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Kant, Right, and Justice

Page history last edited by Tammy Tellez 2 years, 2 months ago




There are multiple areas of justice that help function our society but that doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t flawed. The different theories help us comprehend the complex idea of justice and why it is more complicated than we may think it is. Immanuel Kant has greatly influenced the 18th century and his philosophy work is one that can still be applied and analyzed to today’s society. Kant was born in 1724 and grew up living a modest lifestyle. While his parents at times financially struggled he was well educated and had attended a Pietist school which was an evangelical Lutheran movement that focused on religious emotions and the devotion to prayer and bible study. Kant attended college and early on had the passion for philosophy and was also exposed to mathematics, physics, logic, ethics, and natural law. He then tutored and gave lectures, during this time he started to publish some of his work. A lot of Kant’s work revolved around insights from British thinkers. Kant has had a variety of focuses when it comes to his work, he has focused on politics, perpetual peace, religion, ethics, the Doctrine of rights, democracies, and enlightenment. Kant’s theories have revolved around the idea of our duty as an individual and the nature among states. This is a theory he focuses on in his writing of the Doctrine of Rights. While Kant writes about how a society should function he also focuses his work on what responsibilities we have as individuals. Kant’s work has provided us with an understanding of what justice should look like.



Theories/Writings of Justice:



Doctrine of Right: One of Kant’s most influential writings was his Doctrine of Right which explains the relationship between individuals and states. Kant had described two different states of nature that consisted of the private right and the public right. The private right deals with state of nature among individuals while the public right describes the state of nature among states. The private right state of nature is described as the “condition that is not rightful” (Kellner, 728). Kant hopes to relate his private right to property rights and an overall principle when it comes to rights. One of his bigger questions when it comes to private rights is “how is merely rightful intelligible possession possible?” (Kellner, 728). Kant tries to find the distinction between having an empirical and intelligible possession because the way he views it is that property isn’t necessarily a relationship between a person and an object rather the relation we have with other individuals. The distinction between empirical and intelligible possession is important to a functioning society because it is described as something that is crucial for a civil condition. The way Kant sees it is that it doesn’t matter if someone possesses an object but that it shows a signal for wanting to claim ownership over something (Kellner, 729). This relates back to the civil condition because you are then agreeing and signaling you are going to enter this condition. His belief that this is a signal for wanting ownership over something can be true to a certain extent. When thinking about it, we all own something, it might not necessarily be property or a section of land but regardless we still all have ownership of something. Kant makes the argument that if we are signaling we want ownership over something then we are making an agreement that we are entering this civil condition. I think that is to say we have certain rules/laws we must follow then it becomes an agreement that we will live by those laws. You may enter this civil condition that is also seen as a distributive justice if you cannot avoid living side by side with others then you need to leave the state of nature and transfer over (Kellner, 729). Kant relates the state of nature in public right as the specific transition that one goes from the state of nature to a civil condition. The argument here is that an individual will not transition from a condition of freedom to a condition of constraint rather they would go from freedom to freedom (Kellner, 730). This is something that we have seen in other countries and this could possibly relate to the area of immigration justice. Kant says that this state of nature consists of a “wild (savage) lawless freedom that is relinquished entirely” (Kellner, 730). Savages seem to be in the state of nature and Kant argues that if a state of nature is lawless then it essentially will be aggressive and fight any given law (Kellner, 730). In the public right Kant is mainly arguing that the savages need to exit the international state of nature when there is an issue going on Kant thinks going to war is simply barbaric and if issues rise then they have an international congress to handle these disputes” (Kellner, 731). I would have interpreted this in a perspective that Kant is against the use of violence and proposes a more peaceful strategy. While Kant says that war is barbaric and issues should be handled in a civil manner, in a way he contradicts himself when it comes to the savages. He thinks savages should be obligated to leave the state of nature but he also believes that the state can coerce them into leaving, when it comes to savages there seems to be a justification (Kellner, 731). 



Ethics and Categorical Imperative: Kant made an emphasis on the nature of duty and how it is connected to rights. Kant had this idea that duties, rights, and respect for those rights were absolute and can’t be regarded as mere means to realize another end (Ramet, 186). Kant had argued that the morality of an action doesn’t depend on the success of one's endeavor but rather the motivation (Ramet, 186). This is viewed to Kant that if one obeys the moral law with the expectation of eternal salvation then we are acting out in the expectation of payment and that would make our action have no moral content (Ramet, 186). The categorical imperative is a theory that Kant offered which consisted of three statements. The first statement was that one would never act except in a way that would give a maxim form of the action to be derived from (Ramet, 187). The second statement was that one should only act on that maxim which at the same time will and should become a universal law (Ramet, 187). The last statement was to act on the maxim that will be made a universal law (Ramet, 187). These three statements summarize the categorical imperative and can be analyzed as acting in a way that if everyone were to act the way you are then the world would be a better place (Ramet, 187). His theory derived from asking, what would a rational person do? From there the practical imperative derived and this was to act in a way that you always treat humanity (Ramet, 187). The idea here was that if we all treated each other only as a means to our own profit then there aren’t any true friendships or bonds of trust (Ramset, 187). In a way this can relate back to his Doctrine of Right more specifically the private right. The categorical imperative sets up an idea of how we should act and what we should strive for. If the categorical imperative gives us a moral code to live by then it sets up to join in the public right where we could enter this civil condition.   



Debates on Kant’s Theories: 



While the Doctrine of Right presents us with a new idea on justice it has also been widely criticized in the 19th and 20th century. There are two main reasons why it has been criticized and the first reason is that it has no innovation that can be compared to a revolution of thinking and the second reason is that it doesn’t contain enough of a new directive for organizing a state (Ludwig, 404). The Doctrine of Right focuses more on a whole new philosophical foundation for any traditional institutions and political issues are never addressed (Ludwig, 404). The Doctrine of Right is described as not one of Kant’s great works and is viewed as the product of a common man and this was one of his late works where people may think the weakness of the text was a result of his age and senility that affected the work (Ludwig, 405). There seems to be a contradiction between the Doctrine of Right and the categorical imperative and this is seen in his introduction of private and public rights (Ludwig, 406). Within the public right the right of a state and the right of nations lies within and Kant does not present a clear structure which should result in being dismissed (Ludwig, 406). Kant’s belief on property rights is targeted and if someone wanted to be entitled to something would then be entitled to force others into a condition that isn’t wanted would then result in a state’s existence to be acquired in anticipation of institutions that secure that right (Ludwig, 415). This is then related to the categorical imperative in the sense that you would essentially have to accept an individual’s acquired property that they previously obtained because it would then be the first step in a true republic (Ludwig, 415). However, there are other arguments that Kant’s approaches shouldn’t be dismissed and there are two main arguments presented, the first is that having a right to freedom comes from consideration that is similar to the formula of humanity (Hodgson, 792). The second argument defending Kant's theory is that if one were to believe that freedom is central to political philosophy then Kant’s theories and approaches need to be adopted (Hodgson, 792). Kant’s idea of freedom had been divided between external and internal freedom and the distinction here is the freedom of the will and the action. An example presented was that one would lack internal freedom if being unable to resist a piece of cake that is offered while making a promise to not eat sweets while the lack of external freedom is more the idea that you can’t resist eating the cake because someone else would be forcing you (Hodgson, 793). The argument to this example is that one can be a slave to the inclinations while living in an ideal state where the rights are always respected or be a saint in a place where rights are violated (Hodgson, 793). 


Broader Themes of Kant’s Theories:


Some theorists that have actually been compared to Kant and I can see why are Locke and Rousseau. Locke had believed that the state of nature could eventually turn into a state of war  (Locke, chapter 2). In a way this relates to Kant’s idea of the state of nature and how one must have duties in order to enter this civil society because Kant wanted to prevent a state of war and figured any issues could be resolved in a civil mannar. Locke had believed justice is something we owed each other and it was essential to follow the law that was passed. With Kant’s categorical imperative we can see that we owed each other respect and we needed to treat others the way we want to be treated. I think Rousseau’s social contract when it comes to power can relate to Kant’s property rights. Rousseau had believed that there shouldn’t be an abundance of power within one individual to the point where they would have the wealth to be capable of buying another citizen.      





Kant’s idea of justice can be applied in some ways. The categorical imperative presents an intriguing way to influence how one may think or act. There are certain motto’s or principles that an individual can live by and the idea that we have certain duties and rights that can’t be used as a means to another end would definitely be something selfless to do. I think to a certain extent it should be applied to our daily lives however I think I would disagree in some ways. For example, we all do certain actions in order to gain something in return and I wouldn’t say it automatically means we are selfish. If one goes to college then we are expected to get work done and we expect to gain a degree from it. We are doing certain things in order to gain something but going to college to get a degree shouldn’t constitute being selfish. However, let’s say someone asks for a favor and you do it only because you have the intention of expecting something in return in the near future then I can see why a motivation wouldn’t be as genuine compared to if you were doing it out of kindness. The categorical imperative can set up an idea of how we could act and then that would help us with the private and public rights. This can bring up the question if justice has to be looked through individuals first or as a state. I would say that Kant believes one must work on themselves first before being able to enter a civil society.    




Kellner, Alan J. 2020. “States of Nature in Immanuel Kant’s Doctrine of Right.” Political Research Quarterly Vol.73 (3), p.727-739.



Ramet, Sabrina P. 2019. “Kant on Ethics and Politics.” Eastern Review Vol.8, p.183-199. 



Fellin, Renato ; Blè, Alessandro. 1997. “The Disease of Immanuel Kant.” The Lancet (British Edition). Vol.350 (9093), p.1771-1773.



Ludwig, B. 1990. “The Right of a State in Immanuel Kant’s Doctrine of Right.” Journal of the History of Philosophy. Vol.28 (3), p.403-415. 



Hodgson, Louis-Philippe. 2010. “Kant on the Right to Freedom: A Defense.” Ethics. Vol.120 (4), p.791-819.



Locke, John. 2005. "Second Treatise of Government."  


Rousseau ; Donald A. Cress ; Peter Gay. 1987. "Basic Political Writings, Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Discourse on Political Economy on the Social Contract." (147. 174) 



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