KANT’S SECOND THOUGHTS ON RACE
B P K
During the 1780, as Kant was developing his universalistic moral theory, he published texts in which he defended the superiority of whites over non-whites. Whether commentators see this as evidence of inconsistent universalism or of consistent inegalitarianism, they generally assume that Kant’s position on race remained stable during the 1780 s and 1790s.
Against this standard view, I argue on the basis of his texts that Kant radically changed his mind. I examine his 1780s race theory and his hierarchical conception of the races, and subsequently address the question of the significance of these views, especially in the light of Kant’s own ethical theory.
I then show that during the 1790s Kant restricts the role of the concept of race, and drops his hierarchical account of the races in favour of a more genuinely egalitarian and cosmopolitan view.
Most of the old divisions of the human species have long been rejected anyhow. Noah’s sons, the four parts of the world, the four colours, white, black, yellow, copper red – who still thinks of these outdated fashions today?
Georg Forster, Guiding-Thread to a Future History of Humankind (1789)1
In 1788, the year in which he published the Critique of Practical Reason, Kant also published an essay in which he claimed that people from Africa and India lack a ‘drive to y’, and hence lack the mental capacities to be self-motivated and successful in northern climates, never becoming any- thing more than drifters.2 He writes that Nature, whose wisdom he praises, discourages the migration of races across the globe by making them ill equipped to change from one climate zone to another, ill equipped ‘especially [for] the exchange of a warm climate for a cold one’ (TPP 8: 173).
He adds a footnote here in which he endorses a pro-slavery text, citing with approval a critique of a proposal to free black slaves, with the argument that they will never be good labourers unless they are coerced into activity (TPP 8: 174 n.).
They can work, but they cannot make themselves work. Native Americans, he goes on, are a race (or rather, a semi-race) stunted in its development because their ancestors migrated to a di?erent climate before they had fully adapted to their earlier environment. As a result, they are weak, inert, ‘incapable of any culture’; and they occupy the lowest level of the racial hierarchy that Kant claims to have determined:
That their temperament has not become entirely adequate to any climate can also be inferred from the fact that it is hard to find any other reason why this race, which is too weak for hard labour and too indi?erent for industrious work, and which is incapable of any culture3 even though there are enough examples and encouragement in the vicinity [namely, the example set by the European colonial settlers], stands far below even the Negro, who occupies the lowest of all other levels which we have mentioned as racial diferences (TPP ?: ???).
Kant’s unstated assumption, made explicit elsewhere, is that ‘whites’ occupy the top level of this hierarchy.4
These statements, in the essay ‘On the Use of Teleological Principles in Philosophy’, are appalling at many levels. The racial hierarchy, defended with a biased reading of travel reports and a teleological race theory, goes against the presumption of human equality which one would expect from someone with a universalist moral theory. After all, the basic moral principle which Kant formulates during the ????s, the Categorical Imperative in its several versions, is, at least in its wording, addressed to all humans (or, even more broadly, to all finite rational beings).
Although Kant’s own definition of race as such is formulated merely in terms of heritable di?erences in physical appearance, he nevertheless connects his understanding of race with a hierarchical account according to which the races also vary greatly in their capacities for agency and their powers of intellect. This was despite the fact that there were well known and esteemed authors who provided much evidence to the contrary in works that Kant himself had reviewed or commented on.
Moreover, Kant’s race theory and its implications for global migration cast his cosmopolitanism in a disconcerting light – at least his cosmopolitanism of the ????s. As I shall show below, however, Kant changed and improved his position during the 1790s.
The claim that Kant had second thoughts on race in the middle of the ‘Critical’ period goes against the existing views on the matter in the Kant literature. Whether they emphasize his racism or his universalism, commentators generally suppose that Kant’s position remained stable during the Critical period.
Authors such as Bernasconi, Eze and Mills highlight Kant’s white supremacist comments, and argue that his moral theory is less than universalist.5
Authors such as Louden, McCarthy and Hill and Boxill devote much attention to Kant’s racist remarks, but argue, in di?erent ways, that Kant’s main theory as defended during the 1780s and 1790s is truly uni- versalist, even though Kant fundamentally contradicts this theory with his racial hierarchy.6
Sankar Muthu acknowledges Kant’s racial hierarchism, but claims that he abandoned it at the beginning of the Critical period.7
In contrast with all these interpretations, I shall argue that Kant did defend a racial hierarchy until at least the end of the ????s, but that he changed his mind, after the publication of ‘On the Use of Teleological Principles in Philosophy’, and before the completion of Toward Perpetual Peace .
In the first section, I present Kant’s 1780s theory of race. The fact that Kant simultaneously defended a universalist moral theory and a racial hier-archy during the ????s raises important questions for interpreters, however. Should one choose to disregard Kant’s racism and focus on the Groundwork and the Critique of Practical Reason while abstracting from his racist attitudes?
Or do the latter imply that Kant’s moral universalism should be read quite di?erently? Was Kant an inconsistent universalist, or, as has been argued recently, a consistent inegalitarian? After an exposition of Kant’s 1780s theory of race, I address these questions. I then move to a discussion of the views Kant developed during the 1790s, showing how they di?er from his earlier commitments.
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