Episode 168: Arguments for Liberty: Kantianism (with Jason Kuznicki)


Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts
from Libertarianism.org 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 Libertarianism.org, 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 Libertarianism.org
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 www.libertarianism.org.

5 thoughts on “Episode 168: Arguments for Liberty: Kantianism (with Jason Kuznicki)

  • About lying, non aggression principle. As long as you are not breaking a contract or lying to steal life or property, there is nothing terrible about lying.

    In the NAZI looking for Jew case, you are not violating anyone natural rights by misdirecting the NAZIs. If you girlfriends asks you if you like her dress, as long as you don't think her wearing it will hurt her, there is nothing wrong with lying about it.

    But if you call in sick to work when you are not sick, or you spend the day browsing the web; that is theft, that is wrong.

  • Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.
    … doesn't rule out lying when the alternative is murder, it becomes rational to will that defending the innocent from convicted psychopaths by lying become a universal law, doesn't it?

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