Journal of the History of Ideas 62.2 (2001) 301-312
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Kant on Property: The Problem of Permissive Law
In a pathbreaking article published in 1982 Reinhold Brandt called attention to the significance of the concept of permissive natural law in Kant's political philosophy. Brandt noted that Kant's "rightful concept of practical reason" or "permissive law of practical reason" was of fundamental importance for understanding the whole theory of the Rechtslehre, and he complained that the issue had been virtually ignored in the recent secondary literature. 1 Since then others have taken up the theme, but it remains relatively neglected in the vast modern literature on Kant. In the work of Brandt and in some other recent explorations of this question a primary concern has been to relate Kant's doctrine to other aspects of his critical theory. Brandt himself, for instance, compared the "provisional" and "peremptory" rights mentioned in the Doctrine of Right with the "problematic" and "assertoric" judgments of the Critique of Pure Reason. The problem that I want to consider is rather different. In the following study I want to consider primarily the internal structure of the Doctrine of Right and specifically to ask whether Kant's appeal to permissive natural law served a constructive purpose in the theory of property that he presented in that work or whether it was perhaps subversive of the argument that he developed. 2 This will require [End Page 301] some discussion of the other usages of the idea of permissive law that we find scattered in Kant's later writings. In pursuing such an inquiry we encounter various difficulties and apparent anomalies in Kant's teaching. I want finally to suggest that we might understand those difficulties better if we were to situate Kant's work in a broader historical context than those that have previously been considered, bearing in mind that the concept of permissive natural law had been discussed by jurists and political philosophers for several centuries before Kant took up the argument.
Kant on Property
When approaching Kant's Doctrine of Right it may be salutary to recall a remark of Mary Gregor, the translator of the work and a sympathetic reader of it. "Kant has never been accused of underestimating his readers," Gregor wrote, "but he seldom treats them so harshly." 3 The difficulty of the work is compounded by the fact that the text as we have it is apparently in a mutilated condition, with some passages transposed from their original contexts. Any reading of such a text will be open to dispute; but it seems necessary to attempt at least an outline of Kant's doctrine and to mention some of its complexities if we are to understand the function of permissive natural law in the argument presented.
Kant's purpose was to formulate a doctrine of property based on reason alone, a doctrine in which "abstraction is made from all spatial and temporal conditions." 4 The principles he deduced were intended to apply to anyone "merely because and insofar as he is free and has practical reason." 5 The whole subsequent argument revolved around these concepts of practical reason and human freedom. Kant began by presenting some basic propositions and definitions. Obligation, he wrote, was "the necessity of a free action under a categorical imperative of reason." And an action was permitted or licit when it was not contrary to obligation. This freedom of action was called a moral faculty (facultas moralis). 6 According to Kant, the only innate right inhering in all persons was a right to freedom (defined as "independence from being coerced by another's [End Page 302] choice") insofar as this freedom could coexist with the freedom of all others. 7 A corresponding universal law of Right established the rule: "[S]o act externally that the free use of your choice can coexist with the freedom of everyone in accordance with a universal law." 8
External laws imposed by another evidently did hinder one's freedom. Kant therefore held that a person was...