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Monday, May 28, 2018

Can a Bad Man be a Good Citizen?

Aristotle has said that a “good man can be a good citizen only in a good state,” but in his writing Immanuel Kant goes far beyond Aristotle and separates morality from good citizenship. He seems to suggest that even a "race of devils" can live a good life in a good state. Here’s an excerpt from Kant’s Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch:

“The problem of organizing a state, however hard it may seem, can be solved even for a race of devils, if only they are intelligent. The problem is: "Given a multitude of rational beings requiring universal laws for their preservation, but each of whom is secretly inclined to exempt himself from them, to establish a constitution in such a way that, although their pri­vate intentions conflict, they check each other, with the result that their public conduct is the same as if they had no such intentions.""

In her lecture on Kant’s political theory (third session), Hannah Arendt’s offers her perspective of this passage from Perpetual Peace:
This passage is crucial. What Kant said is—to vary the Aristote­lian formula—that a bad man can be a good citizen in a good state. His definition of "bad" here is in accordance with his moral philosophy. The categorical imperative tells you: Always act in such a way that the maxim of your acts can become a general law, that is, "I am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.” The point of the matter is very simple. In Kant's own words: I can will a particular lie, but I "can by no means will that lying should be the universal law. For with such a law there would be no promises at all.” Or: I can want to steal, but I cannot will stealing to be a uni­versal law; because, with such a law, there would be no property. The bad man is, for Kant, the one who makes an exception for himself; he is not the man who wills evil, for this, according to Kant, is impossible. Hence the "race of devils" here are not devils in the usual sense but those who are "secretly inclined to exempt" themselves. The point is secretly: they could not do it publicly because then they would obviously stand against the common interest—be enemies of the people, even if these people were a race of devils. And in politics, as distinguished from morals, everything depends on "public conduct." (Source: Hannah Arendt: Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, Edited by: Ronald Beiner)
Arendt notes that in Kant evil is generally self-destructive, but “the race of devils” that Kant talks about in Perpetual Peace will not destroy themselves because there is a great purpose of nature at work. Nature wants the preservation of the species, and it mandates that the human beings should be self-preserving and capable of using their mind. Kant did not believe that a moral transformation in man’s nature is necessary for bringing about political change. He stresses on a proper constitution and publicity. Arendt says: “‘Publicity’ is one of the key concepts of Kant's political thinking; in this context, it indicates his conviction that evil thoughts are secret by definition."

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