Smith explains Kant’s notion of the “unsocial sociability” of human nature, and how these antagonistic tendencies generate human progress.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

At long last my series on Immanuel Kant is winding down to a close. But it would be remiss to end this series without explaining two more aspects of Kant’s philosophy. The first, which I discuss in this essay, is Kant’s theory of spontaneous order. The second, which I shall discuss in the next (and final) essay, is Kant’s thoughts about war and peace.

Before proceeding with the discussion of spontaneous order, I wish to take a brief detour into Kant’s position on whether or not animals (other than humans) have rights. This topic, though discussed by a number of important eighteenth‐​century philosophers, has not received much attention from modern libertarian philosophers; and since I think Kant’s position is quite reasonable, I wish to call attention to it here.

As Kant saw the matter, rights presuppose the ability to reciprocate in kind. In other words, I am not obligated to respect your rights unless you respect mine. But this kind of reciprocity is possible only for rational beings who are able to deal with high‐​level concepts and principles—an ability that only humans possess (so far as we know). Therefore, we cannot correctly attribute rights to animals, but we should be very concerned about inflicting unnecessary suffering on lower animals. This position—which was fairly common among classical liberals (Herbert Spencer and J.S. Mill are two other examples)—was often based on the premise that cruelty to animals will render us less sensitive to inflicting pain in general, including on other human beings. Kant went a bit further than this, arguing that we have a duty to ourselves not to cause unnecessary pain in animals. Here is how Kant put it in The Metaphysics of Morals (trans. Mary Gregor, Cambridge, 1996, pp. 192–93):

With regard to the animate but nonrational part of creation, violent and cruel treatment of animals is far more intimately opposed to a human being’s duty to himself, and he has a duty to refrain from this, for it dulls his shared feeling of their suffering and so weakens and gradually uproots a natural predisposition that is very serviceable to morality in one’s relations with other men. The human being is authorized to kill animals quickly (without pain) and to put them to work that does not strain them beyond their capacities (such work as he himself must submit to). But agonizing physical experiments for the sake of mere speculation, when the end could also be achieved without these, are to be abhorred—Even gratitude for the service of an hold horse or dog (just as if they were members of the household) belongs indirectly to a human being’s duty with regard to these animals; considered as a direct duty, however, it is always only a duty of the human being to himself.

Now we shall turn to Kant’s version of spontaneous order theory, or what Adam Smith famously called “the invisible hand.” Kant expressed the idea this way:

Individual men and even entire peoples give little thought to the fact that while each according to this own ways pursues his own ends—often at cross purposes with each other—they unconsciously proceed toward an unknown natural end, as if following a guiding thread; and they work to promote an end they would set little store by, even if they were aware of it. (Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Intent [1784], in Perpetual Peace and Other Essays, trans. Ted Humphrey, Hackett Publishing, 1983, p. 29.)

Although the course of history appears “senseless” if we consider only the purposes of individual people, general patterns emerge nevertheless, and these patterns may be called “natural.” They may even be viewed as “some definite plan of nature’s” or as the result of “providence.” But Kant hedged a bit on these latter descriptions, noting that empirical evidence does not justify attributing the unintended outcomes of human action to purposes in nature or to a divine plan. Rather, we attribute unintended outcomes, especially those that are beneficial, to natural purposes or to a divine plan by analogical thinking, because this analogy helps us to make sense of unintended outcomes by relating them to our own purposeful activities.

Essential to Kant’s theory of spontaneous order were his views on “men’s unsocial sociability.” Human nature, according to Kant, is neither good nor bad but is a mixture of good and bad tendencies. But it is unrealistic to expect desirable social outcomes solely from man’s natural beneficence or from similar qualities. Despite the wisdom and good intentions of some people, in the final analysis “everything is finally woven together from folly and childish vanity and often even childish malice and destructiveness.”

Although reason and the objective moral principles derived therefrom enable us to live good lives and instruct us to respect the rights of others, few people ever attain this degree of moral enlightenment; most are governed by their instincts and short‐​term desires instead. Nevertheless, Kant believed in the inevitable, if very slow and gradual, progress of the human race. But how could Kant justify this belief in progress—a common tenet among Enlightenment intellectuals—given his dismal view that most people refuse to be guided by the dictates of reason? (Unlike many Enlightenment intellectuals, Kant was no determinist. He maintained that our use of reason is a volitional choice.)

This is where Kant’s doctrine of the unsocial sociability of human beings comes into play. Human progress is largely an unintended consequence of these antagonistic tendencies. Quoting again from Kant’s Idea for a Universal History (p. 31–32):

The means that nature uses to bring about the development of all man’s capacities is the antagonism among them in society, as far as in the end this antagonism is the cause of law‐​governed order in society. In this context, I understand antagonism to mean men’s unsocial sociability, i.e., their tendency to enter into society, combined, however, with a thoroughgoing resistance that constantly threatens to sunder this society. This capacity for social existence is clearly embedded in human nature. Man has a propensity for living in society, for in that state he feels himself to be more than man, i.e., feels himself to be more than the development of his natural capacities. He also has, however, a great tendency to isolate himself, for he finds in himself the unsociable characteristic of wanting everything to go according to his own desires, and he therefore anticipates resistance everywhere, just as he knows about himself that for his part he tends to resist others. Now this resistance awakens all of man’s powers, brings him to overcome his tendency towards laziness, and, driven by his desire for honor, power, or property, to secure status among his fellows, whom he neither suffers nor withdraws from. In this way, social worth of man consists, now occur, all man’s talents are gradually developed, his taste is cultured, and through progressive enlightenment he begins to establish a way of thinking that can in time transform the crude natural capacity for moral discrimination into definite practical principles…..

In this extraordinarily interesting passage, Kant is saying, in effect, that a natural tension exists between our desire to assert our individuality and fulfill our desires without interference from others, and our desire to attain the benefits of harmonious social interaction. A reconciliation is achieved through competition—a peaceful process that motivates us to develop our capacities to the greatest extent possible. In this way we benefit not only ourselves but other people and society as a whole as well. This competitive process, according to Kant, is the mainspring of human progress. Such progress is not the outcome of the plans or desires of any particular individual. Rather, progress is the unintended consequence of the dual nature of human beings, i.e., of our desire to retain our individuality while reaping the benefits of social interaction.

Although I have presented a mere summary of Kant’s theory of spontaneous order, I hope it is sufficient to convince libertarians that Immanuel Kant should rank high in the pantheon of those early classical liberals who argued that social order and progress do not require the guidance or commands of a wise lawgiver, or sovereign. Moreover, Kant drew some interesting conclusions from his theory of spontaneous order. For example, he maintained that the establishment of a free society does not require that most people are good. Quite the opposite is true; it is a free society—a society in which a limited government protects and enforces the equal freedom and rights of every person—that will tend to make people good, for only in a free society can people develop their own individuality while fulfilling their sociable desires according to their own lights. At first a government may need to compel many people not to violate the rights of their fellows; but over time, as citizens come to understand the benefits of freedom, most will respect rights not because they are compelled to do so but because they believe this is the right thing to do, both morally and practically.