How an 18th-Century Philosopher is Still Relevant in the 21st Century

How an 18th-Century Philosopher is Still Relevant in the 21st Century

The debate over what is right and what is wrong goes as far back as time itself. And the forces that govern moral – and political – law are just as murky today as they were 300 years ago.

Professor and philosophy department chair Larry Krasnoff sought to explore the philosophical questions raised by morality and politics in a new book he co-edited titled Kant’s Doctrine of Right in the 21st Century.

A leading authority on the 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant, Krasnoff, who also contributed an essay to the publication, uses this anthology of Kant’s Doctrine of Right and related texts to evaluate 21st-century issues such as human rights, social contract theory, forgiveness and punishment, welfare and equality, and civil disobedience.

The College Today posed four questions to Krasnoff to find out more about the German philosopher, why his ideas revolutionized Western philosophy, and how those concepts stand up to the problems of today.

Larry Krasnoff

Larry Krasnoff

Who was Kant?

Immanuel Kant was an 18th-century philosopher from a small city in East Prussia, Königsberg (now Kaliningrad, Russia), which he never once seems to have left. From there, however, he revolutionized Western philosophy. After ancient Greek philosophy, German idealism is the most important philosophical movement in the West, and German idealism is really Kant and his successors. In the Monty Python sketch where philosophers play soccer, the big match is Greece vs. Germany, and Kant is No. 2 on the German team, with only [Gottfried] Leibniz before him.

Kant essentially invented philosophy as a modern, academic discipline. He distinguished the practice of empirical science from the philosophical question of why empirical science is the paradigm case of knowledge, and what this means for us. The book where he makes the case for this, the Critique of Pure Reason, is one of the great achievements of human culture. It’s a book you want to put in the spacecraft for when human beings destroy the planet, to tell the aliens: “See, we weren’t all idiots.”

What is Kant’s approach to political philosophy and moral law?

For Kant, the basic principle of morals is freedom. Moral law is the principle by which free persons govern themselves, by equally respecting the freedom of all other persons. Freedom plays no role in natural science; nonetheless, the scientific perspective cannot invalidate the idea of freedom. Those were the (negative) conclusions Kant took 800 pages to establish in the Critique. Then he went on to develop his positive account of freedom in his moral and political writings.

Morality concerns how and why we choose our actions; politics is concerned with how our actions affect the actions of others. But in both realms, Kant argues, the guiding principle is the same. The principle of right, or political justice, tells us that we must act only in ways that do not prevent others from acting as we would.

Why is his Doctrine of Right relevant today?

The Doctrine of Right is relevant because we still argue about politics in terms of equal freedom. Restrictions on same-sex marriage now seem unjust to us because they prevent individuals with homosexual orientations from doing things that heterosexuals can do. Laws against same-sex marriage were initially defended as “protecting” heterosexual marriage or helping children, but not convincingly. Once the issue was framed as a restriction on a particular group’s freedom, those laws fell apart with remarkable speed.

Conservatives tried to defeat the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare) by arguing that it too was an impermissible restriction on freedom. They sued to declare the individual mandate unconstitutional. Some of their arguments turned on questions of federalism, but mainly they claimed that a government cannot direct private individuals to purchase a particular product in the private market.

How did the project come about and why did you want to do it?

At a conference in Manchester, England, in 2007, I met a philosopher named Harry Lesser. A few years later, Harry, who was a professor at the University of Manchester, invited me to contribute to a collection of essays on Kant’s Doctrine of Right. I said yes, because I think that Kant’s account of political freedom can show us why the conservatives’ argument about Obamacare is mistaken.

Libertarians who don’t like social insurance programs think that political laws are always restrictions on freedom. But Kant argues that freedom and law are co-extensive: You can act freely only when others respect your right to do so, and that kind of respect implies a moral realm of right that must be protected with coercive laws. The right sort of laws protect all individuals’ freedom equally. The wrong sort of laws protect some at the expense of others.

Coercive social insurance programs aren’t really restrictions on freedom, because everyone already has to insure themselves against the potential costs of sickness and old age. Once people are buying insurance instead of individual goods on a discretionary basis, they are at the mercy of other people, because the cost of the premiums depend on who else is paying them. What was wrong with American health care before Obama was not that people did not have health insurance; it was that people’s financial access to health insurance was so divergent, depending on what sort of job they had. Obamacare is certainly not working perfectly, but its basic premise is that everyone should have access to health insurance, no matter what job they have. Then they can be free to make their own decisions about other things. But it’s not possible for everyone to have equal access to the health insurance market if others can opt out if they choose. We can be equally free only when everyone is playing by the same rules.

I submitted the essay to Harry, and then, very sadly, he died, after a sudden stroke. One of his former students wrote to me, saying she wanted to continue the project in his memory, and asked if I would help with finishing it. That’s how I became a co-editor of the book.


Featured image: A statue of Immanuel Kant in Kaliningrad, Russia.