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Journal of Philosophical Research

Volume 17, 1992

Kenneth R. Westphal
Pages 383-426

Kant on the State, Law, and Obedience to Authority in the Alleged ‘Anti-Revolutionary’ Writings

The tension between Kant’s egalitarian conception of persons as ends in themselves and his rejection of the right of revolution has been widely discussed. The crucial issue is more fundamental: Is Kant’s defense of absolute obedience consistent with his own principle of legitimate law, that legitimate law is compatible with the Categorical Imperative? Resolving this apparent inconsistency resolves the subsidiary inconsistencies that have been debated in the literature. I argue that Kant’s legal principles contain two distinct grounds of obligation to obey political authority. One lies in his metaphysical principles of law, according to which there is only a duty to obey legitimate law or fully legitimate authorities. Another lies in his moral-pragmatic principles. He believes that membership in the state helps improve one’s character by counter-balancing one’s immoral inclinations. This is his ultimate ground for obedience to de facto, imperfectly legitimate states. On this ground, the duty to obey an actual state is conditional. Kant’s strong statements about the duty to obey actual states is explained by the ease with which he thinks the relevant condition is met by extant states. The apparent ambiguities in his discussion of obedience point to some important philosophical and historical shortcomings of his analysis of the division of govemmental powers and of judicial competence which hamper his analysis of the duty to obey the state.

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