Immanuel Kant and Classical Liberalism

Kant’s Rousseauvian Theory of Property

I agree with Dr. White that the basic moral principles Kant endorses – specifically, the prohibition on treating persons as mere means – commit him to a broadly libertarian politics, and that Kant follows out the implications of that commitment to a considerable extent. But I’m less convinced by White’s attempts to downplay the centrality of some of Kant’s deviations from those implications.

Specifically, White acknowledges that the passage I cited from the Doctrine of Right “appears to endorse a system of coerced redistribution,” but he suggests that its “tone and content are in striking contrast to Kant’s more general statements regarding the narrowly circumscribed domain of state coercion (to limit coercion by others).” Here I disagree. It seems to me that Kant is thinking in Rousseauvian terms here: since all the individual property-holders are to be regarded as parties to the (fictional) social contract, the political disposition of their property is (as Kant sees it) in an important sense not coercive, since they’ve all agreed to have their individual holdings regulated by themselves in their collective capacity (as represented by the state).

The problem Rousseau faced was that of reconciling political authority with human freedom and equality. His solution was the idea that in the social contract, we all individually submit ourselves to all of us collectively, so that (so long as the collective rules in accordance with the general will) we are subordinated only to ourselves and so remain technically free. Through this “total alienation of each associate, together with all his rights, to the whole community,” says Rousseau, “each gives himself absolutely,” and since “the conditions are the same for all … no one has any interest in making them burdensome to others”; thus “each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before.”[1]

And here is Kant in high Rousseauvian mode:

The legislative authority can belong only to the united will of the people. For since all Right is to proceed from it, it cannot do anyone wrong by its law. Now, when someone makes arrangements about another, it is always possible for him to do the other wrong; but he can never do wrong in what he decides upon with regard to himself (for volenti non fit iniuria [= “to the willing, no injustice is done.”]).[2]

Thus on Kant’s view, when the state redistributes its citizens’ property, it does them no injustice, since the actions of the legislative authority are simply the people acting upon themselves.

This Rousseauvian approach pervades Kant’s political thought (albeit uneasily interwoven with Lockean and Hobbesian strands). For example, Kant’s justification of marriage is a Rousseauvian social contract writ small. For Kant, sexual intercourse is presumptively immoral, since it involves using one’s sexual partner as a means to one’s own pleasure. (He seems unaware that people sometimes try to give their sexual partners a good time as well. But then his personal experience in this area was not extensive.) The institution of marriage legitimizes the sex relation through a contract involving subordination that, in virtue of being reciprocal, in a certain sense ceases to be true subordination (even though the male spouse is the sole government of this mini-republic).

There is nothing surprising, then, in Kant’s taking redistributive taxation to be noncoercive, insofar as the state is to be viewed, not as violating its citizens’ property rights, but as exercising those rights on their behalf. This is the vicarious conception of consent that I referenced in my initial essay, and it is pervasive in Kant’s political thought (even if it has to share space with a more immanent conception congenial to libertarians). And in fact he is getting it straight from Rousseau, whose account of property in The Social Contract likewise sounds rather Lockean (with its talk of first occupants establishing property rights through labor) until Rousseau reminds us that proprietors, in order to render their holdings more secure, surrender those holdings entirely, along with themselves, to the collective sovereign, whereupon the united private holdings constitute a “public territory.”[3] In J. L. Austin’s words, “[t]here’s the bit where you say it and the bit where you take it back.”[4]

Moreover I do think that the sharp opposition, in Kant’s ethical thought, between our true will and our mere inclinations makes it easier for Kant to find his way to a vicarious, Rousseauvian approach to consent – just as his division between the noumenal and phenomenal realms makes it easier for him to embrace a fictional social contract that devalues real consent in favor of a merely posited consent. (After all, Kant’s view of free will is that we are pawns of causal determinism in the phenomenal realm but must think of ourselves as being free agents in the unknowable noumenal realm. If the move works for moral freedom, why not similarly for political freedom?)

The Lockean strand in Kant’s political thought is real and important. But it stands forever in the shadow of the Rousseauvian strand, which lies ready at any moment to devour and transmogrify it.



[1]           Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract

[2]           Kant, Doctrine of Right II.1.46, p. 125/313.

[3]           Rousseau, Social Contract I.ix:

[4]           J. L. Austin, Sense and Sensibilia, ed. G. J. Warnock (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964), p. 2.

Despite Complications and Inconsistencies, the Core of Kantian Ethics Is Classically Liberal

I thank my three colleagues for their comments; in this response I will try to address the themes common to all of them.

In general, the comments helped me see I should have been more circumspect in how I presented my thesis about Kant as the “ideal of classical liberalism.” Instead of promoting Kant as a broad figure, with all of his personal and philosophical complications, I should have limited my thesis to the essence of his ethical and political theory (as I summarized them), which is where I think the value lies, especially in terms of linking him to classical liberalism.


When I think about Kant, I think in generalities, such as the basic ideas of autonomy, dignity, and duty, and the implications thereof—in particular, the judgment made necessary by the vagueness of duties and the inevitable conflicts between them, which leads to the flexibility I claim for Kant’s ethics. One can see this in the casuistical questions scatted throughout the Doctrine of Virtue, which represent a series of “but what if” questions that I can easily imagine him tossing out at his students to show how difficult moral decisionmaking is in the real world. I also focus on his essential comments about the role of government, particular the Formula of Justice that holds government to the same ethical standards to which we hold individuals, particularly to treat them with respect as persons with dignity.

I regard this general framework for ethical thinking as valuable in and of itself. As such, I don’t concern myself much about the phenomenal/noumenal distinction in Kant’s metaphysics, which Hicks emphasized in his commentary. To be sure, I completely agree with him that it’s contentious (at best). I don’t accept it, and I don’t think many modern Kantian ethicists do either, but we all believe nonetheless that Kant’s ethics are important and valuable, regardless of where freedom actually resides. As I said above, his basic positon starting with autonomy and dignity generates a system of ethics that governs the basic interactions between persons as well as between citizens and state, which can be applied to practical problems without being overly concerned about metaphysical complications such as the timelessness of the noumenal self.


However, the internal inconsistencies in Kant’s moral philosophy that Hicks and Long mention are potentially very troubling in that they cast the integrity of the core of Kant’s ethics into doubt. Both commenters acknowledge that specific ethical statements must be interpreted in light of general ones, and I would add that we must also be willing to reject specific claims if they are not consistent with general ones. The fact that Kant expressed racist and sexist ideas that conflicted directly with his writings about universal dignity for all persons should not, in my opinion, diminish the value of those profound words any more than should his metaphysical complications. Of course, we must be mindful not to cherry-pick, endorsing as integral the things we happen to like and dismissing as irrelevant those we don’t. We must hold Kant’s specific claims to the standard he established through his core principles—as Kant recommends we do with our own ethical decisionmaking—and we must also be willing to hold some claims to be mistaken in light of those principles.[1]

In addition to the obvious examples of racism and sexism, I believe this applies to the notorious paragraph from the Doctrine of Right cited by Long (and an online commenter) that appears to endorse a system of coerced redistribution.[2] Its tone and content are in striking contrast to Kant’s more general statements regarding the narrowly circumscribed domain of state coercion (to limit coercion by others), yet some Kant scholars have tried to interpret it within his general political philosophy, generating a provisional defense of a limited welfare state.[3] Kant’s denial of a right of revolution also seems to be at cross-purposes with the rest of his political philosophy; it does reflect his strong belief that a state was necessary to protect rights (with which many classical liberals would agree), but cedes too much power in a tyrannical government by tying the hands of its citizens.[4] As Roger Sullivan writes, “Kant’s discussions of civil disobedience and of the right to revolution are obviously inadequate, both in terms of his own moral theory and in terms of the judgments of ordinary moral reasoning” (emphasis mine), concluding that the only explanation can be the despotic state Kant lived in at the time.[5]

I also believe that this identification of specific mistakes judged against general principles applies to the infamous case of the murderer-at-the-door that Salmieri mentions, in which Kant maintains (quite passionately) that you must tell the inquiring prospective murderer that his prey, your best friend, has hidden in your closet.[6] Much ink has been spilled and many trees felled by philosophers trying to square this circle, but I think the clearer path is to judge that he applied his basic principles incorrectly in his verve to promote honesty and effective communication as a value above most others. In general, perfect duties do not automatically take precedence over imperfect duties; rather, their relative grounds of obligation, the substance behind the duties, determine which is more important.[7] Because the specific ground of the duty of beneficence in this case is an innocent life, and the duty of not lying is owed to a person who wrongfully threatens that life, I think it is clear that, in weighing the two grounds, the former obligation prevails.

Consistency is an ideal goal, and certainly the initial presumption should be that all of a philosopher’s claims fit together. But this goal is rarely achieved, especially with systematic philosophers like Kant, and at some point we must be willing to consider that particular claims are mistaken, especially when we can defend such a judgment on the basis on the majority of his other work. While inconsistencies and contradictions are worthy subjects for philosophical inquiry and can sometimes be illuminating, there is also the risk that the bulk of a thinker’s writing that is consistent and focused can get lost (in the spirit of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ famous saying, “hard cases make bad law”). I maintain that once you separate the wheat from the chaff, the distillation of Kant’s ethical and political system is a fine statement of classical liberalism that sits well among other, more widely acknowledged advocates.


But not all of the criticisms from my colleagues hinge on inconsistencies and complications; some questioned the core of Kantian ethics that I defend as an exemplar of classical liberalism. In particular, Long and Salmieri questioned Kant’s emphasis on duty and morality to the detriment of happiness and flourishing. This is one case (among several) in which Kant’s rhetoric works against him, for in fact Kant did prize human happiness, holding it up as the ultimate good (albeit proportionate to a person’s virtue).[8] On the level of specific acts, he stressed self-regarding duties such as to cultivate one’s talents as well as to practice beneficence to oneself; on the latter, he wrote that “lawgiving reason … permits you to be benevolent to yourself on the con­dition of your being benevolent to every other as well.”[9] Furthermore, this duty must be balanced with all others using our judgment, which may favor our own happiness, even to the exclusion of specific (and perfect) duties to others, depending on the specific choice circumstances.

Because persons can generally be trusted to pursue their own happiness, it was Kant’s intent to point out the limitations of that pursuit out of respect for the autonomy and dignity of other persons. In other words, Kant did not want us to sacrifice our happiness; he just wanted to make sure we didn’t gain it wrongfully at someone else’s expense. This corresponds well to ideas such as Mill’s harm principle and the principle of noninterference, providing further support of Kant’s core ethical ideas as consistent with classical liberalism.



[1] For this, I draw from Ronald Dworkin’s theory of finding mistakes in judicial precedent from Taking Rights Seriously (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977), pp. 118-23.

[2] Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals, 326.

[3] For instance, Jeffrie Murphy discusses this passage, acknowledging its inconsistency but nonetheless developing (what he calls) a “provisional account” of a Kantian basis for positive welfare payments (Kant: The Philosophy of Right, Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1970, pp. 123–5). Furthermore, Arthur Ripstein and Allen Wood argue for a welfare state on based on a conception equal opportunity drawn from Kantian principles (Ripsten, Force and Freedom Kant’s Legal and Political Philosophy, Cam­bridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009, ch. 9; Wood, Kantian Ethics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008, 196).

[4] Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, 320. This problem has been noted by many Kant scholars, such as Peter Nicholson, “Kant on the Duty Never to Resist the Sovereign,” Ethics 86(1975): 214-30, and Sarah Holtman, “Revolution, Contradiction, and Kantian Citizenship,” in Mark Timmons (ed.), Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals: Interpretive Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 209-31.

[5] Roger J. Sullivan, Immanuel Kant’s Moral Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 245.

[6] Kant, “On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns,” included in the Hackett edition of Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, translated by James W. Ellington (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993), pp. 63–7, and originally published in the Berlin Press in 1799.

[7] Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, 224.

[8] For an investigation of this, see Stephen Engstrom, “The Concept of the Highest Good in Kant’s Moral Theory,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 52(1992): 747-80.

[9] Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, 451. As Barbara Herman writes, “the Kantian charge against self-in­terest is not that it is inherently contrary to morality; it need not be. The problem lies in its tendency to be presumptive” (“Making Room for Character,” in Stephen Engstrom and Jennifer Whiting (eds), Aristotle, Kant, and the Stoics: Rethink­ing Happiness and Duty, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 36–60, at p. 52).

Kant: Liberal, Illiberal, or Both?

Response Essays
October 18, 2016

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.

Since it’s possible for thinkers to make mistakes in drawing practical implications from their own principles, the question “how good a classical liberal is Kant?” must be distinguished from the question “how good a foundation for classical liberalism does Kant’s philosophy provide?”

It might turn out, for example, that while Kant himself defends classical liberal policies, the more basic principles to which he appeals in doing so actually have far more illiberal implications. (This is essentially the Randian critique to which Mark White alludes.) Or it might be the other way around: that Kant’s principles actually support a far more liberal approach to politics than the one he ends up defending.

My own answers to those questions are complicated. I think Kant’s political writings have strong classical liberal, even libertarian strands, and that these stem in large part from his more basic principles. I also think his political writings contain deeply illiberal elements. In many cases, I take these to be the result of Kant’s misapplication of his own principles, and would expect a more consistent application of those principles to result in a still more thoroughgoingly libertarian set of policies. To that extent, I take the side of Kant’s defenders against critiques like Rand’s.[1] All the same, I also think that some of the illiberal aspects of Kant’s politics do have to be laid, at least in part, at the door of flaws in his basic philosophy; and here I find a kernel of truth in Rand’s criticisms.

The classical liberal components of Kant’s political philosophy are undeniable. His account of a system of rights as defining the “fully reciprocal use of coercion that is consistent with everyone’s freedom”[2] is an exemplary libertarian formulation, and his account of property rights[3] lies solidly within a Lockean tradition that Kant shares with such libertarian thinkers as Lysander Spooner,[4] Émile Levasseur,[5] Murray Rothbard,[6] and Robert Nozick[7] (though also, more complicatedly, Johann Gottlieb Fichte[8] and G.W.F. Hegel).[9] Indeed, I think Kant’s account of the justification of property rights is in some respects more subtle and profound than that found in many libertarian writers. He also applies his theory of property in some admirably libertarian ways – for example, in his defense of native land rights against colonialist expropriation.[10]

But however libertarian Kant’s theory of property may be in its basic outlines, it is far less so in application. And here I cannot agree with Dr. White’s statement that “Kant did not support forced beneficence,” or that Kant’s political theory “rules out any state welfare system.” As part of the social contract (a fictional social contract – more on that anon), Kantian citizens are understood to cede to the ruler a degree of ownership over their private holdings; hence Kant explicitly defends

the right of the supreme commander … as supreme proprietor (lord of the land), to tax private owners of land, that is, to require payment of taxes on land, excise taxes and import duties, or to require the performance of services (such as providing troops for military service) …. On this supreme proprietorship also rests the right to administer the state’s economy, finances, and police.[11]

Notice how the right to conscript citizens into military service is casually included here as part of the taxing function. The Kantian state’s claim on its citizens goes well beyond a mere claim to their external property.

In any case, the taxing power also includes “the right to impose taxes on the people … to support organizations providing for the poor, foundling homes, and church organizations,” which sounds like a state welfare system to me. Kant even stresses that such public support is to occur “not merely by voluntary contributions” but “by way of coercion,” explaining that taxpayers “have acquired an obligation to the commonwealth, since they owe their existence to an act of submitting to its protection and care, which they need in order to live.”[12] Kant goes on to maintain that taxation is morally superior both to lotteries (because they’re regressive) and to begging (the latter supposedly being “closely akin to robbery,” while taxation allegedly isn’t).

Kant’s (classically) illiberal streak goes much farther than mere support for state welfare. He holds that illegitimate children have “stolen into the commonwealth … like contraband merchandise” and so stand outside the protection of civil law;[13] he denies citizens a right of self-defense against the state by declaring the ruler to be above the law and not to be rebelled against;[14] he denies wage workers the right of self-defense against the wealthy classes by depriving them of the vote;[15] and he is so enamored of capital punishment as to insist that “if a civil society were to be dissolved by the consent of all its members … the last murderer remaining in prison would first have to be executed.”[16]

One of the most problematic portions of Kant’s theory of justice is his category of “rights to persons akin to rights to things.” These are rights to treat certain other people to some degree as one’s property, a right allegedly consistent with the categorical imperative not to treat others as mere means. Thus Kant justifies the coercive authority of husbands over their wives, since “this dominance is based only on the natural superiority of the husband to the wife”;[17] he likewise justifies a coercive authority of employers over employees, maintaining that a head of household is entitled to “fetch servants back and demand them from anyone in possession of them, as what is externally his.”[18]

How much more “Kantian” in spirit is Herbert Spencer, who rejects the husband’s authority over his wife as “utterly repugnant,”[19] and who describes the “master-and-workman type of industrial organization” as a “remnant of the régime of status” by which an employee is “temporarily in the position of a slave,” and so calls for the replacement of the wage system by a system of workers’ cooperatives.[20]

Now many of these cases can fairly be diagnosed, at least in part, as instances in which Kant has simply failed to apply his own principles correctly. In particular, he understands contract right as a right to specific performance – a “possession of another’s choice”[21] – whereas a more authentically “Kantian” approach, insistent on rejecting all forms of interpersonal subordination, would see personal services as inalienable, and thus would treat contractual obligation as rooted in the transfer of title to external resources only.[22] Likewise, using a greater degree of compulsion against a person than is necessary to restrain her from injuring others arguably treats that person as a mere means, a consideration that invalidates the institution of coercive punishment.[23]

But Kant’s theory of the social contract, which is the basis both for his claim that a political ruler is the supreme proprietor of citizens’ land, and for his rejection of the right of rebellion, is a bit more deeply rooted. Regrettably, Kant’s version of social-contract theory owes as much to Hobbes and Rousseau as to Locke.

To begin with, Kant’s theory that rights in the state of nature are simultaneously genuine and merely provisional is an unconvincing attempt to fuse a) the Lockean insight that rights exist prior to the state with the Hobbesian claims that b) we have no reason to respect others’ rights in the absence of law, and that c) law cannot exist without the state.[24]

Both of the Hobbesian claims, (b) and (c), seem incoherent. On the one hand, the view that in the state of nature one should withhold cooperation until other parties show themselves to be cooperative first is evidently not universalizable, which should be enough to condemn it by Kantian standards.[25] On the other, by confusing law with legislation,[26] Kant, in his very attempt to defend the rule of law, makes the rule of law impossible by exempting the ruler from its application.

If this Hobbesian muddle weren’t bad enough, Kant maintains that victims of state coercion are really free, since the state represents their true will via the social contract – so that, e.g., when the state taxes its citizens it’s really exercising their property rights on their behalf. Kant thereby adds Rousseau to the Locke/Hobbes mix – with the added twist that the contract need not even be genuine.

I’ve written elsewhere of the conflict between vicarious and immanent forms of liberalism.[27] Immanent liberalism is concerned to protect relations of mutual consent in people’s everyday lives, while vicarious liberalism displaces the chief locus of consent somewhere else – to the social framework as a whole, or to a merely hypothetical starting point, or both. Kant’s liberalism contains both immanent and vicarious strands; but the amount of emphasis placed on the vicarious strand threatens to poison the system, since actual curtailments of everyday freedom are all too easily justified as part of a system that one has tacitly consented to, or would hypothetically consent to.

And here I do think we find a set of problems that can be traced back to defects in Kant’s basic ethical principles. Kant’s theory of the categorical imperative draws a sharp distinction between duty on the one hand and happiness on the other, where happiness is seen primarily as a matter of following our subjective inclinations. Dr. White is right to point out that Kant is not nearly as hostile to individual happiness as he is often thought to be; nevertheless, Kant insists that there is no necessary connection between duty and happiness, so that they always can come apart even if they usually don’t.

On the one hand, the duty/inclination divide fuels Kant’s Hobbesian side; since inclinations are essentially nonmoral and always potentially antimoral, we can conclude a priori that people cannot be trusted without state compulsion. But on the other hand, the duty/inclination divide also fuels Kant’s Rousseauvian side, since the Kantian doctrine that we are autonomous only when choosing duty over inclination lends itself all too easily to vicarious liberalism and the privileging of indirect, tacit, or hypothetical consent over actual consent. This is what is right in the Randian critique of Kant.                                       

Where Rand goes wrong, I think, is in taking Kant’s theory of a duty/inclination divide as motivated by a pathological hatred of human happiness. The duty/inclination divide represents Kant’s attempt to solve a genuine philosophical problem; I think he gives the wrong solution to it, through grasping one half of the truth while discarding the other. And while Rand is right to identify Aristotle’s approach to ethics as offering the best way out,[28] I don’t think Rand quite manages to follow where Aristotle leads; instead, she ends up seizing the piece of the truth that Kant has discarded while discarding the piece he has seized. But that’s a point I’ll elaborate on in the rest of the discussion.



[1]           For a partly sympathetic, partly critical analysis of Kant’s political philosophy by a Rand-influenced scholar, check out the following articles by George H. Smith:

“A Few Kind Words about the Most Evil Man in Mankind’s History” (8 April 2016):…

            “Immanuel Kant and the Natural Law Tradition” (15 April 2016):

            “Immanuel Kant’s Theory of Justice” (22 April 2016):

            “Immanuel Kant, the Social Contract, and the State” (29 April 2016):

“Immanuel Kant on Property Rights” (6 May 2016):

“Immanuel Kant on Our Duty to Obey Government” (23 May 2016):…

“Immanuel Kant on Spontaneous Order” (10 June 2016):

            “Immanuel Kant on War and Peace” (20 June 2016):

For another largely sympathetic libertarian (but not Randian) take on Kant, see Jason Kuznicki, “Kantianism,” in Aaron Ross Powell and Grant Babcock, eds., Arguments for Liberty (Washington DC: Cato Institute, 2016), ch. 3, pp. 87-122.

[2]           Immanuel Kant, Doctrine of Right, Introduction E, in The Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Mary Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 57/232. (The two page numbers represent the Cambridge and standard pagination respectively.)

[3]           Kant, Doctrine of Right I, op. cit., chs. 1-2.

[4]           Lysander Spooner, The Law of Intellectual Property; or An Essay on the Right of Authors and Inventors to a Perpetual Property in their Ideas (Boston: Bela Marsh, 1855):…

[5]           Louis Wolowski and Émile Levasseur, “Propriété”; in Maurice Block, ed., Dictionnaire général de la politique, tome II (Paris: O. Lorenz, 1864), pp. 682-693. (Owing to Wolowski’s illness at the time of composition, Levasseur was effectively the sole author, despite the double byline.)

[6]           Murray N. Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty (New York: New York University Press, 2003).

[7]           Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974).

[8]           J. G. Fichte, Foundations of Natural Right, trans. Michael Baur (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

[9]           G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, trans. T. M Knox (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), Part I.

[10]          Doctrine of Right III, sec. 62, p. 159/353; cf. Rothbard, Ethics of Liberty, op. cit., chs. 10-11.

[11]          Doctrine of Right II, sec 21.49B, p. 135/325.

[12]          Doctrine of Right II, sec. 21.49C, p. 136/326. On Kant’s theory of taxation, see Chris W. Surprenant, “Kant on Justified Taxation” (27 May 2015):

[13]          Doctrine of Right II, sec. 21.49E, p. 145/336.

[14]          Doctrine of Right II, sec 21.49A, pp. 129-133/318-323.

[15]          Doctrine of Right II, sec. 1.46, p. 126/314.

[16]          Doctrine of Right II, sec. 21.49E, p. 142/333.

[17]          Doctrine of Right I, sec. 3.26, p. 98/279.

[18]          Doctrine of Right I, sec. 3.30, p. 101/284.

[19]          Herbert Spencer, Social Statics: or, The Conditions Essential to Happiness Specified, and the First of Them Developed (London: John Chapman, 1850), ch. 16, sec. 7:

[20]          Spencer, Principles of Sociology (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1898), vol. 3, part 8, ch. 21:

[21]          Doctrine of Right I, sec 2.2.18, p. 90/271.

[22]          Williamson Evers, “Toward a Reformulation of the Law of Contracts,” Journal of Libertarian Studies 1.1 (1977), pp. 3-13; Randy Barnett, “Contract Remedies and Inalienable Rights,” Social Philosophy and Policy 4.1 (Autumn 1986), pp. 179-202; Rothbard, Ethics of Liberty, ch. 19.

[23]          Roderick T. Long, “The Irrelevance of Responsibility,” Social Philosophy and Policy 16.2 (Summer 1999), pp. 118-145:

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

[25]             For what it’s worth, it tends not to be pragmatically effective either; see Robert M. Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation, rev. ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2006).

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

[27]          Roderick T. Long, “Immanent Liberalism: The Politics of Mutual Consent,” Social Philosophy and Policy 12.2 (Summer 1995), pp. 1-31:

[28]          Ayn Rand, “Causality versus Duty,” in Philosophy: Who Needs It (New York: Penguin, 1984), ch. 10.

Does Kant Have a Place in Classical Liberalism?

Response Essays
October 17, 2016

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.

The answer is complicated. Any reading of Kant’s massive corpus of writings initially gives one a mass of conflicting liberal and anti-liberal claims. 

He did argue for a robust freedom of speech, at least for the philosophical use of reason. He advocated property rights. He resisted some types of commodifications of human beings. And on numerous matters in foreign policy he called for more peace-oriented and humanistic policies.

Yet he also argued against allowing the smallpox vaccination: “So that states do not become overcrowded with people and thus stifled from the outset, two evils are placed in them as antidotes: smallpox and war.” More trivially, he was against allowing individuals to sell their hair to wigmakers (although buying wigs was allowable; Kant wore wigs). More seriously, he believed it was not a crime for an unmarried mother to kill her child, since bastards are illegitimately brought into the polity.[1] He complained that “a prolonged peace favours the predominance of a mere commercial spirit, and with it a debasing self-interest, cowardice, and effeminacy, and tends to degrade the character of the nation”[2] (note the “mere commercial spirit” barb, which has implications for Kantian economic policy). He held that the important teachings in educational institutions should be subject to the sanction of the state. He was ambivalent about the separation of church and state and allowed for the censorship of some church teachings. And he denied strenuously the right of individuals to rebel against evil rulers, no matter how tyrannical.[3]

Also, given Kant’s many negative remarks about Jews,[4] women,[5] and blacks and other races,[6] it is far from clear that he believes the majority of human beings are capable of agency at a level worthy of moral dignity. Of course, those negative remarks can be bracketed in Kant’s system as mere anthropology and discounted to lower status than his philosophical pronouncements. But the remarks do undercut his connection to the classically liberal ideal of universal freedoms or rights.

Still, we have a puzzle. Many subsequent liberal thinkers have been energized by Kant’s formulations of principles of respect for human dignity and treating individuals as ends in themselves. But they have also been shocked by his frequent anti-liberal principles and policies. Were the anti-liberal deviations merely the result of his being a man of his times, as he was born and raised in a strict Pietist Lutheran family in 1700s Prussia, after all? Was he simply inconsistent, since he wrote on thousands of topics across many decades? Is there some complicated philosopher’s way of making his whole corpus more or less consistent that deep scholarship can reveal?

I will argue that the anti-liberalism is much deeper in Kant’s philosophy than the liberalism. That means saying something about the ringlingly liberal-sounding principles that are indeed integral to Kant’s philosophy. That something is this: One must always interpret a comprehensive philosopher’s remarks on applied matters in the context of his philosophical system.

Let me give an exaggerated, fictional example to stress this point about method. Suppose one reads Chapter One of a philosopher’s book in which one finds affirmations that individuals should seek freedom and realize their true selves and that only in liberty can one find dignity and so on. In Chapter Two, one finds the philosopher arguing that one’s body is not one’s true self; rather one has an immaterial soul that is one’s real Self and that it comes to full actualization only upon separating from this physical realm. Chapter Three argues that when one’s true self is actualized, it does so by merging one’s self into an uber-Self of souls that are collectively real, and that one’s highest moral obligation is to achieve such a merger. As one works through Chapter Four, one learns that the philosopher believes that back in this material world the official state/church institutions are the temporal embodiment of one’s collectively true Self. Finally, in Chapter Five one reads the philosopher’s perfectly logical conclusion that individual freedom means obeying the state/church’s orders.

The example is fictional,[7] but it makes the point about interpretation: What some philosophers mean by self, individual, and freedom is the opposite of what other philosophers mean. So before settling upon an interpretation of a philosopher’s normative claims one always must investigate his or her more fundamental claims in metaphysics and epistemology. Many of us begin our study of Kant by reading his Groundwork as undergraduates, and we may interpret his formulations of the Categorical Imperative as being continuous with the liberal individualist tradition coming out of John Locke, Voltaire, and Adam Smith. But when we pursue Kant’s big books—most importantly the three Critiques—we find ourselves in an entirely different philosophical universe.  

And especially in the case of Kant, incorporating his fundamental distinction between phenomenal and noumenal realms is essential.

Kant argues that we experience only the phenomenal world with its features of time, space, cause and effect. This world is bounded, finite, and Isaac-Newton-physically deterministic. Yet beyond the phenomenal world is the noumenal, which is perhaps the realm of God, freedom, and immortality.

Kant also believes that if there is to be morality, it must come from a place of freedom. Consequently, that freedom must be outside of the phenomenal world, since the phenomenal is ruled by deterministic cause and effect in space and time. In other words, since morality depends upon freedom and the phenomenal realm is unfree, the origin of morality can only be noumenal.

The human self must then be a microcosm of the phenomenal/noumenal split. We are of course phenomenal beings, subject to natural law. But to be moral beings, an aspect of us must be free. We must have a noumenal self that is not subject to natural laws.[8]

So when Kant says that human selves are moral agents, that they have a capacity for dignity, and that their freedoms ought to be respected, he is speaking only about noumenal selves. He is not speaking about our phenomenal selves. Our phenomenal selves are not free and are consequently not in the realm of morality.

Further: Within Kant scholarship there is controversy over whether Kant meant for us to believe that noumenal selves really exist in a noumenal realm or whether he is merely positing them as regulative ideas. A regulative idea, in Kant’s philosophy, is one that we cannot experience or verify empirically but which our reason must posit if it is to make sense of some important philosophical project such as knowledge and morality.[9] The regulative-idea interpretation has traction, since we learn from Kant’s first Critique that any knowledge of the noumenal is totally closed off to us. So we must accept that a noumenal self may or may not actually exist—it may be merely a regulative idea that we posit philosophically in order to make sense of morality, if morality actually is possible.

In either case, freedom is a defining feature of the noumenal self, and bondage is a defining feature of the phenomenal self. And if only my noumenal self is free, and freedom is required for moral agency and responsibility, then my phenomenal self is not a morally responsible agent.

But it is precisely one’s phenomenal self that is one’s lived self—the self that makes a living through physical labor and commerce, that has sex and bears children, that consumes food and wears clothes, that listens to music and works out. That self, in the Kantian ontology, has no freedom at all. So it has no moral agency. And, Kant argues, it is therefore properly subject to a supposed metaphysical nugget—i.e., a noumenal self—in another dimension that issues commands to it.

Where does this leave the Kantian case for liberalism? To conclude this line of argument bluntly:

If our case for political liberty ultimately depends on following orders from a hypothetical voice from another realm, then we don’t have much of a case.

My recommendation: If we are looking for a principled philosophical justification of liberalism, then bypassing Kant is a good idea.  



[1]  Metaphysics of Morals, Doctrine of Right 2, General Note E1, Akad. 6, 335f.

[2] Critique of Judgment, Section 28.

[3] Metaphysics of Morals, “General Remarks on the Legal Consequences of the Nature of the Civil Union,” Political Writings, 2nd edition, edited by Hans Reiss (Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 143-145.

[4] E.g., “the euthanasia of Judaism is the pure moral religion.” Kant, Streit der Fakultaten, in Werke, 11:321, cited in Paul Lawrence Rose, Revolutionary Antisemitism from Kant to Wagner (Princeton University Press, 1990), p. 96.

[5] “It is easy to analyse man; but woman betrays her secrets even though she is unable to keep those of others (owing to her love of gossip). Man is fond of domestic peace and submits easily to its governance so as to be unmolested in his business. Woman has no dislike for domestic war for which she is armed with her tongue … .” Kant, Anthropology from the Pragmatic Point of View (1798), quoted in Léon Poliakov, The Aryan Myth: A History of Racist and Nationalist Ideas in Europe (Meridien, 1977), p. 171.

[6] Kant opposed racial inter-breeding: “The mingling of stocks (due to great conquests), little by little erodes the character and it is not good for the human race in spite of any so-called philanthropy,” quoted in Poliakov, p. 172. See also Wulf D. Hund, “‘It must come from Europe’ The Racisms of Immanuel Kant,” 2011, p. 91.

[7] Or perhaps not, as a variant upon it is one standard reading of Hegel’s philosophy.

[8] See this formulation in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Kant: “My noumenal self is an uncaused cause outside of time, which therefore is not subject to the deterministic laws of nature in accordance with which our understanding constructs experience.” Rohlf, Michael, “Immanuel Kant,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =, Section 5.2.

[9] Regulative ideas: “concepts created by the faculty of reason that cannot be met in experience but that can serve as models or goals for actual human behavior.” Frederick Rauscher, “Kant’s Social and Political Philosophy,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Is Kant the Ideal Statement of Classical Liberalism?

Response Essays
October 12, 2016

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.

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.


Defending Kant’s Classical Liberalism

Lead Essay
October 10, 2016

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.

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).

Coming Up

Essay by Roderick T. Long, conversation through the end of the month.

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