THE CASE FOR AN ABSOLUTE SOVEREIGN
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
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
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
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
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
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.