This straightforward mirroring relationship is in fact not Kant’s position. In order to show what such mirroring would entail, we need to consider Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s post-Kantian categories of dogmatism and idealism. For Fichte, dogmatism consists in the referencing of fact (Tatsache) as the justification of identity statements of the form A = A. In fact, for Fichte, even the simple kind of inference that is involved with such statements requires the license to make this kind of inference, and such a license is not present in the purely factual realm. In other words, facts by themselves cannot justify anything and so cannot form an adequate starting point[1]. This runs parallel to what Kant saw as the predicament of the political moralist.

Fichte’s radical alternative is to displace the would-be role of Tatsache to Tathandlung. Rather than starting from objective factual reality and making it the reference point for every potential justification, Fichte reasons that we should conceive every such justification as an act. Since this act, with its normative entailments, cannot be performed by natural things, we must suppose that the subject that performs this act of justification is itself an act, which also involves its self-authorization to perform such judgments. Recalling our discussion of the European Court of Justice and it performative claim to rightfully speak for the Treaties, we may say that Fichte invented such acts of self-authorization. For Fichte, these involve both fact and the subject itself as subjective posits: as results of what he calls Setzung. We thus end up with a subjective basis for any kind of claim: the I = I is more fundamental than the A = A[2]. This is what we can call Fichte’s idealism. According to later thinkers such as Hölderlin and Schelling, Fichte poses himself an impossible task. While he is correct in his dismissal of dogmatism as a purely objective ground of reality, it is equally misguided to start out from pure subjectivity and to then attempt to show how objectivity can arise out of it. But this is merely another form of dogmatism: it “constructs an account of one out of the other”, but in fact the point from which one starts becomes the vanishing point of all of reality[3].

How does Kant avoid this result? If we see the categorical imperative as a reasoned principle before which any empirical factor must crumble without registering so much as resistance against it, the moral politician is a dogmatist in the same way that the political moralist is. The political moralist tries to construct an account of true politics out of purely empirical factors, but this cannot be done – as we have seen, Kant claims it is inconceivable – ; on a ‘Fichtean’ reading of Kant, the moral politician tries to construct an account of true politics out of purely moral factors, but this cannot be done. Kant in fact agrees. Even is his earlier work on moral philosophy, Kant emphasizes the synthetic a priori nature of the categorical imperative. It is not an eradication of what drives us empirically speaking, but a way of regulating these drives. In fact, without this empirical subject matter or ‘input’ morality would collapse into an empty formalism which would not be able to guide our actions[4].

The political counterpart to this insistence on the empirical is illustrated in various places in the first appendix. It would be “absurd” [ungereimt], Kant claims, to “immediately” and “impetuously” [mit Ungestüm] make changes to a morally defective constitution before the new one is ready to take its place[5]. To require this kind of immediate shift would be to act contrary to the kind of politics that is in accordance [einhellig] with morality: what matters is that the maxim of approaching the perfectly moral constitution remains “most intimately attended to” by those in power [innigst beiwohne] [6]. For those intent on unmasking Kant as a moral absolutist, this stance on politics is difficult to understand. Should morality not rise above empirical matters? On the contrary: Kant says in general terms that it must be “permitted” [erlaubt] to “delay” [Verzögerung] until a “more fitting opportunity” arises[7].

Kant consistently allows for such deference to factual circumstances. This in fact becomes part of the reason why Staatsklugheit has to be rejected as a fitting principle of politics: we do not know enough to determine whether peaceable conditions would be better served by repressing or by liberating the people, and history provides us with contradictory examples[8]. The principle favored by Kant, Staatsweisheit, is far more direct in this sense.

[T]he solution of the second problem, that of political wisdom presses itself upon us, as it were; it is clear to everyone and puts to shame all affectation. It leads directly to the end, but, remembering discretion [doch mit Erinnerung der Klugheit], it does not precipitately hasten to do so by force; rather, it continuously approaches it under the conditions offered by favorable circumstances. (Kant 2010, 45)

Kant’s ‘moral politics’ is thus not fixated on either of the two domains. It cannot be reduced to empirically directed politics, but at the same time it distances itself from purely moral considerations. The symmetry between prudential-technical statesmanship and moral wisdom of state appears to be broken here. Staatsweisheit properly so called comprises both morality and something else, which we could call politics. On the other hand, the self-avowed ‘man of practice’ is completely beholden to empirical politics. However, this difference is itself generated by a deeper symmetry, which exists between conceiving of politics in purely technical terms and conceiving of it as a problema morale. The possibilities of the political moralist are in other words only limited because he himself had first imposed those limits on politics.

By insisting on the primacy of morality and subsequently relating the latter to political reality, Kant shows that to be moral politicians we must continually oscillate between morality and politics. But for Kant, this is only possible when we take morality as our point of departure. If we start out our journey as political moralists, we will never reach the shores of morality. Inconceivable, says Kant. Through this oscillation, the necessary and forcing nature of the moral law is put at a distance, in the same way that the causal determinism of the empirical domain is not taken to be the final word of politics. In this sense, Kant’s first appendix can be read as the first depoliticization critique of modern times: ‘authentic’ politics cannot be reduced to the implementation of prior laws, whether these are causal or moral in nature. Instead, we must always chart our course in between the directives and values provided by both domains: Kant allows for a literal ambivalence on the intersection of morality and politics. Kant’s playful use of his own conceptual apparatus (political moralist and moral politician) is ambivalent in the same fashion. More precisely put: at the same moment when, in the first appendix, he turns to matters than cannot be reduced to a single principle, Kant’s philosophical prose changes from ‘marvelously dry’ to ambivalent and playful.

As we have already considered, depoliticization critique can itself have depoliticizing effects when it does not concern itself with ontology. From this perspective, Kant is perhaps still too deferential to pre-established moral necessities. This is notably the case on a point that Kant has in common with Rousseau: his complicated belief in providence. Kant cites the “somewhat boastful, but true” phrase fiat iustitia, pereat mundus [let there be justice, even if the world should perish]. Kant claims that the correct interpretation of this phrase is not “the permission to use one’s right with extreme rigor (which would conflict with ethical duty)”[9]. Such rigor would indeed threaten a complete reduction of politics to ethics. The phrase should instead be interpreted as “the obligation of those in power not to limit or to extend anyone’s right through sympathy or disfavor”[10]. That is, legal relations conforming to the principle of right must be established both within the state and between states; and this must be done regardless of what the physical consequences will be. Kant adds force to this last claim by saying: “the world will by no means perish by a diminution in the number of evil men”. This surprising addition runs parallel to Kant’s own preferred translation of pereat mundus: “let justice reign, even if all the rascals [Schelme] in the world should perish from it”[11]. The idea that instituting the principle of right has negative consequences for ‘evil men’ and ‘rascals’ is premised on Kant’s formulation of providence:

Moral evil has the essential [von seine Natur unabtrennliche] property of being opposed to and destructive of its own purposes (especially in the relationships between evil men); thus it gives place to the moral principle of the good, though only through a slow progress. (Kant 2010b, 47)

There are thus some fundamental issues that cannot be addressed within the Kantian framework: the moral finality of politics points in a particular direction, and although a certain leeway is possible, as we have seen, politics can only arise on the level of implementation. On the conceptual level of the principle of perpetual peace itself, and the other principles that Kant derives, such as the importance of individual freedom and its compatibility with the freedoms of others, the force of reason cannot be resisted and moves with the inexorable force of providence[12]. That element of Kant’s political work makes him into a double-edged theorist: because of the very vantage point from which he criticizes the depoliticization of his time, he himself becomes guilty of a form of depoliticization. This not not take away, however, from Kant’s lasting importance in showing that morality need not one-sidedly result in depoliticization, as many would contend. Kant’s first appendix shows that morality can point us in the other direction, since it can function as part of a politics that distances itself from purely technical ‘problem management’. And he shows the playfulness and the willingness to oscillate between different domains that such distancing requires.

[1] Pinkard 2008, 112-114

[2] ibid, 113-115

[3] ibid, 141

[4] Kant 2010a, 99-102

[5] Kant 2010b, 38-39

[6] ibid, 38

[7] ibid, 39

[8] ibid, 45

[9] ibid, 46

[10] ibid

[11] ibid, 46-67

[12] compare ibid, 48: “Providence in the course of the world is hereby justified (…)” [Die Vorsehung im Laufe der Welt is hiebei gerechtfertigt]. Kant puts this assertion in the mouth of the political moralist, but his problem with the statement seems to be mostly that the creation of the world cannot be justified in the same fashion, which makes the whole pattern of reasoning appear as a “questionable inference” (ibid). But the providential status of the world itself is entirely consistent with Kant’s view of slow moral progress in human history.


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