Kant`s Theory of Right

Kant’s Theory of Right
1. The Categorical Imperative - Morality, Ethics and Right
Categorical Imperative (general)
Categorical Imperative of Virtue
Categorical Imperative of law
Formula of the Universal Law
Universal Principle of Right
“Act only on that maxim through
which you can at the same time
will that it should become a
universal law.” AA 421 (Paton
tr. p.60)
“Every action which by itself
or by its maxim enables the
freedom of each to co-exist
with the freedom of everyone
else in accordance with a
universal law is right. (Nisbet
tr. p.133)
2. Right and Freedom
Ethics applies to Internal Freedom i.e. to actions, and their motivations
not their consequences
Politics applies only to external freedom i.e. to actions and their
consequences and not to their motivations.
a) Internal Freedom:Free Will [Wille].
Groundwork III, “a free will and a will under moral laws are
one and the same”. (AA 447 & 550, Paton tr. p 98 & 104)
Free Choice [Willkür] = spontaneity of decision making (or
maxim adoption)
b) External Freedom:“Right is applied to external freedom alone i.e. to actions which can
directly or indirectly influence the actions of other free beings, hence
right concerns “external and practical” relationships between free
subjects (MM Intro §B Nisbet, tr. p.133).
So, by restricting right to external freedom Kant makes it clear that
that Politics and the State have nothing to say regarding the goals or
ends pursued by the members of the state - including the goals of
happiness. (See 5 below and Theory and Practice II, p. 74-5.)
N.B. Don’t confuse external and internal freedom with freedom from
and freedom to.
External freedom is negative
i) involves the absence of obstacles to my freedom of action
ii) belongs to individuals and
iii) implies no claims about what it is good for me to do.
Internal Freedom is positive
i) concerns the question of autarchy “who governs my actions”
ii) implies some claims about what it is good for me to do, though
iii) unusually for positive freedom applies to individuals not groups.
3. The Concept of Right
Right [Recht] = both law [Gesetz] & justice [Gerechtigkeit]
Right implies
i) systematicity and
ii) lawlikeness i.e. universality and necessity.
4. Right and Coercion
The legitimacy of coercion follows a priori from the principle of Right.
Appendix to “On Perpetual Peace” Kant claims that;
“As hard as it may sound, the problem of setting up a state can be
solved even by a nation of devils (so long as they possess
understanding.)” So a successful political state does not require a
moral community; it requires only that citizens can calculate their own
5. The Right and the Good
Right, the system of state laws, does not advance or promote any
substantial goals. It is not based on and does not aim at the happiness
of the citizen body.
“No generally valid principle of legislation can be based on happiness”
(TP Nisbet p.80)
In the state of right, “each remains free to seek happiness in whatever
way he thinks best, so long as he does not violate the lawful freedom
and rights of his fellow subjects at large.” (ibid.)
6. The Social Contract
idea of an original social contract= not an historical fact, but only a
thought experiment, serving as a criterion of legitimacy or a
“test of the rightfulness of every public law” (TP 79)
“For if the law is such that a whole people could not possible agree to
it...it is unjust; but if it is at least possible that a people could agree to
it, it is our duty to consider it as just...”
Agreement compossibility of the actions of a community of externally
free agents, each of whom wills only those restrictions to his freedom
which are compatible with the freedom of everyone else.
Hence an “Enlightened Despot” such as Frederick II, can make just
laws. Not true that a democratic process of legislation, can come up
with laws which are valid according to the principle of Right.
Kant says that the sovereign stands under an obligation to “to make
the mode of government conform to the original idea, and thus to alter
the mode of government by a gradual and continuous process ...until it
accords in its effects with the only rightful constitution, that of a pure
However, it is not clear what sort of an obligation this is. It is not a
political obligation, for then the citizens would have the right to a
republican constitution, and they would then be able to use force to
attain this end. But Kant, notoriously denies any right to rebellion or
to sedition (Political Writings 144-5) even where the head of state fails
his obligation to make just laws.