My Dearest Gentlefolk,
This brisk bright Monday morning brings us to Kant. His words carry an added currency in light of the decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit issued Friday, that forces members of the Ku Klux Klan to remove their masks if they wish to march on Manhattan. We might still ask ourselves: Is such faith in the human spirit warranted? Is such faith in the human intellect still possible?
"If, in thinking about public right as jurists customarily do, I abstract from its matter (i.e., the different empirically given relations among men in a nation or among nations), the form of publicity [Form der Publizitšt], whose possibility every claim of right intrinsically contains, still remains, and unless every such claim has this form there can be no justice [Gerechtigkeit] (that can be regarded as publicly knowable), thus no right either, since the right can be conferred only through justice. Every claim of right must have this capacity for publicity, and since one can easily judge whether or not it is present in a particular case, i.e., whether or not publicity is compatible with the agent's principles, it provides us with a readily applicable criterion that is found a priori in reason; for the purported claim's (praetensio iuris) falseness (contrariness to right) is immediately recognized by an experiment of pure reason."
Immanuel Kant, "To Perpetual Peace, A Philosophical Sketch (1795)" in VIII Kant's gesammelte Schriften 381 (1904) (trans. Ted Humphrey, Perpetual Peace and Other Essays on Politics, History and Morals 135 (1983)).
The corresponding principle of publicity is stated purely as follows: "If my maxim cannot be openly divulged without at the same time defeating my own intention, i.e., must be kept secret for it to succeed, or if I cannot publicly acknowledge it without thereby inevitably arousing everyone's opposition to my plan, then this necessary and universal, and thus a priori foreseeable, opposition of all to me could not have come from anything other than the injustice with which it threatens everyone." Id.
From this Kant derives his transcendental formula of public right: "All actions that affect the rights of other men are wrong if their maxim is not consistent with publicity"; and its corresponding principle of public right: "All maxims that require publicity (in order not to fail of their end) agree with both politics and morality."
It is only proper that we recognize that Kant views these principles as a necessary but not sufficient condition for the realization of authentic justice. More is required by justice than mere theoretical or political coherence. Yet the minimal condition is plainly one absolutely necessary for a flourishing public discourse. As the outward projection of reason (writ large), a flourishing public discourse is, in turn, that place in which politics bends to the language of duty. In the legislative act, the public mind is nowhere nearer the intersection of practice and theory (understood as a theory of right), and is nowhere in greater need of a principle of publicity. How else shall the public mind know itself and know the principle by which it acts?
Is Kant too optimistic with regard to his image of the human intellect? Does he not take sufficient account of the evil we have witnessed in the two centuries of international discourse that have passed since he left us? Or is his promise like that of Albert Einstein, who is said to have prophetically uttered: "The atomic bomb has changed everything, except the way we think."
It is possible that Kant tells us precisely what we choose to hear. It is more likely, however, that his insight lit upon an extraordinary characteristic of public discourse: its capacity to join the minds and hearts of a people in a common endeavor without denying the intrinsic worth and dignity of every contributor.
David Robert Foss
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© 2000 David Robert Foss
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