A Summary of Kant’s Political Philosophy
I – Liberalism 经典自由主义
Kant’s political philosophies are tremendously difficult to read and understand from his original works. I put together the following summary of his political philosophies from the works of later scholars.
The main thesis of Kant's political philosophy is liberalism. This ideal is highly associative with other philosophers. In Kant's works, contentions of liberalism have affinities with those from a group of contemporary writers: David Hume, Adam Smith, John Locke, Edmund Burke, Friedrich Schiller, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Baron de Montesquieu, Alexis de Tocqueville, James Madison, John Marshall and Daniel Webster. Some of these names in Chinese are well-known, such as 休谟、亚当史密斯、洛克、孟德斯鸠等。
Common to these contentions is the criticism that absolutist government, namely omnipotent or totalitarian regime in today's words, intrudes much too far into the citizen's lives. Under such system, ordinary people have no voice in determining their own destiny and no power to control that destiny if they have a voice. Today's North Korean provides a good example.
This conviction holds true not only for rulers with little or no concern for their people, for instance tyranny or monarchy, but also for paternalistic governments that benevolently but still despotically assume responsibility for the happiness of the citizens, for example the Soviet Communism. Instead of sustaining public true welfare, the later regime exacerbates natural human tendencies to selfishness and sloth, thereby encouraging dependence and servility and eventually curtailing the overall utility in the society. The fiasco occurred during “Big Leap Forward” and “Cultural Revolution” is a vivid example. People living in such states lack freedom, the freedom to pursue their lives and happiness as they see fit. According to liberalism, as opposed to the illiberality of tyranny, the proper function of government should be limited to protecting life, liberty and justice.
The role of civil laws conforms to such principle and can be specified as to protect each person's freedom from interference by others. Laws are mainly concerned with happiness only insofar as they limit what anyone may do in his pursuit of happiness to the condition of allowing all others the same freedom to pursue their ideals of happiness.
Kant put forth his proposals for a liberal state, and later British scholar John Gary has concluded the four main philosophical tenets underlying liberalism in his book with titles of:
1) individualistic 个人主义
2) egalitarian 平等主义
3) universalist 普世主义
4) meliorist 社会向善主义
These four characteristics give us a light beam guiding the organization of Kant's political theory. By understanding the evolution of these tenets and their connections, we can grasp the overall picture of Kant’s political philosophy.
II – Rationale of the State 国家存在的意义
A liberal advocate, Kant regarded the fundamental tasks of government as “negative” or “passive”, which impose passive constraints necessary to protect and promote each person's freedom. Here are two examples:
1) The legal system of the state must constrain both the power of the sovereign and the citizens' unregenerate desires.
2) The basic laws of the legal code should set out negative obligations and duties prohibiting people from interfering with the freedom of their fellow citizens.
In Kant’s view, the most basic function of civil law is not to grant entitlements which are proactive and positive, but to lay down obligations which are passive and negative. If people’s benefits arisen from living in the state are to sustain and social order and political stability are to endure, Kant believed that the citizenship should be constructed as a task or a responsibility to those moral conditions. On the other hand, rights and entitlements are derivatives in the sense that they arise only from corresponding duties that the state enforces. So in simple words, duties precede rights, and rights justify duties.
III - The universal principle of justice 公平的普世原则
Hobbes argues that people will yield the freedom they possess in the state of nature to civil authority only if they believe it is in their best personal interest to do so. And thus justification for any state must be egoistic or individualistic in nature. To neutralize the downsides of egoistic and individualism, Hobbes suggests that the state will have the power necessary to constrain the universal tendency to selfish and unruly behavior only if the power and the authority of the sovereign are absolute.
Unlike Hobbes, Kant argues that the overriding characteristic of a good state is not prevailing individualism but justice. Justice is not guaranteed merely by the existence of absolute governmental power. As a consequence, he provides that, no matter what might originally motivate people to submit to an authority, the ultimate justification for a society of free citizens must be moral in nature. However, since moral convictions are normally rooted in different and even conflicting religious or other cultural norms, how might it be possible to generate a system of laws that would be morally acceptable to everyone? The source of ethical conflict under one regime lies in here.
Kant's resolution is the proposal of a pre-political principle of legislation, guided by reason alone. That principle is called the "Universial Principle of Justice”. It has a role of regulating the entire legal structure of society, and states that only those civil arrangements that allow the most freedom for everyone alike are just (or right). Stated as compulsory for the citizens, the “Universal Principle of Justice” dictates that one should behave in such a way that his or her choices are compatible with the greatest amount of external freedom for everyone else.
Such a principle underlies all the laws of the ideal state Kant envisioned and requires that the essential legal structure protect the maximum freedom of all the citizens to pursue their own happiness and well-being by limiting lawful actions to those to which all members of a state can consent. The principle also provides a foundation for the obligation of the people to live in a law-abiding fashion. In fact, later contents of this review will show that the Universal Principle of Justice in an enriched form is also the fundamental moral norm for our personal life as well.
Finally, since this principle is the basis for any morally acceptable code, Kant maintains that it should be recognized and respected by every political body and in every political system. But what can ultimately validate the universal binding force of this principle? To me, the answer is not the church, the king, nor the interests and feelings of individuals. The only viable resolution would be through force; and if force is the ultimate validation of civil authority, Hobbe's view would prevail, not Kant's.
IV - A system of laws 法律体系
To summarize, then as Kant sees it, a state can be based either on force, on the arbitrary desire of a despot, or on the rule of law （武治、人治和法治）. And the rule of law is based on respect for every citizen and on the rational ability of each person to be self-governing, to make decisions and to take responsibility for himself or herself.
Civic Duties as Negative Laws
Civic duties are fundamentally negative rules of cooperation, limiting how people may behave toward rules of cooperation, limiting how people may behave toward each other. Underlying the legal structure of such a state must be the Universal Principle of Justice, which requires that civil laws ban conduct that would make communal collaboration impossible and which insists that the most basic laws are those each person can agree to and obey.
Like the Universal Principle of Justice, substantive laws immediately derived from it must be recognizable a priori - that is by reason alone; Since they are laws that ordinary people are obligated to obey, they must be laws that everyone of average intelligence can recognize as right and binding on them.
Such fundamental laws do not tolerate any behavior that would infringe on “the person of others, on their status of equality, on their ability to be self-determining and to function responsibly and with dignity, or on anything to which they have title, such as property, as well as legislating the obligation of parents to care for their children”. Taken together, these subsidiary principles make up a system of what Kant called the laws of natural justice.
Legislations as Positive Laws
Due to the generality of such principles of law, there is a need for further, more define legislation, which Kant named "positive laws", having the force of law only after being enacted, to make matters of right more definite.
Positive laws specify what is required in matters that are otherwise arbitrary, pertaining, for example, to rules of the road and to procedures for acquiring and transferring property. They may vary and take into account of local customs, cultural beliefs, and economic factors, but they should no conflict with the Universal Principle of Justice.
Since the state has both the right and the duty to enact such laws, obedience to them should also be considered as a civic duty and, from the point of view of ethics, as a moral obligation as well. Few actual states will enact a system of laws that does not fail in one way or another to promote justice. In such cases, changes must be made, Kant wrote, but "not immediately or impetuously"
V - The Dignity of the Individual 个人的道德正直
Liberalism is committed to recognizing the dignity and worth of each and every human person. This concept may seem obviously right to us today, but at the time Kant was writing, it was a deeply radical proposal, opposed both to the then most prevalent kind of government, tyranny, as well as to the traditional conviction that what confers dignity on a person is only one's social position and rank - being royalty and nobility.
To the contrary, Kant argued, what gives everyone dignity is neither social status nor special talents nor accomplishments but the innate power of reason, the capacity of each individual to think and choose, not only to shape his or her own life but also to protect and promote reciprocal respect by enacting laws that can form the legal structure of life for everyone.
In this capacity, there are power and responsibilities arising from it. Kant called them to act on the Universal Principle of Justice "autonomy". In Kant's liberal political theory, the power of autonomy is what gives every person moral authority and status against the might of the state.
The basis of autonomy does not lie in each person's feelings, because desires and feelings are contingent and vary among people. They can not be a stable and reliable basis for universal rules of conduct able to sustain the fabric of society. In fact, according to Kant, appealing for practical guidance to anything that lies outside a person's reason, whatever it might be, is the very antithesis of autonomy, that is heteronomy. The institutions of society must be regulated by laws based on reason; only they will consistently protect freedom and ensure justice.
The notion of reciprocal respect underlies two further, coordinate principles of liberalism: equality and universality.
VI - Equality (Egalitarianism) 平等主义
The liberal state must also be egalitarian in the sense of recognizing that everyone has the same innate moral status. It means that the fundamental laws of the state should apply to everyone equally, with no exceptions made in favor of the wealthy or the powerful, the gifted or the educated. There should be no legally privileged class nor should there be any special protected interests.
Kant says that civil egalitarianism does not mean that government must try to ensure equality in possessions and power, any more than it should penalize those who happen to be physically or mentally superior in order to achieve what today is often referred to as "an even playing field."
Kant thinks that promotion of economic egalitariansim is, first of all, unworkable, because everyone has different and conflicting interests and aims; what is more important, the effort to achieve economic equality would also require continual violations of justice and civil liberty.
What politcal egalitarianism require is equality of opportunity in the sense that everyone must be permitted to strive for and, if possible, attain whatever status to which he or she aspires within the opportunities of a free society: and no one may unlawfully hinder others' aspirations.
VII - Universalism 普世价值
The principle of equality also implies a principle of universality. Because justice demands a juridical condition that protects each person's freedom by protecting everyone's freedom, the administration of justice must be impersonal: or may not discriminate between persons on the basis of contingent particularities, including whatever special needs and interests different individuals may happen to have.
This characteristic runs directly contrary to a popular view today, the claim that cultural pluralism is more fundamental and more important than the moral unity of society as a whole.
VIII - Republicanism and the General Will 共和主义与共同意志
From Kant’s writing, I get the impression that he held that the proper form of government would be Republican.
In a tyranny or monarchy, the ultimate authority behind the law is supplied by sheer coercive power. Kant regarded the Universal Principle of Justice as providing the only alternative to the tyrannical exercise of power: the authority of government rests with the rational consent of the governed. And this principle entails the essence of republicanism.
To achieve that, Kant concluded that the ideal government must be a republic, in which the people obey laws they together could have legislated through their representatives. Such a government may have any of three forms of sovereignty - monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy- as long as the constitution is republican at least in sprits.
Only a government that is republican in spirit will respect all its citizens as free, equal, and autonomous individuals and will restrict civil law to universal negative principles of justice and will enact positive laws compatible with such principles, laws therefore that could be chosen by every autonomous person. Only a liberal republic will protect life and property and ensure an environment of reciprocal respect within which each person can lawfully pursue whatever activities he or she wishes, unimpeded by others.
A question that Kant attempted to answer is how to maintain a healthy representative / republican government. Kant held that what will keep a representative government from degenerating into a democratic tyranny that ignores the rights of minorities is the requirement that the executive and judicial branches be constitutionally insulated from direct popular pressures that could reintroduce arbitrary privileges on behalf of the majority at the expense of a minority - or vice versa.
Another question that Kant dealt with is what is the role of using coercive forces in a liberal society. Kant wrote that, given the selfishness typical of human nature, we can not count on" everyone always to respect the person and property of others”. (This piece will reveal itself as a true axiom, if readers have lived through the Cultural Revolution in China.) So the state may and often must use coercion to counteract such abuses.
The only way to use coercive forces to protect freedom can be shown to be just by an appeal to the ultimate norm of rationality, the principle of non-contradiction. He held, that whatever "counteracts the hindering of an effect promotes this effect and is consistent with it"; and so force used to protect freedom is consistent with everyone's harmonious exercise of freedom of behavior.
Thus, the conclusion to this question is that the force used to protect freedom, in Kant’s thoughts, is the only coercion that may be exercised against the citizens by the state.
IX - Kant's Moral Theory 康德道德理论与政治哲学思想的关系
The path of his political liberalism captures and reflects the main themes of his moral theory. Kant’s following arguments reveal his moral ideals:
1) Moral norms cannot be based on experience. In the foundations (378-91, 406-12), Kant focused on the need for a "pure moral philosophy completely cleansed of anything empirical”.
2) Morality shall be situated firmly within the public forum. There it consists fundamentally in standards of justice prohibiting policies that others can not rationally accept and therefore articulating norms fit to serve as laws within a state that respects all its citizens.
As a consequence, in the Foundations Kant's first formulation of the Categorical Imperative, the Formula of Universal Law, requires us to test proposed basic moral axioms by the criterion of whether they can serve as public laws of everyone.
3) Necessity is never an adequate excuse for violating moral standards, for they hold universally and absolutely.
4) Effectiveness is not a measure of moral characters, but Kant treated it as a prudential norm.
5) Kant learned from enlightenment that dignity of each person is his or her own reason. Each has the power of autonomy and therefore the right and the responsibility to conduct self-governing, in control of his or her own destiny.