Kant on the Virtues of a Free Society

One of the most interesting passages from Immanuel Kant’s work comes from his essay “Perpetual Peace.” There, at page 366 of the Akademie text, he considers the question of whether a good citizen also, and at the same time, must be a good person. He argues that there is no necessary connection between the two, and claims that one aim of statecraft is to “constrain [a human being] to become a good citizen even if not a morally good human being,” and that “establishing a state…is soluble even for a nation of devils” if they “have understanding” (PP 8:366).

His reasoning is practical and straightforward. He argues that what is at issue here “is not the moral development of human beings,” but only how to “arrange the conflict of their unpeaceable dispositions…[so] that they themselves have to constrain one another to submit to coercive law and so bring about a condition of peace in which laws have force” (ibid.). Therefore, “Given a multitude of rational beings all of whom need universal laws for their preservation but each of whom is inclined covertly to exempt himself from [these laws], so to order this multitude and establish their constitution that, although in their private dispositions they strive against one another, these yet so check one another that in their public conduct the result is the same as if they had no such evil dispositions” (ibid.).

Although Kant’s remarks here are similar to Aristotle’s claim in Politics, Book III, that the good person and good citizen possess different virtues (Pol 1276b), Kant departs from Aristotle’s position on one of the primary functions of the state. For Aristotle, one aim of the legislators and juridical law is to make individuals better persons (not simply better citizens) by compelling them to perform the right actions, thereby becoming virtuous over time as a result of habituation (NE 1179b-1180a). But, for Kant, habituation cannot form the basis for virtue because actions performed out of habit lack the appropriate rational component necessary for moral decision-making (CPr 5:155).

Kant’s emphasis on rationality and the development of an individual’s own faculty of understanding plays an important role in his moral and political philosophy. In his essay, “What is Enlightenment?,” he begins by noting that “enlightenment is a human being’s emergence from his self-incurred minority [or childhood],” which is the “inability to make use of one’s own understanding without direction from another [person]” (E 8:35). Kant claims that for this enlightenment to take place, “nothing is required but freedom…namely, freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters” (E 8:36). By “public use of one’s reason,” he means “that use which someone makes of it as a scholar before the entire public of the world of readers” (E 8:37). More simply put: freedom of speech through the press.

Kant’s defense of free speech is fairly consistent throughout his work, where, more often than not, it is linked to his support for the policies and practices of Frederick the Great. But in his “Theory and Practice” essay, he presents a defense of free speech more generally, commenting on the importance of free speech and its contribution to a free society. He writes: “[F]reedom of the pen…is the sole palladium of the people’s rights. For to want to deny them this freedom is not only tantamount to taking from them any claim to a right with respect to the supreme commander (according to Hobbes), but is also to withhold from the latter…all knowledge of matters that he himself would change if he knew about them and to put him in contradiction with himself” (TP 8:304).

In this passage, Kant’s claim regarding the importance of free speech is two-fold. His first point, which is fairly straightforward, is that freedom of the press is the only right the people have against the sovereign. That is, they have the right to speak out against policies that they perceive to be unjust or otherwise defective. (It is important to note here that, for the most part, Kant does not believe that people have the right to disobey the law or take action against the sovereign. For more on this point, including how we might reconcile it with Kant’s emphasis on individual autonomy, see Surprenant, 2014, especially Chapter 3.)

The second point is a bit less straightforward. His claim is that a sovereign that outlaws free speech creates a condition where his actions “put him in contradiction with himself.” This language is remarkably similar to what he uses in his moral theory to describe principles that violate the categorical imperative, Kant’s supreme principle of morality. In the Groundwork, Kant claims that when a principle of action fails when tested against the categorical imperative, it fails because something about that principle is contradictory. It may be the case that it is not possible to conceive of the action that comes about as a result of universalizing the underlying principle connected to the action (i.e., a contradiction in conception), or the result of universalizing the principle is self-defeating in some way (i.e., a contradiction in the will).

In the case of the sovereign restricting freedom of the press, the contradiction appears to be more practical. Elsewhere Kant argues what justifies sovereign authority is that his actions are supposed to represent the united will of the people (MM 6:313). But a sovereign that denies free speech and otherwise undermines the conditions necessary to maintain a free society has made it impossible to gather the information needed to represent the will of the people appropriately. In this way, Kant sees any attempt by the sovereign to limit or otherwise suppress the free exchange of ideas, and, in particular, the exchange of ideas among the educated members of society (e.g., academics), as undermining his own authority.

In addition to these two, practical, political benefits, and as discussed previously, free intellectual exchange also is a necessary condition for individual enlightenment. And so while Kant’s position on the function of juridical law differs from Aristotle, they share the belief that an individual can live well only if he is a member of civil society (cf. Pol 1278b 21-24). Living in a free society makes enlightenment possible. Therefore, while Kant’s “race of devils” passage suggests that the possibility of a free society does not depend on the presence of enlightened or virtuous citizens, an individual’s ability to become enlightened does depend on his living in a free society.



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