You are here

Kant’s Theory of Justice

December 17, 2018

Headshot of Sarah Holtman

Headshot of Sarah Holtman
Photo by Matthew Weber, CLAgency student

Is Immanuel Kant’s political thought merely a product of its time, an artifact of the eighteenth century with little relevance today? Not according to Sarah Holtman, a professor of philosophy who seeks to reconstruct and apply what she takes to be Kant’s theory of justice. Rather than treating Kant as just another specimen in the museum of ideas, Holtman argues that Kant’s political philosophy provides a general framework for tackling contemporary ethical and social challenges. “I’m not a historian,” she remarks, “but rather a moral and political philosopher, approaching Kant’s writings from that angle.”

Kant’s Moral Foundation

Where some scholars perceive tension between Kant’s moral and political writings, Holtman instead sees a close connection. “Kant’s moral theory is the foundation that informs his political theory,” she says. But Holtman is quick to emphasize that Kant’s political philosophy is not a straightforward derivation from the moral philosophy but rather a kind of “construction” therefrom. 

In the moral philosophy, Holtman explains, Kant conceives of persons as free moral agents, endowed with the capacity to make decisions independently of external causal forces and their own desires. Such agents are, for Kant, both equal and autonomous: equal in the sense that they each possess the same worth or dignity, and autonomous in that they are capable of self-legislating the moral law, committing themselves to what they recognize as universal, rational constraints on their own action. 

Undermined and Underdetermined

But, as Kant recognized, this conception of persons as free, equal, and autonomous moral agents gives rise to complications when the persons in question are human beings. “There are many contexts in which I have to act not only as a rational agent,” explains Holtman, “but as a human rational agent.” Kant’s political theory can be seen as an attempt to grapple with and resolve the complications that arise in applying the moral theory to human agents. 

What are these complications? As Holtman elaborates, they include cases in which human rational agents may adopt reasonable, moral principles of action that nonetheless come into conflict with one another, undermining the freedom, equality, and autonomy of other agents. Holtman gives the example of choosing to walk on one or another side of the road: One might reasonably adopt the rule of action that she will always walk on the right-hand side of the road. But, equally reasonably, one might opt to always walk on the left-hand side of the road. “Though each human being has adopted reasonable principles of action,” says Holtman, “it won’t be long until they come smacking into each other.” Holtman describes these kinds of cases—in which equally reasonable rules of action conflict with one another—as instances of underdetermination: each individual human agent simply adopting reasonable rules for their own behavior fails to ensure, or determine, the moral cohesion of society. These rules, like the individuals adopting them, can quickly come smacking up against one another.

Circumstances of Justices

It’s in these kinds of circumstances that problems of justice arise when one person’s exercising her moral agency undermines the agencies of others. “It’s not good enough for us to simply act on the basis of our moral capacities,” says Holtman, “so we are going to have to find some way of structuring our interactions so we can do the best job we can to mitigate agency being undermined.” For Kant, the task of structuring our interactions in this way falls to political institutions, through which we conceive of our fellow citizens as free, equal, and independent. “In Kant’s political philosophy,” Holtman elaborates, “the legal system is the framework of coordination through which citizens take each other into account in this way. The laws that are morally legitimate for Kant are those under which we could think of ourselves as free, equal, and independent citizens, voting unanimously to commit to them and make them our own.”

Many Ways of Going Right 

But how do we construct a legal system under which we conceive of ourselves and others as free, equal, and independent? Contrary to what some scholars think, Holtman maintains that Kant doesn’t provide any definite answers to this question. Kant, according to Holtman, is not so much “laying down the law” as he is illustrating in broad strokes what the law must address. “There might be many ways of going right,” Holtman explains. “Kant is not telling us what the laws should be, but rather what laws have to take into account, namely the things that cause us to come bumping up against each other in the world.” 

Holtman’s interpretation sheds light on Kant’s discussion of property and freedom of contract; though often upheld or reviled as an early proponent of property rights, Holtman argues that Kant’s discussion of property and freedom of contract is not an attempt to draw concrete normative conclusions, but rather to explore their conceptual nature. “We need to understand the conceptual nature of property and contract before we can understand the problems to which these things give rise and what kinds of solutions would appropriately take agency into account,” Holtman explains. “The parts of Kant’s writing concerning property and freedom of contract are better read, not as a libertarian or classical liberal argument, but as a kind of conceptual analysis to get clear on what’s at stake.”

Applying Kant’s Theory Today

Thus, Holtman sees Kant’s political philosophy, not as an attempt to prescribe specific laws, but rather as a general framework of principles for determining what counts as justice. “What counts as justice doesn’t change,” says Holtman, “but how we realize justice will vary over time and in different circumstances.” But how do we realize justice today on the theory of justice Holtman attributes to Kant? It’s a question that Holtman seeks to answer, applying Kant’s theory of justice to issues that Kant himself never considered, such as civic virtue, the prison system, and the death penalty. Applying the general principles of Kant’s theory of justice to these issues, Holtman believes one comes away with a conception that is not antiquated but productive and laudable. Far from a mere artifact of the eighteenth century, Kant’s political writings offer, according to Holtman, an appealing theory for grappling with twenty-first-century problems. 

This story is part of a larger article on Kant's philosophy. Read more at Kant: A Polymath of Modern Thought.

This story was written by an undergraduate student content creator in CLAgency. Meet the team.