Leaving the State of Nature. Strengths and Limits of Kant’s Transformation of the Social Contract Tradition

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(Early) Modern social contract theories reject the idea that legal and political institutions are grounded in an alleged natural ordering or hierarchy of human beings, and instead argue that only government by a public (and not private) authority can fulfil the idea of justice as freedom and equality for all. To be authoritative and not just powerful, governing institutions must be shared as ours in this irreducible sense. I first outline how Kant’s ideal account of rightful freedom brilliantly transforms this tradition as found in the works of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, before proposing a way to see Kant’s two-layered non-ideal theory—his accounts of human nature (“moral anthropology”) and historical societies (“the principle of politics”)—as complementing his ideal theory of rightful freedom. This enables us to envision a conception not only of rightful external freedom but of rightful human freedom in particular societies—with their histories—on planet Earth. With these arguments at hand, we can also better appreciate the importance of realizing that the four possible political conditions for Kant—anarchy, barbarism, despotism, and republic—are ideas of reason, which means that they are never perfectly realized. Hence, historical societies we are not either in the state of nature or in civil society. In addition, in historical societies founded on principles of freedom, there are pockets of injustice or pockets that are devoid of justice that can only be captured by means of one of the three political ideas that are not constitutive of the republican legal-political framework. Kant’s four ideas therefore give us more tools with which to capture the nature of different political forces and challenges facing us in our historical societies.
Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalZeitschrift für Politische Theorie
StatePublished - 2024


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