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Sarah Holtman: Kant on Civic Respect, Social Welfare, and the State

December 15, 2017

Headshot of Sarah Holtman

Headshot of Sarah Holtman
Photo by Matthew Weber, CLAgency student

For scholars and laypersons alike, navigating the academic literature on a particular topic can be a dizzying experience. In philosophy, there is perhaps nowhere that this holds more true than with the work of Immanuel Kant. The aspiring Kant scholar must not only grapple with the several exceedingly difficult works in which the eighteenth-century thinker elaborates on his philosophical system, but also with an extensive—and at times overwhelming—secondary literature. Fortunately, there are resources that help alleviate such scholarly vertigo.

Sarah Holtman, a professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota, is currently writing just such a resource in the form of a book about the role of social welfare and the state in Kant’s moral and political philosophy. Due for publication in the summer of 2018, the forthcoming book will be the latest addition to the Cambridge Elements series, published by Cambridge University Press, which features short, peer-reviewed monographs, each devoted to a specific topic of scholarship in the arts, humanities, and sciences. “The book is written in a way that a non-specialist could understand,” says Holtman, “and is designed for the reader to get up to speed on the literature.” But Holtman is quick to point out that the book is not intended only for non-specialists; it also constitutes a valuable reference source for scholars interested in Kant’s political philosophy.

Diverse Viewpoints

Holtman notes that there is no consensus among scholars on the role of the state and social welfare in Kant’s system, and she devotes much of her book to laying out the differing interpretations. “Kant’s views get interpreted in ways that are just inconsistent with each other,” she explains. “So the book has more details on other scholars’ views than somebody else might put in a book, but that’s to provide the foundation to understand the landscape of the literature.”

Mapping the terrain of this landscape, Holtman explains that the interpretations on the role of social welfare and the state in Kant’s works can be roughly divided into three camps. Scholars in all three camps agree that, for Kant, a state acts justly when it provides the requisite social welfare services to protect its citizens from coercion and deception, or force and fraud. But it’s in hashing out what counts as coercion, deception, force, and fraud—and hence which social welfare services a just state is responsible for providing—that the scholars in each respective camp part ways.

Minimalist Interpretations

On one end of the spectrum are those who are referred to in the literature as minimalists, a term that Holtman admits she is not too fond of. For so-called minimalists, the kind of coercion, deception, force, and fraud from which a just state is responsible for protecting its citizens is that which infringes upon individual rights, especially the right to private property.

“Minimalists interpret Kant as a kind of right-wing libertarian,” says Holtman, “for whom the role of the state is to protect individual and property rights, leaving little room for additional state functions.” For minimalists, the functions of a just state are simply those requisite to protect one’s person and property. “There’s no room for state health care or poverty relief on the minimalist picture,” explains Holtman, “except perhaps the bare minimum necessary to stabilize the state and keep it a viable entity, so that there won’t be a revolution or social discord.”

Thus, for the minimalists, Kant’s just state establishes laws that explain what counts as undue intrusion on one’s person or property, a set of standards for forming contracts and enforcing those contracts, and a police force, responsible for protecting citizens from intrusion by enforcing these laws and contracts.

Maximalist Interpretations

On the other end of the spectrum fall the so-called maximalists, including interpreters like Allen Wood, Howard Williams, and Paul Guyer. Though these scholars agree with the minimalists that the role of the just state for Kant is to mitigate its citizens’ vulnerabilities to coercion, deception, force, and fraud, what constitutes such vulnerabilities is given a wider scope on the maximalist picture.

“Where the minimalists go wrong, according to these scholars,” explains Holtman, “is that they don’t recognize that human vulnerability is greater than the minimalists acknowledge. Humans are actually quite vulnerable to coercion and deception.” She points to poverty as an example: Poor citizens may be more vulnerable to coercion in, say, the form of economic exploitation, and hence the state, in protecting its citizens from coercion, should provide social welfare supports to eliminate such a vulnerability. Thus, whereas the minimalists interpret Kant as a libertarian, the maximalists understand him to have a socialist or social-democratic conception of the just state.

“So-called maximalists see Kant as providing the foundation or groundwork of the state as consisting of those institutions which ensure the wellbeing of individuals,” says Holtman. “On the so-called maximalist picture, Kant’s ideal state provides, among other things, welfare supports and primary and secondary education, and if you’re out of work, the state will ensure that you’ll always have what you need.”

Middle-Ground Interpretations

However, most scholars fall somewhere between these two camps. Citing Arthur Ripstein and Allen Rosen as examples, Holtman terms these scholars “intermediate interpreters” or “middle-ground theorists.”

Holtman’s Civic Respect Interpretation

Though Holtman devotes much of her book to spelling out the differences between these different interpretive camps, the work is more than just an overview of the literature. An expert in Kant’s political philosophy herself, Holtman has her own views about the role of social welfare and the state in Kant’s works and argues in favor of these views in the book.

Like the maximalists, Holtman thinks that the foundations for a robust set of social welfare institutions are present in Kant’s works, but where she departs from the maximalists—as well as from the minimalists and most intermediate interpreters—is her take on how Kant understands justice and how this understanding informs his account of the state.

“All of these scholars understand justice to be a means of preventing coercion and deception, or force and fraud,” says Holtman, “and it’s popular to suppose that what divides them into maximalists, middle-ground theorists, and minimalists is something about the way that they each respectively read what Kant has to say about social welfare. But I think that what divides them is the notion of justice in Kant and what the point of justice is. If you have different views about what justice addresses, then you may have a different view of what social welfare supports are required, and then the explanation of these differences has to do with the underlying understanding of justice and not interpretation of Kant’s writings on social welfare.”

Holtman disagrees with those scholars who understand Kant’s conception of justice to be just a matter of preventing coercion, deception, force, and fraud. “The best way to understand the thread that ties the different discussions of justice together is through the notion of how you would have to view another person in order to see them as a fellow citizen.”

Holtman claims that, for Kant, to view another person as a fellow citizen would require viewing them as free, “in the sense that they are appropriately charged with making decisions about what they’ll do and what they’ll commit themselves to,” equal, “in the sense that as full members of society, as equal participants, they are entitled to have placed upon them equal benefits and burdens and to have their opinions taken seriously,” independent, “in the sense that they are capable of making their own decisions without having those decisions imposed on them from the outside,” and, finally, as responsible, “in the sense that, firstly, they aren’t held responsible for the consequences of actions they didn’t commit, and, secondly, they are held accountable for their actions in way that identifies them as voluntary.”

Holtman terms her view on Kant’s conception of justice and the role of the state the civic respect account. “It is this account of what it is to function as a citizen that informs Kant’s account of justice all the way through,” argues Holtman, “So rather than thinking of justice as focused on protecting people from force and fraud, justice in fact seeks a state that will help to ensure that individuals are free, equal, and independent citizens who take their fellow citizens to also be free, equal, and independent. This account of justice pulls Kant’s discussions together and provides a conception of justice which supports a much more substantial set of social welfare protections than you would get on any account that rests on protection from force and fraud.”

Why Interpretations Matter

Holtman points out that what’s at stake in these debates isn’t just interpretive charity and accuracy. Indeed, Kant’s views have implications for more contemporary moral and political problems which Kant himself never took up. “I work with the texts interpretively, identifying very broad principles in them,” explains Holtman, “but then I write about the implications of those principles quite apart from what Kant may have said. So I don’t just sit happy with a re-interpreted Kant, but investigate the implications of my re-interpretation for more contemporary problems.”

As an example, Holtman points to issues of racial prejudice in the criminal justice system. “Kant doesn’t have much to say about that,” says Holtman, “but we can still ask what the implications of civic respect theory are for our own penal system and address what it would be to right that injustice. Though we’re not going to find the answers to those questions in Kant’s own writing, we can nonetheless ask what the implications of the account are.”

Holtman’s book, in giving an overview of the literature on social welfare and the state in Kant’s system, and in providing its own interpretations, will ease the task of drawing such implications for the aspiring Kant scholar.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.