Immanuel Kant: The Categorical Imperative in the Political Sphere

Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher born in Königsberg, Prussia (Kaliningrad). He is considered to be one of the most influential thinkers and political philosophers of the Enlightenment era. He published multiple works, spanning from ethics and religion to history, law, and politics. Some of his most important work pieces include Critique of Pure Reason (1787), Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1797), Universal Natural History (1755), and more. Almost 300 years have passed since his philosophical teachings and publications revolutionized the way people view freedom and personal responsibility, and still, he is more relevant than ever. His views on the topic of politics and interconnectivity between state and people echo even today when we try to understand his idea of the categorical imperative in the sphere of politics.

The Categorical/Political Imperative

In ancient Greece, Plato was one of the first philosophers who argued that the main goal of a state was to ensure the well-being and happiness of its citizens. By the 17th century, John Locke stated that only by the creation of a social contract between the citizens and the government, could the people of a particular state promote their right of self-protection to the government, thus ensuring their happiness and security. 100 years later, Immanuel Kant came to challenge the idea that happiness for the people must be the main aim of a ruling government. For Kant, happiness was a feeling of security that was felt and perceived by different people. As a result, the thought of trying to use happiness to generate fixed principles and apply them to the general public was something that Kant disagreed with totally. In his own words: “happiness alone can never be a suitable principle of legislation”. Instead, he suggested that the state must ensure the happiness and freedom of people through a fixed set of laws, where every citizen has the right to pursue and maximize his happiness without violating the rights and freedom of his fellow citizens. In simpler terms, we conclude Kant’s categorical imperative.

The categorical imperative implies that one should act only according to that maxim by which he can at the same time it should become a universal law. Kant’s idea is significantly influenced by the Bible where we can find a similar sentence to Matthew’s Golden rule 7:12: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you: do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets”. As a result, the state must create laws that promote this Kantian criterion. Since the government will create such laws, the citizens of the respectful state must obey them rationally. In his logic, Kant believed that the will of the people must be such, that it will conclude in an agreement of mutual understanding that as citizens we must obey every law that the government passes, no matter if we do not like it or think it might be unnecessary. Therefore, the categorical imperative that focuses on individuals, takes the form of a political imperative that is promoted by the government for its respectful citizens. The happiness of the citizens can only be secured after the emergence of a solid state that goes hand in hand with a solid constitution. For the people, by the people.

Kantian Politics

By the time Kant promoted his revolutionary ideas based on logic and facts, the whole world seemed to pass through a tumultuous phase. On the other side of the Atlantic, a new nation-state was rising, with George Washington becoming the first President of the United States of America. In Europe, however, the French revolution was set to turn upside down the world of empires that so much relied on blind obedience from its subjects. The execution of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette was the catalyst event that manifested Kant’s political philosophy. It served as a warning to any new emerging government at that time. You must rule in such order that every citizen would feel that you are ruling for the good of them all. Otherwise, you will face the same consequences as the ruling elite of France.

As it was mentioned before, for Kant the most significant duty of a government is to ensure liberty for its citizens. However, his idea of liberty did not revolve around traditional libertarian or anarchical ideas. For Kant, the government had to be present. In a way, the state is obliged to operate as a projection of our rational self, promoting a valid will in which we can all be free. The state must ensure this freedom by pushing us to become more reasonable and morally good versions of ourselves. Thus, free will and will under moral laws must be projected as the same. If we all agree that specific laws imposed by a government are right and that it is wrong for us to break them, then we will be doing exactly what Kant thought was the moral thing to do. In a simple example, paying taxes does not bring happiness to anyone, yet we agree that it is wrong to commit tax evasion. As a result, we do not put happiness as a criterion to follow a rule, and the state does not impose this law based on how happy or unhappy it will make us. Thus, we create this unwritten logical bond between state and citizen, where we agree with our own will to follow a specific rule. Moreover, we ensure our rights and happiness by allowing the state to follow two fundamental rules always in accordance with Kant. Firstly, the state protects our rights and liberties that we are entitled to as citizens of a state of law and secondly, it promotes the indirect happiness that we seek, as long as the rights of our fellow citizens are not discriminated against in the process. The categorical imperative of a single person becomes the political imperative of a whole state that is based on logic and a sense of duty, to ensure the prosperity of its people.

Kant’s Democratic Dystopia

There has been an extended discussion on whether Kant’s ideas have been compatible with what we call the western democracy of the 21st century. Even though Kant wanted individuals to think reasonably for themselves, the concept of democracy was not something he was keen on. He did not see how the individuality of a person, can be compatible with the majority rule. The possibility of a majority rule could pose a threat to an individual’s freedom, as in large groups of people usually passion overcomes logic and Kant had plenty of examples that justified his thoughts, with the French revolution and the mass execution of French aristocracy being definitely on the back of his head when democracy came to the discussion.

Instead of the idea of a democratic state where the majority ruled over everyone, Kant suggested his ideal government as a mixed one, combining all three of the present types of government in his time. Democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy. By avoiding one certain type of government, Kant promoted a state of logic that would ensure the well-being of the citizens, without the conflicts that could emerge from a complete separation between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. He advocated for a republican system where there would be a separation of the executive and legislative power. If there happened to be unity between those two, it would lead to a despotic society. In his own words as written in 1795 in his book, Perpetual Peace: A philosophical Sketch: “Democracy is, properly speaking, necessarily a despotism, because it establishes an executive power in which all decide for or even against one who does not agree; that is, all, who are not quite all, decide, and this is a contradiction of the general will with itself and with freedom”.

Is the categorical imperative still relevant in today’s politics? Can Kant be influential in today’s changing world? Commentators and philosophers these days have asked the same questions. There is a tendency for powerful countries to focus more on economics and geopolitics, instead of the happiness of people. It is true that, with what was argued before, there might be a paradox when we talk about happiness when Kant saw no room for it in government affairs. However, we have to think of the possibility that some of Kant’s ideas might have been misinterpreted. Maybe he advocated that happiness should not be the sole criterion in government affairs. Otherwise, how can we explain the advancement of science and technology that has improved our lives or the promotion of art and education? Maybe we simply have to read between the lines of what was written by Kant. The world in which we live now needs more philosophical thinking just like Kant promoted. In an emerging multipolar world where we are caught between the dominant West, the emerging East, and the visible global South, a change of political view might be more than necessary. A more focused world on what makes us human and how to ensure our prosperity, rights, and eventually happiness. A more connected world based on logic and abiding laws made to protect global citizens might be the answer to our rivalries rather than the struggle for dominance over others. A utopian vision for sure, but what it takes is a step-by-step reminder and promotion of individual thinking that can help the majority of the people.

Nikita Triandafillidis
Nikita Triandafillidis
Bachelor's Degree in International Relations & Political Science. Columnist focusing on Global Affairs