Arguments for Liberty: Kantianism

Jason Kuznicki joins us to discuss the chapter he wrote on Immanuel Kant for our new book, Arguments for Liberty.

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Jason Kuznicki joins us to discuss his chapter on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant in our newest book, Arguments for Liberty.

What’s Kant’s conception of the good, and what kind of government follows from that?

Who was Immanuel Kant and what were his moral and political theories? What does Kant’s categorical imperative tell us about how to live a good life? How do we get from the categorical imperative to a form of government? And why are some libertarians seemingly anti-Kant?

Show Notes and Further Reading

Arguments for Liberty is available here as a free .pdf and in Kindle and e-Book formats. It’s also available in paperback on Amazon.

For those interested in reading more of Kant’s work, Kuznicki recommends starting with Kant’s Idea of a Universal History from a Cosmopolitical Point of View, or Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason; both are in the public domain and are available for free download from Liberty Fund.


Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts from and the Cato Institute. I’m Aaron Powell.

Grant Babcock: And I’m Grant Babcock.

Aaron Ross Powell: Joining us today is our colleague Jason Kuznicki. He’s a Cato Institute research fellow, editor of Cato Unbound and he’s author of the upcoming book, Technology and the End of Authority: What is Government For? But today, we’re having him on to talk about a different book, one that just came out, a book that Grant and I put together and was published this month called Arguments for Liberty. Arguments for Liberty is a collection of essays by noted scholars on different philosophical arguments for libertarianism. And throughout 2017, we will be interviewing the authors of these chapters to discuss the various moral groundings one might use to justify a libertarian political system.

Today, we’re starting with Jason’s chapter which is on Kant who is a favorite among libertarians. He certainly—whenever his name comes up on our Facebook page for, there’s lots of nice things said about him.

Jason Kuznicki: Oh, really?

Aaron Ross Powell: Objectivist Randians tend to have opinions they say about Immanuel Kant.

Jason Kuznicki: They certainly do. They certainly do.

Aaron Ross Powell: Which we will get to later, but let’s start with Kant himself with just a bit of bio, who was he, when did he live.

Jason Kuznicki: Kant lived in the late 18th century. He was a German philosopher considered one of the sort of the founding figure of German idealists school of philosophy, sort of a transitional figure from the enlightenment into German idealism and also—and anyone who studies philosophy knows him as one of the most important philosophers of all time.

Aaron Ross Powell: OK. So, Kant wrote about pretty much everything.

Jason Kuznicki: Virtually every topic in philosophy, he said something of interest about and wrote it down and we’ve been arguing about it ever since, yes.

Aaron Ross Powell: But our chief concern today and in this chapter in Arguments for Liberty is his moral theory and then his political—his result in political theory. So Kant started—Kant was not satisfied with existing moral theories when—

Jason Kuznicki: That’s right.

Aaron Ross Powell: He created his own because he thought that they reduced to systems of what he called hypothetical imperatives?

Jason Kuznicki: Hypothetical imperatives, so “if a…then you should be.” If you want to understand physics, then you should study mathematics. But then that presupposes that studying physics is a good idea to begin with. Well, why study physics? Well, perhaps it’s because you want to obtain a particular machine for doing some—purpose some project in the physical world. Well, why should you do that? Well, maybe it’s because of some other hypothetical imperative. And he found essentially that ethics was running around in circles. It was chasing after one hypothetical after another after another and they were all in the service of something else. Well, where does it all start? He asked. Where’s the beginning of all this? Where’s the—

Aaron Ross Powell: So, ethics might be like—so for Aristotle, it would be “if you want to live well or be happy, then you’ll behave in certain ways or embody certain characteristics.” For a consequentialist, it might be something like “if you want to maximize happiness, then you’ll do or not do the following things.” What’s wrong with that?

Jason Kuznicki: Well, Kant criticized Aristotelian approaches specifically and also implicitly criticized the later utilitarian accounts by saying that happiness is something that is mutable from one person to the next. We each have a different idea of happiness and because of that, we’re not going to agree on what constitutes the good. And if we can’t agree on it, then that seems to be an account of the good that lacks one of the genuinely taken as fundamental attributes of goodness, which is that it’s universal, that it is something that is in some way incumbent on or accessible to any person.

Aaron Ross Powell: OK. So, if we’re going to ditch hypotheticals and we’re going to try to find something that’s stronger than that, more foundational than that. What is there? This is his notion of the goodwill.

Jason Kuznicki: His antidote was to begin with the goodwill and to say that if there’s anything in the world that is unconditionally good, that is good without possibility, that circumstance or that contingency can disrupt it, it’s the goodwill, the desire to do good. And that is a thing that seems prerequisite, he said, to goodness in all circumstances in all times and places.

Aaron Ross Powell: How is desire different from the “if” part of a hypothetical imperative? So if—OK. So, a goodwill is fundamental but a goodwill is the desire to do good, so now we’re stuck back with the definition of good and it sounds an awful lot like if you want to do good, then you will do these things and these things happen to be what we call either the desire or what those that desire then to do the good things is the goodwill, but it’s not filling in the nature of the good.

Jason Kuznicki: Kant would have resisted the move from desire to satisfaction or happiness. He would have said, “This is not about happiness. It’s about living one’s life according to principle, even if perhaps living one’s life according to principle leads to unhappiness.” He would say, “The person who is reflective and rational and thoughtful about their life may choose a life that is good and bind themselves to that life despite the fact that it makes them unhappy.” Simply for goodness’ own sake. Simply for the imperative to be good. So, this is something that he would say is not easily reconciled with or reducible to utilitarianism.

Grant Babcock: So, does Kant even have a conception of the good in the way that the Eudaimonist Greeks did or that the utilitarians do?

Jason Kuznicki: Well, this is a question that—he has a conception of the good certainly, but I think it’s a different one. I think it’s fair to say it’s a different conception. There are accounts of the good that are similar to his at times and places elsewhere. The idea that one is obliged, for example, to obey the commandments of God even if those commandments are inexplicable or even if they are horrible. This is something that’s found in the Bible. This is the sacrifice that Abraham was asked to make. So, it’s actually an ancient idea in ethics that perhaps doing the good is not necessarily going to make you all that happy. Perhaps it’s going to be something that’s going to be quite daunting, quite fearful, maybe even will make you unhappy but that’s not the point of the good in this conception of the good.

Aaron Ross Powell: Then how does this deal then with this question of moral motivation, which seems to be at the heart of hypothetical imperatives? So you say, OK, that’s the good and, OK, it may not make you happy, but the goodwill or desire to follow it is what matters. And I respond, “So you’re trying to convince me to be a Kantian” and I respond by saying, “Why? Like I kind of want to be happy, you know.” And if that doesn’t sound great of this thing, you know—I get it’s probably not going to guarantee happiness, but if it’s often going to run anathema to happiness, that seems like a knock against this as far as me being motivated to do it. So why should I—what’s in it for me? Or why should I care about having a goodwill?

Jason Kuznicki: Certainly, certainly. Kant would not have said that happiness is something you must not pursue or something that you must avoid. He would say you must act in certain ways and refrain from acting in other ways. But there’s a scope here that allows for the pursuit of happiness. There’s nothing wrong with taking happiness to be a value within the context of another one’s good life. The key thought, the absolutely key for him was not happiness, but to give one’s self a moral law in accordance with reason. This was a concept that he termed autonomy. Autonomy for Kant is very special. It means that a reasoned agent is capable of legislating for himself over time and of binding him to live according to a reasoned moral law.

Grant Babcock: Just to contextualize Aaron’s question a little bit, like—so when we talk about motivation and moral theory, like one attractive feature that a moral theory can have is once I understand what the good is, then I want to pursue it, right? Just by virtue of having understood it. So—and this is—you know, there are a lot of on utilitarianism, for example, but why someone would want to pursue the utilitarian conception of the good seems pretty clear, right? Why once I understand, you know, what it means to live my life in this autonomous way would I be motivated to do that?

Jason Kuznicki: You would be motivated to do that Kant I think would say because you recognize that you are ultimately a rational being and that facet of your being, that aspect of your being entails behaving in certain ways. It’s possible for you to neglect that, but that neglect has a status of, you know, neglecting a duty. It’s an obligation that you have which once recognized becomes, he would say, something that’s wrong to ignore.

Grant Babcock: And to be clear, this isn’t a human nature account of obligation like—you know, it’s not that, you know, humans are this way; therefore, we want to govern ourselves accordingly. It’s what’s the distinguishing feature?

Jason Kuznicki: It is not a human nature account because he would say that other rational entities would be equally bound by it. So, for example, he would say that God—assuming God exists, which Kant believed—God is also bound by this, or angels or aliens or we might say sentient robots would also recognize this. And that’s actually—I mean this is a test that my people run in a few years, you know, whether it’s with the intelligent agents we have nowadays would recognize this as a law that they ought to bind themselves by. I don’t know.

Aaron Ross Powell: Does that mean that our test for whether something is rational, whether it’s Kantian?

Jason Kuznicki: Well, I don’t know if Kant would have put it in such immodest and, you know, self-congratulatory terms, but maybe, maybe.

Aaron Ross Powell: So how does this get us—OK. So we’ve got—we’ve got these very broad concepts right now. But, how does that get us to then a system of morality, of knowing what I ought to do, what I ought not to do, kind of the action guidance portion of it.

Jason Kuznicki: Yeah. So, Kant as we said rejected hypothetical imperatives and he substituted for them as the groundwork of all ethics, what he called categorical imperative. He gave three different formulas for the categorical imperative and when you first encounter them, they sound fairly different from one another. And he claimed that they were all equivalent to one another, which is one of the more confusing things he ever said because he didn’t fully explain that and people have argued about it ever since. But, if we look at the first formulation of the categorical imperative, it says, “Act as if the maxim of your action were to become by your will a universal law of nature.”

So, imagine that the moral principle that underlies whatever it is you are doing were to become universal, not just universal in the sense that it’s incumbent on everyone, but that everyone would actually do it just as objects fall to a center of gravity or the entropy of the universe gradually increases or that sort of thing, something that is inevitable. Can you will that this was something that was always and inevitably followed?

It’s easy to make caricatures of this and a lot of times people do—people would say, “Well, you decided, Jason, to become a historian. Could you really will that everyone in the world would become a historian? Then we would all starve to death because there’d be no food. This is a caricature. This is not what Kant was getting at. It was not intended to be a test of consequences. It was intended to be a test of interior moral maxims. So we don’t ask about consequences. We don’t ask about what would happen if everyone behaved in literally the exact same way.

We look to the moral maxim behind the action and I might defend my becoming a historian by saying I think it is a maxim that I could will to universalize that people should cultivate their personal talents, at least insofar as they do so without harming other people. I don’t think I harmed too many other people by becoming a historian, but that leaves room for lots of other professions that leaves room for possible, of course, diversity of professions existing at the same time. I don’t have to will that everyone performs literally the same actions that I do. All I need to do is will that they cultivate their particular talents to the best of their ability without harming other people.

Aaron Ross Powell: So, if we’re not concerned with consequences, we’re evaluating a maxim, are we—is it just that it’s logically possible to will such a thing for—or that everyone would—to will that everyone would act according to this maxim?

Jason Kuznicki: I think that’s the correct understanding, yes. There are lots of people including some libertarians who were very quick to move from the first formulation of the categorical imperative to saying things like, “Well, if everybody stole, then there’d be bad consequences. Everybody would, you know, spend all their time on theft instead of unproduction and the world would be miserable and suspicious and people would be always afraid.” And while that’s all true, it’s beside Kant’s point. Kant’s actual point is that you cannot consistently will (a) that I’m going to be a thief and (b) that there will also be an, otherwise, enduring order of private property within which I exist, that those two things are inconsistent. You can’t will the occasional ad hoc violation of a system that you also endorse. So—and that’s what he would say the active theft amounts to.

Aaron Ross Powell: So this gets us to the kind of classic counterexample to Kant, is the Nazis come to your door about lying. So you shouldn’t—Kant, you know, we should not lie and we can’t will that everyone lies. So, you’ve got a Jewish family hiding in your house and the Nazis comes to your door and say, “Is there a Jewish family hiding in your house?” And it would seem—Kant saying “you have to tell the Nazis the truth” seems morally monstrous and seems like a problem for us. So is that—then, how do we differentiate or do you—because one of the objections to the categorical imperative if we can kind of add on conditions. So it’s not that I’m willing that you shouldn’t—

Grant Babcock: Right.

Aaron Ross Powell: —you know, lie. It’s that, you know, my general will is that people shouldn’t lie except in instances where, you know, lying to Nazis.

Jason Kuznicki: Yeah, Kant was personally challenged on this in his lifetime not with Nazis, of course, because they didn’t exist yet. But he was challenged about what if a murderer comes to your door and wants to kill the person you’re hiding. And, frankly, I think he loved it. I think he made a botch of his answer here. I think that the correct answer is to say, “Yes, you should not lie” and the proper thing to do in that case is just to close the door. You’re not obliged to tell the truth in all cases. I can’t actually will that someone should always speak the truth about every single thing all the time. I think that is—you know, that is something that obviously also leads to—well, it leads to a sort of disorganized thinking because I would have to talk about how you’re wearing a blue tie and how you’re wearing glasses and it would be irrelevant and it would actually be in a sense contrary to, you know, the maxim that I ought to have organized thinking. I would have to talk about everything in order to never refrain from speaking things that I happen to know.

Grant Babcock: That seems unsatisfying to me—

Jason Kuznicki: Well—

Grant Babcock: —cause—it seems like in the case of your harboring the fugitive that—like part of what is keeping them alive is the like positive inaction of this ruse, right?

Jason Kuznicki: I can simply close the door. There’s no obligation to lie. There’s no obligation to tell the truth. There’s no obligation to speak.

Grant Babcock: You can’t simply close the door—because they will interpret that as meaning that the person is there.

Aaron Ross Powell: We get that all the time.

Jason Kuznicki: If you are in fear, if you are in fear that that is the case, there’s another approach. We would like an approach that you would find more satisfying. Another approach is to say that in this case you’re presented with a choice. You either lie or you become a party to—you become an accomplice to a murder, and you would have to ask then about a choice between two evils. And this is a choice that is forced upon you by the would-be murderer. He’s forcing you to do one of those two things, which is a circumstance that calls for a very difficult choice to be made, but clearly there’s a right choice and wrong choice.

Aaron Ross Powell: So then this seems to get us into a weighing of situations. So we’ve admitted that there’s something wrong with lying because in general you shouldn’t do it. And we’ve also said that being party even in this very passive way to the murderer of an innocent is bad. And so now it seems like choosing our—if we’re going to act upon these maxims, we have to weigh these maxims against each other. And does that import consequences back in or does it import desires back in, like—because Kant has already said, you know, I mean one of the things is if I am party to a murder that’s going to make me profoundly unhappy and it’s going to make obviously the person who was murdered profoundly unhappy.

Jason Kuznicki: Well, it will certainly—it will certainly make people unhappy, but Kant would say that murder is wrong not because it brings unhappiness. I mean after all, you can find truly sadistic people who take pleasure in murder and then suddenly murder is pleasurable. This is not why murder is wrong. Murder is wrong for him because murder treats one human being as merely the means or as merely the tool for another human being’s goals or purposes and that is a violation of what he called the second formulation of the categorical imperative. That runs as follows: So act as to treat humanity whether in your own person or in that of any other in every cases in end and never merely as a means.

So, it would be a very direct violation of the categorical imperative in its second formulation if I were to help out with the murder because I would be treating the victim as a tool for the scheme of some other human being and that’s wrong. That’s a direct violation of the categorical imperative. One might say even that someone who proposes such a violation of the categorical imperative is not entitled to any sort of cooperation including telling them the truth. That is another way of getting out of the norm.

Aaron Ross Powell: So this second formulation, one of the misinterpretations that I think is relatively common or one of the objections to it, I certainly remember it coming up from clever people in the philosophy courses I took as an undergrad, is that that would prohibit all sorts of activities because where you seem to be not treating the person exclusively as meant, that you seem to be treating them—you know, so like commerce, if I buy something from you, I’m absolutely using you as a means to—I wouldn’t be interacting with you if it weren’t for me wanting this other thing from you. And that’s not quite right. Like we did—Kant is not prohibiting commerce or bombing a cigarette off someone.

Jason Kuznicki: Certainly not. He never intended to prohibit commerce. He never intended to prohibit taking a philosophy seminar where people all learned from one another. He never intended to prohibit essentially all of society which is what that interpretation of the second formulation would do. We did not want to make people all into monads. The idea here is that if you are going to benefit from someone else, you don’t treat them merely as a tool, that you act with an understanding that they are, in fact, people of an equal worth and dignity to you. It is an invitation to treat them as autonomous moral agents, which in fact they have the capacity to be even if they are not always perfect at it and that they have just as much right to pursue their own ends and to engage in autonomous action as you do. And two people in marketplace, I think, certainly fit that paradigm, I would say. Kant wrote much less than I would like about commerce, but when he did write about commerce, he did not write to the effect that it ought to be banned universally, certainly not.

Aaron Ross Powell: So what’s the—you said there were three formulations.

Jason Kuznicki: There are three formulations and the third formulation is sort of closely related to the second. You can see almost how these two are related. It runs as follows: Every rational being must so act as if he were by his maxims in every case a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends. So, imagine that your actions—imagine that your actions are establishing moral law for everyone who is like you, for all rational autonomous agents. So, the maxim behind your action which is not “I want to be a historian.” The maxim behind your action, which is something more like “I think everyone should develop their talents.” That is the thing that you ought to ask yourself about and ask yourself whether through your actions, whether through your actions, it should become the law for everyone. And whether you as a legislating member of the kingdom of ends are making good law for everyone or bad law.

Aaron Ross Powell: So, all three of these categorical imperatives, all three of the formulations, are about action or about willing—undertaking certain actions, willing that certain actions would be done by others or the universal. Does Kant—because we could—you and I could take the same action for very different reasons.

Jason Kuznicki: Certainly. And the reasons were key for him, absolutely key. You’re supposed to want things for the right reasons, not for bad reasons. So, I might follow the law for fear of punishment. But to Kant, that’s not a good reason. I would rather—or Kant would rather have people follow the law for the apprehension that the law is a good one and the recognition of the law is fundamental justice. And the recognition that whether it is a just law, you have an obligation to obey it, rather than saying, “Oh, no. They might put me in prison for this.”

Aaron Ross Powell: How do we get from that from this idea of the goodwill, from the idea of autonomy, the categorical imperative? How do we get from that to a political system?

Jason Kuznicki: The first thing to observe here is that if you look at the second formulation of the categorical imperative, governments violate this all the time. Governments treat their citizens merely as a means to an end. I think this is almost impossible to deny. Governments treat people as tools. They treat them as a means to an end, the end of achieving some greater social goal that lies outside of them and that is perhaps not wanted by them and, therefore, they are coerced. So, a very good example of a modern libertarian who takes this view and whose libertarianism is based on a kind of Kantianism is Robert Nozick. Nozick’s anarchy staging utopia is sometimes attacked as being without foundations, but this to me seems just grossly unfair. It seems a completely unfair charge to make because Nozick, in fact, says that his libertarianism does come from the Kantian consideration that people are ends in themselves and not to be treated merely as a means to some other end. So to me this opens up a very clear prospect for a Kantian libertarianism.

Now, the problem with that is that Kant himself was not always as libertarian as we might want him to be. He wasn’t politically identical to Robert Nozick. He was relatively a classical liberal first time. He’s quite a good classical liberal first time in a lot of ways, but he was not a modern libertarian. He was not Nozickian in his politics.

Grant Babcock: Could you give an example of one of these undesirable deviations of Kant’s?

Jason Kuznicki: Well, sure. Kant did not believe that there was a right to revolution against the state. He did not believe that there was a right to overthrow an unjust state. I disagree with that. I think that’s absolutely wrong. He did though have—he did have some very libertarian ideas about the freedom of the press about civic and social equality, about the importance of private property in civil society. He had a particular theory of private property and how it develops in society, which maybe we’ll have some time to get into. But I think it’s a very interesting contribution that he made to the idea of private property. And so—so, yeah, in a lot of ways he’s very much a classical liberal, not entirely a modern libertarian though, certainly not by a long shot.

Aaron Ross Powell: May I ask a bit more about this idea that the state uses people as ends or as means instead of as ends putting on my—let’s say, my Bernie Bro hat?

Grant Babcock: It’s kind of a tracker hat—

Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah.

Grant Babcock: —but like it’s got some ironic slogan on the brim, I don’t know.

Aaron Ross Powell: It’s from some micro-Bro place.

Grant Babcock: Yeah.

Aaron Ross Powell: They would say, “Look, these things that government does, the things that they would support, the Bernie Sanders person would support that we might think are using people. So, redistributional taxation, say, we’re going to take money from you to give it to the poor or pay first education or something else. These aren’t, “Yes, we’re using you as a means.” Absolutely. But Kant hasn’t denied that we can use someone as a means. We just aren’t allowed to use them exclusively as a means. But, what we’re doing as the state in this instance is you’re an end as well, like we are doing this for your own good. You participate in the common good by paying for, by paying for education, by instituting welfare program, by regulating corporations, whatever else. We are enhancing the common good, which (a) like improves your life because you’re part of the society.

And (b) if you don’t want it, that’s just because you’re mistaken, you’re acting not in goodwill, the whole basis of enforcing the law, a law against murder, right? Like we’re not—the murderer says like, “When you lock me up, you’re just using me as an ends—” you know, whatever it happens to be—protection for other people or promoting justice or something like that, or using me as means, sorry. And so you don’t have a right to do that, but we would say, “No,” like, you know, you can’t—if the ends you might desire are undesirable or wrong or don’t with the general will, but are we dependent upon kind of importing pre-existing libertarian ideas into Kant in order to say that the state violates the categorical imperative?

Jason Kuznicki: I would have to respond to a person like that by saying that they are the ones doing the importing. They’ve imported an idea of a general or collective good that is not found in the categorical imperative. And this is also Nozick’s critique of exactly that move. I’m going to quote a little bit from Nozick here, “The moral side constraints upon what we may do, I claim, reflect the fact of our separate existences. They reflect the fact that no moral balancing act can take place among us. There is moral outweighing of one of our lives by others so as to lead to a greater overall social good. There is no justified sacrifice of some of us for others. So, the idea of the collective good is actually the part that’s the non-starter here. There isn’t a collective good. There is either the treatment of people as ends in themselves or not.

Grant Babcock: So, if that’s the right way to interpret Kant, why aren’t most Kantians also libertarians like you or I?

Jason Kuznicki: I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. I think that these are the right implications to draw from Kant. I think that Kant should have been more consistent about them than he personally was. But, I do know that there have been Kantian socialists. There are Kantian communitarians. There are Kantians of a lot of other political persuasions. And I think that one of the reasons why there is this kind of diversity is because it’s possible to look at the entire field of economics, which we don’t consider at all trivial or small matter, to look at the entire field of economics as a question not of fundamental principles or of categorical imperative but as one of prudence. Kant made a distinction in his ethics between those matters that were governed by universal maxims and that were matters derived from some formulation of the categorical imperative on the one hand, and those that were properly considered circumstantial on the other hand.

So, if I notice that it is very cold outside, I should probably give my daughter warm clothes before she goes outside to play. That’s kindness, but it’s situationally relative. It depends on the context. If I bundle her up in a warm coat when it’s in the middle of the summer, she’s not going to be having fun. She’s going to be miserable. And so that’s not a kindness. That’s actually kind of foolish. So, there are what he called—there are what he called categorical imperative maxims of universal morality, but on the other hand, there are counsels of prudence that depending on certain circumstances, depending on the situations you observe around you, you will act differently and you should act differently. And it’s possible to consider that questions like what is the best form of economics, what is the best economic system, might actually be matters of prudence rather than of universal morality.

And people may say, “Hey, look, you know, I don’t necessarily hate capitalism, but I have, you know, made certain observations about it and I don’t think it really works all that well,” and so it needs to be corrected. It needs to be amended in certain ways and we’re allowed to do that. So, a Kantian could argue himself into a different approach to economics and particularly through redistributive economics in that way. I would say then we’re having the empirical debate. We’re not having a debate about fundamental ethical principles, but we can have that debate and we can talk about which social system or which economic system is preferable.

Grant Babcock: So do you think it’s usually a mistake about an empirical question that leads people to not go from Kantianism to libertarianism? Is there also a common like theoretical error people make? Like we talked about like not taking the separateness of person seriously, you know. And I don’t know the answer to this question, but—

Jason Kuznicki: And I think it’s a combination of both because I have read—I have read some Kantian socialist arguments to the effect of, “Yes, people in the market, in fact, use one another as tools and merely as tools and as nothing else.” And I don’t—I don’t think I agree with that, but they do appear convinced by it. So, there are two different disagreements here potentially, yes.

Aaron Ross Powell: Seems like an opportunity—you mentioned earlier that Kant had an interesting argument for regime of private property.

Jason Kuznicki: Yes.

Aaron Ross Powell: And so, counter the people, the communitarians and the socialists. What does Kant say about this?

Jason Kuznicki: So, Kant believed that private property rights were potentially legitimate. Claims about private property were potentially legitimate. He disagreed with the Lockean account of private property. Listeners may recall that Locke believed that private property was acquired by homesteading. So, you stake a claim to a territory by putting up some sort of visible mark and then by improving it, and—

Grant Babcock: And mixing your labor.

Jason Kuznicki: The mixed labor with the property gave you a claim upon it. Kant would not have said that. Kant would have said, “All that is sufficient to establish a provisional claim of private property is that you make the assertion that you have this and it’s yours.” Now, the problem with this provisional claim and the problem with all such provisional claims is that there are going to be disputes about it. And for Kant, the reason we enter into civil society is to resolve these sorts of disputes, to have a mediator which will be the government that will intervene when disputes arise and will attempt to settle them in some just matter.

Now, obviously a government is never going to do that work perfectly and some residual injustice will remain in civil society for a very, very long time. In fact, Kant wrote about the entire project of human history as being one of gradually improving the justice of society and of gradually rooting out all of the significant or detectible faults in our regime of law and of private property and of social relations.

And he said, “Look, no one is going to be able to see the final result of this from where we sit here in the 18th century,” or he might say, “from where we sit here in the 20th century that justice is a process of eventual refinement.” Human lives are very, very short. We only get a chance to work on a little bit of the great project of humanity, which is building a just society. But it begins with the establishment of certain claims and then the attempt to peacefully adjudicate them and refine them and make better claims about who is entitled to what legitimate claims in society.

Aaron Ross Powell: Does taking Kant’s arguments seriously force us to conclude anarchism? Or at most voluntarism? Or does it—can we get to—do you think it’s possible to get to anything more than that to robust classical liberalism or the constitutional republic or anything that’s not basically purely voluntary without violating these basic principles?

Jason Kuznicki: Kant’s own belief was that there would be a universal regime of representative republican government, that in time eventually this is where everything would end up, that there would be a broadly classical liberal representative republican government everywhere, not that it would be a one ruled government necessarily, but that all governments would increasingly come to resemble this ideal. That’s not the only answer that’s been given. I have certainly read Kantian anarchists who have said the ideal toward which human society is trending is a regime of, yes, private property, but citizenship without statehood without there being a state. And citizens in this stateless society would have the rights that we expect citizens to have certainly and probably many more that are not vindicated in our current society, and they would be in a sense much more free than we are today.

Grant Babcock: So we have these provisional property claims which are—we need institutions to adjudicate whether those are state institutions or some kind of anarchist institutions. Does Kant offer any guidance about like what would constitute a just claim versus an unjust one? How—are we just supposed to model through?

Jason Kuznicki: He did offer—he did offer suggestions about this. There are suggestions that he suggests that, yes, labor is one factor that you ought to consider. He was not entirely hostile to lock in claims about desert in terms of the labor that people had put into a thing. He was concerned with questions like reparations for past injustices and, you know, much of the same sort of territory that we would expect a classical liberal account of property to have.

The idea was that eventually and, you know, in the fullness of time, the need to resort to force to adjudicate these things would have to retreat. The goal here would be to have claims about property that were more and more defensible, that were more and more built into sort of the institutional and the ethical understandings of people in the society that the work of government would eventually lessen.

Grant Babcock: So this is sort of the idea that our rights are most secure when they’re not up for debate even.

Jason Kuznicki: Yes, yes. I think that’s right, yes.

Aaron Ross Powell: I mentioned at the beginning that we get among libertarians, there’s sizable contingents that are fairly anti-Kant or at least if you mentioned Kant, they’ll boo and hiss. And this is—

Grant Babcock: Status.

Aaron Ross Powell: —largely because a great number of libertarians became libertarians or got serious about it after reading Rand—Ayn Rand. And Rand was—let’s just say she was not a fan of Immanuel Kant. But most people who have studied Kant are a little bit baffled by Rand’s take on him or at least think that the criticisms of him, i.e., that he abolished the enlightenment by embracing relativism.

Grant Babcock: She straight up calls him the most evil man in human history.

Jason Kuznicki: I think that’s completely undeserved. You know, my own ethical views are close to Kant’s. I think it’s completely undeserved that he was called that. I would say, Hegel is obviously the most evil philosopher who’s ever lived. But, but, I do think that she has both good and bad reasons to object to Kant. Rand was in her metaphysics and objective realist. Kant was an idealist. He had a very different idea of metaphysics, which we don’t have to—we don’t have to get into in any depth right here. But there’s a big, big disagreement there. Kant was a deontologist in his ethics and Rand at least professed to be a virtue ethicist. I think that she’s closer to deontology myself that she cared to admit.

Aaron Ross Powell: Rand’s virtue ethics don’t sound much like any other virtue ethics.

Jason Kuznicki: But she claimed to be a virtue ethicist. She claimed to be in the tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas. And if you are, in fact, in that tradition, then yes, you’re not always going to agree with Kant and you’ll have some good reason to disagree with him. I mean, you know, if this is where you come from, then you’re not necessarily going to see eye-to-eye. There were also those some unfounded objections to Kant that she made.

So, she claimed that Kant was a proponent of pure absolute altruism, which I don’t understand how she even came by this view because Kant is very explicit that pure altruism fails the categorical imperative. It cannot be universalized. It is not even potentially a part of his ethics. So, I don’t know why she said this. I think she was just wrong about it and I would say at least on that basis, there isn’t really—there isn’t really much room for argument. Kant is quite clear himself about rejecting pure altruism.

You should have benevolence toward other people, Kant said. You should practice being kind to them. But, this is one of those things where the counsels of prudence must play a part, he said. You cannot turn this into something categorical that you have an absolute obligation to be at all times and perfectly an altruist. He thought that was nonsense.

Grant Babcock: We talked a little bit earlier about some reasons that a person who accepts Kantianism might reject libertarianism. How about we then also discuss what are some reasons that someone would just reject the Kantian moral program generally, like at its foundation?

Jason Kuznicki: Sure. So, a lot of objections to Kant center on the idea that these formulations of categorical imperative are just so hopelessly abstract that you can’t really bring them to bear on practical ethical questions. And, therefore, what good are they? Why do you talk about these things when they actually don’t really achieve very much? Hegel, for example, faulted Kant for having this sort of empty formalism, he called it, that these are things that sound very nice but they really have no practical impact unless you fill in some of the hypothetical details, some of the situational details. And then suddenly, we’re not really doing the type of ethical reasoning that, you know, Kant himself claimed that we ought to be doing.

I don’t personally agree with this. I don’t agree with it because I think that this objection rests on a misunderstanding of what Kant is trying to do. He was not trying to provide a set of rules for all conduct in all situations that could be derived as one might derive proofs in geometry. This is not what he’s trying to do. He’s trying to say that these are necessary preconditions for any kind of good ethical behavior, but they’re not sufficient. They’re not sufficient for driving the entirety of the good life.

To do that, you need to know about circumstance. You need to consult the counsels of prudence. You need to integrate these things into your ethical decision-making. Now, your decision-making has to be consistent with the categorical imperative. It must not though be taken as the only thing that will guide you in all life and, therefore, you’re set. That’s a misunderstanding.

Grant Babcock: What about the objection that—and we touched on this a little bit earlier, but I’d like to come back to it, that when we’re talking about, you know, determining the maxim upon which we’re acting and you say, “Well, it’s wrong to say that everyone should be historian and it’s right maybe or better at least to say that everyone should try to like, you know, fulfill their, you know, potential in the world or something. But there’s a whole lot of ground in between there and even—you can even go like more abstract than that. You could say that like “I can, you know, will that everyone should, you know, do the right thing,” which is just hopelessly empty, right? But also true.

Jason Kuznicki: Well, I mean that’s easy to will but it doesn’t have a lot of formal content to it. Now, you could also have mid-levels of abstraction, so rather than everyone must live up to their potential or everyone must cultivate their talents, rather than saying that, or saying everyone must become a historian. You could say, “Everyone must read books. It’s a really good thing to read books.” Now, that’s somewhere in between in terms of specificity. I might actually be able to will that one. I think I could. I think that if you have the capacity to read, then you are, in fact, not living up to your potential if you systematically neglect reading. You ought to spend some share of your life reading books. It’s a good thing to do. This is a part of cultivating one very important part of your faculties. So, you know, there is room here.

Now, the point of having these conversations, the point of thinking about ethics in these terms is not necessarily to set up a large system of propositions, all of which must be followed. It’s to give you guidance in thinking about why you act for certain reasons, you know, whether your reasons are defensible or not. And so, we ought not to imagine that it can be derived like geometry. I can come up with other maxims that lie behind my decision to become a historian that might be either more or less specific and maybe I could or couldn’t will them. I’d have to think about it. I’d have to think about it.

Grant Babcock: So, it sounds like there is some ambiguity here but maybe it’s not necessarily the case that it’s a problematic kind of ambiguity.

Jason Kuznicki: I would call it a creative and productive ambiguity.

Aaron Ross Powell: So you mentioned that we can have a universal maxim of people should read books and including arguments for liberty in that maxim is probably—

Grant Babcock: That’s just uncontroversial, you know.

Aaron Ross Powell: So, for someone who’s potentially interested in exploring Kant more and given his enormous and continuing influence on the western intellectual tradition, he’s worth absolutely exploring more. They can start by reading your chapter and arguments for liberty, but one of the concerns about Kant is that he’s notoriously difficult. You don’t—few people will pick up the critique of pure reason as beach-reading.

Jason Kuznicki: Well, the critique of pure reason is also I would say his most difficult book. That is not an easy read. It’s also happily not one you have to read to understand his political or his ethical thought. I’ve got a list in the back which I recommend. Most of these books are fortunately in the public domain. Liberty Fund has a lot of them online for free, which means that, you know, there are very, very few practical burdens to fulfilling your categorical obligations here, I guess you could say. The critique of practical reason as opposed to the critique of pure reason is relatively much more readable. One of the most accessible short pieces of Kantian philosophy is the idea for universal history from a cosmopolitan point of view. If you are interested in what you heard here, you should pick that up. It’s not something that libertarians will agree with in all of its particulars, but it is very accessible. It is very short. It is very stimulating and it’s a good sort of entry point into how he thinks about questions of history and politics.

Grant Babcock: Thank you, Jason Kuznicki, for being with us today to discuss your chapter in Arguments for Liberty. The book is available at and in bookstores everywhere and on Amazon.

Aaron Ross Powell: Free Thoughts is produced by Evan Banks and Tess Terrible. To learn more about libertarianism, visit us on the web at