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Kantian views of the person: the missing touch


The problems I want to raise aren’t new – but they have been on my mind a lot recently.


This abstract question serves to orientate the discussion: Who are the citizens that feature in a political theory? Or better, in what terms should the theory conceive of them?

In particular, I’ll be concerned with a certain approach to the task of constructing a political theory, and its implications for the question above. The following from Rawls is typical of this approach:


“I put aside for the time being these temporary disabilities and also permanent disabilities or mental disorders so severe as to prevent people from being cooperating members of society in the usual sense. Thus, while we begin with an idea of the person implicit in the public political culture, we idealize and simplify in various ways in order to focus on the main question.” (PL: 20, my emphasis)


The curiosities in this position have been widely noted. Why, exactly, do the concerns which Rawls mentions not belong to the “main” question of political justice? (And perhaps more tellingly, who gets to decide?) What gives us confidence that, in postponing them until the “extension” stage of the analysis, we will have sufficient resources to address them?


I’ve been worrying again about these issues because I’ve been worrying about an important person in my life and, through them, about a wider social group. Wendy (not their real name) lives in a community for adults with complex care needs. Like most others during the pandemic, her community is admitting no visitors. Wendy is non-verbal. I wonder what abilities she has to think of me, as a life that continues outside of her immediate environment. I fear that when I have no physical contact with Wendy I have almost no ongoing relationship with her.


The citizens in Rawls’ theory are, necessarily, quite different from people like Wendy. The reasons for this are deeper than suggested by the quote above. In addition to cooperating in major social and economic institutions, the citizens in Rawls’ theory take an interest in the fundamental task of agreeing to the terms of such cooperation. This presupposes a capacity for practical reason. Wendy does not possess this capacity.

Rawls’ approach leaves out much at the foundations. In some cases, that may be a mistake. But therestriction noted above, on how a political theory conceives of citizens as practical reasoners, is unavoidable. At least, it is unavoidable if we accept some basically Kantian insights. For those of us who are engaged in the activity of practical reason – who “give laws to ourselves” – we need to understand whether and how laws from “outside” us can be legitimate. The Kantian tradition tells us that such laws can be legitimate – but only insofar as they do not really come for outside us. That is, only insofar as they are acceptable to us as free and rational beings. There is something correct here. Considerations with a certain moral character – What can others rightfully ask of us in the interests of living together? – animate the distinctive possibilities and problems of political life in the first place (as opposed to something else: matters of brute force on the one hand; simple compassion on the other).

However, this essential restriction leaves theorists vulnerable to a neighbouring error. If political philosophy should conceive of citizens as practical reasoners, we might suppose there is nothing to be gained (in foundational matters at least) by reflecting upon the lived experiences of the profoundly cognitively disabled. This insensitivity is a mistake – they can teach us so much about ourselves. In social distancing, we are faced with lively impressions of the loss to public life when possibilities for physical closeness are closed off. It is a source of personal shame that I might have known this all long; from attending to Wendy’s life, about which so much is communicated through the sense of touch.


We might say, then, that Kantian political philosophy goes wrong not in conceiving of citizens as practical reasoners, but in conceiving of them as merely that. The objection isn’t that the profoundly cognitively disabled don’t (can’t) enter into the social contract. It’s that the social contract of Kantian political philosophy models the agreements of no one – because no person just is their powers of practical reason and nothing else.

Radical solutions to this difficulty seek to replace the Kantian view of the person altogether. For example, according to Nussbaum’s “Aristotelian” view:

“… rationality is not idealized and set in opposition to animality… sociability, moreover, is equally fundamental and equally pervasive. And bodily need… is a feature of our rationality and our sociability; it is one aspect of our dignity, then, rather than something to be contrasted with it.” (Frontiers of Justice: 159-60).

This account has problems too. By grounding views of the person in our functioning as organic natures, our moral conceptions build in “species norms”, and so imply that certain lives are “defective” with respect to them. Such characterizations may not be compatible with recognizing the full beauty of the lives of the profoundly cognitively disabled.


An alternative starting point is within the Kantian framework – and this is where I will end things. We should take inspiration from the Kantian ideal of “sharing ends”. Because some projects matter to you, they should matter to me; and when we act together in pursuit of them, this is itself a locus of value. Respectful action is governed by strong requirements of non-interference. But the Kantian idea of respect also enjoins more active forms of mutual aid where this is appropriate. I’m no longer sure that this is enough to foreground the significance of our embodied nature to political life – but I’m surer than ever that an adequate political theory must capture this.

(With thanks to Sarah Richmond and John Vorhaus – who opened my eyes to the philosophical study of disability.)


#politicaltheory #rawls #kant #citizens #capacity #disability

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