In his bestseller, The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great, Ben Shapiro recently became the latest in a string of conservative commentators to criticize Immanuel Kant, joining such Kant detractors as Yoram Hazony, author of The Virtue of Nationalism, the critic of postmodernism Stephen Hicks and Patrick Deneen, author of Why Liberalism Failed. These contemporary conservatives are following in the footsteps of earlier writers like objectivist Ayn Rand, who famously called Kant the most “evil man in mankind’s history,” and far-right statist Carl Schmitt, who has condemned Kantian universalism and internationalism.
This may seem odd, given that the Prussian philosopher was a staunch proponent of retributive punishment, wrote voluminously on the importance of religion in moral life and was famously puritanical about personal virtues. Kant also argues that obligations to help the poor through wealth transfers are at best “imperfect duties”—which a free agent can voluntarily undertake, but which cannot be enforced by the state. Kant was also famously skeptical as to whether humankind could be fully perfected by any sociopolitical scheme, arguing passionately in Religion Within the Bounds of Mere Reason that the human potential for “radical evil” will always remain with us. Some conservatives—particularly libertarians such as Robert Nozick and F. A. Hayek—have found common ground with Kant on many important issues. But many more seem to agree with Hicks that, in some respects, Kant prepared the ground for contemporary progressivism.
So where do these conservative critiques of Kant come from? Is there some basis for this rejection by large swathes of the political right? While Kant was not an early radical, his support of the French Revolution and admiration for Rousseau were hardly incidental. These positions flow directly from the egalitarian and universalist core of his philosophy, which continues to influence figures on the political left, such as Martha Nussbaum and Jürgen Habermas. There are two main conservative objections to Kantian positions. The first is to Kant’s moral egalitarianism, which poses substantial challenges to the contention that hierarchy is either natural or desirable. The second is to Kantian individualism and internationalism, which have been the target of concerted criticism by nationalist and communitarian critics, such as Yoram Hazony and Patrick Deneen.
Many aspects of Kant’s thought run counter to its egalitarian core. He had a famously low opinion of women—many feminist critics have taken issue with his understanding of human personality and social interactions. Kant’s anthropological remarks on the defects of different races—with few of whom he would ever have come into contact in eighteenth-century Königsberg—remain a source of embarrassment. And he was highly elitist, denigrating the “unthinking multitude” in his essay “What is Enlightenment?” Kant can and should be strongly criticized for these prejudices, some of which—notably his misogyny—were even noted by some contemporaries.
But the core of Kant’s philosophical outlook remains highly hostile to attempts to develop stratified social hierarchies based on moral superiority. Even as he denounces the “unthinking multitude,” Kant calls for them to be given a far greater say in government than ever before. Kant had a fundamental belief in the moral equality of all human beings, and their right to be treated as autonomous individuals capable of recognizing and imposing moral laws upon themselves. He claims that each human being—no matter how humble—possesses a fundamental dignity “beyond price.” That is why, in his famous second formulation of the categorical imperative, he writes that no one should never use anyone else as simply a means to an end. This precludes subjecting people to forms of authority designed to improve their behavior. It also means that social hierarchies predicated on the belief that some individuals are superior to others—whether because God ordained it or because they possess superior natural talents and abilities—will always be viewed with hostility by Kantians. Even if some individuals possess objectively superior natural talents, such as greater intelligence or athletic ability, that is no basis on which to grant them greater social or political authority.
Kant argued for a radically democratic kind of republican government. From Rousseau, Kant draws the idea that it is not simply enough to grant individuals the private liberal right to impose laws upon their personal behavior. Civic freedom is in many respects as important as liberal private rights, and the two must operate in tandem. For the state to retain the “rightful condition” of legitimacy, citizens can only be subjected to laws which they themselves have helped formulate and to which they have consented. Any system of government that doesn’t adopt such a democratically egalitarian approach to politics— for instance, one which concentrates political power in the hands of a small elite with economic clout—is illegitimate and cannot compel obedience from its citizens. Such arguments can be used to critique contemporary liberal democracies for concentrating too much political power in the hands of a select few. Many Kantians, such as Rawls and Nussbaum, have gone further: arguing that to truly realize Kant’s arguments about human equality, one needs to go beyond the political and moral sphere and secure a high standard of living for all human beings.
Unsurprisingly, such positions are looked upon with suspicion by many conservatives. While some libertarians in particular have plausibly claimed that Kant’s emphasis on autonomy precludes redistributive efforts by a coercive state, the thrust of Kant’s arguments tend against allowing too much inequality in society. Moreover, Kantian claims have proved exceptionally challenging for those who argue that inequality stems from merit. This is, in part, why Kant-inspired libertarians like Hayek and Nozick tend to avoid claims about meritocracy. Since all human beings possess equal dignity, which places them “beyond price,” one cannot lean heavily on arguments about moral superiority or differences in talent and abilities to justify stark sociopolitical inequalities. Each person must be granted an equal say in the laws that govern him. Respecting the equal dignity of all means not allowing too much economic inequality to persist—especially if, as researchers like Gilens have observed, such economic inequalities unjustly result in the concentration of sociopolitical power in a few hands. This kind of thinking would be unacceptable to figures like Ayn Rand, for whom the mass of mankind remain “inferior men,” who owe their livelihood and quality of life to the few “superior men,” who can most effectively wield power.
Kant’s Individualism and Internationalism
Another conservative objection to Kant is his individualism and internationalism. Here, Kant was perhaps even more innovative and less prone to qualification than in his moral egalitarianism. For Kant, morality had far too often been driven by emotional and contingent attachments—a category which includes the kinds of local attachments that people like Ben Shapiro claim will always be at the center of the moral universe. Kant regarded the contingent normative attachments to families, clans, tribes and nations emphasized by nationalists like Yoram Hazony as necessary but partial movements towards a more “mature” moral outlook. They were understandable positions, given the isolation of different peoples and their inability to reason about a common humanity shared by all. But, in an increasingly integrated world, such attachments would gradually fade. In “What Is Enlightenment,” Kant argues that, ultimately, individuals will need to stop viewing their identities and moral obligations through the lens of nationalist and religious traditions and see themselves instead as individual moral and rational agents, who can think for themselves. This will probably entail becoming sharply critical of those existing traditions that are not consonant with universalist morality and individual autonomy.
This does not imply a world in which all cultural differences disappear, nor the establishment of a single world state. In his essay “Perpetual Peace,” Kant argues that a global state would result in tyranny and the suppression of individual or even group freedoms and differences. Despite his often racist attitudes, in his mature work Kant often voices opposition to imperialism and colonialism, as unjust to peoples. But he does advocate establishing a set of inalienable individual rights, to be guaranteed to all, rights which would allow people to resist all political demands to conform to nationalist or religious traditions. In other words, the right of the group to define its national or religious identity could never be used to deny individual rights or enforce cultural homogeneity.
Moreover, Kant was among the first to argue that the emphasis placed on local attachments, including nationalist attachments, derives from a kind of self-induced moral immaturity, which has kept us from recognizing our “cosmopolitan” obligations to others—obligations that include respecting their rights to peace and freedom in their home countries, and, most notably, their right to “universal hospitality.” Individuals fleeing danger at home should not be denied respite elsewhere, Kant argues, even if the country to which they have fled does not want to grant them refuge. Kant’s position anticipates the modern legal right of refugees to claim asylum in any country signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which includes countries with nationalist administrations, such as the United States. These cosmopolitan and internationalist positions stem from Kantian individualism, and the contention that local moral attachments must gradually give way to a more robust universalism that respects the dignity of all.
Some conservatives, particularly those with nationalist or traditionalist inclinations, contend that it is a matter of historical, empirical fact that human beings will always feel greater moral attachments to those like themselves. While Kant accepted that this had historically been the case, he claimed that our maturation must involve an expansion of this moral universe. Eventually, the moral significance of belonging to a nation or ethnic group should be of little consequence compared with the common humanity all individuals share. Moreover, Kant’s emphasis on the importance of autonomy puts him at odds with those who contend that national and religious traditions shared by groups can sometimes supersede the rights of reasonable individuals.
While figures from across the political spectrum continue to find value in Kant’s rich and profound work, he has more to offer leftists than conservatives. Kant’s emphasis on the moral equality of all human beings, and his insistence that individualism and internationalism will always trump the demands of nationalist and religious polities had a distinctively radical, even revolutionary, edge in his time—and retains it to this day. His work repeatedly condemns many conservative positions, including the demand that we maintain highly sociopolitical hierarchies—the feelings-driven call to put the less pressing needs of those who share our traditions and faith over the more pressing needs of those who share the dignity of our humanity.