Book Review of:
Alexander Kaufman: Welfare in the Kantian State. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999. xii + 179 pages.

Welfare in the Kantian State begins with a bold claim: that the common appeal to Kant by libertarian political philosophers is a misappropriation, inasmuch as Kant’s own political philosophy leaves plenty of room for a welfare state. Throughout the remainder of the book, Kaufman presents the exact nature of this basic claim in a variety of apparently conflicting forms, ranging from an insistence that Kant’s philosophy “requires” the state to aid the disadvantaged (e.g., p.8), to milder statements such as that his fundamental principles allow that such aid “may” be given or that state legislation “could encompass” (p.25) laws oriented toward aiding the disadvantaged. In the course of engaging a good selection of Kant scholars and political philosophers on this issue, he never settles on a single, clear and unambiguous statement of how far he thinks Kant himself intended his philosophy to be taken in this direction.

Perhaps the primary reason for this lack of clarity and consistency in Kaufman’s exposition is that he fails to recognize what many contemporary Kant scholars now regard as the essential feature of Kant’s main philosophical writings: that they constitute first and foremost a system of interlocking perspectives. Interpreters who neglect this fact are bound to conflate perspectives Kant saw as distinct. Thus, for example, Kaufman assumes that the third Critique is a “revision” of Kant’s earlier stance on teleological judgment (p.63), when in fact it is merely an account of how judgment looks when viewed from a new standpoint (viz., the judicial, as opposed to the theoretical standpoint adopted in the first Critique).

A key objection to Kaufman’s basic claim is that Kant requires legal systems to legislate only for external acts, not for ethical ends, and that legislation directed toward improving the material welfare of the disadvantaged would appear to be aimed at the latter rather than the former. Kaufman attacks this objection in Chapter 1, arguing that Kant’s appeal to the moral obligation to work toward “perpetual peace” is proof that Kant allows exceptions to his rule regarding the legislation of ends (p.23), for perpetual peace is the end of all ends, so to speak. But this appeal is illegitimate, once we recognize the perspectival difference between a “final end”, which is always moral and internally legislated for Kant, and political legislation, which Kant requires to be directed toward external acts. Kant’s point in claiming that political systems ought to work toward perpetual peace is not that this end should or even can be legislated, but rather that the distinct moral perspective must be recognized as a supplement to any and all political posturing in order for the latter to fulfill its true purpose.

This is the main point of Kant’s famous claim that a “nation of devils” could construct a lawful state. It might be externally just, but it would never achieve the final end of politics, because it would be internally (morally) corrupt. Kaufman misreads this (pp.24-5) as implying that positive legislation regarding material ends are the proper concern of politics, when in fact Kant’s point is that such ends can only be morally legislated if they are to succeed. Kaufman’s misuse of such points is tantamount to claiming that, because Kant’s conception of the highest good includes the (final) end of happiness, any (transient) end that leads to my personal happiness can be morally condoned. Such neglect of the perspectival nuances in Kant’s philosophy leads to conclusions that are directly contrary to Kant’s intentions.

One of Kaufman’s key arguments, presented in Chapter 1, is based on Kant’s insistence that the state must not prevent any of its citizens from having equal access to the rights protected by law. Kaufman argues that adverse social and/or economic conditions can sometimes have exactly this effect, thus unfairly limiting a person’s freedom and equality in relation to other citizens. For this reason, he maintains, a state whose laws are based on Kantian principles must take positive steps to correct such imbalance, even to the point where disadvantaged persons are “assured access” to the material goods they lack and may demand it from the sovereign should it not be given (pp.29-33). However, there is no basis in the text for such an extension of Kant’s position. Kant’s claim is an explicitly negative one: the sovereign must not enact laws that prevent socially or economically disadvantaged persons from “working themselves up” to a better situation. Kaufman turns this into a positive requirement: the sovereign must enact laws that actively assist such persons, assuring them of “freedom from asymmetrical coercion” (p.33), so that it is as easy for them to have access to material resources (such as food, housing, education, etc.) as it is for those who are more well off. But this not-so-subtle sleight-of-hand raises the question: just where does such legislation stop? Are states to enact more and more welfare laws until--per impossibile!--every citizen has exactly the same opportunities as every other? Kaufman’s position of positive interventionism is manufactured to appear Kantian when in fact it is diametrically opposed to the negative politics Kant had in mind.

Chapters 2-5 are more informative and accurate as an exposition of Kant’s philosophy, but less central to Kaufman’s main point. Chapter 2 examines the context of Kant’s political philosophy as a response to the Cameralists, such as Wolff, who argued that the state’s primary end is to make people happy. This suggests that when Kant argues against those who would enact legislation on the grounds of increasing people’s happiness, his objection is not to state-sponsored welfare programs as such, but to the material principle upon which his opponents sought to base such legislation. Kaufman makes the interesting point (p.54) that Kant’s arguments do not deny the possibility of a formal principle that could be used to support welfare legislation. Chapter 3 demonstrates that Kant’s theory of teleology does allow for the possibility of formal ends, arguing that these are best understood in terms of “rational faith”. While most of his arguments here are unobjectionable, Kaufman unfortunately neglects the close connection Kant makes between the rational faith and religion. For Kant the realization of perpetual peace as the teleological end of human legislation requires “the transforming of [a person’s] cast of mind” through the implementation of pure (rational/moral) religion, not through the implementation of external laws by the state, as Kaufman wrongly implies (p.81).

After looking at two important background issues in Chapters 2 and 3, Kaufman takes two further backward steps in the next two chapters. Chapter 4 expounds in detail how the issue of systematicity relates to Kant’s conception of empirical knowledge--an interesting topic, but not one that has (or at least, is shown to have) direct relevance to the issue of whether or not Kant would (or even could) endorse a welfare state. Chapter 5 delves still further into the intricacies of Kant’s theory of teleological judgment, including a lengthy account of symbolism and analogy (pp.111-20) that makes no reference (until the concluding sentence of the section!) to their possible political application. The long-awaited (and comparatively brief) section on “Political Significance” (pp.120-5) then proves to be disappointingly inaccurate, portraying Kant’s belief that nature itself “wills” the arrival of perpetual peace as a justification for regarding this as the primary task of the legal system, thus totally ignoring Kant’s emphasis on moral religion as the means of achieving genuine internal peace.

Only in the concluding chapter does Kaufman actually attempt to construct “A Kantian Model for Social Welfare Theory”. But here, too, his exposition remains (to use his own words) “frustratingly indeterminate” (p.135). Indeed, the substance of Chapter 6 amounts to little more than a repetition of the basic claim, that “A legitimate state must ensure the free exercise of the innate right to freedom” and that this must include “social intervention” in any situation where “institutional features of civil society constitute severe obstacles to such an exercise” (p.140). Kaufman proceeds to sketch various ways a state should go about assisting the disadvantaged in response to this supposed requirement. Most importantly, the state must provide income support up to a minimum threshold, with further forms of support beyond that level increasing in value the more they take the form of “in kind” support rather than simply cash in hand (p.162). But in defending these assertions--despite all his laborious preparations--Kaufman’s few concrete claims appear to be almost entirely of his own making, with little or no direct grounding in Kant’s writings.

Aside from its misleading portrayal of the political implications of Kant’s philosophy, this book’s greatest--indeed, fatal--shortcoming is its lack of lucidity. Though it is a relatively short book, it feels maddeningly long, so laborious and unnecessarily obtuse is its style. While repeating his few main points ad nauseam, Kaufman never reaches the point where his argument seems to be heading. Here is an example of the kind of sentence construction the reader faces (p.110): “We must derive an ideal concept from the purposive concept instantiated by the object, and use this notion as a criterion to evaluate the first concept (that is, the purposive concept implicit in the form of the object).” A less serious problem is that the text is plagued by an inordinate number of typographical errors, as well as some inexcusable inaccuracies, such as identifying the second edition of the first Critique and the third Critique as being published in 1885 and 1890, respectively, when in fact they appeared in 1787 and 1790.

The prospective reader who already has a basic knowledge of the background issues that occupy most of this book’s pages, and whose main interest is to find out what the author has to say about what the book’s title indicates as the main focus, need only read Chapter 6 (and perhaps also the summary on the last two pages of Chapter 5), for this is the only place Kaufman actually states his own theory of welfare as such. And it doesn’t take a Kant scholar to see that his conclusions there depend little (if at all) on Kant.

Stephen Palmquist, Hong Kong

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