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Wednesday, October 16, 2019

On The Political Implications of Immanuel Kant’s Philosophy

Immanuel Kant has not written directly on political issues; much of his work is on epistemology, moral theory, and aesthetics, and since his writing style is highly abstract, it is difficult to connect him to any political movement. Some of the letters that he wrote in the early years of 1790s suggest that the failure of the French Revolution had the effect of awakening him from his “dogmatic political slumbers,” and he was inspired to write a Fourth Critique, which might have focused on political theory. But in the 1790s he could write only a few minor essays.

However, if we see philosophy as a practical implication of ethical philosophy, then we can try to find out how Kant’s deontological ethics informs his politics. One of the versions of his categorical imperative is close to republicanism. This is the version that states that one must act in accord with the idea that every rational will is a universally legislating will, and one must treat every person, including oneself, with the respect owed to someone who is a universal moral legislator.

This version of the categorical imperative implies that Kant (like Locke and Rousseau) believed that people are free while they obeying the laws of society, as long as they have participated in the formation of the laws that they are obeying. We show our moral obligations to all rational beings when we participate in the formulation of laws which we must ourselves obey. According to Kant, freedom is autonomy, which is the rational self giving itself the law. But morality too is the rational self giving itself the law. Therefore, freedom and morality are same for Kant. You are free only when, you are acting morally.

In the 19th century, political theory has become based on ethics—the two dominant ethical theories of this period are John Stuart Mill’s utilitarian ethics and Kant’s deontological ethics. So there are several political theories in the 19th century which acknowledge a debt to Mill’s utilitarianism or to Kant’s deontology.

In his shorter essays, Kant has made some comments on political issues. In his essay on universal history, he notes that the great problem that civil society faces is the “unsocial sociability” of man, which while making us inherently social also puts us in competition and conflict. But this feature of man is conducive for progress. A republican political system is must suited for preserving the freedom of a creature like man. Kant expects republicanism to become universal. In his essay on perpetual peace, he notes that wars between the states can undermine republicanism, and he suggests that a federation of republican states can be created to ensure world peace.

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