The Science of Right (Immanuel Kant)

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Puritanboard Clerk
Even though Kant wrote many bad things in his life, this is not one of them. It is surprisingly well-written and relevant. Kant, like most theorists in his generation, sought to justify, or at least explain, the move from a state of nature to having rights and property. Similar discussions, with varying degrees of success, are found in Locke and Rousseau.

Kant notes a right action must have freedom of will and the ability to be willed into a universal law. Such a definition, whatever else its problems may be, allows Kant to connect rights with duties. This implies, among other things, that we treat others as ends, not means. Moreover, we should be “an end for others.”

What is freedom then? “Freedom is independence of the compulsory will of another.” Freedom, for Kant, is freedom from, not freedom to. Not entirely, though. His earlier comments about our being an end to others suggest some form of duty towards them. That is not important for his definition, though.

From here Kant answers the next logical question: what makes something “mine?” Locke had earlier said when I mix my labor with the land, it becomes mine. Kant does not reject this, but he does add several conditions: my use of something is the subjective condition. This cannot mean anything that I use becomes mine, but it does give Kant a starting place.

There is both a rational and empirical conception of Right. Since rights are first contained in reason, “they cannot be immediately tied to experience.” There must be some mediating term. That mediating term, then, is possession. He does not mean physical possession, but rational. As a justification, this appears useless. As it stands, it is useless. But Kant has more in play. By linking justification of a right with conceptual possession, he opens the door for a “juridical connection.” We have moved, if not always clearly, into a communal relation.

What, then, of the state? Kant’s treatment is an improvement over Rousseau. There must be some will that will bind citizens to respect each other’s rights. Rousseau’s abstracted “general will” does no such thing. The state constitutes the nation, but state for Kant, as for many 18th and 19th century Germans, does not mean the bureaucratic apparatus, but “the hereditary unity of a people.”

Kant does use contract language, if only because such language seems unavoidable. He notes that “the act by which a people is represented as constituting itself into a state is a contract.” They portion out their freedom only to receive it back again as members of the commonwealth. I think he means they receive it back metaphysically and practically, not necessarily legally.

Kant does not really decide on whether monarchy or republic is the best government. Given his Enlightenment convictions, one would expect him to say republic, and that probably is his preference. But like many Europeans, he probably does not see the two as mutually exclusive.

That is the essence of his argument. He has an excellent discussion on marriage. He leans towards outlawing secret societies, though he does not mention the Freemasons or the Bavarian Illuminati in particular. He also rejects the idea of lotteries, noting, quite correctly, that they are an attack on the poor.


This was a surprisingly excellent book. Although he does not mention Locke and Rousseau, they are clearly in the background. His almost “hypostatizing” of Will into a single person anticipates Hegel (and Marx’s inversion of Hegel).
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