Kant’s Categorical Failure or a Racialized Cosmopolitanism
.A commenter recently asked a good question related to this post on Fanon. The person asks whether Kant’s categorical imperative might militate against Carter’s accusation that Kant manifests a “possessive-tyrannical disposition” in his writings. Since this is a natural question that anyone who has at least some familiarity with Kant might raise, I have decided to post my (slightly edited) response
I assume you have in mind Kant’s formulation of the categorical imperative which states that we must always treat human beings as ends and never as means. On the surface, of course, this sounds great. However, when you place it within Kant’s larger philosophical schema, it is problematic (at least for the Christian who rejects racism and all forms of racialized essentialism). As Robert Bernasconi has shown, Kant’s hierarchical view of race, in which whites are superior and all other “races” inferior to various degrees, does not sit well with his cosmopolitanism, unless one is willing to admit that the only true, fully autonomous and hence free individuals are a particular group of white males. Also, the Christian claims that humans ought not to be instrumentalized because they are created in God’s image, which is of course a claim based on divine revelation. Neither in prelapsarian paradise nor in the eschaton are human relationships characterized by domination. Slavery, then can be understood as something that comes about due the Fall. In his text, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant speaks of the “kingdom of ends,” which refers to the moral universe created by rational humans willing the moral law. (The moral law is willed from “pure reason”). Kant claims that in this moral universe/kingdom of ends, each rational person is equal and sovereign. People are equal in so far as they will the moral law in accordance with reason, and they are sovereign because by doing so, they each contribute to the building of this “kingdom” or “moral universe.” From this idea of a kingdom of ends, Kant comes up with a variation on his first formulation of the categorical imperative. This version reads as follows, “For all rational beings come under the law that each of them must treat itself and all others never merely as means, but in every case at the same time as ends in themselves.” Here Kant explicitly articulates the sovereignty and dignity of the (rational) individual, and he states that we are always to treat others as ends not as mere means. Again, on the surface this sounds great. After all in this formulation of the categorial imperative, Kant declares that we must never use other people or treat them as tools for our purposes because to do so is to disallow their participation as equal, sovereign individuals in the moral universe and likewise to deny their dignity. Yet, in Kant’s writings on race he indicates that Indians, Africans and more or less any non-European (white) ethnic group can in fact be used as tools. According to Kant’s estimation, American Indians are “uneducable,” the “race of Negroes can educated, but only to the education of servants,” Hindus are “educable to arts and not to sciences. They will never achieve abstract concepts”; however, “the race of whites contains all motives and talents in itself” (of course he means white males of a certain sort) [Menschenkunde 1781/82]. In short, Kant’s problematic views on race are in serious tension with his cosmopolitanism and his ethical views, and the more I study the literature “from the underside of modernity” the more I believe his position as a whole to be un-salvable. For an excellent theological critique of Kant’s view of race, see chapter two of J. Kameron Carter’s book, Race: A Theological Critique.