The Rightful Condition and Need for Revolution

by Jordan Ross


In the Metaphysics of Morals, Immanuel Kant compiled an everlasting contribution to the realm of political and moral philosophy that attempted to provide answers to an array of moral questions. In the “Doctrine of Right,” Kant asserts that due to our desire to live in a rightful condition, which is secured by the state, it is contradictory and completely unfounded to attempt revolution. Similar to many early social contract theorists, I believe that Kant’s definition of a rightful condition disregards the evident racial contract that presupposes the social one. Further, when considering the work of Frantz Fanon, one can begin to see how violence, and consequently violent revolution, must be an expected reaction to a deceitful rightful condition that does not see all people as ends-in-themselves.

In the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals Kant developed his famous categorical imperative which, put simply, states that we ought to only act in ways that allow us to will that maxim as a universal law.[i] For example, we should not steal from a store unless we are sure that every person should steal from stores, regardless of our personal circumstances. In the second section of the categorical imperative, Kant devises a humanity formula, prescribing that we must always treat people as ends-in-themselves and thus recognise their intrinsic value.[ii] While Kant goes into further detail, one main idea he postulates is that we should not treat anyone in an instrumental manner as a means to accomplish a further end.[iii] Although I believe Kant does well in formulating the categorical imperative and the humanity formula, it is apparent to me that in some cases, the state, which, for Kant, we are not justified in revolutionising, does not see its citizens as ends-in-themselves, and rather treats them instrumentally.

One need not look any further than the current protests against police brutality in the United States.[iv] People of colour are brutalised and often murdered due to the failure of police officers to recognise their humanity or intrinsic value. This is arguably an effect of the colonial logics that still permeate our society, and consequently, our state and legislations. As Fanon asserted, “the white man is all around me… all this whiteness burns me to a cinder.”[v] Coloniser efforts sought to extend moral standing only to whiteness, thus reinforcing the dualisms of white/human and black/animal.[vi] The effects of these dualisms are ever-present in most Western forms of legislation and punishment. Take, for instance, George Floyd, who was murdered for suspected forgery, versus Brock Turner, who was guilty of rape and yet released three months early on good behaviour.[vii] The argument I attempt to bring forth here is that Kant’s categorical imperative and humanity formula are inconsistent with the actions that Western states enact upon their citizens. For Kant, we should submit to a general legislative will as it is the only way to secure a rightful condition as opposed to a violent state of nature.[viii]  Although we submit ourselves to this, it is clear that when we examine events such as the police brutality taking place in the United States, the state does not always secure this rightful condition, and it in fact acts immorally against the categorical imperative, potentially further imposing immoral behaviour on citizens.

While Kant does recognise that there may be defects in a constitution that should be reformed, he contends that only the state itself can carry out this reform.[ix] The people cannot bring reform through a revolution because a rightful condition is only possible through our submission to legislative will, thus making revolution contradictory for Kant. What Kant misses is the racial contract that occurs prior to this submission, leaving people of colour out of the creation of the rightful condition. Charles W. Mills argues that in social contract theory there is a “preliminary conceptual partitioning”[x] which acts as the metamorphosis from natural human to civil human (into a rightful condition). In the racial contract, the bifurcation (via colonisation) is instead between white people and people of colour, leaving people of colour out of the process of evolution into civil humans. As Fanon explains in Black Skin, White Masks, this leaves “white” as the foundation for humanity,[xi] with the coloniser othering people of colour as “savages” that are incapable of civility.[xii] In this discussion, I believe Kant’s arguments against revolution become indefensible. Even if we did submit to legislative will to attain a rightful condition, there are a considerable number of people left out of this decision, meaning that the legislations and constitutions are created without these people in mind. Thus, revolution is necessary for these people as the rightful condition that has been placed upon them was never asked for nor was it wilfully or rationally submitted to. Consequently, Kant’s promotion of a kind of passive civil disobedience for reform by the state, in lieu of revolution, is utterly unjust.[xiii]

For Fanon, colonialism is “violence in its natural state,”[xiv] and it is violence which becomes the only language that the coloniser understands. Violence serves as the only way to loosen the colonial grip, as the coloniser is the one who instilled violence into the minds of Indigenous people through torturous methods of colonisation.[xv] This is what leads Fanon to declare that people of colour will only regain custody of their own bodies when they embody history and engage in a form of violent revolution.[xvi] We cannot be surprised when the same violence used against people of colour to exclude them from the creation of the rightful condition is used to revolutionise a condition which was never agreed upon, and a condition which continues to oppress. Revolution is necessary to amend the deceitful rightful condition, and I believe, according to the categorical imperative, it is the job also of white people to join in this revolution if we truly do wish to see all people valued as ends-in-themselves.

Kant makes the point that even when a revolution is successful, it eventually makes everyone surrender to a new form of regime.[xvii] It is this view that causes Kant to deduce that revolutions remain largely unsuccessful. While this is in some part true, I would argue that we should view revolutions similar to how Julia Kristeva describes revolt—as the creation of perpetually contestable configurations.[xviii] I believe that a constant questioning of power and legislation is important because humanity never stops learning and growing. It is not feasible that the regulations created by the state will always be deemed fair as people and attitudes evolve, and it then becomes our job to consistently strive for the amendment of these regulations.

This is precisely why I believe Kant’s conception of revolution cannot be defended. Kant’s ideas come from a time in which certain values were accepted but are now rightfully outdated. Kant’s arguments against revolution ignore people of colour who were subjected not only to a racial contract, but also to a rightful condition that was not created in their interest. Furthermore, through examining events such as police brutality in the United States, we see that this rightful condition also contradicts Kant’s own categorical imperative and humanity formula. Therefore , I believe revolution should be favourable in Kant’s eyes.


Jordan Ross is currently studying a Diploma in Art History after completing their Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy and Gender Studies. Their research interests include queer and feminist theory, European philosophy and aesthetics.


ENDNOTES

[i] Immanuel Kant, The Moral Law: Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. H.J. Patton(New York: Routledge, 1994), 74.

[ii] Robert Audi, “The Instrumental Treatment of Persons,” in Means, Ends and Persons: The Meaning and Psychological Dimensions of Kant’s Humanity Formula (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 2.

[iii] Audi, “The Instrumental Treatment of Persons,” 4.

[iv] David Brooks, “The Culture of Policing is Broken,” Atlantic, June 16, 2020,
https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/06/how-police-brutality-gets-made/613030/.

[v] Frantz Fanon, cited in Cultural Theory: An Anthology, eds. Imre Szeman & Timothy Kaposy (Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2011), 424.

[vi] Fanon, cited in Cultural Theory: An Anthology, 424.

[vii] Catriona Harvey-Jenner, “This Viral Post Highlights How Brock Turner is the Ultimate Demonstration of White Privilege,” Cosmopolitan, June 5, 2020,
https://www.cosmopolitan.com/uk/reports/a32777894/white-privilege-brock-turner-george-floyd/.

[viii] Immanuel Kant, Kant: The Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Mary Gregor, ed. Lara Denis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 6: 320,
https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.uq.edu.au/10.1017/9781316091388.

[ix] Kant, Kant: The Metaphysics of Morals, 320.

[x] Charles W. Mills, The Racial Contract (London: Cornell University Press, 1999), 12.

[xi] Fanon, cited in Cultural Theory: An Anthology, 424.

[xii] Mills, The Racial Contract, 12.

[xiii] Kant, Kant: The Metaphysics of Morals, 322.

[xiv] Frantz Fanon, “Concerning Violence,” in On Violence: A Reader, eds. Bruce B. Lawrence & Aisha Karim (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2007), 84,
https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.uq.edu.au/10.1215/9780822390169.

[xv] Fanon, “Concerning Violence,” 81.

[xvi] Fanon, “Concerning Violence,” 82.

[xvii]Kant, Kant: The Metaphysics of Morals, 323.

[xviii] Julia Kristeva, “It Is Right to Rebel…,” in Revolt, She Said (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002).


WORKS CITED

Audi, Robert. “The Instrumental Treatment of Persons.” In Means, Ends and Persons: The Meaning and Psychological Dimensions of Kant’s Humanity Formula. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 

Brooks, David. “The Culture of Policing is Broken.” Atlantic, June 16, 2020.
https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/06/how-police-brutality-gets-made/613030/

Fanon, Frantz. Cited in Cultural Theory: An Anthology. Edited by Imre Szeman & Timothy Kaposy. Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2011. 

Fanon, Frantz. “Concerning Violence.” In On Violence: A Reader. Edited by Bruce B. Lawrence & Aisha Karim. North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2007.
https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.uq.edu.au/10.1215/9780822390169

Harvey-Jenner, Catriona. “This Viral Post Highlights How Brock Turner is the Ultimate Demonstration of White Privilege.” Cosmopolitan, June 5, 2020.
https://www.cosmopolitan.com/uk/reports/a32777894/white-privilege-brock-turner-george-floyd/

Kant, Immanuel. Kant: The Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by Mary Gregor, edited by Lara Denis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.uq.edu.au/10.1017/9781316091388

Kant, Immanuel. The Moral Law: Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by H.J. Patton. New York: Routledge, 1994. 

Kristeva, Julia. “It Is Right to Rebel…” In Revolt, She Said. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002. 

Mills, Charles W. The Racial Contract. London: Cornell University Press, 1999. 


Featured image by Victoria Pickering via flickr

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