Kant on Citizenship, Civil Independence and Enfranchisement

In the “Metaphysics of Morals” Kant claims that while subjects of the state must be treated in accords with natural laws of freedom of equality, in order for individuals to qualify to be full citizens of the state, and consequently have the right to vote they must possess “an independent position among the people.” (Kant 139) The consequence of this argument is that servants, women, minors and some kinds of tradespeople are not eligible for citizenship. The rationale behind Kant’s argument is that in order to meet the ideal of citizenship one must not depend for one’s existence and sustenance on the “arbitrary will of anyone,” but rather one must only “one’s existence and sustenance to his own rights and powers as a member of the commonwealth.” (Kant 139) Kant calls this civil independence. This argument seems plausible and intuitive, but unfortunately its consequence is that nearly all members of modern liberal democratic societies are unqualified for full citizenship as any person who is dependent on an income for survival is necessarily dependent on the arbitrary will of others. Consequently, we must take Kant’s argument very seriously because it shows the tension between being a citizen and being a jobholder within the economic structure of modern liberal democratic societies. It may be possible to rethink citizenship in such a way that the qualifications for citizenship are compatible with the economic structure of modern liberal democratic societies, but if it is not then perhaps the economic structure of modern liberal democratic society needs to be overcome before the ideal of citizenship for all can be fully realized.

Kant reasoning as to why servants (including domestic tutors), certain tradespeople, women and minors are not eligible for full citizenship and the right to vote is that these people are dependent on the will of others because “they have to receive orders or protection from other individuals, so they do not possess civil independence.” (Kant 140) Now while Kant does not take his argument any further within the text, it seems plausible to think one reason why Kant is worried about giving full citizenship to those who do not possess civil independence is that because these individuals are dependent on others, they are in some way beholden to them, so they will easily be corrupted into voting for laws that do not represent the common interest, but rather that support the interests of those they are dependent upon. Furthermore, because individuals who do not possess civil independence are in positions in which they take orders from others, they will not have fully developed the capacity for free and independent thought, and thus they may not fully reflect when they are voting because they have not fully developed this capacity. Consequently, it seems that Kant’s argument is intuitive and plausible as those who do not possess civil independence do seem to be in danger of being ineffective, if not corrupt, citizens.

However, one issue with Kant’s argument is that he argues that academics, and carpenters both possess civil independence, but on reflection it seems that individuals in these professions would not possess civil independence. The academic does not possess civil independence as his employment and consequently his income depends on the funding of the university, and him retaining his standing within a profession, that like any profession, is full of trends, and in which positions accrue to those academics who are viewed by other academics in a positive light. Thus, academics are clearly dependent on the arbitrary will of others as their income depends on their retaining good standing within the eyes of others, and of the continued funding of post-secondary institutions. They are not dependent on any one individual’s arbitrary will, but they are dependent on the collection of arbitrary wills of the group, and the arbitrary will of the group as a whole.

Likewise, a carpenter is dependent on the arbitrary will of others for his income because in order to support himself he must sell his works, and to sell his works he must create something that will sell at a high enough price relative to the effort put in to make the work. And what will sell at this price is dependent on the arbitrary will and preference of the buying public. Kant seems to want to say that those who have no direct superior are in some way more dependent on the arbitrary will of others, than those who must sell their expertise as an independent contractor, but who do not have a direct superior, but this does not seem to be the case, because the carpenter is dependent on the arbitrary will of the buying public, just as the domestic servant is dependent on the arbitrary will of the family that he works for. However, this does not show that Kant’s argument that possession of civil independence is a qualification for citizenship is problematic, it only means that he drew erroneous conclusions from that argument.

In light of the preceding it seems that nearly all adults within modern liberal democratic societies will fail to possess civil independence as they are all dependent on the arbitrary will of individuals in that they must sell their labour either directly to the buying public, or to a company, or the state, in order to ensure the income required to sustain their own lives. Consequently, they are dependent on the arbitrary wills involved in particular companies or the state, or the buying public at large. Only the very rich who have enough capital not to be dependent on an income for their sustenance, and the farmer who grows his own food and consequently does not need to deal with the arbitrary will of the buying public possess civil independence. So according to Kant’s argument about civil independence it seems that nearly all members of modern liberal democratic societies will not possess civil independence and consequently not be eligible for citizenship.

The fact that Kant’s argument concerning civil independence suggests that nearly all citizens of modern liberal democratic society are unqualified for citizenship does not mean that Kant’s argument is implausible. However, it does demand a response from those who believe that modern liberal democratic societies can realize the ideal of citizenship for all, as it challenges the very idea that a society based on an economy of jobholders could ever realize this ideal. I am torn on the question of whether it makes sense to think that the ideal of citizenship for all could be realized in modern liberal democratic society. On one hand certain institutions such as the secret ballot make it so that even if we are dependent in our economic lives on the arbitrary will of others, we have no reason to think that we should vote for their interests, as our vote does not need to be disclosed, so it seems that in some cases at least economic dependence on the arbitrary will of others does not prevent effective citizenship. On the other hand, the economic structure of modern liberal democratic societies does not encourage people to become effective citizens. Most of our energies are put into excelling at our jobs to ensure an income for ourselves and our families. Consequently, our dependence on the arbitrary will of others for our income encourages us to be more focused on our private, professional lives, and less on the common public life we share, and thus it is not clear to me that Kant’s argument is wrong. I am not sure, but the ideal of citizenship for all may require a different societal form than the one that currently exists in the form of modern liberal democracy. Contrastingly, it may be possible to conceptualize the insights that Kant presents such that citizenship for all is compatible with modern liberal democracy. However, I do not have the answer to these questions, but by raising the questions at least we will begin to recognize that the economic bases of modern liberal democratic society is in tension with certain elements of the ideal of citizenship.

Works Cited
Kant, Immanuel. “The Metaphysics of Morals.” Political Writings. Ed. H.S Reiss. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 131-176.


Some Thoughts on Political Engagement and Boredom

When I talk to people who are not particularly politically informed, or engaged, they often tell me that one of the reasons why they are not engaged or informed regarding politics is because politics is boring. Let us call this the “attitude of the consumer.” This attitude is problematic because it encourages government and societal corruption in a liberal democratic society. Likewise, this attitude is troubling because any person who possesses this attitude is saying that they can only be informed or engaged about things they find entertaining or exciting, and the preceding shows frivolity.

The attitude of the consumer encourages government corruption, because as people find politics more and more boring, they are apt to be more disengaged and less vigilant about ensuring that their representatives try to pursue the common interest. Once citizens are less engaged and vigilant, politicians will tend to use their position to pursue private interests at the expense of the common interest, as they know they can get away with it. Of course I recognize that some politicians will remain committed to the common interest even when the public is less vigilant, but these politicians are a relatively small minority. Furthermore, there is the other danger that as people become less and less engaged with politics they will allow a “clever man,” in the words of Tocqueville, to take away their right to participate in politics, if this ruler will allow them to freely pursue their private interests and ensure that economic growth is secured.

Contrastingly, the attitude of the consumer reinforces societal corruption, because as people become more disengaged with politics the media tries to make politics more entertaining to generate more revenue. To make politics more exciting the media will try to present politics as a war by other means. In such a war opponents must defeat each other without any regard for the fact they are both citizens of a common state. The point of politics in the media’s presentation of it then becomes to win, rather than to ensure that rule serves the common interest. Such a presentation of politics may be more exciting than a presentation that highlights differences in policy and possibilities of compromise, but by creating a presentation of politics as a war by other means, the media encourages people to see citizens who disagree with them as mere enemies to be destroyed, rather than as people who need to be reasoned with in order to come to mutually agreeable solutions. In other words the desire to be entertained encourages the media to present politics in a way that will encourage high degrees of partisanship among the electorate, which is a form of societal corruption as any society that is committed to the freedom and equality of its citizens must have citizens who are willing to work with their fellow citizens, rather than seeing them as mere enemies.

Apart from the dangers that the attitude of the consumer poses for liberal democracy, it also encourages a particular set of vices. Any person whose primary reason for not being engaged or informed about politics shows frivolity in that they are suggesting that if someone finds something boring, than that practise is not worth doing for that person. Frivolity is problematic in this context as many things that we find boring at first, can eventually turn into a source of fulfillment. When I first heard Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” I was bored while listening to most of it. Now I find it deeply fulfilling to listen to. Consequently, adopting the attitude of the consumer makes us more narrow-minded by preventing us from engaging with possible sources of value in our lives. Secondly, frivolity in this context is troubling as someone who only pursues activities that they find engaging or entertaining to some degree has to be self-absorbed. There are many things that we may not find engaging or exciting, but nonetheless we have to pay attention to them because they have significant consequences for our lives and the lives of others. Politics may be boring, but one has to be quite self-absorbed to not be informed about it for this reason, as no matter how boring politics may be, politics has a deep impact on one’s lives and the lives of others.

The attitude of the consumer is deeply troubling, and if this attitude continues to be further engrained it will endanger liberal democracy, and encourage the vices of frivolity, narrow-mindedness and self-absorption. There is no easy solution to overcoming the attitude of the consumer, but we must recognize this challenge so that we are conscious of the path that our civilization is going down and can confront the problem that we are facing.