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Kant’s Political Theory

Interpretations and Applications

Edited by Elisabeth Ellis


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Kant’s Political Theory

Interpretations and Applications

Edited by Elisabeth Ellis

Kant’s Political Theory is an impressive contemporary collection featuring some very distinguished contributors. Especially when brought together in one volume, these essays make important contributions to the literature on Kant's political philosophy.”


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Past interpreters of Kant’s thought seldom viewed his writings on politics as having much importance, especially in comparison with his writings on ethics, which (along with his major works, such as the Critique of Pure Reason) received the lion’s share of attention. But in recent years a new generation of scholars has revived interest in what Kant had to say about politics. From a position of engagement with today’s most pressing questions, this volume of essays offers a comprehensive introduction to Kant’s often misunderstood political thought. Covering the full range of sources of Kant’s political theory—including not only the Doctrine of Right, the Critiques, and the political essays but also Kant’s lectures and minor writings—the volume’s distinguished contributors demonstrate that Kant’s philosophy offers compelling positions that continue to inspire the best thinking on politics today.

Aside from the editor, the contributors are Michaele Ferguson, Louis-Philippe Hodgson, Ian Hunter, John Christian Laursen, Mika LaVaque-Manty, Onora O’Neill, Thomas W. Pogge, Arthur Ripstein, and Robert S. Taylor.

Kant’s Political Theory is an impressive contemporary collection featuring some very distinguished contributors. Especially when brought together in one volume, these essays make important contributions to the literature on Kant's political philosophy.”
“One of the really remarkable aspects of political philosophy over the last three or four decades—spanning Arendtian, Habermasian, and Rawlsian theory—has been the stunning revival of interest in Kantian political thought. Elisabeth Ellis has put together a collection of essays featuring many of the most prominent and influential contributors to recent scholarship on Kant, thereby helping us appreciate why themes from Kantian political reflection (focusing on liberal justice and autonomy) are back on the radar screen of contemporary theorists and why they are very likely to remain there.”
Kant's Political Theory consists of nine articles as well as one of the currently richest bibliographies on Kant's legal-political thought. . . . [T]he anthology provides a very good sense of the current variety of approaches to Kant's theory of justice.”
Kant’s Political Theory: Interpretations and Applications is a useful and thought-provoking read, no less for the proposed interpretations than for the applications of Kant’s theory. It is a welcome addition to the growing secondary literature on Kant’s legal philosophy.”
“This is a wonderful collection. . . . We owe the fine Kant scholar Elisabeth Ellis a debt of gratitude for bringing this collection together. . . . Together [the contributors] provide a fresh new look at Kant’s political philosophy that no scholar of the subject should be without.”
Kant’s Political Theory . . . ably demonstrates that Kant’s politics deserves close attention. The volume’s nine essays take up a variety of Kantian themes (e.g., the nature and basis of justice, freedom and international community, and education) and helpfully illuminate them from different perspectives (e.g., philosophical, interpretive/textual, and historical). . . . All the essays are excellent, and many contain fresh, insightful readings of even the most familiar texts.”

Elisabeth Ellis is Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University.




Elisabeth Ellis

1 Kant and the Social Contract Tradition

Onora O’Neill

2 Kant and the Circumstances of Justice

Arthur Ripstein

3 Is Kant’s Rechtslehre a “Comprehensive Liberalism”?

Thomas W. Pogge

4 Realizing External Freedom: The Kantian Argument for a World State

Louis-Philippe Hodgson

5 The Progress of Absolutism in Kant’s Essay “What Is Enlightenment?”

Robert S. Taylor

6 Unsocial Sociability: Perpetual Antagonism in Kant’s Political Thought

Michaele Ferguson

7 Kant’s Political Thought in the Prussian Enlightenment

Ian Hunter

8 Kant on Education

Mika LaVaque-Manty

9 Kant, Freedom of the Press, and Book Piracy

John Christian Laursen

Selected Bibliography



Elisabeth Ellis

The study of Kant’s politics is undergoing what Patrick Riley has called “a remarkable renaissance.” Recent years have seen a flowering of interest in Kant’s politics among social scientists, political theorists, philosophers, legal scholars, historians, and many others. Among political scientists, research on transnational organizations, the democratic peace hypothesis, just war theory, human rights, and other areas has led to renewed interest in Kant’s thought. In political theory, one of the most influential new schools of thought is the deeply Kantian deliberative democratic theory, whose precepts are not only being discussed in academic journals but are also being implemented in new political institutions. Interestingly, critics of deliberative democratic theory’s perhaps too idealized notion of reasonableness have also found support in Kant’s work, though they have tended to focus on Kant’s political, anthropological, and historical work rather than his ethical theory. Political philosophers are turning to Kant for his concepts of provisionality, agency, cosmopolitan right, the public sphere, and of course for his systematic treatment of human freedom in general.

Kant’s critical account of freedom is at the root both of the extraordinary appeal of his political thought and of its formidable interpretive challenge. Asking as he does about the conditions of possibility for human freedom in the world, Kant is able to offer authoritative and vigorous criticism of given social and political institutions while refraining from the construction of what he calls “castles in the air” (that is, idealized, specific models meant to apply across space and time). Focusing on the real and manifestly imperfect institutions of his day, Kant asks whether each political practice “leaves open the possibility” for progress toward freedom. Kant is much more interested in the drivers of actually possible, necessarily incremental improvement in human conditions than he is in describing profound but unreachable political perfection. His sustained interest in the public sphere, for example, attests to Kant’s conviction that it is more important to assure the underlying mechanisms that might promote political progress over time than it is to make pronouncements about exactly what is wrong with our present circumstances.

Kant’s historical circumstances as a university teacher subject to the censorship regime of late eighteenth-century Prussia made it difficult for him to offer blunt political critique in any case. From his early essay on enlightenment through his later political essays, Kant tends to approach his targets obliquely, allowing his readers to draw analogies between, for example, his criticism of paternalism in church governance and an implied general critique of domination. If Kant’s own reticence has made it hard to discover his powerful critical political thought, superficial interpretations of his moral theory have compounded that difficulty. The relationship between Kant’s ethics and his politics is complex and interesting (and the subject of much discussion in this volume), but it is by no means as straightforward as scholars used to presume. The soaring precepts of the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals govern all human beings, according to Kant. Yet these same principles cannot simply be applied to political life directly. As Kant argues in the introduction to the Metaphysics of Morals, a system of political right is necessarily empirical and therefore always incomplete (6:205). Kant cannot provide a set of answers that will be right for every historically embedded political circumstance. Instead, he consistently asks about the conditions that might enable human freedom.

This reading of Kant’s political thinking has itself been made possible by recent advances in the interpretation of Kant’s ethics. Scholars of Kant’s moral philosophy have definitively revised old images of Kant’s ethics as rigoristic and sterile. In a series of important books and essays, Christine Korsgaard has demonstrated that Kant’s moral theory is no dry summation of abstract and formulaic duty, but in fact envisions a rich and embedded life of ethical value whose applications are quite relevant to present-day problems. Like Korsgaard, Barbara Herman rejects the reading of Kant’s ethics as a sterile system of deontological rules of duty. In her pathbreaking work, The Practice of Moral Judgment (1993), Herman argues that Kant’s moral theory is better understood as advocating practical rationality. She demonstrates the relevance of such a view to the present day in that book and in later work, focusing especially on moral education. Onora O’Neill’s 1989 work, Constructions of Reason, resolves persistent difficulties in the interpretation of Kant’s moral theory by taking Kant’s critical task very seriously and reading the Critiques together. She reveals the moral and political substructures of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, using the resulting coherent picture of Kant’s ethics to argue for the values of trust and autonomy in spheres of present-day life from development economics to bioethics.

Following the work of Herman, Korsgaard, and O’Neill, philosophers are finding in Kant’s moral work a vigorous theory relevant to such diverse contemporary issues as reconciliation, international humanitarian intervention, environmental ethics, and political violence. Scholars from many disciplines have a renewed interest in Kant thanks to the recent publication of politically relevant new material in the Berlin Academy edition of Kant’s works. Finally, recent years have seen important contributions not only to the interpretation of Kant’s political work, but also to the body of Kantian political philosophy generally. This collection seeks both to introduce Kant’s political thought to a new generation of readers and to demonstrate the fruitfulness and vibrancy of a broadly Kantian approach to political philosophy.

Why Kant? Why Now?

Kant’s most profound and influential works are the three critiques (of pure reason, practical reason, and the power of judgment) and the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals; not one of these works is explicitly political. Moreover, his name almost never appears on short lists of canonical political theorists in the Western tradition, which tend to include the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Mill, and Marx, but not Kant. His explicitly political writings take the form mostly of occasional essays written for magazines like the Berlinische Monatsschrift. The more formal treatment of political topics that appears in the first half of Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals (the Rechtslehre) is obscure in its exposition, a late product of Kant’s scholarly life, and probably so neglected by Kant himself that he missed a series of critical printers’ errors that resulted in key paragraphs appearing out of order. Other late works of political relevance, including the second essay of The Conflict of the Faculties and parts of Kant’s lectures on anthropology, have similarly troubled publication and reception histories.

In 2005 I wrote that “it is no longer necessary to begin a work on Kant’s political philosophy defensively.” Though I stand by the claim I made then (and that I make again here) that Kant offers the best available lens through which to view many of the present-day world’s most crucial political questions, I see now that I was wrong about the necessity of defensiveness among scholars of Kant’s political thought. Two of the authors represented here (Arthur Ripstein and Michaele Ferguson) even choose to introduce their essays with admissions about Kant’s low status in the field and defensive reactions to that status: Kant is “not widely seen as an important political thinker on par with Aristotle, Locke, or Rousseau” (Ferguson), and he “lies outside the primary canon in the history of political philosophy” (Ripstein). Though in her opening pages Onora O’Neill claims that Kant is known “as a social contract theorist, and a good one,” within a few paragraphs she admits that “if Kant is a social contract theorist, he is a peculiar one.” Mika LaVaque-Manty notes early in his essay that Kant’s pedagogical work has generated so little interest that “there was no high-end scholarly English translation until 2007.” Though the remaining essays (safely, I should say) presume that Kant’s political philosophy is of an interest too obvious to belabor, we Kant scholars should ask ourselves why the Kantian outlook that illuminates the political world so brightly for us is so obscure to many of our fellow students of politics.

Ripstein and many others have suggested that Kant’s “writings on the topic are frequently opaque, even by the standards of his other writings.” Although this is certainly an accurate description, it would also be an accurate description of many of the competing providers of analytical lenses for the study of politics (Hegel, for example, surely fits this description). Moreover, as LaVaque-Manty points out in his contribution to this volume, “Kant’s lecture-based books and essays often are [eminently readable], and the structure accessible even to nonexperts.” So I do not think that sheer obscurity in his writing can be the main explanation for the relative obscurity of Kant’s political thought.

If we attend to some of the most successful uses of Kant for understanding politics, such as those offered by John Rawls, or Jürgen Habermas, or even to the less sweeping but still important applications of Kantian ideas such as those of Michael Doyle, Onora O’Neill, or Amy Gutmann, one very basic fact stands out: in order to arrive at their Kantian perspectives on the political world, these thinkers had first to understand Kant’s full critical system. By “full critical system” I mean the three Critiques and accompanying shorter works like the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals at a minimum. (I am not saying that years of study of Kant’s system are necessary to understand his political thought, and in fact I frequently assign isolated political essays to my undergraduate students, who understand them. Instead, I am interested in the level of understanding necessary to construct an original contemporary political theory in the Kantian tradition.)

To follow Locke’s thinking about property or revolution, by contrast, it is by no means necessary to have a deep grasp of the metaphysics and epistemology of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Of course, it would be preferable to have achieved such knowledge, but what matters here is that the political theory of Locke’s Treatises and Letter Concerning Toleration does not fundamentally depend on the apparatus of the Essay. As the contributions to this volume demonstrate, Kant’s political theory depends essentially on the critical method, on arguments that consider the conditions of possibility for those elements of political life in question. Again, as demonstrated in the volume, even the apparently straightforward political essays that Kant published in monthly magazines only really make sense in the context of the critical project.

This systematic element of his work is both Kant’s great drawback as a political theorist (among other things, it makes for a ferocious learning curve for new students), but also his great strength. Kant’s political thought, asking as it does about the conditions of possibility of things like freedom, can achieve a broad historical and geographical sweep without committing the usual imperialist indecencies. Rather than taking a principle—sticking with the contrast to Locke, we might think of a natural right to property taken from seventeenth-century struggles for sovereignty—from some historically specific context and then applying it willy-nilly across space and time, Kantian political theory asks about the conditions of possibility for realizing freedom in context. Unlike contemporary heirs to Locke, who treat the historically specific natural right to property as an unassailable starting point from which to reason about politics at every time and place, a theorist with a Kantian perspective would ask whether the institution of property rights as it works in context promotes the possibility of freedom. In his Metaphysics of Morals, Kant defends a provisional right to property in just this way (see Arthur Ripstein’s, Ian Hunter’s, and Thomas Pogge’s contributions to this volume).

Of course, Kant did not consistently maintain an attitude of critical detachment when confronted with empirical social facts of his day. Much as present-day Kant scholars would prefer him to have done so, Kant failed to transcend local views about women, non-Europeans, and laborers (see LaVaque-Manty, Hunter, Taylor, Pogge, and O’Neill, this volume). Robert Taylor explains Kant’s relegation of some people to the status of passive citizens as an effort to prevent people in situations of dependency from representing something other than their own autonomous interests. “From our own perspective, such restrictions on voting may seem highly reactionary,” Taylor notes. However, as Inder Marwah and others have argued, Kant’s views on women as necessarily immature cannot be written off as incidental to his political theory, especially since, as Taylor acknowledges, the resources for a more inclusive view are present in his own system. In an interesting twist, Pogge argues that Kant’s clear inegalitarianism with regard to women and members of the lower classes (“these views occur too frequently and are too sharply expressed to be discounted as slips of the pen”) actually supports his (Pogge’s) contention that Kant’s political theory is freestanding, since it can accommodate even a view as inegalitarian as Kant’s apparently is.

Why, then, even bother with Kant’s political theory? The short answer is this: because Kant is the philosopher of freedom, and the possibility of freedom is the political question par excellence. The question of freedom touches both political thought and the very possibility of knowledge of politics. Arthur Ripstein writes in this volume that it is not too strong to call freedom the problem, demonstrating the point with the example of slavery: “if the other problems a slave has—low welfare, limited options, and so on—were addressed by a benevolent master, the relationship of slavery would perhaps be less bad, but it would not thereby be less wrong.” As the essays in this volume demonstrate, all three Critiques make substantial contributions to the political philosophy of freedom. Moreover, and despite their somewhat disjointed and haphazard presentation, Kant’s specifically political works together comprise a body of ideas that not only occupies a rightful place in the canon but also offers a number of original theories directly relevant to present-day politics.

These ideas will be treated in some detail below and in the volume’s essays. For now, to give the reader an idea of the importance of Kant’s contributions to political theory, I shall select a few elements of the work for brief mention. First on the list would have to be the Kantian basis of present-day international, national, and subnational human rights regimes. As O’Neill and others demonstrate in this volume, Kant defends human rights as the only possible basis for moral interaction among limited rational beings.

Next on this list of mention-worthy Kantian achievements in political thought would come Kant’s ethics of peace and the accompanying political theory for an international pacific regime. Whether or not political scientists eventually conclude in favor of the “democratic peace hypothesis,” the underlying ideals and pragmatic suggestions of Kant’s system continue to exert enormous influence. Moreover, Kantian ideals provide perhaps our most powerful moral lens through which to view historical and contemporary actors. Kant gives us both optimistic and very dark moments when contemplating the human propensity for war, revealing simultaneously our potential for peaceful coexistence and our repeated failures to achieve it. When it comes international right, Kant observes, “we are still barbarians.”

Third on our short list of Kantian achievements in political theory might be the Kantian basis for several of today’s most important theories of justice, including especially those of Habermas and Rawls. Rawls’s move toward a “political, not metaphysical” theory that can accept the fact of pluralism owes more to Kant than Rawls himself acknowledges (see Pogge’s essay in this volume). As I put the point in 2008, “What matters for politics is not the conclusiveness of any particular ethical system, even Kant’s own, but the abstract ubiquity of moral argument in political life.” Habermas’s adaptation of Kant’s theory of the public sphere builds on this same, fundamental Kantian idea of the ubiquity of moral reasoning in politics; in addition to Habermas’s work, there is an important and influential body of theory on discursive and deliberative modes of politics based on the Kantian idea of the public sphere. Of course, not everyone agrees about the value of these achievements. Ian Hunter argues here, for example, that “the historical understanding of Kant’s political thought has suffered from its modernizing adaptation to meet the needs of two highly successful twentieth-century normative philosophies, those of John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas.” Michaele Ferguson similarly notes that Kant’s adaptation to serve the needs of neo-Kantian contemporary theory has oversimplified Kant’s nuanced philosophy. Arguing that antagonism is essential to Kant’s system, Ferguson writes that Kant “is a moral philosopher who attends to the undesirability of the elimination of conflict and the importance of its perpetuation. . . . This is a Kant who can help us understand the neo-Kantian impulse to regulate antagonisms . . . and who can help us see how this impulse draws strength from its own failure to ever fully eliminate the antagonisms that bring it into being.”

In addition to these primarily normative theories of political reason giving, we have the fundamentals for a number of more empirically oriented theories of discourse in Kant’s dynamic account of public reason. Kantian political theory includes important accounts of justice, revolution, pedagogy, autonomy, international relations, press freedom, regime change, citizenship, republicanism, property rights, punishment, cosmopolitanism, the rule of law, and many other critical political topics. Across Kant’s different modes of inquiry—from the Critiques through the political treatises and essays to his university lectures, letters, and even the marginalia —we find his consistent concern with the possibility of realizing human freedom.

Overview of Kant’s Political Ideas

Kant’s political works are concerned not with moral or internal freedom, but with external freedom. This topic is treated in an assortment of essays and books, the most important of which is the first part of the Metaphysics of Morals (the Doctrine of Right). Kant defines this kind of freedom as “independence from being constrained by another’s choice” (6:237). To be subject to another’s choice would be to be tyrannized over, to suffer despotism. Kant consistently opposes despotism, whether it is the despotism of paternalistic government, or the social despotism of an inherited nobility, or even the despotism of having one’s will determined by material rather than ideal considerations (though this is more a moral and less a political concern). The goal is human emancipation—from the institutions of the old regime, from social and political domination generally, and even from traditional patterns of thinking. “Sapere aude!” Kant writes in Enlightenment. “Have the courage to make use of your own understanding!” (8:35).

For Kant there are many paths to human emancipation, most of them explored in the contributions to this volume. LaVaque-Manty, for example, ably demonstrates that for Kant the achievement of moral and political autonomy depends on and is analogous to the achievement of natural autonomy in the sense of using one’s body to fulfill the ends one has set oneself. This will surprise some readers of Kant, for whom his exclusion of empirical conditions from the moral calculus of the Groundwork implies a rejection of the natural world tout court. However, LaVaque-Manty persuasively argues that physical autonomy is for Kant an irreplaceable step on the way to autonomy generally. This view explains many of Kant’s otherwise inexplicable positions: his support for play and physical education for children, his opposition to rote memorization, his consistent attacks on leading strings and walkers for young children (these three are LaVaque-Manty’s examples), and even the otherwise puzzling inclusion of a chapter on health regimens with detailed instructions on proper breathing in The Conflict of the Faculties.

Though he never wrote a critique of politics, Kant does apply his famous critical method to the question of political freedom. How, Kant asks, is freedom possible? What are the conditions of possibility for human freedom? As Ripstein demonstrates here, this question leads Kant to coercion under the rule of law almost as soon as he posits freedom as the only innate human right. Louis-Philippe Hodgson explains that the idea is “fundamental for Kant’s entire political philosophy: . . . human beings have, in virtue of their rational nature, a right to freedom, that is, a right to ‘independence from being constrained by another’s choice . . . insofar as it can coexist with the freedom of every other in accordance with a universal law.’” For everyone to enjoy freedom in the sense of independence from others’ determination, we need to be able to prevent people from exercising unilateral force on one another (and any coercion authorized by less than a united will counts as unilateral, including for example one class coercing another). But if coercive force is required to stop people from interfering with one another’s legitimate exercises of freedom, how can it be reconciled with freedom as independence from another’s determination? I have already hinted that Kant’s answer will be that legitimate coercion can only be exercised on behalf of a universal will. As Ripstein explains here, law, and not any one person or group, must determine the limits within which free citizens interact. The answer to Kant’s critical question about the conditions under which political freedom is possible is this: only under the republican rule of law is human freedom possible.

What, then, counts as republican? The crucial test of republican legitimacy is whether the state’s laws reflect the universal will of the people. As mentioned above, laws that reflect any partial will, whether the will of a societal group like the clergy or the aristocracy, or the will of a single despot, always subject individuals to determination by another, and are thus illegitimate. According to Kant the “mixed constitution” of Great Britain is illegitimate, because the royal house can decide whether or not to go to war, and thus real legislative power lies with the king and not with the people. This does not mean that Kant expects actual unanimity or even actual majorities to support laws before they can be viewed as legitimate. Instead, he argues that the test of legitimate legislation is whether a whole people could have reasonably supported it.

Like other Enlightenment republicans of his day, Kant supports the separation of powers. However, it is the problem of realizing freedom as independence from determination by another’s choice that motivates Kant’s insistence on the separation of powers rather than the usual concerns about power. As O’Neill notices in her contribution, Kant often adapts a familiar structure from mainstream republican thought while giving it an entirely new justification. Like Montesquieu and other advocates of the separation of powers, Kant argues for a three-branch style of government, including executive, legislative, and judicial authorities. Unlike them, however, Kant uses this structure only to insure that citizens are insulated from unilateral will. Kant is interested in making sure that the exercise of coercive power always represents the united will of the people and not the private will of some individual or group. The executive branch, according to Kant, must never treat the state as a private holding, but only perform the universal will of the people as best as this can be understood. Kant illustrates this norm in Perpetual Peace with the example of the absolutist but relatively progressive Prussian king Frederick II, who “at least said that he was only the highest servant of the state” (8:352). This Kantian version of the separation of powers also explains why he is so critical of ancient direct democracies, which might strike us as surprising from the author who inspired the democratic peace hypothesis.

Ripstein writes in this volume that for Kant, “the state of nature is devoid of justice. The solution is to leave the state of nature and enter a rightful condition in which we are subject to common standards.” For Kant, then, if we are to enjoy freedom as independence of determination by another’s choice, we must be subject to a state that enforces the universal rule of law. In this sense, Kant joins the social contract tradition by arguing that everyone is obliged to leave the state of nature and submit to common adjudication of disputes. However, here as elsewhere, Kant’s innovative use of familiar terms can be misleading. Ripstein reminds us that Kant’s reason to enter the civil condition is not like those of other social contract thinkers: the state and its coercion are not meant just to keep “corrupt, lazy, or selfish beings in line.” Only under conditions of universal law is freedom possible. It is wrong, therefore, to refuse to enter into lawful relations with anyone with whom one might interact. Again, thinking with Ripstein: “Coercion is central to [Kant’s] analysis because the possibility of interference with freedom arises simply from the existence of a plurality of free beings setting their own purposes, not the empirical likelihood of people using force.” Kant, then, does not argue for the entry into the civil condition on any of the usual grounds: for protection of prepolitical rights to one’s body or the fruits of one’s labor, for instance, or in the service of a rational interest in peaceful coexistence, to take another example. Rather, the idealized Kantian reasoner exits the state of nature for the rule of law, the only condition under which the exercise of human freedom is possible.

We all know there is no actual ideal reasoner. As O’Neill argues in her essay in this volume, for Kant the social contract is important as an idea [Idee], not as an historical reality or as a personal obligation. Kant calls the original contract a norm for all actually existing states; he means that real states can be judged according to how well they achieve the standards entailed by the idea of original contract. Kant glosses freedom as independence from determination by another’s choice; that is to say, freedom means obeying laws of one’s own making (however indirect that lawmaking may in fact be). Kant argues in Theory and Practice that the idea of original contract has “undoubted practical reality” just because it functions as a norm for states, in particular binding legislators to make only laws “in such a way that they could have arisen from the united will of a whole people” (8:297). O’Neill summarizes: “Kant’s version of the social contract can count as an idea of reason because he derives it from his account of practical reason, rather than from any appeal to actual or hypothetical consent.”

Once we realize that the original contract is not empirical or historical reality but rather an idea of reason, we can understand why Kant would insist that subjects must not investigate the origins of the state that rules them. Kant argues that investigation into the origins of actual states would certainly reveal illegitimate coercion, adding that such an inquiry would likely be futile, since “savages draw up no record of their submission to law” (MM, 6:339). Citizens must not seek critical leverage in the material and historical origins of their particular state, though they may compare their states with the principles derived from the idea of original contract as a norm. As Taylor describes in his essay in this volume, Kant views this kind of judgment and petition as citizens’ main mode of political expression. Acting only in the public sphere, they may expose duplicity, artifice, and other failures of the regime to conform to republican principles of accountability. To do more than this, Taylor’s Kant argues, would undermine the rule of law that makes their very freedom possible. The exercise of freedom of the pen, of participation in the public sphere unconstrained by social or political hindrances, should according to Kant be the driving force that moves regimes from despotism to freedom without risking revolutionary setbacks. As John Christian Laursen demonstrates in this volume, Kant could be quite strategic in his political arguments, aiming to transform the legal context in a progressive direction, but not always by the most obvious means. Discussing Kant’s arguments against book piracy, for example, Laursen shows us Kant inculcating associations between authorship and natural right subtly, “in the most abstract, uncontroversial, and innocuous language, so that by the time the reader had finished reading he would find himself having to agree with Kant’s outcome.”

This has not, however, been the experience of readers of Kant’s remarks on the right of revolution. Far from being drawn into unavoidable agreement, most readers find themselves remarking on the irony that the philosopher of freedom calls for obedience even to unjust authorities. One argument Kant makes against revolution is that for any revolutionary action to succeed, it would have to be kept secret, and would thus violate the norm of publicity. He also employs more empirical arguments, including the claim that quick transitions cannot effect the substantive social changes that are required to make progress toward genuine republicanism. As Taylor demonstrates here, Kant’s preferred mode of regime change is gradual to the point of being invisible to its very agents: “By a series of policy innovations, each tactically sound, an absolute monarchy (or more likely a dynasty) thus engineers its own downfall and the creation of a republic. Moreover, this end is . . . accomplished without any violations of right, which would inevitably occur in a revolution.”

As Taylor suggests, Kant’s main argument against revolutionary activity is that it undermines the conditions of civil freedom itself. For Kant, the kind of gradual reform that is possible through public critique is both more likely to succeed and more legitimate (since it depends on potentially universal arguments, rather than unilateral force). In his late writings, Kant expresses sympathy for the goals of the French Revolution; in fact, he cites the daring of Prussian partisans of the French revolutionaries as indirect evidence of the empirical reality of moral reason itself. As Ferguson notes, Kant sometimes recognizes that revolutionary activity, viewed historically, can promote progress toward freedom. Moreover, as Ripstein argues here, Kant distinguishes among regimes, however despotical, that provide a civil condition (law), and what he calls barbarian regimes that do no such thing. Though Kant’s remarks on the topic are all too brief, resistance to barbarism may not only be permitted, but may also be obligatory. However, Kant consistently advocates gradualism and the public sphere over revolutionary action in the streets or on the battlefield.

“Now morally practical reason pronounces in us its irresistible veto: there is to be no war” (MM, 6:354). Like individuals, states must exit the state of nature and enter into peaceful coexistence in the international sphere. Just as the idea of an original contract justifies the surrender of lawless freedom to a state that guarantees the rule of law, so the idea of perpetual peace ought to move states to enter into lawful relations with one another. The analogy is imperfect; we see in Hodgson’s account that a Kantian should actually support a global federal system with the minimum necessary powers, though Kant himself resists this conclusion (PP, 8:355–56). Kant does not conflate all potential world states with the one he criticizes as despotic (universal monarchy). Incidentally, this common mistake (conflating universal monarchy with all potential world states) reminds us of the continuing value of detailed historical research into Kant’s intellectual historical context. Without the understanding provided by Hunter, Laursen, Georg Cavallar, and others that discussion of the “universal monarchy” advocated by Dante, for example, was quite common, it is impossible to follow Kant’s subtle distinction.

Returning to the analogy between exiting the state of nature on the domestic and international levels, however, we see that the logic is the same: the idea of perpetual peace, like the idea of original contract, functions as a norm to which everyone ought to conform. Kant does not expect states to make themselves vulnerable by behaving as if the peaceful norm were already reality. As Ferguson notes here, Kant does not expect war to disappear entirely. Instead, he argues that even in war, states ought to “always leave open the possibility of leaving the state of nature among states . . . and entering a rightful condition” (MM, 6:347).

Kant provides a series of arguments that have become associated with the democratic peace hypothesis. The general idea is that what we would call democratic accountability under the rule of law on the domestic front leads to peace internationally. First, he claims that under republican governance, the people’s will would be reflected in policy decisions, and the people, he thinks, will not support costly aggressive wars. By contrast, the incentives facing despotic heads of state would tend to encourage them to “decide upon war, as upon a kind of pleasure party” (PP, 8:350). Second, he argues that republican governments’ peaceful examples will serve as a kind of focal point for an expanding, and commercially profitable, pacific league. Finally, Kant offers both an idealized picture of peaceful international relations and a set of principles that should promote its realization. As Ferguson points out in this volume, Kant does not expect cosmopolitan harmony to be achieved, and his references to such an outcome are invariably ironic, using terms like “illusory.” However, “we must act as if it is something real, though perhaps it is not; we must work toward establishing perpetual peace and the kind of constitution that seems to us most conducive to it” (MM, 6:354).

But of course this peaceful condition is not real. How can actual human beings work to achieve progress toward such ideal, even unreachable, conditions? At the international level, Kant suggests a number of norms to which principled heads of state ought to adhere, including bans on such practices as debt-financed military adventure and the use of assassins as weapons of international intrigue. Any practice undermining the possibility of future peaceful relations among states must be eliminated. However, Kant does admit the possibility that some practices that conflict with right, such as the maintenance of standing armies, might under the right circumstances promote rather than prevent eventual peaceful international relations. In these cases, he argues, they are provisionally acceptable.

Kant also applies the idea of provisional right to domestic politics. Hodgson explains why “there are no conclusive rights in the state of nature. . . . Because the conditions that must obtain for rights to be legitimately adjudicated and enforced are jointly constitutive of the civil condition.” However, as Ripstein notes in his contribution, a defective civil condition is still obligatory compared with no civil condition at all. Kant is well aware of the enormous gap between the near-feudal reality of much of contemporary politics and the republican ideal of political freedom. Therefore, he argues not that leaders must instantly revolutionize their world to reflect republican perfection, but instead that real-world leaders ought to consider whether their actions promote or retard the possibility of progress.

For example, as Hunter notes in this volume, “when Kant applies the test [of political legitimacy as the possible unified will of the people] . . . to show the illegitimacy of the laws arbitrarily privileging a noble social estate—he does so not by asking whether republican governments might actually pass such laws (clearly they have), but by asking whether such a law could be universalized in a community of rational beings.” Even once he has determined that a policy—say, of granting privileges to members of an hereditary nobility—is illegitimate, however, Kant does not propose eliminating them outright. Instead, “the only way the state can then gradually correct this mistake it has made, of conferring hereditary privileges contrary to right, is by letting them lapse . . . it has a provisional right to let these titled positions of dignity continue” (MM, 6:329). Kant is much more interested in preventing actual despotism than in reproducing the ideal forms of republican governance; if public opinion values ancient formalities, Kant supports their continuation, so long as the real distribution of the power to decide becomes steadily more rightful.

“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and reverence, the more often and more steadily one reflects on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me (5:162),” Kant writes in Critique of Practical Reason. The elements of human existence most relevant to political freedom are our physical location on what Kant called the globus terraqueus and the fact that we all apply moral norms to political reality. Not only are individuals obliged to enter into law-governed conditions with all potential interacting agents, but states also “are condemned by their power to find a way to share the surface of the earth; they cannot escape this plight, because there is a very real sense in which, to use Kant’s words, they ‘cannot help mutually affecting one another’” (Hodgson). Given our residence on a round earth connected by waterways, we are always at least potentially interacting with everyone else: “a violation of right on one place of the earth is felt in all” (PP, 8:360). Even if we do not always agree about the nature of such violations, we can all recognize wrongs by comparing reality with norms of rightful relations. In Kant’s vision of politics, we are on the way to a civil condition under which human freedom is possible. Freedom from determination by another’s choice is the innate right of individuals; freedom to decide to make progress toward enlightened self-rule is the “highest right of the people” (MM, 6:237).

Overview of This Volume’s Contributions

We begin our volume of essays by asking basic questions about Kant’s political theory. What, if anything, justifies the state? If political power is instrumental to some other good, what is that good and why should it serve to legitimate sovereignty? Philosopher Onora O’Neill opens this collection with a critical and rarely recognized claim about Kant’s political thought: for Kant, the state solves a problem that arises from the basic structure of our existence as reason givers, applied to our specific condition as human beings. As Michaele Ferguson puts it later in the volume, politics is a necessary aspect of our human condition (as plural end setters) rather than an unfortunate makeshift necessitated by our flawed human nature. While the flaws in our human nature may be remediable, the human condition of plurality is not: “As Kant’s imaginative example of rational extraterrestrials suggests, in order to rid ourselves of the human condition of plurality, we would have to become entirely different beings.” Even without our character faults, we would still exist as inhabitants of space on a closed, round planet, necessarily interacting and each setting ends ourselves. Addressing the same set of questions, Arthur Ripstein in this volume emphasizes that for Kant, politics is not remedial. “Justice is required because human beings are capable of setting and pursuing their own purposes. That capacity is not a limitation; it is our humanity itself.”

So in contrast to other thinkers in the social contract tradition, for Kant the state and its coercive enforcement of law is necessitated by practical reason in a human context. Kant’s idea of the social contract plays an important but subordinate part in his political philosophy. As O’Neill writes, for Kant, “the social contract is a special case of his universal principle of justice: it spells out what this principle requires in actual human conditions. The universal principle of justice is in turn a special case of the categorical imperative: it spells out the most basic maxims to which our lives must conform if the structures of the public domain are to meet the requirements of the categorical imperative. The categorical imperative is the supreme principle of practical reason, indeed an idea of reason, because its double modal requirement formalizes the recognition that we are not in the business of offering reasons to others unless we can take it that they can follow those reasons. Kant’s version of the social contract can count as an idea of reason because he derives it from his account of practical reason, rather than from any appeal to actual or to hypothetical consent.” Therefore, O’Neill argues, Kant grounds political justification in reason itself, rather than in explicit or tacit, actual, or hypothetical consent. O’Neill’s theme of Kant’s ambivalent relationship to the social contract tradition recurs throughout the volume, but especially in Ripstein’s and Hodgson’s contributions.

The concept of consent is a fraught one for scholars of Kant’s political thought. On the one hand, the idea of a united will overcoming the problem of the injustice of should-be autonomous agents subordinated to unilateral will, that is, of individuals being objects of some other person’s or people’s choice, is the linchpin of Kant’s system of right. On the other hand, however, as O’Neill neatly demonstrates in the first part of her essay, Kant cannot adopt any of the standard contractarian views of consent. Explicit consent could not be the basis for the kind of reliable mutual enforcement that guarantees the exercise of free choices within the bounds of everyone else’s free choice, since if I had to agree to each law that binds me, I might well pick and choose, exposing my fellow citizens to arbitrary determinations of mine. Tacit consent also cannot be Kant’s answer, for, as O’Neill remarks, “a conception of tacit consent sufficiently diluted to endorse all legitimate coercion would be so indeterminate that it would endorse everything—and justify nothing.” A final possible consent option is hypothetical consent; this option holds wide appeal for contemporary scholars seeking to, as Hunter acerbically puts it in this volume, transform Kant’s “esoteric” doctrine into something “exoteric” and useful in the modern day. Kant certainly provides some textual evidence for this view, recommending for example that we must treat laws as authoritative if a people could possibly have willed them (but remember that crucial word, “possibly”). Unfortunately for hypothetical consent theory, O’Neill shows why it must be a nonstarter for Kant: either we base hypothetical consent on idealized conditions (deliberative rationality, say) that are impossible for empirical choosers to fulfill, or we begin with empirically existing features shared by the choosers, in which case we must presume what we are trying to justify. Abandoning these three consent theories, O’Neill returns to Kant’s basic critical apparatus for the answer: we need to understand the conditions of possibility for universal consent. Kant’s criterion is “modal and not hypothetical.

Arthur Ripstein explains Kant’s contract theory and his rejection of the right of revolution by distinguishing sharply between Kant’s views and those of his predecessors (by contrast with Ian Hunter’s contribution). Most of these predecessors, including both natural lawyers and contractarians, view justice as remedial, and law as a makeshift solution to problems arising from human imperfection. Kant’s view is fundamentally different, Ripstein argues: “neither justice nor law is remedial . . . [they] are required for any finite and embodied free beings that interact with each other.” To be sure, Kant is concerned with how human beings “come to terms with their imperfections.” But these questions come into play for Kant only after the fundamentals of justice and law have been established, whereas for his predecessors they form the first step of the arguments for the necessity of government. Toward the end of the chapter, Ripstein draws on a range of distinctions among political regimes from Kant’s Anthropology to explain Kant’s oft-criticized rejection of the right to rebellion. People have misunderstood Kant if they claim that his support of the rule of law would include orderly but lawless regimes such as Nazi Germany. The Nazi regime was no republic, and no despotism, but only barbarism, a regime of force with neither freedom nor law, and thus merely a “defective form of the state of nature” for Kant.

Thomas Pogge argues that “we can gain a better understanding of Kant’s Rechtslehre by confronting it with the distinction [between political and comprehensive conceptions of justice] Rawls developed two centuries later.” With a subtle and powerful reading of Kant’s most important political work, Pogge argues that we need not presume that Kant’s political theory is dependent on his moral philosophy, even though Kant sometimes writes as if it were. Instead, we should analyze the text of the Rechtslehre to discover whether the account of political justice there can be interpreted as freestanding in the Rawlsian sense. Pogge argues that it can, and calls on “those who dismiss Kant’s political philosophy as dependent on metaphysical or moral views that we cannot expect to be freely endorsed by the citizens of modern societies” to answer his case.

With Hodgson’s chapter on the Kantian case for a world state, we move from the background of Kant’s international legal thought to its application in perhaps the most ambitious possible way. As with the other contributors, Hodgson places Kant’s effort to realize moral ideals at the center of his argument. Hodgson, however, departs from Kant’s own well-known worries about the institution of a global government to argue that the best Kantian view supports a federally organized world state with enforcement powers. Such an institution, Hodgson argues, is made necessary by the same arguments that Kant uses to justify the exit from the state of nature in the case of individuals. Thoughtfully deploying Kant’s distinction between conclusive and provisional right, Hodgson argues that only under an enforceable system of rights can states and the individuals within them enjoy genuine freedom. These rights could be enforced only by a federally organized international authority. Hodgson’s conclusions regarding a proposed world state could apply to rest of the contributions in this volume: “Kant’s doubts notwithstanding, there is thus good reason to believe that realizing the ideal set by external freedom is possible in this world.”

For Robert Taylor, a close reading of Kant’s famous essay, “An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?,” allows us to understand how absolutist rule could fit comfortably within Kant’s republican political philosophy. Reading the essay against the background of debates in the Prussian journals of the time and in the context of Kant’s other political writings, Taylor demonstrates the critical importance of Kant’s contrast between man and machine for his account of the fundamental political human “aptitude for active, republican citizenship.” Along the way, Taylor demonstrates how Kant’s philosophy of history leads him to expect that absolute rulers, including those not motivated by moral duty, will take the steps leading ultimately to their replacement by republican government.

In her chapter, Michaele Ferguson examines a central concept in Kant’s teleological thought: unsocial sociability. Focusing in particular on Kant’s accounts of friendship and cosmopolitanism, Ferguson argues that for Kant unsocial sociability drives human progress but produces unavoidable antagonism. “The seeds of mistrust, suspicion, and repulsion are forever embedded in human affairs.” Rejecting pessimism about the human condition, however, Ferguson identifies unsocial sociability as a “constitutive tension,” both for Kant’s philosophy and for would-be cosmopolitans. While both Ferguson and Ripstein agree that the human condition of a plurality of end setters drives the necessity of the entry into the civil condition, they disagree about what Ferguson calls Kant’s phenomenology. For Ferguson, the source of all social conflict “from interpersonal strife all the way up to interstate war . . . [is] the result of the free choices of individuals acting in accord with their natural unsociability.” Ferguson corrects the common impression that this view of the human condition is pessimistic: antagonism is a productive force in Kant’s theory of history, moving humanity toward cosmopolitan life, if not toward some impossible perfect harmony.

The historian Ian Hunter uses the context of the journal wars of the Prussian eighteenth century to demolish anachronistic readings of Kant’s political and religious thought. Hunter begins with the historical point that Kant’s moral, political, and religious ideas existed in competition with rival strands of Enlightenment ideology; we ought to examine Kant’s ideas as part of a “concrete struggle for dominance in the field of competing moral programs.” In the first half of his chapter, Hunter argues persuasively for setting Kant’s ideas in the context of Protestant rationalist metaphysics, identifying “Kant’s central metaphysical construct—his conception of man as a pure intelligence mortgaged to sensuous inclinations” with its roots in “German university metaphysics.” This done, Hunter proceeds in the second half of the chapter to overturn the dominant reading of Kant’s engagements in religious controversies of his day. This dominant reading sees Kant as the representative of enlightened, rational religion against (minister for religious affairs) Johann Christoph Wöllner’s anti-Enlightenment dogmatic conservatism. Hunter argues instead that the Prussian religious establishment attacked by Kant and defended by Wöllner was in fact more pluralist, secular, and tolerant than the “factional cultural politics of the Protestant metaphysical rationalists” like Kant. “However alien it might be to the political sensibilities of those now living in religiously pacified societies under politically secularized states, the occasional action taken against outbreaks of religious rationalism in Brandenburg-Prussia during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was neither anti-Enlightenment nor indicative of the state’s attempt to block the progress of reason and freedom.”

The intersection of moral ideals and social reality continues to concern us in Mika LaVaque-Manty’s contribution to the volume. Reading Kant’s pedagogical writings, and reporting on Kant’s personal involvement in progressive educational movements of the time, LaVaque-Manty demonstrates in the context of education Kant’s concern with the possible realization of critical moral philosophy. In the first place, Kant thought of education and politics as essentially connected: “Two human inventions can be considered the most difficult, namely, the art of government and the art of education.” They are both means of realizing human autonomy, and both fraught with similar conundra of paternalism and enlightenment. What LaVaque-Manty says about Kant’s views on education applies just as well to progressive politics: “too much fostering, and independence won’t come about . . . too little, and people will remain metaphorical children all their lives.” For Kant as for his fellow reformer Johann Bernhard Basedow, education serves the state by producing good citizens. Note also, as Ian Hunter mentions in his essay, that for Kant the Prussian state is an Erziehungsstaat or “pedagogical or tutelary state.”

More generally, Kant associated the field of education with the possibility of progress for humanity: musing on the contemporary barbarism that is the international system, Kant proceeded to complain that “we” have not yet come up with a unified religion, nor a system of education. The results of LaVaque-Manty’s investigation into Kant’s pedagogical theory and practice support his important reading of Kant’s concept of autonomy. Kant’s “emphasis on free play on children’s own terms . . . and opposition to rote memorization and physical punishment” constitute a pragmatic application of an ideal of autonomy that is “far more dynamic than it sometimes seems.” LaVaque-Manty shows us that Kant’s pedagogical work, like his theory of citizenship, promotes an ideal of autonomy through context-sensitive instantiations intended to bring imperfect, unequal circumstances closer to the egalitarian goal.

John Christian Laursen’s contribution also examines Kant’s views in their historical context. He begins with the following puzzle. It is well known that Kant called for intellectual freedom and freedom of the press in his famous essay of 1784, “What Is Enlightenment?,” and that in many of his later works he promotes a politics of publicity. Why, then, is there no clearly established right to freedom of the press in his great Metaphysics of Morals of 1797? Laursen examines Kant’s engagement in the eighteenth-century controversy over book piracy, including especially his response to Martin Ehlers, in order to illuminate the important question of Kant’s commitment to press freedom. Interpreting Kant’s writings on contemporary political controversies as “a sort of Trojan horse, designed to plant ideas inside the city walls that can later break out and tear down those walls,” the chapter begins with the context of the book piracy debate and ends up providing a new and persuasive explanation for the curious absence of a right of press freedom in the Rechtslehre.


The contributors to this volume represent a variety of disciplines (political science, history, philosophy, international relations), and present even more different perspectives on Kant’s political theory. Their conclusions often overturn accepted wisdom about Kant’s work: LaVaque-Manty compares Kant’s pedagogy favorably with the educational innovations of both Locke and Rousseau, for example, and Ripstein shows us that some regimes (barbaric ones) may rightly be opposed. There are certainly strong disagreements among the contributors, including for example between Pogge and Hunter on the value of Rawls’s adaptation of Kant’s ideas, or between Taylor and Pogge on the consequences of Kant’s sexism. However, across these differences, certain continuities remain. One area of agreement is that the status of Kant’s relation to mainstream social contract theory is an important and difficult topic. Another is the continuing interest of Kant’s political philosophy. Even Hunter defends the Kant that he views as an authentic representative of Protestant rationalism against modern misreadings.

Most important, the contributors to this volume share a conviction that Kant offers a crucial touchstone for thinking about the conditions of human freedom today. In imitation of Kant’s own orientation, the contributors in their writings maintain an openness to new ideas and evidence; an ecumenical view with regard to sources of interest; a nonparochialism of discipline, region, and topic; and a consistent fallibilism with regard to their own and others’ work; in short, this group represents a genuinely Kantian attitude toward the investigation of the world. Kant is the great inquirer, the great antidogmatist who took uncertainty and limited human knowledge as a starting point and still dared to conjecture. We hope to have honored these commitments with our interpretations and applications of Kant’s political theory.