12. Kant’s The Science of Right

My earlier encounter with Kant, via his Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, was forbidding. Thus I wasn’t looking forward to reading from his The Science of Right in my current reading of selections from Great Books of the Western World (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952) guided by Mortimer J. Adler (with various co-authors) in The Great Ideas Program (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959-63). However I was pleasantly surprised, my finding the assigned selection (the Introduction and the Second Part of The Science of Right) to be well-organized and clearly expressed. After similarly praising Kant’s style in their introduction to the selection, Adler and Peter Wolff observe:

“Such system, order, and precision may be expected in metaphysics or mathematics, but it is unusual in political theory. The reader will find here the familiar notions of constitutional government and citizenship, of politic rights and duties, of the forms and powers of government, of freedom, justice, and equality‒notions he has met in the writings of other authors included in this Reading Plan. But they are transformed by the method with which Kant treats them, and the reader will enrich his understanding of them by re-examining them in the new light that is thrown on them by Kant’s definitions, his universal principles, and the rational connections between them which are made explicit by Kant’s systematically reasoned exposition. (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, volume 2 of The Great Ideas Program, 1959, page 164)

In their study of the selection, Adler and Wolff consider Kant’s political theory, his republicanism, his theory of punishment, and his conception of “right.”  Here I’ll summarize what they say about those topics and sketch Kant’s life, starting with the latter.

The Life of Kant

Immanuel Kant was born at Königsberg in East Prussia on April 22, 1724. In his eighth year he entered the Latin school which his parents’ Pietist Lutheran pastor directed and where he acquired a love for the Latin classics. In 1740 he enrolled in the University of Königsberg as a theological student. He was principally attracted to mathematics and physics and decided to pursue an academic career. However in 1746 he had to withdraw for financial reasons and take a position as a family tutor.

In 1755, aided by a relative, Kant was able to complete his degree at the university and assume the role of a lecturer. At first he restricted himself to mathematics and physics and in that and the next year he published several scientific works. But he soon branched into other subjects, including logic, metaphysics, and moral philosophy. He enjoyed success as a lecturer, his style being humorous and vivid, enlivened by many examples drawn from his wide reading. During his fifteen years as a lecturer his fame as writer and lecturer steadily increased. Finally in 1760 he obtained the chair of logic and metaphysics. In later years he served six times as dean of the philosophical faculty and twice as rector.

Kant’s inaugural dissertation as professor, On the Form and Principles of the Sensible and Intelligible World, indicated the direction of his philosophical interests. But it was not until 1781 that his Critique of Pure Reason appeared. Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals came out in 1785, Critique of Practical Reason in 1788, and Critique of Judgment in 1790. The “critical philosophy” was soon being taught in every important German speaking university, and young men flocked to Königsberg as a shrine of philosophy. Kant came to be consulted as an oracle on all kinds of questions, including the lawfulness of vaccination.

As early as 1789 Kant’s health began to decline seriously and in 1797, after a career of forty-two years, he delivered his last lecture and retired from the university. “After a gradual decline that was painful to his friends as well as to himself, Kant died in Königsberg, February 12, 1804. His last words were ‘Es ist gut’ (It is good’). His tomb in the cathedral was inscribed with the words (in German) ‘The starry heavens above me and the moral law within me,’ the two things that he declared in the conclusion of the second Critique ‘fill the mind with new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on.’” (“Kant, Immanuel,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 1974, volume 10, page 393)

Kant’s Political Theory

Adler and Wolff begin their survey of Kant’s political theory by observing that it doesn’t differ significantly in content from that of his predecessors. They explain:

“Kant explains the origin of civil society in terms of a state of nature and a social contract….

“Kant’s view of the state of nature is more moderate than Hobbes’s. Nevertheless, he remarks that in such a condition everyone would do what seems good only to him. Like Rousseau and Locke, Kant describes the state of nature as a state of freedom, but a freedom that is precarious and insecure. Men give up this freedom to enter civil society and in so doing gain a different and better freedom.

“With Locke, Kant considers the legislative power as the most important function of the state, to be exercised by none but the people. While Kant’s ‘united will of the people’ is reminiscent of Rousseau’s ‘general will,’ we do not find in Kant, either explicitly or implicitly, the notion of a man’s being forced to be free.

“Kant follows Montesquieu’s view of the powers of government and of their separation. Like Rousseau, Kant is dedicated to the proposition that all legitimate government is republican in character. The Science of Right offers much support for the view that Kant was deeply influenced by Rousseau, especially in his moral philosophy.” (Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, pages 165-66)

Adler and Wolff next consider what is new or distinctive about Kant’s political theory, showing first the originality of his account of the transition from a state of nature to civil society. Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau justify the transition by the result: what people gain (security, moral freedom, or civil liberty) is better than the independence that they give up. Kant argues instead that what people do should be a matter of duty rather than of what is gained, his asserting that “the natural state of nations as well as of individual man is a state which it is a duty to pass out of, in order to enter into a legal state” (Kant, The Science of Right in volume 42 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 455). This duty, like all duties, derives from the command of pure practical reason that men should seek peace.

Kant’s Republicanism

A striking feature of The Science of Right is its thoroughgoing republicanism. The legislative power must belong to the united will of the people. Those who are united for the purpose of legislating are the citizens. Citizens enjoy constitutional freedom, civil equality, and political independence. These three juridical attributes can be realized only through a republican form of government. “The only constitution resulting from the idea of the social contract, upon which every good legislation of a nation ought to be founded, is a republican constitution” (Kant, Perpetual Peace, New York, 1939, page 12; quoted in Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 168).

Kant’s republicanism does not mean that he advocates universal suffrage, his holding in harmony with his time that only some of those living in a state should have full rights to vote and to hold office, but he makes an important contribution to the theory of citizenship by distinguishing between active and passive citizenship, active citizens being all who are entitled to vote and passive citizens being all other members of the state. Active citizens are those who have a measure of independence in the state, and passive citizens are those whose livelihood and existence depend on the will of others, such as “the apprentice of a merchant or tradesman, a servant who is not in the employ of the state, a minor [and] all women” (Kant, The Science of Right, page 437).

However though passive citizens are not equal to active citizens as members of the state, they are equal to them as people. As such they have the right to claim:

“that whatever be the mode in which the positive laws are enacted, these laws must not be contrary to the natural laws that demand the freedom of all the people and the equality that is conformable thereto; and it must therefore be made possible for them to raise themselves from this passive condition in the state to the condition of active citizenship”

(Kant, The Science of Right, page 437).Adler and Wolff say that such a notion was revolutionary.

Kant’s Theory of Punishment

Three purposes are generally given for punishing criminals: retaliating against the criminal, deterring others from committing similar crimes, and reforming the criminal. Kant is emphatic that punishment must never be anything but the first:

“Juridical punishment can never be administered merely as a means for promoting another good either with regard to the criminal himself [reforming him] or to civil society [deterring others], but must in all cases be imposed only because the individual on whom it is inflicted has committed a crime” (Kant, The Science of Right, page 446).

Remedial or Deterrent punishment is instituted for the sake of benefiting either the criminal himself or the rest of society. Thus the criminal is being used, though for a worthy purpose‒the reduction of the number of crimes committed, but Kant maintains that it is wrong for a person to be used, no matter how beneficent the purpose for which he is being used. In this, Kant differs from modern penal theories, most of which acknowledge only remedial and deterrent punishment as legitimate and view retaliation as mere vengeance and as such uncivilised.

Kant’s Conception of Right

The closest that Kant comes to a definition of “right” is:

Right, therefore, comprehends the whole of the conditions under which the voluntary actions of any one person can be harmonized in reality with the voluntary actions of every other person, according to a universal law of freedom” (Kant, The Science of Right, page 397-98).

Thus, in contrast to Hobbes, for whom “right” and “law” are opposed in roughly the same way that freedom and obligation are opposed,  for Kant the right and the lawful are roughly the same.

Kant divides rights in two different ways:

(1) natural right and positive right and (2) innate right and acquired right. “Natural right rests upon pure rational principles a priori; positive or statutory right is what proceeds from the will of a legislator…. Innate right is that right which belongs to every one by nature, independent of all juridical acts of experience. Acquired right is that right which is founded upon such juridical acts” (Kant, The Science of Right, page 401).

Kant says that there is only one innate right, the right of freedom, and gives The Science of Right over to a treatment of natural, acquired rights.

Nations are in a state of nature with respect to one another and thus in a state of continual war. Kant divides the right of nations with respect to the state of war into “1. the right of going to war; 2. right during war; and 3. right after war” and gives their object as “to constrain the nations mutually to pass from this state of war and to found a common constitution establishing perpetual peace?” (Kant, The Science of Right, page 452). From this principle, Kant derives various detailed commands and prohibitions, which Adler and Wolff summarize thus:

“Wars should not be punitive, nor should a war aim at the extermination of the enemy. With regard to the subjects of the warring nations, several important principles follow. They must not be ordered to do anything which would make them unfit as citizens. For by destroying them as citizens, the state destroys itself and thus renders peace unattainable.” (Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 174).

In general Kant’s view is that the end of war is peace and no means should be employed which contradict that end.

I introduced my consideration of The Science of Right by saying:

“My earlier encounter with Kant, via his Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, was forbidding. Thus I wasn’t looking forward to reading from his The Science of Right in my current reading of selections from Great Books of the Western World (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952) guided by Mortimer J. Adler (with various co-authors) in The Great Ideas Program (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959-63). However I was pleasantly surprised, my finding the assigned selection (the Introduction and the Second Part of The Science of Right) to be well-organized and clearly expressed.”

That doesn’t meant that I understand and agree with all of Kant’s assertions. For example, I don’t understand how changing from a natural state to a legal state and seeking peace are duties and I don’t agree that remediation and deterrence are illegitimate reasons for punishment.

I’m now looking forward to reading the other selections by Kant included in The Great Ideas Program: Part I of The Science of Right in volume 5, Philosophy of Law and Jurisprudence; Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals and Part I, Book II, of Critique of Practical Reason in volume 8, Ethics: The Study of Moral Values; and I, First Part, of Critique of Pure Reason in volume 10, Philosophy.


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