“Was Kant a Racist?” with Addendum on South Sea Islanders (29 Pages) 01 May 2017 – Rejection of Slavery, Colonialism, the Inhumane Treatment of Animals, and Wanton Destruction of the Environment

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Was Kant a Racist? Can Critical Idealism Contribute to Combating Racism? With an Addendum: On South Sea Islanders in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals by Douglas R McGaughey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Pdf version with footnotes (rather than endnotes) and page numbers:


From “Perpetual Peace”

“Third defining article on perpetual peace.
“The right of universal citizenship shall be limited to conditions of universal hospitality.”

[…] [H]ospitality means the right of a stranger not to be treated with hostility because of his arrival on another’s soil [….] It is not a right of hospitality to which he can lay claim […] but a right of visitation to which all men are entitled to offer themselves for companionship by virtue of the right of common possession of the surface of the earth, on which, as a spherical surface, they cannot disperse to infinity, but must finally tolerate each other [….]

If we compare this with the inhospitable behavior of the civilized, primarily trading states of our part of the world, the injustice they show in visiting foreign countries and peoples (which they consider to be the same as conquering them) is shocking. America, the Negro countries, the Spice Islands, the Cape, etc., were, at the time of their discovery, countries which belonged to no one; for they counted the inhabitants as nothing. In the East Indies (Hindustan) they brought in foreign warring peoples under the pretext of merely intended trade defeats, but with them oppression of the natives (AA VIII: 359), incitement of the various states of the same to widespread wars, famine, rebellion, disloyalty, and whatever the litany of all the evils that afflict the human race may be.

[…] The worst thing about this (or, from the point of view of a moral judge, the best thing) is that they [the Europeans] are not even happy about this violence, that all these trading companies are on the point of near overthrow, that the sugar islands, this seat of the most cruel and ingenious slavery, yield no real profit, but serve only indirectly, and that for a not very laudable purpose, namely, to train sailors for war fleets, and thus again to wage wars in Europe, and this to powers that make much of piety and, drinking injustice like water, want to be considered the elect in orthodoxy.

(AA VIII: 360) Now that the (narrower or wider) community among the peoples of the earth, once it has taken over, has come so far that the violation of rights in one place on earth is felt by all: the idea of a world civil right is not a fantastic and exaggerated conception of law, but a necessary addition to the unwritten code of both state and international law to public human rights in general and thus to eternal peace, to which one may flatter oneself to be in the continuous approach only under this condition.” (Toward Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Project AA VIII: 358-360)

„On Anthropology“

Kant labels his reflections on “Race” as “anthropology”. One of the greatest barriers to entry into Kant’s work is what I have come to call “metaphor interference” (anachronistic reading). The reader assumes that what we currently take a metaphor to mean is exactly what Kant meant by the term. One can create a long list of such terms that contribute to great misunderstanding: autonomy, freedom, synthesis, reason, pure, metaphysics, self-legislating, etc., and among these metaphors are “anthropology” and “pragmatic”.

In Reflections on Moral Philosophy, Kant calls empirical knowledge “pragmatic” (AA XIX: 284) and contrasts it with practical reason. Kant speaks of the “pragmatic” as concerned with “teaching cleverness” (Lehre der Klugheit) and rules of cleverness” (Klugheitsregeln) (AA XIX: 104), which are the direct result of “arbitrariness”/liberty (freie Willkühr), not “free will”/autonomous freedom (Wille) (AA XIX: 171). Free will (Wille) is the capacity (Anlage) of autonomous, creativity “above” the blind causality of nature. Succinctly, “pragmatic” cleverness constitutes imperatives that lead to “welfare” (Wohlfahrt). Such pragmatic imperatives apply to “what everyone wants, not what s/he should do”. (AA XIX: 104) In the Groundwork (AA IV 414 ff.), Kant distinguished between two types of hypothetical imperatives (technical and pragmatic), which in turn are to be distinguished from the categorical imperatives of practical reason.

Attention to terminology is important when one reads the Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. The “Preface” to the Anthropology spells out what he is doing in the text. The term “pragmatic” means concern with the fulfilment of personal interest, and his use of the term here is intentional to make clear that “anthropology” is not “practical reason”. His account of humanity from a pragmatic point of view is “historical” in a “broader” sense than either theoretical or practical reason (Logic AA IX: r41) and “phenomenological” in the sense of “descriptive”, not “normative”!

He acknowledges from the beginning that he is dependent upon the reports of others, that is, he is not giving his personal account of peoples, but he defends his project by insisting that “anthropology” presupposes an “understanding of humanity”. Without philosophy, “anthropology” is “nothing but fragmentary tapping in the dark without scientific understanding” (AA VII: 120). In other words: The reader must bring the insights of theoretical and practical reason as well as the reflecting judgment of aesthetics to his Anthropology – not read them out of the text. As a descriptive project, then, it should not be read as a set of moral conclusions about its subject matter. This is precisely confirmed by the far flung “negative” reports about all peoples, to which you refer, and it is important to point out that he is by no means partial to “Germans” (see for example, VII: 317-319). The Anthropology is a describing the “cleverness” that communities employ to pursue what they take to be their welfare and what the characteristic “wants” of a community are, not what the community morally should do. The latter comes not from anthropology’s pragmatic point of view but practical reason.

Revision Notes

Forward “On Anthropology” added 26 April 2020

Revised 10 April 2018 with the addition of documentation of Kant’s explicit rejection of slavery as well as rejection of colonialism, the inhumane treatment of animals, and call for the protection of the environment (page 12 and two first footnotes).

Revised 20 January 2017 with the addition of a quote (page 20 below) from the Metaphysics of Morals (AA VI, 467-468):  The statement here by Kant constitutes an explicit rejection not only of racism, ageism, sexism, power or weakness, status and prestige (e.g., aristocracy) as criteria for judging others, but it is also an implicit rejection of homophobia, nationalism, populism, and any other criteria for judging others, which are all based on merely empirical criteria of “theoretical reason” to the entire neglect of the capacities and moral significance of “practical reason.”  Thanks to Birgit Recki who cited the second of the two paragraphs of this “Remark” from the MM for a very different but equally laudable purpose in her Ästhetik der Sitten. Die Affinität von ästhetischem Gefühl und praktischer Vernunft bei Kant (Frankfurt a.M.:  Vittorio Klostermann, 2001):  255, n. 43.


Was Kant a Racist?
Can Critical Idealism Contribute to Combating Racism?

With an Addendum:  On South Sea Islanders in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals

Overview: In which Kant’s comments on race are discussed in light of his philosophy of history, critiques of theoretical and practical reason, and his biological reflections on “evolution.” Humanity is seen as the “ultimate end” of nature. Although this sounds anthropocentric and suggests the justification of the indiscriminate exploitation of nature, it is manifest not by means of a culture of “skill”, but by a culture that promotes the individual’s assumption of moral responsibility for her/his decisions and actions.

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