Sunday, 10 December 2017

Immanuel Kant on Property Rights and Authority of State

In his essay, “Mine and thine? The Kantian state,”  (Chapter 12: The Cambridge Companion to Kant and Modern Philosophy, Edited by Paul Guyer), Robert B. Pippin says that Immanuel Kant believed that private property is the primary institution in a modern bourgeois society, and that the authority of the state comes from the role that it plays in securing private property and regulating the disputes regarding property and contract.

Kant was of the view that the sovereignty of the state is absolute and people do not have the right of revolution. He limits participation in government to the active citizens (by “active citizens” Kant means the adult male property owners, and not the women, domestics, or the dependents).

In his last major work, The Metaphysics of Morals (1797), Kant offers a description of his moral and political philosophy. On the subject of a society, Kant, in his book, says that a
condition of the individuals within a people in relation to one another is called a civil condition (status civilis), and the whole of individuals in a rightful condition, in relation to its members is called a state (civitas). 
He goes on to offer a fuller definition of such a state:
A state (civitas) is a union of a multitude of human beings under laws of right. Insofar as these are a priori necessary as laws, that is insofar as they follow of themselves from concepts of external right as such (are not statuary), its form is the form of a state as such, that is, of the state in idea, as it ought to be in accordance with pure principles of right. This idea serves as a norm (norma) for every actual union into a commonwealth (hence serves as a norm for its internal constitution). 
In the book’s section titled, “Exposition of the Concept of Original Acquisition of Land,” Kant explains how people can rightfully acquire property:
All men are originally in common possession of the land of the entire earth (communio fundi originaria) and each has by nature the will to use it (lex iusti) which, because the choice of one is unavoidably opposed by nature to that of another, would do away with the use of it if this will did not also contain the principle for choice by which a particular possession for each on the common land could be determined. 
Pippin argues that Kant believed that as rational creatures, the human beings must accept that they are incapable of determining unilaterally their right to their property, because such a right cannot be deduced as a law of pure practical reason. Kant demands absolute sovereignty and rejects the right of revolution because he wants to safeguard property rights while adhering to the dictates of pure practical reason.

A revolution (or anarchy) is abhorrent to Kant. He believes that a right to revolution entail’s that men have refused to leave the state of nature. In his essay, “Perpetual Peace,” Kant writes: “Any legal constitution, even if it is only in a small measure lawful, is better than none at all.”

Kant holds that unless there is rule of law, private property cannot exist. Therefore the establishment of a common will with coercive power (which is a state) is necessary to safeguard private property, by enforcing the boundaries between the property of various property owners.

According to Pippin, in Kant’s philosophy, “mine and thine are not properly descriptive terms but more like ascriptions of normative statuses, that they are not merely assured by a legal order but can finally only be said to exist within such a legal system of recognition, enforcement, and resolution of disagreement.” I think, it is clear that in the area of property rights, Kant was a philosopher of the (classic) liberal tradition. 


Irfan Khawaja said...

We had a long discussion about this on Facebook, part of it focusing on Kant's rejection of a right of revolution. Since then, I happen to have read an interesting book that offers some useful historical perspective on the issue, Gordon Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution.

Wood neither argues for or against the Revolution per se; what he does is to trace its consequences over the following few decades, in order to demonstrate that it really was a revolution (as against interpreters who have argued that it was not a genuine revolution). If his account is right, it's difficult to claim that the American Revolution was a disaster, or that revolutions always lead to instability and political disaster in the way that the French and Bolshevik Revolutions did. The American Revolution seems a clear case of a genuine revolution that democratized an essentially aristocratic order without destroying itself.

This isn't quite to say that the Revolutionary War was justified, all things considered. Wood doesn't make that argument, and I don't happen to accept it. Ideally, the Anglo-American quarrel could and should have been settled without bloodshed. But once the British came to occupy North America militarily and enforce their edicts with mercenaries, war became inevitable. It is unreasonable to expect people to live indefinitely under military occupation.

This is also not to say that all of the consequences of the Revolution were good ones. Some were atrocious. Nor is it to say that all aspects of the Revolutionary cause were just. Some were not (to put it mildly). So the American Revolution will always be controversial, but it's a counterexample to the assumption that revolutions always fail.

Anoop Verma said...

Irfan Khawaja, Thank you for information on this book: Gordon Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution. I will try to read it.