Sovereignty as a Right and as a Duty: Kant’s Theory of the State
Critics of Immanuel Kant’s legal and political philosophy argue that his theory of the state collapses into one of two extremes. For some, Kant is a quietist who regards positive law as the instantiation of justice and thereby deprives himself of a moral standpoint for the criticism of positive law. For others, Kant is an anarchist who denies the authority of law whenever it deviates from the demands of justice. I argue that these interpretations are the opposing products of a common error: the failure to distinguish between Kant’s justification of the right of the state to exercise public authority and his corresponding theory of a perfectly just state. Once these aspects of his theory of the state are disentangled, Kant’s transformative vision comes into view. Far from reducing the idea of a state to either an authoritative fiat or a utopian vision of justice, Kant offers a standpoint for recognizing (1) the public authority of existing states, (2) the standard of justice for assessing the moral adequacy of those states, and (3) the ongoing duty of existing states to direct the exercise of public authority to the deepest possible fulfillment of public justice.
Jacob Weinrib is an Assistant Professor at the Queen’s Faculty of Law. He graduated from the Combined JD/PhD Program in Law and Philosophy at the University of Toronto, where he studied as a Vanier Scholar and received the David Savan Dissertation Prize. Before joining Queen’s, he held a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowship at the New York University School of Law as a Global Hauser Research Fellow in the Center for Constitutional Transitions (2013-4) and as a Dworkin-Balzan Fellow in the Center for Law and Philosophy (2014-2015). Weinrib is the author of Dimensions of Dignity: The Theory and Practice of Modern Constitutional Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).
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