Welfare in the Kantian State

Welfare in the Kantian State

Welfare in the Kantian State

Welfare in the Kantian State


Kant's theory of justice continues to exert a powerful influence on contemporary discussions of justice and equality. Modern theorists disagree, however, regarding the implications of Kant's theory for the state's responsibility for public welfare. A traditional interpretation holds that Kant's political theory simply constitutes an account of the constraints which reason places on the state's authority to regulate external action. Alexander Kaufman argues that this traditional interpretation succeeds neither as a faithful reading of Kant's texts nor as a plausible, philosophically sound reconstruction of a `Kantian' political theory. Rather he argues that Kant's political theory articulates a positive conception of the state's role. In particular, Kantian justice requires that each member of society must be guaranteed the opportunity to realize his or her purposive capacities. In order to secure this guarantee, Kantian justice requires interventions to ensure equality of capabilities.


This study explores two themes, Kant and social welfare, with a particular emphasis on issues relating to poverty and inequality. In exploring these two themes, I attempt to specify the implications of Kantian theory for the state's responsibility to assist the least advantaged.

I have focused specifically on Kantian normative theory for four reasons. First, I believe Kantian politics offers a promising basis for a theory of social welfare. Justice, for Kant, is a state of affairs which makes possible the realization of the right to freedom 'belonging to every man by virtue of his humanity'. Kant defines freedom as 'independence from being constrained by another's choice' (MJ 237). Thus, Kant's account of justice might be expected to ground an indictment of forms of civil condition which fail to protect individuals from exploitation and coercion.

Second, Kant's political writings address what I believe to be the fundamental question in applied political theory: how should the formal requirements of justice be realized in positive law and public policy? Kant's response to this question is, admittedly, complex and problematic. Nevertheless, Kant offers a most determined and original effort to address this problem.

Third, Kant's political thought has been misappropriated by libertarian thinkers, such as Wilhelm von Humboldt and Friedrich Hayek, who claim that Kantian theory limits the legitimate role of the state to classic liberalism's night watchman. Proponents of this libertarian interpretation ground their claims in: (i) the assertion that, for Kant, 'juridical laws . . . are essentially negative and limiting principles which merely restrict our exercise of freedom' (Hayek 1976: 43); and (ii) Kant's explicit rejection of happiness as an appropriate ground for legislation. The libertarian interpretation, which has influenced the thought of such disparate philosophers as Michael Oakeshott and Robert Nozick . . .

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