October 7, 2016

Becoming a Political Kantian

This morning I've decided to take a break from contemplating the fact that my country is seriously considering giving the nuclear codes to a narcissistic, incompetent, hateful, con artist orangutang to contemplate politics in a more theoretical fashion, without reference to the present election.

I've always had strongly deontological moral intuitions—that is, I find it most natural to think of ethics as primarily involving rules we have to follow rather than outcomes we have to promote. Further, before I started studying philosophy, I had broadly libertarian political views. It's not surprising, then, that when I first encountered Nozick's Kantian defense of libertarianism in Anarchy, State, and Utopia I found the views and arguments there amenable.

My views have shifted considerably since then. I began my shift by coming to the conclusion that the major libertarian voices in American politics (not academic philosophy) were mistaken about the actual policy consequences of their view. Thus, for instance, I long ago argued on this blog that libertarian principles support the introduction of a carbon tax and that libertarian principles require some government land management of the sort that's done in the US by the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management. Further, I came to regard it as absurd to think that threats to economic freedom from government regulation were among the most serious threats to libertarian rights. The rights of the accused, both at home and abroad, is clearly a much more serious issue. (By the time I had reached this point, my libertarianism was clearly more in agreement with ACLU Democrats than with 'small government' Republicans.)

Those are some shifts in terms of views about concrete policies and priorities. What I want to focus on here is a shift in my basic political theory.

I first read Kant's Doctrine of Right (the first part of The Metaphysics of Morals) in a seminar my first year of graduate school, and certain ideas of Kant's have been percolating in my mind ever since. I don't work on political theory professionally so I haven't really had occasion to sort things out in detail, but after years of having these notions in the back of my mind I've come to the conclusion that Kant himself provides a better account of the political application of his ethical theory than Nozick does. It of course ought not to be surprising that Kant is a better Kantian than Nozick, but the specific political theory ideas here are interesting and I want to take a moment to spell them out. I'm going to suppress all of my historian habits and make no attempt to connect any of this to any text; I'm just going to express in my own way that notions from Locke, Kant, and Nozick that I've been contemplating.

A fundamental principle of Nozick's libertarianism is the Lockean theory of property rights. The basic idea here is that even in the absence of any kind of government or any prior agreement, "I'm using that right now" is a good reason why you shouldn't take it (whatever it may be) away from me. However, actual human survival and flourishing requires that we be able to use things in more indirect ways than actually holding them in our hands—for instance, building a house and leaving for the day to come back in the evening, or cultivating a field and waiting for the crop to ripen. When, by means of my labor, I incorporate something into my future plans for my own survival and flourishing, I have a legitimate claim that my use of that thing should not be interfered with. Locke and Nozick go on to suggest that government is developed by mutual agreement to protect these sorts of property rights (and also rights to bodily integrity, etc., which are also conceived as property rights on this view).

This theory has two major problems. First, a problem Nozick discusses at length, the problem of independents: it does not seem on this view that anyone can be compelled to join a government. That is, since government is formed voluntarily for the protection of rights, it seems that people can 'opt out'. (Nozick's treatment of this problem is quite complex and I won't attempt to summarize it here.) Second, a problem neither Locke nor Nozick really seems to recognize, is that it's hard to believe that the boundaries of legitimate claims will be perfectly precise and non-overlapping. Libertarians often say things like "your right to swing your fist ends where my face begins," but real life situations are rarely this simple. Think about water rights in the American west, for instance. Or a common suburban dispute: do I have a right against my neighbor that she prevent dandelion seeds from travelling from her yard to mine? What about preventing mice or other pests from travelling from one row home or condo to the next? As these examples indicate, the problem of overlapping legitimate claims ("it's MY yard, I can grow dandelions in it if I want!" vs. "it's MY yard you have no right to send dandelion seeds flying into it!") gets worse the closer together people live and the scarcer the resources in question.

Now Kant (as I understand him) makes a neat move that solves both of these problems at once and, in so doing, produces an alternative classic liberal vision of the state which I have come to regard as more compelling than the libertarian picture. According to Kant, in a state of nature (i.e., the absence of government) the legitimate claims people may make on each other really do have fuzzy boundaries, and really do overlap. The fact that these claims are ill-defined and overlapping means that in a state of nature it is actually not possible simultaneously to respect everyone's rights. This generates an obligation to come together on equal terms to negotiate precise boundaries that can be enforced and respected. This is why everyone may be justly compelled to come to this negotiating table, without the possibility of opting out: the person who opts out necessarily violates someone's rights, since prior to the negotiation process there are overlapping claims that can't be respected simultaneously. As an added bonus, this picture offers a justification of the claim that legitimate governments must be democratic in nature. (Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, libertarianism does not yield this result: an absolute monarch could in principle respect all the libertarian rights!) This is because, again, we have to come together on equal terms to negotiate the precise the boundaries of our rights.

The picture of government yielded by this view is, I think, a compelling one. On this picture the purpose of government is to carve out and protect a sphere within which each individual may exercise her or his autonomy, in such a way that equal autonomy can be guaranteed to all others. The use of force in this enterprise is justified because it is (in a famous Kantian phrase) "a hindering of the hindrances to freedom." In other words, the use of force to defend these spheres of individual autonomy enhances autonomy all around, so that the citizen of an ideal liberal state would in fact be more free than an individual in the state of nature. Even in a state of nature, the rights that generate these spheres of autonomy amount to legitimate claims that others have a moral obligation to obey, and no government may legitimately disregard those legitimate claims. What government may (indeed, must) do, however, is define their exact boundaries more precisely.

The practical upshot of all this is another question for another day.

Posted by Kenny at October 7, 2016 11:25 AM
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