his nature, threatens him with coercion.[3]

In other words, Kant is saying that in the state of nature it’s fine to initiate aggression, to make a preemptive strike against one’s neighbor, because one’s neighbor is a human being and so should be presumed guilty of aggressive intent until proven otherwise.

Notice that this Kantian position is essentially cribbed from Hobbes:

If a Covenant be made, wherein neither of the parties performe presently, but trust one another; in the condition of meer Nature, (which is a condition of Warre of every man against every man,) upon any reasonable suspition, it is Voyd: But if there be a common Power set over them both, with right and force sufficient to compell performance; it is not Voyd. For he that performeth first, has no assurance the other will performe after; because the bonds of words are too weak to bridle mens ambition, avarice, anger, and other Passions, without the feare of some coerceive Power; which in the condition of meer Nature, where all men are equall, and judges of the justnesse of their own fears, cannot possibly be supposed. And therfore he which performeth first, does but betray himselfe to his enemy; contrary to the Right (he can never abandon) of defending his life, and means of living. …[4]

The Lawes of Nature oblige in foro interno; that is to say, they bind to a desire they should take place: but in foro externo; that is, to the putting them in act, not alwayes. For he that should be modest, and tractable, and performe all he promises, in such time, and place, where no man els should do so, should but make himselfe a prey to others, and procure his own certain ruine, contrary to the ground of all Lawes of Nature, which tend to Natures preservation.[5]

In game-theoretic terms, Kant, like Hobbes, is advising us to keep defecting until the other party cooperates first. This is rather awkward for a theorist like Kant, who insists that we need to act only on maxims we can coherently universalize; after all, if everyone waits to cooperate until someone else makes the first move toward cooperation, then cooperation will never begin – a situation that would invalidate the Kantian imperative to leave the state of nature and set up a government, since setting up a government presumably requires cooperation. Robert Axelrod’s advice to cooperate first,[6] while based on instrumental considerations, seems more “Kantian” in spirit than Kant’s own position; and it’s certainly easier to universalize.

Just as Kant underestimates the extent to which cooperation can (indeed must) exist prior to the state, he also overstates the extent to which cooperation under the state must be the product of political coercion. After all, as Étienne de la Boétie pointed out in the 16th century, and David Hume and William Godwin in the 18th, the fact that the ruled generally outnumber their rulers shows that some motive other than sheer force must explain the extent of civil obedience.[7]

Even when Kant acknowledges the possibility of social cooperation in the state of nature, he denies that there can be law without civil government: without established government “there can be societies compatible with rights … but no law.”[8] And without law, rights in the state of nature are merely “provisional.”[9]

Here Kant, as previously noted, has made the mistake of confusing law with legislation.[10] The existence of nonstate, spontaneously evolved legal systems is nowadays a commonplace of libertarian social theory.[11] Of course Kant might refuse to regard these systems as genuine forms of “law” – but on what grounds? That they are not the product of a social contract? But neither are those of the state. Of course Kant instructs us to posit that the state’s laws originated in a social contract even though they did not; but why can’t we likewise posit that nonstate legal systems so originated?

Worse yet, Kant’s attempts to defend the rule of law actually undermine it, because in Kant’s eyes the ruler must be above the law: “The civil union … cannot itself be called a society, for between the commander … and the subject … there is no partnership.” ruler and ruled are “not fellow-members,” since one is “subordinated to, not coordinated with the other,” and only “those who are coordinate with one another” are “subject to common laws.”[12] If the ruler of a civil state cannot be subject to laws in common with the regular citizens, in what sense can such a state embody the rule of law?

In his writings on international law, Kant urges rival states to enter into systems of federation with one another: “Each nation, for the sake of its own security, can and ought to demand of the others that they should enter along with it into a constitution, similar to the civil one, within which the rights of each should be secured.”[13] But unlike the civil constitution, which sets up a state over individuals, the international constitution does not set up a super-state over states: “a federation of this sort would not be the same thing as an international state,” since “every state involves a relation between a superior (the legislator) and an inferior,” whereas an international federation is a relation among a “group of separate states which are not to be welded together as a unit,”[14] and is in fact a “voluntary coalition … that can be dissolved at any time.”[15]

In short, when discussing international relations Kant contemplates the possibility of a legal system that unites parties who remain free and equal and not subordinated to any overarching state. Why couldn’t such a relationship unite individuals rather than states? And why couldn’t the entire panoply of nonstate legal systems constitute such a federation?[16]

Indeed, if it’s true, as Kant says, that “every state involves a relation between a superior … and an inferior,” one might wonder how a moral philosophy as devoted to respect for personhood as is Kant’s could tolerate the existence of states. After all, as an “end in himself,” Kant tells us, each human being “possesses a dignity,” an “absolute inner worth,” that makes each of us “exalted above any price” and thus entitled to “moral self-esteem” which bids us to stand up for ourselves. “Be no man’s lackey,” Kant advises. “Do not let others tread with impunity on your rights.” There exists “a widespread propensity to servility in men,” but “one who makes himself a worm cannot complain afterwards if people step on him.”[17]

All this sounds good. Indeed, it sounds more than a little like Ayn Rand! But how can I respect you as a locus of priceless dignity if at the same time I regard you as my political subordinate, a legitimate object of my coercion? How can you respect yourself as a locus of priceless dignity if you regard me as your political superior, entitled to impose constraints on you that you have no corresponding right to impose on me? And how can a system of rights embody a “fully reciprocal use of coercion … consistent with everyone’s freedom”[18] if some members of society have rights of coercion that are denied to others – as is implied in the Weberian definition of the state as a “monopoly on the legitimated use of physical force”[19]?

Thus while some strands of Kant’s political thought lend themselves to authoritarianism, others point in the direction of free-market anarchism.



[1]           Kant, Groundwork, p. 69.

[2]           Kant, Doctrine of Right I, sec. 3.41, p. 121/306.

[3]           Doctrine of Right I, sec. 3.42, p. 122/307; emphasis added.

[4]           Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan I.xiv: http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/869#Hobbes_0161_386

[5]           Leviathan I.xv: http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/869#Hobbes_0161_438

[6]           Robert M. Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation, rev. ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2006).

[7]           Étienne de la Boétie, The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude: http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/boetie-the-discourse-of-voluntary-ser…

David Hume, “Of the First Principles of Government”: http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/704#lf0059_label_131

William Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Morals and Happiness, 1st ed., II.4 (3rd ed., II.3): http://classicliberal.tripod.com/godwin/pj12.html

For elaboration, see Sheldon Richman, “Come and See the Anarchy Inherent in the System!,” Center for a Stateless Society (22 October 2016): https://c4ss.org/content/46680

[8]           Kant, Doctrine of Right I, sec. 3.41, p. 121/306.

[9]           Doctrine of Right I, sec II.1.15, p. 85/264.

[10]          Friedrich A. Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty: A New Statement of the Liberal Principles of Justice and Political Economy (London: Routledge, 2012).

[11]          See, e.g., Tom W. Bell, “Polycentric Law,” Humane Studies Review 7.1 (Winter 1991/92): http://osf1.gmu.edu/~ihs/w91issues.html

; Bruce L. Benson, The Enterprise of Law: Justice Without the State, 2nd ed. (Oakland CA: Independent Institute, 2011); Edward P. Stringham, ed., Anarchy and the Law: The Political Economy of Choice (New Brunswick NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2007); Stringham, Private Governance: Creating Order in Economic and Social Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015); Peter T. Leeson, Anarchy Unbound: Why Self-Governance Works Better Than You Think (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

[12]          Doctrine of Right I, sec. 3.41, pp. 121-122/306-307.

[13]          Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace, in H. S. Reiss, ed., and H. B. Nisbet, trans., Kant: Political Writings, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 102.

[14]          Perpetual Peace, op. cit., p. 102.

[15]          Doctrine of Right II.2.61, p. 156/351.

[16]          For similar questions about John Rawls’ theory of international relations, see Gary Chartier, Radicalizing Rawls: Global Justice and the Foundations of International Law (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

[17]          Kant, Doctrine of Virtue I.1.11-12, in Metaphysics of Morals, pp. 230-232/434-436.

[18]          Doctrine of Right, Introduction E, p. 57/232; emphasis added.

[19]          Max Weber, in Tony Waters and Dagmar Waters, eds. and trans., Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society (New York: Palgrave Books, 2015), p. 136.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.