Kantian Conditions for the Possibility of Justified Resistance to Authority


Immanuel Kant’s theory of justifiable resistance to authority is complex and, at times, appears to conflict with his own practice, if not with itself. He distinguishes between the role of authority in “public” and “private” contexts. In private—e.g., when a person is under contract to do a specific job or accepts a social contract with one’s government—resistance is forbidden; external behavior must be governed by policy or law. In contexts involving the public use of reason, on the other hand—e.g., when a person is faced with a moral decision or is engaged in a philosophical dispute—the freedom of conscience sometimes requires resistance, especially in cases where other persons inappropriately attempt to usurp authority over matters that are rightfully up to the individual to decide. In texts such as Perpetual Peace, Kant looks forward to a political situation wherein no political resistance (e.g., in the form of war) would be necessary. Yet in Metaphysics of Morals, he argues that a citizen never has the right to revolt against one’s government, suggesting we must cooperate even with war. On a personal level, Kant openly praised both the American and the French revolutions; yet when his own writings on religion were deemed by the censor to have come into conflict with the king’s edict, Kant failed to resist the (arguably unjust) authority; instead, he gave up his (apparently public) right to free philosophical expression, promising never to write or speak on religion again during the king’s reign. I shall argue that a key to resolving these tensions lies in the principle that universities must promote a healthy, public “conflict” between philosophers and all “private” employments of reason. The only ground for disallowing private resistance, therefore, is the underlying presence of genuine philosophical resistance.



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Stephen R. Palmquist
Hong Kong Baptist University

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