Kant and the Critique of the Ethics-First Approach to Politics

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Contemporary "realists" attack the Kantian influence on political philosophy. A main charge is that Kantians fail to understand the specificity of politics and neglect to develop a "distinctively political thought" that differs from moral philosophy. Instead, the critics say, Kantians are guilty of an "ethics-first approach to politics," in which political theory is a mere application of moral principles. But what does this ethics-first approach have to do with Kant himself? Very little. This article shows how Kant's approach to political theory at a fundamental level includes political institutions, power, and coercion as well as disagreement, security, and coordination problems. In contrast to realists, Kant has a fundamental principle, which can explain why and guide how we ought to approach the political question, namely the norm of equal freedom. Yet, Kant's theory does not take the form of a moralistic ought addressed to the isolated individual, but concerns a problem that we share as interdependent beings and that requires common institutions. The fruitfulness of the Kantian approach, then, is that it can take the political question seriously without being uncritical of actual politics and power, and that it can be normative without being moralistic.
Original languageEnglish
JournalCritical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)55-70
Number of pages16
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2019

ID: 185910234