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THE CASE FOR AN ABSOLUTE SOVEREIGN

IMMANUEL KANT

While Kant expressed his admiration for Rousseau and the idea of a social contract, the thread we have been following from Hobbes that concerned the need for an absolute monarch is equally as important. Following the lead from Rousseau, Kant based his idea of the ideal civil state on the necessity and importance of freedom. But he derived this freedom through a "Universal theory of right." he put it, "Every action which by itself or by its maxim enables the freedom of each individual's will to co-exist with the freedom of everyone else in accordance with a universal law is right."

Thus the universal law of right is as follows: let your external action be such that the free application of your will can co-exist with the freedom of everyone in accordance with a universal law. And although this law imposes an obligation on me, it does not mean that I am in any way expected, far less required, to restrict my freedom myself to these conditions purely for the sake of this obligation. On the contrary, reason merely says that individual freedom is restricted in this way: by virtue of the right behind it, and that it may also be actively restricted by others; and it states this as a postulate which does not admit of any further proof.

Kant saw the contract establishing a civil constitution as essentially different from all others. In every social contract many individuals unite for some common end which they all share. But a contract that establishes a civil union is an end in itself. One which they all ought to share and thus becomes an absolute and primary duty involved in every external relationship. This primary duty is indeed the highest formal condition of all other external duties. Through it men live under coercive public laws through which each can be given what is due to him and secured against attack from all others. This whole concept of an external right then, is derived entirely from the concept of freedom in the mutual external relationships of human beings. It has nothing to do with the end which all men have of achieving happiness or with any recognized means of attaining this end. "Right," he said, "is the restriction of each individual's freedom so that it harmonizes with the freedom of everyone else." "And public right is the distinctive quality of the external laws which make this constant harmony possible." This makes a civil constitution a relationship among free men who are subject to coercive laws, who at the same time retain their freedom.

Happiness, and the means by which men achieve happiness are determined empirically. What Kant was offering was a completely a priori principle of freedom that would, since it is outside of experience, be absolutely inviolable. "Men have different views on the empirical end of happiness and what it consists of, so that as far as happiness is concerned, their will cannot be brought under any common principle nor thus under any external law harmonizing with the freedom of everyone." Therefore he offered these a-priori principles through which his theory of right can be shown to be practical as well as absolute. The first deals with the relationship between freedom, the individual, and society.

1. man's freedom as a human being, as a principle for the constitution of a commonwealth, can be expressed in the following formula. No-one can compel me to be happy in accordance with his conception of welfare of others, for each may seek his happiness in whatever way he sees fit, so long as he does not infringe upon the freedom of others to pursue a similar end which can be reconciled with the freedom of everyone else within a workable general law --i.e. he must accord to others the same right as he enjoys himself.

The second shows his Hobbesian bias toward an absolute sovereign, in this case as the "head of the state." Kant found an absolute sovereign necessary for a state where all subjects are equal to each other.

2. Man's equality as a subject might be formulated as follows. Each member of the commonwealth has rights of coercion in relation to all the others except in relation to the head of state. For he alone is not a member of the commonwealth, but its creator or preserver, and he alone is authorized to coerce others without being subject to any coercive law himself. But all who are subject to laws are the subjects of the state, and are thus subject to the right of coercion along with all other members of the commonwealth; the only exception is a single person (in either the physical or the moral sense of the word) the head of state, through whom alone the rightful coercion of all other members can be exercised. For if he too could be coerced, he would not be the head of state, and the hierarchy of subordination would ascend infinitely.

Following Rousseau's concept of the individual member of a commonwealth serving both as a citizen and as a subject according to the role they are playing in the life of the society, Kant pointed out the limits of individual independence.

3. The independence of a member of the commonwealth as a citizen, i. e. as a co-legislator may be defined as follows. In the question of actual legislation, all who are free and equal under existing public laws may be considered equal, but not as regards the right to make these laws. Those who are entitled to this right are nonetheless obliged, as members of the commonwealth, to comply with these laws and they thus likewise enjoy there protection (not as citizens but as co-beneficiaries of this protection) For all right depends on laws. But a public law which defines for everyone that which is prohibited and that which is permitted by right is an act of a public will, from which all right proceeds and which must not therefore itself be able to do an injustice to anyone.

The shortcoming of Rousseau's social compact is that it assumes that there is a mechanism for creating a sovereign who is an expression of the common will. Kant realized that in practice there is no such thing as a "general will" which represented the will of all of the people. Therefore he said that part of the contract would necessarily have to be an understanding that the will of the majority of those who are eligible to vote would be considered the will of all of the people.

An entire people cannot, however, be expected to reach unanimity, but only to show a majority of votes (and not even direct votes, but simply of the votes of those delegated in a large nation to represent the people). Thus the actual principle of being content with majority decisions must be accepted unanimously and embodied in a contract; and this itself must be the ultimate basis on which a civil constitution is established.

The underlying theme of Kant's moral philosophy has been put that the highest ideal is not to be happy but to deserve to be happy. But this does not make the real point. His ideal leads to mankind reaching that level that God placed him on this earth for. But to understand this better we can look at his practical example of the application of the concept of duty.

The concept of duty in its complete purity is incomparably simpler, clearer and more natural and easily comprehensible to everyone than a motive derived from, combined with, or influenced by happiness; motives involving happiness always require a great deal of resourcefulness and deliberation. Besides, the concept of duty, if it is presented to the exclusive judgment of even the most ordinary. human reason, and confronts the human will separately and in actual opposition to other motives is far more powerful, incisive and likely to promote success than all incentives borrowed from the latter selfish principle. Let us take, for example, the case of someone who has under his trust an endowment the owner of which is deceased, while the heirs are ignorant of and could never discover its existence. Let us also suppose that the trustee of this deposit, through no fault of his own, has at this very time suffered a complete collapse in his financial circumstances, and has around him a miserable family of wife and children, oppressed by want, and knows that he could at once relieve this distress if he appropriated the pledge entrusted to him. He is also benevolent and philanthropic, while the heirs are rich, uncharitable, thoroughly extravagant and luxurious, so that it would make little difference if the aforesaid addition to their property were thrown into the sea.

It would seem here that this presents a clear-cut distinction between duty versus expediency. Given these conditions just why would anyone choose to give the property to the rightful owners. In what way, then, is the situation really clear? But let us go on.

Now if this case is explained even to a child of around eight or nine years old, and it is asked whether it might be permissible under the circumstances to devote the deposit to one's own use, the reply will undoubtedly be negative. Whoever we ask will merely, answer, without further ado, that it is wrong, i.e. that it conflicts with duty. Nothing can be clearer than this, while it is genuinely not the case that the trustee would be furthering his own happiness if he surrendered the deposit.

Is there a question here concerning the relationship between what is right and what should be done? Can the person legitimately say that allowing himself to drift into penury is also wrong and that we are not discussing wrong and right, but two different wrongs? Don't think Kant doesn't have this in mind as we shall see.

For if he expected his decision to be dictated by such considerations, he might for instance reason as follows: 'If I give up unasked to the real owners the property I have here, they. will presumably reward me for my honesty. Or if they do not, I will still acquire a good reputation at large, and this would prove very remunerative. But all this is most uncertain. Yet various doubts can also be raised in support of this argument. For if I were to embezzle the deposit to relieve my depressed circumstances at one stroke, I should incur suspicion, if I made quick use of it, as to how and by what means I had so soon bettered my circumstances. But if I used it slowly, my poverty would meanwhile increase so greatly that it would become impossible to alleviate it at all.'

So we can see that Kant realizes that the answer to the problem is not simple. This is the real gist of his arguments. Decisions made according to duty are clear-cut and unequivocal. Determinations made on the basis of happiness are not. Right and wrong calculated from levels of happiness inevitably lead to contention and never to clear and distinct answers.

Thus a will which follows the maxim of happiness vacillates between various motives in trying to reach a decision. For it considers the possible results of its decision, and these are highly uncertain; and it takes a good head to find a way out of the host of arguments and counter-arguments without miscalculating the total effect. On the other hand, if we ask what duty requires, there is no confusion whatsoever about the answer, and we are at once certain what action to take. We even feel, if the concept of duty means anything to us, a revulsion at the very idea of calculating the advantages we might gain through violating our duty, just as if the choice were still a real one.

By developing an a priori theory of rights based on his unequivocal approach to duty, Kant has converted Rousseau's social contract into a fully rational system. But he has done this at the cost of an absolute "Head of State."

It thus follows that all resistance against the supreme legislative power, all incitement of the subjects to violent expressions of discontent, all defiance which breaks out into rebellion, is the greatest and most punishable crime in a commonwealth, for it destroys its very foundations. This prohibition is absolute. And even if the power of the state or its agent, the head of state, has violated the original contract by authorizing the government to act tyrannically, and has thereby, in the eyes of the subject, forfeited the right to legislate, the subject is still not entitled to offer counter-resistance. The reason for this is that the people, under an existing civil constitution, has no longer any right to judge how the constitution should be administered. For if we suppose that it does have this right to judge and that it disagrees with the judgment of the actual head of state, who is to decide which side is right? Neither can act as judge of his own cause. Thus there would have to be another head above the head of state to legislate between the latter and the people, which is self-contradictory.

Thus Kant is the finest representative we have for the first thread we have followed concerning political philosophy in Europe following the eighteenth century. that is, the Hobbesian idea that an absolute sovereign is a necessity for a civil state.