Check Your Premises

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Discussion of Kant at Cato Unbound

Greg Salmieri



Creative commons-licensed image courtesy of Wikimedia.

I've been invited to take part in a discussion at Cato Unbound on Kant's relation to classical liberalism. My post, which went up there today, is a response to a post by Mark D. White (College of Staten Island/CUNY) in which he argues that Kant provided "the ideal statement of classical liberalism." One of the reasons Kant is underappreciated as a classical liberal, in White's opinion, is an unflattering caricature of Kant's ethics for which he holds Ayn Rand largely responsible.

Here are a few excerpts from my response:

Kant coopted some of the Enlightenment’s language and used it to defend a purified form of the dogmas that had long been accepted as common sense but were newly under attack. In particular, by defining morality in contradistinction to prudence, Kant gave a new prominence to the idea that morality requires sacrifice. The “freedom” (or “autonomy”) he extols is not the Enlightenment’s freedom to conceive and pursue ambitious, life-affirming goals, nor is it the freedom to follow one’s whims. Rather, it is the ability to obey a morality the entire content of which Kant derives from the notion that there must be something for the sake of which one must be always ready to sacrifice the whole of one’s happiness. Though a softer face is often put on it by present-day Kantians, this point is crucial to his derivation of the first formulation of the categorical imperative.

It is this observation about the structure of Kant’s position, rather any concern about rigidity or heroic amounts of charity, that is the essence of Rand’s objection to Kantian ethics.[8] She recognized that Kantian ethics is flexible in many of the ways White describes, and she did not consider it a point in Kant’s favor. [...]

By creating a gulf between morality and prudence, Kant undercut the moral basis for Lockean individual rights, and put in its place a moral framework that entails a different sort of society. Subsequent 19th- and early 20th-century liberals discovered much about the mechanisms of a market economy, and some of them did a great deal to extend freedom to women and racial minorities, but with regard to liberalism’s basic ideological orientation, I think the whole post-Kantian liberal tradition represents a series of steps away from a defense of genuine freedom.

Further responses to White will follow over the next few days from Stephen Hicks (Rockford University) and Roderick Long (Auburn University), both of whom have written knowledgeably about Rand. (For example: Hicks is the author of an excellent entry on her at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Long is co-author of the Rand entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which Ben Bayer posted about on this blog. Then there will be what promises to be an interesting discussion of Kant among the four of us.

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