The role of commercial relations in Kant’s philosophy of history
This paper examines the role of commercial relations in Kant's philosophy of history. Starting with a discussion of the place of commerce in Kant's Idea for Universal History, and moving onto Kant's remarks on trade in the Critique of Judgment and later political writings, it illustrates the evolution of Kant's thought from a positive evaluation of the contribution of the commercial spirit to the development of moral dispositions to one of increasing scepticism towards the unregulated expansion of trade and the instances of colonialism that followed from it. This development, it is argued, coincides with a shift from a teleological account of nature as inherently beneficial to human beings to one in which the emphasis is placed on the conscious role played by human agents in historical transformation.
1. The controversy Celebrated as a pioneer of liberal freedom and damned as an apologist of imperialism, Kant’s reflections on the role of trade and commercial relations present many ambiguities. On the one hand, Kant shares with his Enlightenment predecessors the appreciation of the virtues of the “doux commerce” and an emphasis on its role in promoting domestic stability and peace amongst nations (IaG 8:27). On the other hand, he applauds restrictions on trade and praises the protectionism of states like China and Japan in placing barriers on the import of foreign products (ZeF 8:359 and GTP 8: 299n). Kant defends the right to attempt to make commercial contact with distant others as an instance of universal cosmopolitan relations (RL) but he also insists that such right can never be imposed, even when it promotes a future condition in which justice is fully realised (RL). In some of Kant’s writings the commercial spirit is praised for cultivating moral dispositions that will progressively bring out the enlightenment of political institutions (IaG), in others that very same spirit is scorned for fostering selfishness, cowardice, and a general debasement of human beings (KU).
Given such disparate evaluations it is not surprising to see that those few critics that have explicitly engaged with Kant’s thoughts on commercial relations are as sharply divided on the matter as Kant himself appears to be. For some authors Kant’s views of trade render him an all too typical representative of the Enlightenment expansionist model of civilization,1 insensitive to the diversity of non-European forms of life,2 and complicit in racial discrimination and colonial exploitation.3 For others, to the contrary, Kant champions an anti-imperial discourse that places him side by side with progressive critics of European colonial projects, and his theory of cosmopolitan right should be seen as a vehicle of empowerment and resistance to colonialism and domination.4 In one prominent reading, Kant is as much an apologist of unrestricted trade and free markets as his ‘beloved’ Adam Smith.5 In another one, Kant regarded ‘just trade’ as more important than ‘free trade’, and his entire theory of international justice could be seen as an attempt to formulate the right way of engaging in commerce with distant others.6
The purpose of this paper is to revisit these debates by placing Kant’s reflections on commercial relations in the context of a systematic discussion of Kant’s philosophy of history, the teleological principles on which it is grounded, and the development of Kant’s theory of right and politics. It is well-known that Kant’s views on teleology developed significantly during the 1790s, culminating in a new assessment of the role of the principle of conformity to ends in the Critique of Judgment.7 It is also well-known that this change had important implications for a number of areas of Kant’s philosophy, including his analysis of politics, his assessment of the role of religion, his account of the state, and his philosophical anthropology. Many authors have conjectured that these systematic developments might help to explain Kant’s modified position on a number of philosophically and politically pressing matters, including Kant’s thoughts on the position of Europeans vis-à-vis the rest of the world, his critique of colonialism and his analysis of race.8
A more nuanced analysis of Kant’s reflections on commercial relations, integrated as they are in Kant’s philosophy of history and his defence of the role of nature for the development of moral dispositions, would fit neatly with these developments. Although Kant was certainly one of the pioneers of Enlightenment anti-colonial discourse and a passionate defender of the necessity to pursue commercial aims compatible with principles of right, he had not endorsed that position all along. Significant textual evidence suggests that before 1790 Kant agreed with the idea of a hierarchy of human races and maintained a vision of international trade relatively insensitive to the modality of encounter with indigenous populations. The fact that Kant’s thoughts on the role of commercial relations changed significantly at a later stage has not gone unnoticed, even by authors who tend to defend an overall interpretation of Kant as an orthodox proponents of the value of free markets.9 However, no attempts have been made to systematically explain this shift. A more thorough examination of Kant’s view of commercial relations in light of developments in his philosophy of history therefore remains to be offered.10
2. Unsocial sociability, commercial relations and the emergence of political authority Kant’s earlier defence of commercial relations occurs in the context of his attempt to identify a pattern of collective development showing that human beings moral predispositions can be realized in the historical world. The only condition in which this can occur, Kant argues in Hobbesian fashion, is the achievement of a political society that can administer justice universally (IaG 8: 22). This problem, however, appears also as very arduous to solve: the human being “is an animal […] which needs a master” yet “this master is exactly as much an animal who has need of a master” (IaG 8: 23). The fact that the highest authority needed to realize humanity’s moral dispositions ought to be “just in itself and yet a human being”, Kant argues pessimistically, is a problem that not only poses great obstacles but appears in fact impossible to solve: “out of such crooked wood as humanity is made, nothing entirely straight can be fabricated” (IaG 8: 16). If human agents are unable to fully realize their own moral potential, only an approximation to the ideal can be expected.
Yet, contra Hobbes, Kant is sceptical at this stage that political expedients are sufficient to bring about such approximation. He lays his hopes instead on the benign intervention of “nature” which has willed that “human beings produce everything that goes beyond their mechanical existence out of their own labour and hands”. Nature, Kant argues, “is not superfluous and is not wasteful in the use of means to its ends” (IaG 8:19). In giving human beings the tools for their own development, everything has been tightly calculated so that humans can only credit themselves one day for reaching “the height of the greatest skillfullness, the inner perfection of his mode of thought and (as far as it is possible on earth) thereby happiness” (IaG 8:19). The disposition (Anlage) of human beings on which nature relies to promote humanity’s moral principles is their unsociable sociability (ungesellige Geselligkeit) (IaG 8: 23).
Kant’s defence of the unsocial sociability of human beings and the sympathetic remarks on the commercial spirit that accompany such defence is particularly clear in two distinct passages of the 1784 essay on universal history which we shall shortly analyse. The first is when Kant discusses the transition from the state of nature amongst human beings to a condition of freedom under external laws guaranteed by state institutions. The second is when he examines the dynamic of antagonistic relations between states and the conditions under which a lasting peace can be achieved. In both cases, Kant’s thoughts are firmly situated in a tradition of political thought (going from Pufendorf to Adam Smith) that seeks to positively integrate the idea of commercial sociability with an account of political sovereignty that differs in crucial respects from that of Hobbes. Whilst Hobbes remained sceptic of the possibility of including commercial utility in the list of motives that contributed to the emergence of political authority, Pufendorf rescued the Aristotelian ideal of sociability based on needs and turned it into an important component of cooperative political life.11 In this section I shall examine the issue of unsocial sociability as it applies to relations between individuals and connect it to Kant’s remarks on historical development in his essay Conjectural beginnings of human history, in the next one I shall turn to the role of commercial sociability for relations between states.
The first systematic reference to the role of unsocial sociability appears in a passage of Idea illustrating the contribution of such dispositions to the emergence from the state of nature and the creation of a political society. Human beings, Kant argues, have both a tendency to socialize and an inclination to isolate themselves. Resistance associated with the latter is what brings with it “the first true steps from crudity toward culture”, “talents come bit by bit to be developed”, and “taste is formed”. Without such antagonism “all talents would, in an arcadian pastoral life of perfect concord, contentment and mutual love, remain eternally hidden in their germ (in ihren Keimen). Human beings, Kant continues, “as good-natured as the sheep they tended, would give their existence hardly any greater worth than that of their domesticated beasts” (IaG 8: 21).
Several features in this passage reveal Kant’s sympathies for the analysis of commercial society present in the thought of his predecessors and contemporaries. The first is his emphasis on the role of culture in occupying the middle ground between a primitive condition of satisfaction of simple needs and the establishment of coercive political institutions. This notion of “cultura vitae”, the idea that culture plays an essential role in cultivating arts and skills and contributing to the development of a more complex, utility-based, form of social interaction, was central to a number of defences of commercial sociability, beginning with Pufendorf.12 It was also central to a narrative of historical progress that identified four different stages of human development – hunting-gathering, shepherding, agricultural and commercial – and celebrated the latter for its contribution to the promotion of civil order and the development of appropriate political institutions.
Most famously associated to the thought of Adam Smith,13 the four-stage theory of development is not mentioned explicitly in the Idea for a Universal History although the text does contain an implicit reference to it in the contrast between a crude, arcadian pastoral life of perfect concord and a cultured society (IaG 8:21). It occupies a much more important place in the 1786 essay Conjectures on the beginning of human history where Kant presents an interpretation of the biblical book of Genesis intended to contrast Herder’s proto-romantic account of the first stages of human history.14 Kant’s main goal in the essay is to offer an alternative interpretation of the historical development of the human species, rejecting the idealised account of human beings’ primitive relation to nature and celebrating instead the more sophisticated form of social organization reached through the investment of labour in external activities. Commercial society is the last, superior, stage of a development that begins with “the savage life of hunters”, continues into a “comfortable” and “secure” pastoral existence, and follows the triumph of the agricultural way of life over the shepherding one (indeed the biblical parable of Cain’s murder of Abel is interpreted by Kant as an example of this conflict). Since the protection of agricultural crops requires guarantees on property, if the farmer “does not want to forfeit the fruits of his long industry”, the mutual cooperation of many families is required (MM 8: 119). This in turn leads to the creation of villages and “the first needs of life, whose acquisition required a different way of living […] could now be exchanged for one another” (MM 8: 119).
It is at this point that the fourth stage, the commercial one, begins to unfold. The exchange of material goods leads to the multiplication of needs, the emergence of culture both “as pastime and as industry” and “most importantly” to the creation of a “civil constitution and public justice”, the administration of which is “left no longer to individuals as in the savage condition, but to a lawful might that held the whole together” (MM 8: 119). This leads to the progressive development of all human art, “among which that of sociability and civil security is the most beneficial”. With this stage begins also “the inequality among human beings, this rich source of so much evil, but also of all good” (MM 8: 120).
Kant’s essay on the Conjectural beginnings of human history is generally perceived as heavily influenced by Rousseau, and for good reasons. Kant explicitly mentions the Genevan philosopher in an important passage of the essay, discussing the conflict between nature and freedom in the development of human moral dispositions (MM 8: 116-117). The very use of the term “conjecture” to introduce his narrative of historical evolution is reminiscent of Rousseau’s emphasis in the SecondDiscourse that his enquiry into the foundations of society “ought not to be taken for historical truths, but only for hypothetical and conditional arguments “better suited to elucidate the Nature of things than to show their genuine origin”.15 That said, Kant’s view that inequality among human beings is a source of some evil and “of all good” (my italics), would clearly not have resonated with Rousseau. It is plausible instead to think that there were other influences at work here, and that Scottish theories of the benefits of commercial society on the development of civilization might have played an important role.16
Indeed, it is interesting to note that many of the themes Kant mentions in the passages we are examining – the multiplication of needs, the specialisation of skills, the exchange of material goods – are also present in Adam Smith’s account of the virtues of commerce in The Wealth of Nations and in Hume’s writings on luxury and trade. The effect of commerce that Smith cites in his chapter on How the commerce of the towns contributed to the improvement of the country “as by far the most important of all” is its “gradual introduction of order and good government” and the guarantee of the “liberty and security of individuals, among the inhabitants of the country, who had before lived almost in a continual state of war with their neighbours and of servile dependency upon their superiors”.17
Smith credits Hume with being one of the few philosophers to have paid attention to this feature. In his essay “Of refinement in the arts” Hume discusses the role of culture and the development of arts on society insisting that “a progress in the arts is rather favourable to liberty, and has a natural tendency to preserve, if not produce a free government”.18He proceeds to contrast uncultivated nations where art is neglected with developed states where “luxury nourishes commerce and industry”. All social classes improve their position, peasants increase their wealth and merchants acquire property, and the latter, says Hume provide “the best and firmest basis of public liberty” by coveting “equal laws, which may secure their property, and preserve them from monarchical, as well as aristocratical tyranny”.19
Kant, who was clearly familiar with Hume’s historical writings and, perhaps, also with Smith’s Wealth of Nations, is unsurprisingly sympathetic to these remarks.20 He places them in the context of a very similar analysis of the stages of human development and grounds them in an account of nature as inherently beneficial to the development of political institutions required for the full realisation of moral dispositions. “Thanks be to nature […] for the incompatibility, for the spiteful competitive vanity, for the insatiable desire to possess or even to dominate!” he emphatically asserts (IaG 8: 21). The selfish instincts that accompany commercial sociability, the desire for competition, acquisition of property, the investment of labour and resources, are revealed in this context to form part of a productive cycle that turns human unsociability into a motor of social progress. Although human beings wish to lead a quiet and comfortable life, “nature wills that out of sloth and inactive contentment he should throw himself into labor and toils, so as, on the contrary, prudently to find out the means to pull himself again out of the latter”. This Kant, argues, betrays “the ordering of a wise creator; and not the hand of an evil spirit who might have bungled his splendid undertaking or ruined it in an envious manner” (IaG 8:21).
Promoting a social order in which commercial relations can be instrumentally valuable to the development of political institutions guaranteeing security and the undisturbed enjoyment of private property is not the only instance in which unsocial sociability appears as an integral part of nature’s beneficial intervention in history. Kant’s remarks on the role of trade become even more incisive when we turn to the second dimension of antagonism examined in the essay on universal history: conflict amongst states and the general condition of enlightenment that such conflict brings with it.
3. The role of commerce in the relations between states The second passage in which Kant refers explicitly to commercial relations in his essay on universal history is also interesting for our analysis of the concept in the context of developments in Kant’s philosophy of history. Trade is explicitly mentioned in the 8th proposition of the 1784 essay stating that the history of the human species could be viewed as the completion of a “hidden plan of nature” to promote an internal and external perfect state constitution. Asking whether experience reveals anything that might allow us to formulate conjectures on the possible development of human beings in this direction, Kant identifies promising signs in the commercial interdependence of all states and the degree of enlightenment amongst both politicians and citizens that such civilized relations bring about. Culture, understood as a process of sophistication of both material and social habits in response to ever more complex human needs, plays a crucial role here too. States, Kant argues, “are already in such an artificial relation to each other that none of them can neglect its internal cultural development without losing power and influence among the others”. Moreover, “civil freedom cannot be very well be infringed without feeling the disadvantage of it in all trades, especially in commerce, and thereby also the diminution of the powers of the state in its external relationships” (IaG 8: 27).
Kant then identifies conjectural evidence of moral progress in the commercial spirit that drives social cooperation beyond internal conflicts within the state. Provided one respects mutual constraints on freedom, if “one hinders the citizen who is seeking his welfare in any way he pleases, as long as it can subsist along with the freedom […] then one restrains the vitality of all enterprise and with it, in turn, the powers of the whole”- he argues. This reference to the value of individual welfare and the appeal to the laissez-faire attitude required to let individuals pursue their own ends as they see fit, is very important. In his later writings, Kant makes a structurally similar argument emphasizing the interdependence of human actions and their importance for political institutions yet the value cited as foundational to explain how agents are connected to each other beyond national boundaries is justice rather than individual welfare. I shall return to this point in the next two sections; for now it is important to notice that commercial sociability plays a crucial role in Kant’s teleological narrative of how the selfish pursuit of private gains might promote the right kinds of political institutions. Once that teleological narrative is revisited and systematic emphasis is placed on the role of agents’ reflecting about their own position in human history, the assessment of commercial relations and the evaluation of the role of the state will also end up being reshaped.
To understand what contributes to this shift it is important to pay attention to how Kant describes the political processes triggered by the development of commercial sociability. The argument is of an elitist kind. Kant draws attention to the role of monarchs in the process of removing barriers on their citizens’ personal initiatives and the promotion of commercial interaction and argues that the enlightenment of civil society will one day reach them too:
Hence the personal restrictions on the citizen’s doing and refraining are removed more and more, and the general freedom of religion is ceded; and thus gradually arises, accompanied by delusions and whims, enlightenment, as a great good that must raise humankind even out of the selfish aims of aggrandizement on the part of its rulers, if only the latter understand their own advantage. This enlightenment, however, and with it also a certain participation in the good by the heart of the enlightened human being who understands the good perfectly, must ascend bit by bit up to the thrones and have its influence even on their principles of government.
Kant does not say here exactly what sort of principles and what kind of governments are required to promote a process of “enlightenment” which is described here in rather general terms. He defends, of course, a more specific definition of the term in his famous article “What is enlightenment?” published in the Berlinische Monatschrift, where he also stresses the importance of removing obstacles to freedom in order to guarantee the public use of reason (WiA 8: 37). Interestingly, here he defends the freedom to pursue commercial initiatives through an important distinction between the private and the public use of reason applied to the potential injustice of taxation. Although a citizen cannot in his private capacity refuse to pay the taxes imposed on him, Kant argues, “the same citizen does not act against the duty of citizen, when, as a scholar, he publicly expresses his thoughts about the inappropriateness or even injustice of such decrees” (WhA 8:37).
Kant’s argument on the role of enlightenment in the essay on universal history is not distant from the defence of the role of commercial sociability found in the writings of natural law theorists like Pufendorf, Wolff and Vattel.21 Indeed, the very term “enlightenment” (lumières) is mentioned by Vattel in a passage illustrating the implications of his argument that nature imposes on nations a duty of sociability, preservation and mutual assistance similar to the one individuals have in society. Were these “amiable precepts of nature” to prevail, Vattel argues,
countries would communicate to each other their products and their enlightenment (leurs biens & leurs lumières); a profound peace would prevail all over the earth, and enrich it with its invaluable fruits; industry, the sciences and the arts would be employed in promoting our happiness, no less than in relieving our wants; violent methods of deciding contests would be no more heard of: all differences would be terminated by moderation, justice and equity; the world would have the appearance of a large republic; men would live every-where like brothers, and each individual be a citizen of the universe.22 Kant also concludes the 8th proposition of his essay on universal history by speculating about the emergence of a similar political body “after many transforming revolutions” promoting “a cosmopolitan condition, as the womb in which all original predispositions of the human species will be developed (IaG 8: 29). The upshot of the entire section is that commercial sociability will encourage these revolutions by favouring an enlightened mode of thinking which can, as we saw earlier, “ascend bit by bit up to the thrones and have its influence even on their principles of government”, an attitude that could already be felt amongst prospective members of the cosmopolitan community “each of which has an interest in the preservation of the whole” (IaG 8: 29).
It is difficult to find in Kant’s essay on history or in other writings of the same period a detailed explanation of more specific principles or forms of government and a discussion of how commercial sociability will pave the way to a peaceful political order. To the extent that any reflections are available, they draw from writings of Hume and Montesquieu on the effects of international rivalry amongst states and their negative consequences on public debt with which Kant was familiar. Indeed, in a neglected passage of the 1784 essay preceding his remarks on the possibility of a future cosmopolitan organisation, Kant argues that although states are currently not willing to promote the process of enlightenment in the mode of thinking of their citizens, it is in their interest to do so. Their commercial interdependence implies that the costs of conflict between them will become increasingly burdensome, both in the preparation for war but also in its after-effects. This, Kant argues, is particularly evident in “the aftereffects which the state suffers through an ever-increasing burden of debt (a new invention), whose repayment becomes unending”. Its influence on the development of each state, and the effects of such financial crisis over other states whose commercial interests are interdependent will determine states voluntary decision to mediate their conflicts “and thus remotely prepare the way for a future large state body, of which the past world has no example to show” (IaG 8: 28).
The tension Kant presents here echoes Hume’s thoughts in his essay “Of public credit”, that “either the nation must destroy public credit, or public credit will destroy the nation”23. But Kant gives Hume’s sombre warning a much more optimistic twist. Like Hume, he does not see commerce as a potential cause of conflicts between states but as the remedy to a destructive dynamic of power politics nurturing national rivalries and eventually war.24 However, unlike Hume, his optimism about the outcome of this conflict is guaranteed by a vision of nature as inherently benevolent towards human beings, and by an account of human dispositions as genuinely responsive to such benevolent intervention.
4. Unsocial sociability, teleology and human nature
Kant’s earlier thoughts on the role of trade interdependence on the promotion of peace are in clear continuity with a tradition of thought that links the expansion of commercial sociability to the promotion of public order and the development of cosmopolitan political relations. Like Vitoria, Pufendorf, Wolff, and Vattel before him, Kant saw the disposition to communication as an effective antidote to a radically pessimistic view of human nature and to the prospects for political order following from it. Of course, in Vitoria and others the natural inclination to communicate and the right to enter in commercial relations served to justify imperial expansion and the right to subjugate non-European peoples on grounds that they violated the natural duty to behave hospitably to foreign travellers.25 Although as we shall shortly see the link between the right to make commercial offers, colonialism and cosmopolitanism is examined in much greater detail in Kant’s later writings, it is worth emphasizing that at this stage of his work he is not too distant from such remarks. In the conclusion of his essay on universal history, Kant reflects again on the evidence of potential progress in the course of human development, and defends the relevance of a teleological perspective for transforming an otherwise meaningless aggregate of human actions to a system where the parts are conducive to the whole.26 In the context of this discussion, he reflects on the historical evolution of European states arguing that “one will discover a regular course of improvement in our part of the world” and that this part of the world “will probably someday give laws to all others” (IaG 8: 29).
Like his predecessors, Kant is not hostile here to the idea of European civilisation spreading to the rest of the globe. And as we saw he identifies the means through which a similar development will take place in the expansion of the commercial spirit and the benefits of international trade on the relations between states. But the position concerning the effects of the expansion of the European model is not one that Kant takes without passing judgment.27 Rather, the account of race he seems to endorse throughout the 1780ies and early 1790ies suggests that Kant approved of European attempts to dominate the rest of the world and genuinely believed that other populations were unable to rule themselves.28 As the notes from his lectures on anthropology from 1780-1781 illustrate, he thought that “Americans and Negroes cannot govern themselves” “they serve only as slaves” and are similar to “children” (15:877-8). In his 1788 essay on the use of teleological principles in philosophy, he cites approvingly a “knowledgeable man” who criticized the proposal to emancipate slaves on grounds that when they were set free, “they soon abandon an easy craft which previously as slaves they had been forced to carry out, and instead become hawkers, wretched innkeepers, lackeys, and people who go fishing and hunting, in a word tramps” (GtP 8:174n).
Kant’s hierarchical view of human races and his theory of unsocial sociability are systematically connected to his teleological account of nature through the concept of “germs” (Keime) and “dispositions” (Anlage). These are understood as conditions for the development of natural beings that specify their capacity to adapt and survive in particular environmental and atmospheric conditions and represent virtual qualities, independent of mechanical causes, and understood to precede the empirical development of organisms (VRM, 2:435). Kant emphasizes their importance for analysing the transmission of particular traits acquired by a natural being in the course of its development, and links these reflections to the theory of preformism developed in the middle of the 18th century by the Swiss naturalist Charles Bonnet. Faced with the impossibility of explaining through mechanical laws the unity of a species and how the characteristics of a particular organism could be preserved and transmitted to the next generation, Kant appeals to “preformist” theories to explain the evolution of the same biological traits by virtue of the presence of germs and dispositions. The difference between the two is that while dispositions refer to certain conditions of development with regard to the size and relation of parts (organs) in the embryo, germs are conditions for the development of new parts.29
The implications of this theory are crucial for understanding Kant’s analysis of human races, its relation to his philosophy of history and the place of racial difference in the course of a specific anthropological and social development. Germs account for the different characteristics inherited by every race within the same human species by appealing to the influence of a particular environment, the character of the soil or certain atmospheric conditions. They therefore serve to explain biological, physical, cognitive and also moral differences inherited by representatives of the various races. On the other hand, dispositions are shared by all human beings but their development can be slower or faster depending on the empirical circumstances in which they evolve. One such disposition, central to the topic we are examining here, is that of “unsocial sociability” which, as we saw earlier, should be also understood as the means deployed by nature to accelerate progress toward a civilized condition. Kant’s theory of racial hierarchy and his stadial narrative of human history are therefore related: if the theory of germs (Keime) explains the differential abilities of human races, the disposition to “unsocial sociability” will obtain different stimuli by agents operating in geographical and culturally specific environments. Kant implicitly refers to this link when he discusses the capacity to work on the side of people with dark skin: “especially interwoven with certain natural dispositions” are “in addition to the faculty to work….an immediate drive to activity (especially to the sustained activity that one calls industry), which is independent of all enticement. (GtP 8: 174n)”. Non-whites have not only different individual skills but are also unable to produce “culture”.30
The teleological constitution of human beings is therefore intrinsically related to the teleological constitution of nature and has important implications for humanity’s prospects of historical development. Human history is seen as the process of realization of dispositions and germs that nature has initially implanted in its organisms and can only be understood in light of this assumption of natural conformity to ends. A similar principle reveals in the writings of the early Kant how the disposition to “unsocial sociability” which obtains its maximal development in commercial societies is instrumental to nature’s beneficial intervention in the course of human history and allows us to interpret that process as a meaningful succession of human actions rather than a meaningless series of destructive events. Nature and freedom are here interpreted in a harmonic relation that allows the former to be a condition for the further development of the latter.
But how can nature interfere in the course of human history without somehow undermining the capacity of human beings to freely pose their autonomous ends? Kant’s theory of germs and dispositions seeks to solve the difficult problem of the relationship between natural and moral teleology by introducing the idea of natural conditions for development able to account for both immutability and change in the course of human history. But the status of the assumption of a benign intervention of nature in the course of human history is empirically dubious and normatively problematic: if nature really does determine how preformed dispositions develop, freedom and with it the condition of possibility of moral agency end up being undermined.
Needless to say, the consequences of this question for Kant’s moral philosophy are enormous. The problem that I have only sketched here torments Kant for a number of years and leads to the lengthy analysis on the status of reflective judgment in the third Critique. There Kant returns to talk about germs and dispositions to distinguish organic beings from mechanical ones. Yet, he makes it clear that this analysis of biological organisms has no moral implications, it is only possible to refer to ends of nature not because nature is as such teleologically oriented but in analogy with the kind of action conforming to ends that human beings exhibit in the practical realm. The systematic implications of this shift are subject to a vast interpretive literature and I have discussed them in greater detail elsewhere.31 Without repeating them here, let me now turn the re-assessment of the place of commercial relations in Kant’s later writings, once the assumption that the disposition to unsocial sociability is best developed by nature in commercial societies is revealed to be untenable.
5. The role of commercial relations in Kant’s later political philosophy The systematic shift that the third Critique introduces in Kant’s analysis of teleology has immediate implications for a number of important issues in the philosopher’s political writings. Conformity to ends is understood in the third Critique not as a feature of nature but as a reflective quality ascribed to the development of some of its products in analogy with the causality displayed by human beings in the practical realm. Nature for Kant, is no longer, in itself, teleologically oriented, rather human beings can chose to interpret it as such once they examine their own position in it and observe the analogy with the way they make use of its products to promote their practical ends. It is therefore unsurprising to see that the assumption that unsocial sociability represents a disposition that nature’s benign intervention can further develop appears less persuasive to him at this stage. As Kant emphasizes in the third Critique, “[i]t is so far from being the case that nature has made the human being its special favorite and favored him with beneficence above all other animals, that it has rather spared him just as little as any other animal from its destructive effects, whether of pestilence, hunger, danger of flood, cold, attacks by other animals great and small” (KU 430; 298). This means that once the moral implications of the theory of germs and dispositions are removed from the picture, it is implausible to maintain that the conditions for development of human nature are determined by the beneficial intervention of a providential force. The shift in turn implies a re-evaluation of a number of key conceptual elements that played an important role in Kant’s earlier writings to support his narrative of moral progress and the consequent defence of commercial relations within a stadial theory of human history.
The first of these elements is the idea of a harmonious relation between the inclination to unsocial sociability of human beings and nature’s intervention to promote this disposition in a way that is conducive to the development of morality. In the essay on universal history, germs and dispositions, including the disposition to unsocial sociability, develop in externally favourable circumstances in the context of an optimistic, if hierarchical, narrative of the transformation of the human species. The concept of happiness, the pursuit of which characterizes the commercial spirit, plays an essential role in explaining how nature has given human beings the means to promote their own skills and abilities so that whatever level of moral development they have achieved in the course of their lives could only be credited to themselves (IaG 8:19-20). To this end, competitive instincts, the desire to possess, and the will to dominate others are seen as vehicles through which dispositions are further developed and reveal the ordering of a “wise creator”. In the third Critique however, Kant is critical of the very logic underpinning these links. Not only do these natural predispositions not stand in natural harmony with nature but the conflict between them is so profound that “even if the most beneficent nature outside of us had made the happiness of our species its end, that end would not be attained in a system of nature upon the earth, because the nature inside us is not receptive to that” (KU 5: 430; 298). All the instincts Kant cites favorably in the earlier essay on history to show how nature can turn the disposition to unsocial sociability into a feature that is beneficial to moral progress (“the oppression of domination”, “the barbarism of war”) are now mentioned to illustrate the resistance that human nature poses to such teleological intervention, even assuming its plausibility.
It is unsurprising therefore to see that at this point Kant’s assessment of the role of the commercial spirit has also changed. Commercial sociability, which was once praised for contributing to a state of affairs in which conflict between states would gradually lead to peaceful solutions, is now contrasted with the spirit of war but Kant expresses surprising admiration for the sublimity of the latter. As he puts it, war, “if it is conducted with order and reverence for the rights of civilians, has something sublime about it, and at the same time makes the mentality of the people who conduct it in this way all the more sublime, the more dangers it has been exposed to and before which it has been able to assert its courage”. On the contrary, he continues, “a long peace causes the spirit of mere commerce to predominate, along with base selfishness, cowardice and weakness, and usually debases the mentality of the populace” (KU 5: 263: 146).
It is interesting to contrast these thoughts with those of Hume addressing the same subject, the relationship between the commercial spirit and martial virtues. We should not fear, says Hume, that since “knowledge in the arts of government naturally begets mildness and moderation”, the loss of ferocity will imply a loss in their martial spirit. The arts, he argues, “have no such effect in enervating either the mind or body. On the contrary, industry, their inseparable attendant, adds new force to both”.32 Kant, who was certainly familiar with Hume’s text and views on this point does not appear as conciliatory. But this is not an isolated intervention. The remarks on the sublimity of war and the accompanying derision of the spirit of commerce that we find in the Critique of Judgment resonate with Kant’s other writings of the 1790ies. In The conflict of the faculties he refers to the revolutionary wars fought by France against defenders of the Ancient Regime to contrast the enthusiasm of those who fight to promote justice with the incentives obtained by monetary rewards. The latter, Kant says,
will not elevate the adversaries of the revolution to the zeal and grandeur of soul which the pure concept of right produced in them; and even the concept of honor among the old martial nobility (an analogue to enthusiasm) vanished before the weapons of those who kept in view the right of the nation to which they belonged and of which they considered themselves the guardians (SF 7; 86: 302).33 These remarks fit neatly with Kant’s modified account of the process through which moral dispositions are historically developed. War, provided it is compatible with the pursuit of the principle of right, brings with it enthusiasm, a motive which characterizes the sublime state of mind and elevates the human spirit to acknowledge the force of the moral law. The revolutionary struggle of the French against a backward and corrupt enemy triggers enthusiasm on the side of those who observe their deeds and could be interpreted as “sign” that human beings can make progress towards the better.34 In TheConflict of the Faculties, Kant examines the issue of progress by relying on evidence not of the contribution of nature to the development of human dispositions but by examining what human beings themselves do to create a social order in which justice is promoted. This is compatible with his remarks on the foundation of teleological principles in the third Critique: culture is no longer understood here as the process through which nature assists the human being in the progressive development of his skills and abilities but as the “aptitude for setting himself ends at all and (independent from nature in his determination of ends) using nature as a means appropriate to the maxims of his free ends in general” (KU 5: 431).
In the third Critique, Kant analyses the process of cultural development of human beings in a way that appears structurally similar to the essays examined in the first part of the paper but differs at several critical points. Here too Kant considers inequality amongst human beings an incentive for the advancement of industry and the arts, the development of talents, and the spread of luxury among the population of commercial states. Whilst he preserves his praise for the beautiful arts and sciences and their contribution to the refinement of taste and the reduction of “the tyranny of sensible tendencies”, he appears more critical of the effects of trade relations and the inequality they trigger. Indeed, far from being praised as a “source of much greater evil but also of all good”, inequality is here considered as an immediate cause of political conflict and social disruption. Luxury, defined as “the tendency of what is dispensable to destroy what is indispensable”, is blamed for producing calamities affecting both those who provide “the majority of the necessities of life […] for the comfort and ease of others” and those who “cultivate the less necessary elements of culture, science and art” and maintain the former “in a state of oppression, bitter work and little enjoyment” (KU 5: 432).
In Kant’s earlier essays the development and promotion of commercial relations was perceived as beneficial to the trajectory of moral development of human beings. Conflict amongst states was seen as determined mostly by their ambition for power, the issue of internal social unrest and dissatisfaction amongst different social classes hardly received a mention, and the promotion of trade and commercial relations was perceived as an antidote to war and a way of promoting peaceful interdependence among nations. In the Critique of Judgment Kant’s analysis takes a different form: the development of commercial sociability is itself seen as part of conflicts both within the state (due to the dissatisfaction of oppression between classes) and between states (due to their ambition, greed and commercial rivalries). The type of political relation able to put an end to this conflict is not necessarily one in which each individual is left alone to pursue his own good in hope that his isolated activities will have a positive impact on the welfare of the whole. The problem becomes one of designing political institutions able to administer justice impartially for all concerned, and the French Republic, with its promotion of the principles of freedom, equality and interdependence, provides a real-existing model of how that is to be achieved. Enlightenment is thus no longer expected from the progressive moderation of political elites (although this might continue to matter for reasons of feasibility) but from the learning process enacted by revolutionary events realizing specific principles of right and justice (in this case those associated to the prevailing of a republican constitution).
Kant’s earlier essays reveal his sympathies for a kind of enlightened despotism that promotes freedom of trade and limits the role of the state to that of a guarantor of individual rights and liberties. This model fits well with the critique of taxation Kant mentions in passing in his essay on “What is Enlightenment” but it no longer sits comfortably with a more demanding account of what state institutions ought to realize that emerges in his later writings. It is unsurprising therefore that in the Doctrine of Right, the issue of taxation is examined in much greater detail and from a different perspective to that of the earlier essays on history. Kant no longer denounces its potential injustice; on the contrary he insists on the necessity of placing constraints on property and commercial activities and on the role of a public authority determining the extent and boundaries of one’s holdings. As Kant puts it:
For reasons of state the government is therefore authorized to constrain the wealthy to provide the means of sustenance to those who are unable to provide for even their most necessary natural needs. The wealthy have acquired an obligation to the commonwealth, since they owe their existence to an act of submitting to its protection and care, which they need in order to live; on this obligation the state now bases its right to contribute what is theirs to maintaining their fellow citizens. This can be done either by imposing a tax on the property or commerce of citizens, or by establishing funds and using the interest from them, not for the needs of the state (for it is rich), but for the needs of the people. (Since we are speaking here only of the right of the state against the people) it will do this by way of coercion, by public taxation, nor merely by voluntary contributions, some of which are made for gain (such as lotteries, which produce more poor people and more danger to public property than there would otherwise be, and which should therefore not be permitted).
In the light of these remarks it is also easy to make sense of the protectionist footnote appearing in Kant’s essay “On the common saying”, published in 1793, that has often puzzled those who defend an interpretation of Kant as an apologist for free markets.35As Kant emphasizes there, measures required for the survival of a common wealth, include restrictions on imports
so that the means of acquiring livelihood will promote the subjects' interests and not the advantage of foreigners or encouragement of others' industry, since a state, without the prosperity of the people, would not possess enough strength to resist foreign enemies or to maintain itself as a commonwealth (GTP 8: 299n).
All these passages are consistent with the development of Kant’s reflections on the role of the state, its relevance in promoting principles of justice, and the importance of human agency in transforming political institutions so that moral dispositions are promoted. They also make sense in the light of the shift in Kant’s analysis of teleology, placing more emphasis on the artificial intervention of human beings than on the benign assistance provided by nature to cultivate its innate dispositions. While Kant’s earlier essays on history did reflect on the necessity of coercive laws, and also of a cosmopolitan political body, for placing collective constraints on freedom, the nature of the principles according to which such transformations ought to take place was never considered in any detail. Kant’s later account of human nature, his clarification of the form and role of teleological principles in human reflection about progress, and the new emphasis placed on the necessity for moral imperatives in reforming political institutions required a much more sophisticated analysis of the nature of the state, its relation to rights, and the kind of representation required to ensure that institutions expressed the collective will of those subjected to them.
6. Commercial relations, colonialism and perpetual peace The shift that Kant’s philosophy of history experienced during the 1790ies brought with it also a new evaluation of the relationship between colonialism and commercial relations. As we saw above, the essay on universal history was silent on the negative effects of unregulated commercial expansion and unambiguously celebrated the role of Western states in progressively establishing a universal legal order subjecting to European rule all other societies. Rooted in a hierarchical account of human races and supported by the four-stage theory of human history, such an account culminated in the allegedly superior age of commercial relations.
Kant’s later political writings are more nuanced on this point. Both the Doctrine of Right and his essay on perpetual peace revisit the traditional right of hospitality, central to the justification of commercial expansion since the writings of Vitoria, but take it in a radical, anti-imperial, direction. The right to hospitality, also labelled as “cosmopolitan” right, is limited to the conditions under which one can “seek” commercial interaction with others without expecting to be treated with hostility for having made such an attempt. Although such a right protects human’s natural interest in sociability and can be abused by those resisting commercial expansion, if one contrasts the alleged unsociable behaviour displayed by “barbarian” peoples with that of states pursuing commercial profit, the latter, Kant emphasizes, is much more striking in its brutality. “[T]he inhospitable behaviour of civilized, especially commercial, states in our part of the world, the injustice they show in visiting foreign lands and peoples (which with them is tantamount to conquering them) goes to horrifying lengths”, he declares. “When America, the negro countries, the Spice Islands, the Cape, and so forth were discovered” they were considered “countries belonging to no one, since they counted the inhabitants as nothing”. The foreign soldiers called up under the pretext of setting up trading posts only brought with them “oppression of inhabitants, incitement of the various Indian states to widespread wars, famine, rebellions, treachery, and the whole litany of troubles that oppress the human race” (PP 8: 358).
The critique of chartered commercial companies and their complicity in the oppressive actions of European states in the New World were far from original in the late 18th century. To take one relevant example Adam Smith, often simplistically interpreted as a mere apologist of free markets and commercial expansion, denounced the pathologies of joint-stock trading companies for their corruption, mismanagement and detrimental effects on the proper development of commercial sociability. In doing so he focused on the same examples as Kant: the East Indies, the Spice Islands, and the activity of English and Dutch trading companies.36 He highlighted the contradictions embedded in the activities of agencies who could not be trusted to be able to both pursue private profits and commit to acting as government representatives serving the interests of a whole country. Although Smith remained much more sceptic than Kant on the prospects of developing appropriate juridical and political relations to contain such contradictions and tensions,37 the critique of colonialism developed from a critical account of chartered commercial companies was clearly common.
Kant’s views are distinctive in placing the critique of colonialism in the context of a theory of justice which on the one hand develops themes already present in his earlier essays on history, on the other hand departs from them in significant directions. The Doctrine of Right, published in 1797, is particularly clear on the limits of unilateral appropriation of distant territories, and the conditions under which one can make rightful use of a particular piece of land and its resources. In contrast to Conjectural beginnings of human history, where agriculture and the farmer’s attempt to protect the “fruits of his labour” triggers the need to establish a common political authority guaranteeing one’s property entitlements (MM 8: 119), the Doctrine of Right only mentions the role of labour and agricultural activity to dismiss it as a criteria of appropriation: “whoever expends his labor on land that was not already his has lost his pains and toil to who was first” (RL 6: 269). Moreover, in the Doctrine of Right Kant seems to have abandoned the stadial theory of history that characterized his earlier account and displays a more tolerant attitude towards a variety of ways of life. He argues for example that nomadic peoples may be entitled to common possession of the land, citing Mongolia as an example (RL 6: 265) and he also insists that groups with different life styles can legitimately resist the imposition of a different method of interacting with the land, provided they do not interfere with each other. To mention one example, a hunting people, Kant says, can resist a pasturing or farming people since “as long as they keep within their boundaries the way they want to live on their land is up to their own discretion” (RL 6: 266).
The implications of these reflections for the critique of colonialism are unambiguous. Since nomadic people are entitled to remain the land that they occupy, they also have a right to exclude others whose attempts to enter into relations with them violate principles of justice. Settlement is legitimate provided it does not encroach with the claim of native peoples to use the land in accordance with their habitual practices. Kat says that “if these people are shepherds or hunters (like the Hottentots, the Tungusi, or most of the American Indian nations) who depend for their sustenance on great open regions, this settlement may not take place by force but only by contract”. Moreover, the kind of contract required is one that “does not take advantage of the ignorance of those inhabitants with respect to ceding their lands” (RL 6: 353).
It is here clear here that trade has to be placed in the context of rightful relations and can no longer be relied upon to pave the way to a peaceful political order. Whilst in Kant’s earlier writings commercial sociability was the mechanism through which nature guaranteed the emergence of political institutions protecting individual claims to property, here such institutions take precedence and are themselves a condition for the assertion of property rights and the development of commercial relations. Global interdependence implies that the absence of justice in one part of the earth is immediately felt in another and efforts to resist such injustice are intertwined.38 This argument differs significantly in both content and structure from the one we analyzed in Idea for a universal history which emphasized that it is hindering the individual pursuit of welfare that will threaten the stability of the whole international system thereby dictating an end to war. The passage in Perpetual Peace where Kant articulates this thought is well-known:
Since the (narrower or wider) community of the nations of the earth has now gone so far that a violation of right on one place of the earth is felt in all, the idea of a cosmopolitan right is no fantastic and exaggerated way of representing right; it is, instead, a supplement to the unwritten code of the right of a state and the right of nations necessary for the sake of any public rights of human beings and so for perpetual peace (ZeF 8:360)
It is important therefore to insist that although political institutions are central to Kant’s theory of human progress throughout his philosophical trajectory, both in the essay on history and in his later political writings, the analysis of the conditions under which they can emerge is significantly different. At first, their justification is embedded in a narrative of gradual moral development out of the refinement of particular psychological dispositions, guaranteed by the benign intervention of nature. Although, Kant never completely abandons such references to nature, they cease to play a systematically important role, once the justification of the principles that allow us to think about nature as a teleologically organized system is modified.39
To see this point, we can focus on the interpretation of passages in Perpetual Peace where Kant still refers to commercial relations but in a slightly different perspective. Discussing the possible mechanism by which nations will join each other the creation of a cosmopolitan condition, Kant argues that “it is the spirit of commerce (Handelsgeist), which cannot coexist with war and which sooner or later takes hold of every nation” that will bring together nations. But the argument is qualified, it applies to those nations that “the concept of cosmopolitan right will not have secured against violence and war” (ZeF 8: 368). Since “the power of money may well be the most reliable of all the powers (means) subordinate to that of a state, states find themselves compelled (admittedly not through incentives of morality) to promote honorable peace and, whenever war threatens to break out anywhere in the world, to prevent it by mediation, just as if they were in a permanent league for this purpose” (ZeF 8: 368). And yet the kind of assurance that nature provides here is not one that can allow us to conclude that a change in the desired direction will certainly occur; it is certainly not Kant emphasizes, “adequate for predicting its future”. What he is interested in is a reflective endorsement of a pattern that allows us, for practical purposes, to think about the world as if it were teleologically ordered thus making it “a duty to work to toward this (not merely chimerical) end” (ZeF 8:368).
It turns out then that commercial relations are not important because they guarantee an end to war or prepare the entrance to a peaceful international order. Indeed, as the passage above reveals, Kant thinks that the commercial spirit plays a role precisely in those cases where war (for whatever reason) ceases to deliver the predicted outcome of motivating nations to entering into reciprocally rightful relations. Commerce is for Kant simply another route through which we might explain the emergence of global interdependence and communication; it no longer demarcates a privileged set of social relations or indicates an intermediate stage between a condition of conflict and one of perpetual peace. If commercial relations simply illustrate the empirical conditions under which cosmopolitan right can be established, there is no need for a moralised defence of them. The descriptive narrative Kant provides here is perfectly consistent with his explicit endorsement of protectionist measures, including the protectionism of nations like China or Japan when refusing to enter into commercial relations with European merchants.40 Kant no longer defends commercial relations from a normative perspective; he simply invokes them to explain under what circumstances people from different countries can come into contact with each other and create the empirical conditions that might in the future favour the emergence of principles of right. What really matters for his position is the duty to create just political institutions able to remedy the conflicts present in such conditions of interdependence, and only the actions of humans themselves are ultimately able to account for the possibility of this duty being realized.
Conclusion We may wonder at this point what happened to the caution with which Kant approached the issue of humans legislating for themselves, and to the pessimistic remarks on the human beings’ need for a master with which with which we began our analysis. It seems that Kant views on this matter have come full circle: although he still believes in the later political writings that out of the crooked wood of humankind nothing entirely straight can be produced, he also believes in the force of moral imperatives to redirect the course of politics without need for further support from nature. The following passage from Perpetual Peace directly connects to some of the issues concerning the ability of humans to govern themselves raised by the essay on universal history:
It is then said that he who once has power in his hands will not let the people prescribe laws for him. A state that is once in possession [of the power] not to be subject to any external laws will not make itself dependent upon the tribunal of other states with respect to the way it is to pursue its right against them; and even a continent, if it feels itself superior to another that does not otherwise stand in its way, will not leave unused the means of strengthening its power by plundering or even conquering it and so all the plans of theory for the right of a state, the right of nations, and cosmopolitan right dissolve into ineffectual, impracticable ideals […].
But the way in which this challenge is addressed illustrate the straightforward answers his later writings provide to the question of what guarantees that human beings will make progress in the direction of building common political institutions:
Admittedly, if there were no freedom and no moral law based upon it and everything that happens or can happen is instead the mere mechanism of nature, then politics (as the art of making use of this mechanism for governing human beings) would be the whole of practical wisdom, and the concept of right would be an empty thought. But if one finds it indispensably necessary to join the concept of right with politics, and even to raise it to the limiting condition of politics, it must be granted that the two can be united.
The only plausible guarantee of moral development is then political progress conforming to the duty to promote principles of right. As Kant’s later reflections indicate, to ask whether human beings will ever take that imperative seriously requires examining whether there is any evidence that they might have done so in the past and invoking that evidence as a possible, weak, assurance that they might continue to act in the same way in the future.41 The French Revolution provides an example or sign of that tendency and it is instructive precisely because it is directed by human agents. Out of the state, and out of the attempt to build state institutions that reflect the collective will of all citizens, there are no guarantees that moral progress will be possible but “it can be required of the one in power that he at least take to heart the maxim that such an alteration is necessary, in order to keep constantly approaching the end” (ZeF 8; 372).
Commercial sociability therefore no longer indicates a privileged instance of human communication, facilitated by nature’s will to promote the development of human moral dispositions, nor does it provide a route of transition from conflicts in the international sphere to improved political institutions. The shift in the analysis of teleology that Kant completed during the 1790ies implied that he could no longer rely on a spontaneous mechanism of coordination supported by an inherently beneficial teleological narrative clarifying how human beings can govern themselves collectively despite the potential for corruption inherent in their nature. This shift, combined with the increasingly sophisticated analysis of the state that Kant developed during the 1790ies provoked a return to a more artificial account of the development of political institutions, in line more with the contribution of Hobbes and Rousseauian to an understanding of rights and politics than with that of his Scottish philosophical heroes. As we have seen, a similar development also paved the way to a novel critique of European politics and trade, a clear condemnation of colonial exploitation and a renewed emphasis on the legitimate intervention of sovereign states to contain the damaging expansion of commercial relations. It is easier to see, in light of these reflections, why Fichte’s advocacy of the closed commercial state was perceived by his supporters to follow naturally from Kant’s Perpetual Peace.42 With that development a different story unfolds.