States of Nature in Immanuel Kant’s Doctrine of Right

Published date01 September 2020
Date01 September 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2020, Vol. 73(3) 727 –739
© 2019 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912919855437
This paper is so titled because it is an exploration of the
varieties of the state of nature in Kant’s ([1797] 1996)
Doctrine of Right. Kant identifies two different states of
nature. One is the state of nature among individuals,1 the
state of nature with which we have all grown so familiar.
This state of nature appears in the first part of the text,
“Private Right.”2 Kant’s second state of nature appears in
part 2, “Public Right.”3 It is the state of nature among
states, now often called international anarchy in
International Relations.4 Not only does he identify these
two different kinds of state of nature,5 the specific func-
tions and modes of depicting each are radically different:
Kant uses a rather pictorial, descriptive, quite “empiri-
cally” robust description of the international state of
nature in Public Right, whereas Private Right lacks
empirical description.6 Kant not only provides a rich
description in Public Right, his description itself involves
a further one. Kant uses a people he places in the state of
nature to depict the international state of nature, namely,
From an analysis of Kant’s states of nature in the
Doctrine of Right, this paper shows that Kant textually
mobilizes savages in his effort to motivate a duty to exit
the states of nature in Public Right, overriding his a priori
aims regarding right in Private Right. It shows that Kant
places savages in a lawless state of nature, where they
choose to remain; that Kant depicts them and that condi-
tion as bellicose; that Kant identifies a duty to exit the
states of nature; that one does wrong in highest degree by
choosing to remain in the state of nature; and, when con-
tact is inevitable one can preemptively “prevent” hostili-
ties without doing wrong; finally, one must be able to
constrain everyone else to exit the state of nature and
enter the civil condition, which is to say states have a duty
to force “savages” to exit the state(s) of nature. I show
that Kant’s text is more deeply colonial in aim than previ-
ously supposed, reframing Kant’s identification of a duty
to exit the state of nature.
The established orthodoxy is that Kant is staunchly
anti-colonial.8 The orthodoxy relies on passages where
Kant ([1797] 1996, [6:353] 490; cf. [1795] 1996, [8:358]
329, [360] 330) indeed makes anti-colonial claims; for
example, he notes in the Doctrine of Right that the “trou-
bles and acts of violence in one place on our globe to be
felt all over it” and that colonialism’s “supposedly good
intentions cannot wash away the stain of injustice in the
855437PRQXXX10.1177/1065912919855437Political Research QuarterlyKellner
1Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, USA
Corresponding Author:
Alan J. Kellner, Chicago Field Studies, Northwestern University,
1819 Hinman Avenue, Room 202, Evanston, IL 60208, USA.
States of Nature in Immanuel
Kant’s Doctrine of Right
Alan J. Kellner1
From an analysis of Kant’s states of nature in each division of the Doctrine of Right—the state of nature in general and
the international state of nature—this paper reinterprets Cosmopolitan Right and the duty to exit the state of nature
as more colonial than previously recognized. Kant places “savages” in the state of nature, depicting them and their
lawless condition as bellicose. As such, states may force them to exit the state of nature; those who encounter hostile
peoples on foreign lands may be justified in aggressing. Having shown that colonial features of the Doctrine of Right
cannot be wrested from the text, this paper unsettles the interpretive dominance of the established view that Kant
is staunchly anti-colonial. Nevertheless, anti-colonial features of the text remain. The paper shows that interpreters
must accept that Kant’s text is both colonial and anti-colonial. Kant’s global vision remained too statist to appropriately
include indigenous politics. The paper closes by briefly indicating a path for future research whereby contemporary
Kantian cosmopolitan projects become more attuned to—and modified in light of—the political agency and particular
struggles of indigenous peoples.
Immanuel Kant, state of nature, international anarchy, Kant and colonialism, Doctrine of Right

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