C. Ellsworth Hood

Professor of Philosophy

Kant On Inalienable Rights

             Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence of the Thirteen United States of America that it was self-evident that all men are endowed with certain inalienable rights, among which are the rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. It clearly was not self-evident to everyone, since a war for independence ensued. Jefferson seems to have been working from John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government. There rights to life, liberty and property are asserted to be natural rights and to be know to be so by the natural light of reason. But, again, the natural light of reason seems to lead others to quite different conclusions. Why are there rights at all and why specifically inalienable rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness? The question is as urgent in our time as at any time in history.

            The great Königsberg apostle of duty, Immanuel Kant, may seem to some an unlikely source of elucidation concerning inalienable rights. Given the way he talks of law, command, categorical imperative and duty together with his warnings concerning the passions and his references to the unholiness of human wills and actions, he may seem an unlikely prospect. The prospects brighten, however, when one looks with care at what, according to Kant, duty is and why it is what it is. One could do this in a number of ways. I propose a careful reading of Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason to reveal his answer to our questions: why do persons have rights and why specifically rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness?

            Those with ears already attuned to Kantian moral thinking will have noticed that in the last restatement of our leading question I slipped in the word which is the key to Kant’s answer to that complex question. The word in person. In a Kantian world there are inalienable rights. They are the direct expressions of the intrinsic worth of persons. Our question, in its two parts, now reads: Why do persons possess intrinsic worth? and Why and how do rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness directly follow from that worth?

            What is a person such that to be one is to be a being of intrinsic worth? Kant’s answer is easily stated. Rational nature possesses intrinsic worth, is an end it itself, worthy of respect and is never to be used merely as a means. But why does rational nature carry with it intrinsic worth–and therefore inalienable rights? What is this rational nature which we as persons are and what are the connections among being rational, being a person and possessing intrinsic worth and therefore rights? The answer lies in practical reason understood as moral autonomy, freedom, the power whereby the person is capable of determining his/her own character. Footnote Kant speaks of this power as “the absolute spontaneity of freedom.” Footnote The point is emphasized when he asserts the complete identity of practical reason and free will; they are the same thing, he says. Footnote

            Here is where Kant’s talk of law, categorical imperative, duty, obedience and the like becomes relevant to our topic. While the relevance is many-faceted, what I want to call attention to now is that it is the moral law which makes us aware of the power of reason to be practical, aware of autonomy, of freedom. Footnote It is our awareness of the moral ought, an awareness found in ordinary human consciousness, that we become aware of the power of reason to determine the will to action. Footnote One must be careful not to be misled by the mode of expression here. The will is practical reason, hence what we have here is practical reason determining itself to action. This is autonomy and this autonomy gives us our one direct access to the intelligible order of being to which we belong. Freedom, the power of unconditional causality, is here determinately and assertorically known–an exceptionally powerful expression in Kant’s restrained and cautious usage. Through the moral law we become aware that the are freedom. Footnote “Therefore the moral law expresses nothing else than the autonomy of pure practical reason, i.e., freedom,” Kant says explicitly. Footnote In this connection the talk of unconditional law, command and duty takes on a different connotation than it might otherwise have.

            The moral law, then, makes us aware of being subjects, aware of our being persons, conscious of ourselves as things-in-themselves, as beings determined only by laws which we give to ourselves through reason. Footnote It makes us aware of our autonomous nature, our power of self-determination, aware that we are freedom and that because we are freedom it is our duty to be free. We now begin to see what Kant means by rational nature and why he says it possesses intrinsic worth. We need now to explore more precisely what this rational nature, autonomy, freedom, this being as person, is such that it possesses intrinsic worth and how and why inalienable rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness are direct expressions of that worth.

            Freedom, in Kant’s view, has both a negative and a positive aspect. The negative aspect appears already in the Critique of Pure Reason. It is the idea of causality independent of empirical conditions. Footnote The positive aspect is in the power of self-determination found in a “reason which determines the will [i.e., itself] directly through the condition of a universal lawful form of the maxim of the will.” Footnote He sharpens the meaning of positive freedom considerably when he distinguishes between it and a faulty notion of freedom which would view freedom as internal causation as distinct from external causation. Footnote Genuine freedom, which Kant calls transcendental freedom, entails not only independence from everything empirical, one’s own psychological processes included; it entails the giving of the law to oneself, the creation of one’s own character. Footnote This is what it means to be a person, to be rational in a practical way; it is to practice autonomy, to be free in the radical sense that one gives the order, structure, intelligibility, to one’s self.

            The negative aspect of freedom produces independence of empirical conditions and in this important way contributes to the intrinsic worth of the person. It is, in logical language, a necessary but not sufficient condition for existence as a person. Positive freedom provides the sufficient condition and is actually the active assertion of freedom in which the person creates his/her own character. The intrinsic worth of the person is found in this assertion, this creative power. Just having reason, Kant says, does not in itself raise man above the animal unless reason has some purpose of its own in addition to the purposes possessed by the animals. That purpose is “to consider also what is itself good or evil, which pure and sensuously disinterested reason alone can judge...” Footnote It is morality, not legality, which makes us intrinsically of worth. Kant argues that the first condition of any worth in the person is the certainty of a disposition which agrees with the moral law, but that disposition is itself an act of our freedom. The law which we give to ourselves is, Kant continues, “positive, being the form of an intellectual causality, i.e., the form of freedom.” Footnote It is just this ability to give ourselves such a law that grounds our worth. And to use this ability is our duty. It is the ability to live in accord with this duty which “elevates man above himself as a part of the world of sense, something which connects him with an order of things only the understanding can think and which has under it the entire world of sense...; it is nothing else than personality.” Footnote

            Kant is himself in no small measure responsible for his being taken to be a Prussian legalist rather than being seen to be the philosopher of radical freedom which he actually is. His stress on the negative aspect of freedom, his nearly constant warnings concerning inclinations and passions together with the equally constant talk of duty, law, constraint, necessity, obedience, humbling of pride, pretension and self esteem and of the unholiness of our wills combine to give the impression of legalism of an aggressive variety. Kant’s discussion of positive freedom, autonomy, respect for and intrinsic worth of person together with his rejection of heteronomy of all sorts combine to produce a very different impression. It is the case that Kant says that our worth rests in having respect for and giving unconditional obedience to the moral law. What gets missed is that he also says that this respect and obedience actually are constituted by, are the same as, reason being independently practical, autonomy, freedom, actualization of personality by itself. The moral law is, ontologically speaking, the structure of freedom, of personality. Therefore to respect the moral law is to respect persons.. Hence Kant can formulate the moral law as the requirement that one always respect the person in oneself or another as always an end in itself and never use a person as a mere means. Footnote This respect is for the person, autonomy, freedom, for these have intrinsic worth.

            The idea of personality awakens respect, Kant says, because it puts before our eyes the sublimity of our own nature–though true to his usual approach he quickly adds that it also cuts down self-conceit by showing the unsuitability of our conduct. Footnote “Respect always applies to persons, never to things.” Footnote What awakens respect is freedom, autonomy, as it manifests itself before our very eyes. The worth of persons, if I may now say so, is self-evident. It gives evidence of and for itself and calls forth from us respect for itself. One can formulate a pretty good argument that this is the real meaning and intent of the famous “Duty! Thou sublime and mighty name...” passage. Footnote Kant says there that duty requires submission but not by “threatening aught that would arouse natural aversion or terror.” Footnote To do so would be heteronomy; it would be to treat a person as a thing, in the language of our day, a stimulus-response mechanism. Rather duty holds forth a law “which of itself finds entrance into the mind and gains reluctant reverence...” What, he then asks, could be an origin worth of such a law, of such a duty? His answer? “ It is nothing else than personality...” Footnote The paragraph ends, “For it is then not to be wondered at that man, as belonging to two worlds, must regard his own being in relation to his second and higher vocation with reverence and the laws of this vocation with the deepest respect.” Footnote

            The flowing language of the opening paragraph of the “Conclusion” of the Critique of Practical Reason is an eloquent statement of what I have been arguing. You man recall that there Kant speaks of two things which “fill the mind with ever new and increasing awe..., the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” Footnote The first, he says, “begins at the place I occupy in the external world of sense and broadens the connection in which I stand into an unbounded magnitude of worlds beyond worlds and systems of systems.” And, he concludes concerning it, that it annihilates my importance as an animal creature. It reduces one to a thing among things–and worth disappears. The second, the moral law, “begins at my invisible self, my personality, and exhibits me in a world which has true infinity.” And he concludes concerning it that it “infinitely raises my worth as that of an intelligence by my personality...” Footnote The infinite intrinsic worth of the person could hardly be more emphatically stated.

            So we have intrinsic worth as rational beings, that is, as beings with the power of self-legislation, as autonomous, as free, as persons. Moreover, this worth is self-evident in the sense that it speaks for itself, give evidence for itself. Now why and how do inalienable rights arise out of this worth and why, specifically, rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness? The first question is easy to answer. Rights arise directly out of the intrinsic worth of persons. They constitute the manner in which respect for persons is instituted in the political domain. Everything in creation except persons, rational nature, can be used as a mere means to some end or other. The person is subject to the moral law because of the autonomy of his/her freedom and “because the latter, every will, even the private will of each person directed to himself, is restricted to this condition of agreement with the autonomy of the rational being.” Kant continues, “This condition thus requires that the person may never be used as a means except when he/she is at the same time an end.” Footnote He then adds that this condition applies even to the divine will in regard to persons.

            Certain rights are inalienable because to act contrary to them whether in relation to oneself or to another is to violate duty; it is to violate autonomy, freedom; it is to reduce the person to thing. Or, expressed positively, to act according to duty, to respect persons and to act in a way consistent with inalienable rights mean the same thing. Life, liberty and pursuit of happiness are inalienable because they are intrinsic to the worth of the person. They are necessary to autonomy, to freedom, to the being of persons. There can be no action which violates these right which does not at the same time violate the person, reduce the person to a thing.

            How and why life and liberty are direct expressions of the infinite intrinsic worth of persons is readily evident. Life is the expression of the worth of the person in his/her own being. Liberty is directly entailed in that being since to be person is to be freedom, autonomy, lawgiver to one’s self and therefore to all of one’s actions as well. Happiness is less evident, though Jefferson’s phrase pursuit of happiness accords well with Kant’s philosophy. Why so will become evident if we turn, with this particular right in mind, directly to the being of persons as rational. This rationality is our participation in the supersensuous which, Kant says, is as best we can conceptualize it, “nothing else than nature under the autonomy of pure reason.” Footnote It is our consciousness of the moral law which transfers us into this nature “in which reason would bring forth the highest good were it accompanied with sufficient physical capacities and [which] determines our will to impart to the sensuous world the form of a system of rational beings.” Footnote Through reason we are conscious that through our will a natural order which is a system of rational beings is to arise, an order not empirically given, but possible through our freedom. To be person is to be the power and to have as one’s duty to bring forth such an order, to produce through freedom a system consistent with freedom, a realm of ends, persons. “It is a priori (morally) necessary to bring forth the highest good through the freedom of the will...” Footnote The highest good is precisely this order of rational beings, the realm of ends.

            Such an order would, obviously, in its respect for the intrinsic worth of persons, entail the intrinsic right to life and, since persons are autonomy, freedom, the intrinsic right to liberty as well. It also entails pursuit of happiness for happiness, Kant says, belongs to persons as ends-in-themselves. Why? To be happy, to have life move in a fashion agreeable to one, is entailed in the worth intrinsic to persons as such. As a rational, autonomous being the person has the right to self-determination and self-direction. As a being of intrinsic worth the person has a right to have that self-satisfaction come to expression without undue frustration. Therein lies happiness. To respect the person is, in part, to make way for the happiness of which the person is worthy.

            Happiness is a component of the highest good and it is our duty as rational to produce the order which is that highest good. We do not, however, have sufficient physical means to ensure that happiness, to ensure that all goes according to wish and will. “Nevertheless,” Kant says, “in the practical task of pure reason, i.e., in the necessary endeavor after the highest good, such a connection is postulated as necessary; we should seek to further the highest good....” Footnote As finite rational beings we have the right to be happy to the extent we are worthy of happiness, that is, to the extent we exercise rational autonomy, to the extent we actualize our being as persons. Entailed in that exercise of autonomy is the duty, to the extent physically in our power, to produce an order in which those who deserve happiness can attain it. Here we have the inalienable right to pursuit of happiness.

            The classical eloquence of Kant’s philosophy is impressive here. Once one sees clearly what rational nature is, what the being of the person is, the rest follows easily. To be rational, in this context, means to have the power to produce a coherent world order of persons and this is precisely what constitutes duty. A coherent world order of persons entails respect for the worth of persons. Politically expressed this means recognition of inalienable rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness as intrinsic to each person.

Originally published in Akten des Siebenten Internationalen Kant-Kongresses. Copyright: Bouvier Verlag/Bonn. Posted with permission of the publisher. Published Essays