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Kant on the natural right to seek happiness in one’s own way (1791)

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) argued in 1791 that there were three basic principles which should be the foundation of any Civil State: individual liberty, equality under the law, and “self-dependency” for voting rights. In this extract Kant defends the right of every individual to seek or pursue their vision of happiness without interference by the State:

No one has a right to compel me to be happy in the peculiar way in which he may think of the well-being of other men; but everyone is entitled to seek his own happiness in the way that seems to him best, if it does not infringe the liberty of others in striving after a similar end for themselves when their Liberty is capable of consisting with the Right of Liberty in all others according to possible universal laws.

By ‘Reason’ is here meant the pure innate law-giving, Reason which gives no regard to any End that is derived from experience, such as are all comprehended under the general name of Happiness. In respect of any such End or in what any individual may place it, men may think quite differently, so that their wills could not be brought under any common principle, nor, consequently, under any External Laws that would be compatible with the liberty of all.

These Principles are not so much Laws given by the State when it is established, as rather fundamental conditions according to which alone the institution of a State is possible, in conformity with the pure rational Principles of external Human Right generally.

1. The Liberty of every Member of the State as a Man, is the first Principle in the constitution of a rational Commonwealth. I would express this Principle in the following form:—‘No one has a right to compel me to be happy in the peculiar way in which he may think of the well-being of other men; but everyone is entitled to seek his own happiness in the way that seems to him best, if it does not infringe the liberty of others in striving after a similar end for themselves when their Liberty is capable of consisting with the Right of Liberty in all others according to possible universal laws.’—A Government founded upon the principle of Benevolence towards the people—after the analogy of a father to his children, and therefore called a paternal Government—would be one in which the Subjects would be regarded as children or minors unable to distinguish what is beneficial or injurious to them. These subjects would be thus compelled to act in a merely passive way; and they would be trained to expect solely from the Judgment of the Sovereign and just as he might will it, merely out of his goodness, all that ought to make them happy. Such a Government would be the greatest conceivable Despotism; for it would present a Constitution that would abolish all Liberty in the Subjects and leave them no Rights. It is not a paternal Government, but only a patriotic Government that is adapted for men who are capable of Rights, and at the same time fitted to give scope to the good-will of the ruler. By ‘patriotic’ is meant that condition of mind in which everyone in the State—the Head of it not excepted—regards the Commonwealth as the maternal bosom, and the country as the paternal soil out of and on which he himself has sprung into being, and which he also must leave to others as a dear inheritance. Thus, and thus only, can he hold himself entitled to protect the Rights of his fatherland by laws of the common will, but not to subject it to an unconditional purpose of his own at pleasure.—This Right of Liberty thus belongs to him as a man, while he is a Member of the Commonwealth; or, in point of fact, so far as he is a being capable of rights generally.

About this Quotation:

This essay reveals Kant to be a classical liberal of a conservative, anti-revolutionary bent. This may not be surprising given the fact that it appeared shortly after the outbreak of the French Revolution in July 1789. Kant’s intention is to draw up a political theory which would ensure equality of rights under the rule of law, while avoiding the violence and disruption of revolution. Thus we can see here his very strong support for the central role the protection of individual liberty plays in any political system, combined with an absolute equality of all men under the laws (with the notable exception of the Sovereign who is “above” the laws). He extolls what he calls “the universal law of Freedom” and his formulation is very similar to Herbert Spencer’s “law of equal liberty” which he developed in the 1850s. However, Kant breaks with the American and French classical liberal tradition in his equally strong opposition to the right of resistance or rebellion by individuals who believe their rights to life, liberty, and property have been violated by the sovereign power. His fear of revolution is so strong that he believes that individuals must obey unjust laws and only try to right perceived wrongs by appealing to the sovereign by means of “the Liberty of the Press.” The tension between his desire for “obedience to coercive laws” and the need for “a Spirit of Liberty among the people” is one Kant is unable to resolve.

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