Kant and classical liberalism: friends or foes?

Author:Surprenant, Chris W.
  1. Introduction

    Many contemporary academics familiar with Immanuel Kant's practical philosophy come to Kant by way of John Rawls. Rawls argues that taking seriously the central tenets of Kant's moral theory requires a political philosophy that advocates, among other things, a significant redistribution of resources and a state entity that can facilitate this redistribution. As a result, many academics familiar with Kant via Rawls incorrectly assume that Kant himself advocated for such political solutions. Kant advances a political philosophy that is almost the opposite of what Rawls proposes, appearing to be more in line with the tenets of classical liberalism rather than the views associated with contemporary political liberalism. Put differently, Kant's practical philosophy lends itself to a type of liberalism that recognizes the importance of individual freedom and self-determination, but takes the promotion of these values to justify coercion within only a fairly narrow range of circumstances, both from state and nonstate entities.

    One of the most significant points of disagreement between Rawls and Kant is on taxation and the conditions under which the state is justified in using coercion to expropriate property from the rich and distribute it to the poor. Kant claims that respect for individual freedom justifies taxation to support the poor only to the extent that individuals receiving assistance are brought up to the level of subsistence and nothing more. To defend this account of Kant's philosophy, I will show that the promotion of individual autonomy lies at the center of Kant's moral theory, and that his political philosophy aims to establish and secure the external conditions that make individual freedom possible. Although Kant argues that one way of securing these external conditions legitimately is through coercion, he also claims that coercion is justified only in the limited cases where it is used to hinder hindrances to freedom.

    My discussion is divided into four parts. The first part examines Kant's account of autonomy and its central role in his moral and political philosophy. Part 2 examines the connection between individual freedom and civil society, including the limited role of coercion in establishing and maintaining this rightful condition. The third part examines Kant's account of a specific instance of coercive action--taxation--and the conditions under which taxation to support the poor is justified. Finally, I consider some implications of this position, draw similarities between Kant's position and those more traditionally aligned with classical liberalism, and show why the classical liberal should embrace Kant rather than reject him.

  2. Kant's Account of Freedom

    For Kant, autonomy is the "supreme principle of morality" and involves "choos[ing] only in such a way that the maxims of your choice are also included as universal law in the same volition" (Kant 1785, 4:440). An individual is autonomous when he adopts principles for action consistent with the categorical imperative (Kant 1785, 4:421), the formal principle against which we can test practical maxims to determine if they are consistent with the moral law. Principles that fail when tested against the categorical imperative fail because they are contradictory: either it is not possible to conceive of the action that comes as a result of universalizing that maxim (i.e., a contradiction in conception), or the result of universalizing the maxim somehow is self-defeating (i.e., a contradiction in the will). The person who adopts contradictory maxims is not free, at least not in the fullest sense. Kant distinguishes between two different states of freedom in relation to the will, a free Willkur and a free Wille. A free Willkur is possessed by an individual with "freedom of choice" or "independence from being determined by sensible impulses," while a free Wille is "the positive concept of freedom" or "the ability of pure reason to be of itself practical" (Kant 1797, 6:213-4). Complete freedom requires both.

    Consider lying, behavior that Kant seems to believe always is wrong (see Kant 1785, 4:403; Kant 1788, 5:21; Kant 1797, 6:420; etc.). Lying fails when tested against the categorical imperative because it contains a contradiction in conception. An individual who lies acts on a maxim similar to the following: "When it is to my advantage to do so, I will make a false statement to someone else when he believes that this false statement is true." What makes lying wrong is not that I cannot conceive of a world in which this principle can be universalized, but rather that universalizing this principle is self-defeating. That is, in a world in which everyone lies when it is convenient, lying serves no purpose because a lie is likely not to be believed. Lying is wrong, therefore, not because it is harmful to someone else, but because it is behavior inconsistent with reason (i.e., adopting a principle of action that is self-defeating), and that I would act in such a way is a failure to respect my dignity as a rational being. To put lying in the context of Willkur and Wille, although the liar may possess the external freedom to act how he sees fit, he has chosen to act from a principle grounded in something other than reason. Thus, we could say that the liar possesses a "free will" (Willkur) because he has the power to determine whether he adopts moral, immoral, or nonmoral maxims, but he lacks complete freedom (in the sense of a free Wille) because he failed to display reason by freely choosing to adopt moral maxims.

    Although autonomy is connected with an individual's ability to participate in the process of rational deliberation and act on maxims that are not contradictory in nature, an individual's external circumstances, circumstances that are often beyond his control, play a significant role in determining whether it is possible for him to be autonomous in practice. Consider life for someone living in a...

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