Rousseau and Kant—Partners in Crime

Lindsay Perigo's picture
Submitted by Lindsay Perigo on Fri, 2006-03-24 08:41

"Kant is the most evil man in mankind’s history."

That startling statement by Ayn Rand about someone who sometimes spoke like a classical liberal, and who to this day on this forum is hailed as a "proto-Objectivist" and "Enlightenment hero" by a supporter of Rand, has delighted her enemies for its seeming outlandishness, and perplexed not a few of her admirers. Orthodox Randroids parrot the claim unthinkingly, as is their wont; rational Objectivists not averse to critical thinking are prepared to subject it to scrutiny. Some perhaps too readily assume that she said it in the heat of a moment as heated as only a heated Randian moment can be. Lest anyone be in any doubt that she meant it, consider the words that preceded it:

"I’ve chosen a special mission of my own. I’m after a man whom I want to destroy. He died 167 years ago, but until the last trace of him is wiped out of men’s minds, we will not have a decent world to live in. What man? Immanuel Kant. … You will find that on every fundamental issue, Kant’s philosophy is the exact opposite of Objectivism. You may also find it hard to believe that anyone could advocate the things Kant is advocating. … Do not seek to escape the subject by thinking, ‘Oh, Kant didn’t mean it!’ He did! Dr. Peikoff’s essay [Kant And Self-Sacrifice] will help you to understand more fully why I say that no matter how diluted or disguised, one drop of this kind of intellectual poison is too much for a culture to absorb with impunity—that the latest depredations of some Washington ward-heelers are nothing compared to a destroyer of this kind—that Kant is the most evil man in mankind’s history."

That of which all trace must be wiped out is, of course, the idea that the reality we perceive is not the real one, which is forever concealed from us—while at the same time we must act with dutiful obedience to commandments that we somehow know emanate from the real reality; we must never act out of personal inclination, and the best way to be sure we don’t act out of personal inclination is to act out of personal disinclination.

What is so bad about this, that it should trump the advocacy of mass murder or erection of concentration camps in the most-evil-man-in-history stakes? According to Rand, that it leads to mass murder and concentration camps, of course.

Two things are problematic here. First, such a judgement assumes a deterministic link between one man’s ideas and the acceptance and actioning of those ideas by other men. It exonerates the latter—or at least attenuates the blame that is their due—while excessively demonising the former, as if to say: "Hitler couldn’t help it. Once Kant’s ideas were unleashed into the mainstream, Hitler was inevitable. It was all Kant’s fault." Well, no one was forced—by Kant at least—to accept Kant's ideas. Are we to treat those who did accept them (whether realising from whom they came or not), and put them into practice, as helpless, blameless automatons? Now that wouldn’t be very Objectivist, would it?

Second, the judgement assumes that such an outcome was what Kant desired. It wasn’t. As far as we can tell, in his epistemology he thought he was reconciling empiricism and rationalism–assuredly a more benign project than laying the foundation for concentration camps. In his ethics he thought he was offering a prescription for universal peace (though it’s also true that he believed that much violent sacrifice in war, out of duty, would be necessary to attain such a state). So the question is, regardless of his purportedly benign intent, is there still some reason we are entitled to say that he was actually rotten, to the point of being the most rotten man ever?

Certainly, Rand doesn’t shrink from such a pronouncement:

"The widespread fear and/or resentment of morality—the feeling that morality is an enemy, a musty realm of suffering and senseless boredom—is not the product of mystic, ascetic or Christian codes as such, but a monument to the ugliest repository of hatred for life, man and reason: the soul of Immanuel Kant."

Now we get a crucial clue as to what Rand considered it took to be adjudged "the most evil person in mankind’s history"—and why she could bestow that award on someone who never murdered, never stole, never coerced, never defrauded (in fact specifically forbade such things as being contrary to his universifiability principle). For her, that dishonour is synonymous with, or at minimum subsumes, the ugliest soul in history—as evidenced by his "hatred for life, man and reason"; it relates to what she inferred was going on inside Kant’s head and heart, something so bad that no amount of talk about peace and harmony, no accidental cross-over into liberalism, could camouflage or redeem it.

To be sure, a devout religionist who attributes to man a "radical, innate evil" is likely to harbour an ugly soul, especially when his own antidote culminates in something like this:

"It is a duty to preserve one’s life, and moreover everyone has a direct inclination to do so. But for that reason the often anxious care which most men take of it has no intrinsic worth, and the maxim of doing so has no moral import. They preserve their lives according to duty, but not from duty. But if adversities and hopeless sorrow completely take away the relish for life, if an unfortunate man, strong in soul, is indignant rather than despondent or dejected over his fate and wished for death, and yet preserves his life without loving it and from neither inclination nor fear but from duty—then his maxim has a moral import."

This is indeed revolting, and suggests a singular nastiness on the part of its proponent. To say, however, that he is the most evil person in history requires one to spell out all one’s criteria, and the extent to which those criteria take in thought, deed, motive and consequence, the extent to which "psychologising" is permissible, etc.—and then to compare him with other contenders. Rand never did that.

In any event, my present purpose is not to undertake that exercise, which I believe to be pointless and incapable of resolution, but to concur with Rand to this extent—that we are fully entitled to treat Kant’s teachings as essentially and seminally vicious irrespective of comparisons—and then to throw the spotlight on an idol of Kant whose teachings were uniformly vicious and whom we may regard as being right up there in the history's villains stakes. I refer, of course, to Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). We may see him as Kant’s inspiration and partner-in-crime.

Rousseau eschewed conventional morality and replaced it with amoralism in his personal life. He was a liar, a cheat, and a whim-worshipper writ large. He once stole a ribbon from his then-patroness and allowed a maid to take the blame and be punished. When a friend with whom he was taking a walk had an epileptic fit, he took advantage of the crowd that then gathered to abandon his friend and disappear from the scene. In his writings he glorified as irreducible and admirable primaries the impulses of the "Noble Savage" to whose way of life humanity ought to repair—at least to the extent feasible given the enormity of humanity’s backsliding from its original "noble savagery."

According to Rousseau, the rot set in when man began to reason instead of listening to his heart. Reason enabled man to produce more than was needed for his bare survival, giving rise to such corruptions as science and the arts, and that woeful monstrosity, the printing press. Worse, reason spawned the notion of that ultimate abomination, private property: "The first man who, having enclosed a piece of land, bethought himself of saying, ‘This is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society." Salvation lay in forcibly overthrowing the existing order and abandoning the civilisation that reason had wrought. People en masse should repair to their passions—raw, unbridled, unchecked, unexamined; only the collective had the right to tame them. All people should participate in the selection of rulers, but once those rulers were elected their authority should be untrammelled—a mark of the Noble Savage was his attunement and obedience to the "general will" as embodied in the chosen rulers. A crucial task of the rulers was to enforce religious belief, whose truth would be apparent in the hearts of men once the barrier of reason had been removed. Those who dissented should be exiled or executed:

"While the state can compel no one to believe, it can banish, not for impiety, but as an anti-social being, incapable of truly loving the laws and justice, and of sacrificing, his life to his duty [italics mine. Unsurprisingly, a picture of Rousseau hung in Kant’s study, directly above his desk]. If, after having publicly recognised these dogmas, a person acts as if he does not believe them, he should be put to death."

Rousseau’s antipode, Voltaire, ridiculed him thus:

"I have received your new book against the human race, and thank you for it. Never was such a cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid. One longs, in reading your book, to walk on all fours. But as I have lost that habit for more than sixty years, I feel unhappily the impossibility of resuming it. Nor can I embark in search of the savages in Canada, because the maladies to which I am condemned render a European surgeon necessary to me; because war is going on in those regions; and because the example of our actions has made the savages nearly as bad as ourselves."

While one has to dig a little to trace the influence of Kant on subsequent history, in Rousseau one sees it directly, right on the surface. He was the hero of Robespierre, perpetrator of the Reign of Terror just a few years after Rousseau's death. He was the pin-up boy of later French intellectuals who in turn influenced the likes of Pol Pot, whose "killing fields" were in part a giant agrarian mortuary for intellectuals banished to the countryside in a murderous orgy of anti-reason. As Bryan Magee observes:

"With Rousseau the individual has no rights at all to deviate from the general will, so this democracy is compatible with a complete absence of personal freedom. Here was the first formulation in Western philosophy of some of the basic ideas underlying the great totalitarian movements of the 20th century, Communism and Fascism—which likewise claimed to represent the people, and to have mass support, and even to be democratic, while denying individual rights; and which also allotted a key role to charismatic leaders; and which waged both hot and cold war against the Anglo-Saxon democracies who based themselves on Lockean principles."

Magee might have added to Communism and Fascism the modern Green movement, whose democratic/totalitarian Gaia-worship and anti-industrial Back-to-Nature-ism could hardly replicate Rousseau more exactly.

For Rousseau, passion trumps reason and ought to be indulged blindly. For Objectivism, and Enlightenment thought generally, passion is born of reason, reason informs passion; passion is reason’s expression, fulfilment and reward. Objectivists looking to promote a renaissance of Enlightenment values may legitimately identify Kant’s teachings as pernicious; let us not, however, overlook the influence of his partner-in-crime, Rousseau.

For a much fuller account of the influence of both Rousseau and Kant, the reader is referred to Stephen Hicks’ illuminating, thought-provoking and generally excellent work, Explaining Postmodernism—Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault.

( categories: )


Lindsay Perigo's picture

Destroy reality by saying it is not reality. Destroy knowledge by saying it doesn't relate to reality. Destroy morality by saying it doesn't serve one's life, etc. By the standard of good and evil, of morality itself, these are the most evil deeds.

That's easy then. Richard Goode is the most evil man in history. Eye

The proof of "most evil"

Ptgymatic's picture

...comes from the standard of morality. The worst thing a doctor can do is harm, instead of help, his patient. The worst thing a chef can do is serve you poison. The worst thing a philosopher can do is destroy the individual's ability to live philosphically.

Destroy reality by saying it is not reality. Destroy knowledge by saying it doesn't relate to reality. Destroy morality by saying it doesn't serve one's life, etc. By the standard of good and evil, of morality itself, these are the most evil deeds.


p.s. Wish I'd been here when this discussion went on.

That is Great

gregster's picture

I'm still assimilating it.


Jeff Perren's picture

Yes, Linz, I remember this article. (I have it saved somewhere.) Your best, to my knowledge; a really fine piece of work. And almost all the comments are also very, very good. This is the sort of thing I miss about what SOLO used to be (and, I hope, will be again one day).


seddon's picture

Diagreement noted and I'll wait patiently (although I'm running out of time) for someone, anyone, to make a convincing argument.


Fred W

TRowland's picture

I couldn't agree more. Societies rise and fall not so much on thier ethics, as important as that is, but on thier theories of knowledge. Given a sound mind, the body politic can make its way out of a the obvious disasters of applied altruism. But teach them that the reality that they see all around them is a mental construct and that the real world is only open to a special insight (whether by moral sense or a Philosopher King) and they are lost. It is, after all, the rational mind that the strikers withdraw in Atlas and which the Taggarts of the world have no clue.

That's right, Tom. The issue

Fred Weiss's picture

That's right, Tom. The issue isn't so much whether Kant professed to be pro or anti-science. He also professed to be pro-reason and its great defender against scepticism. It is also claimed that he was a "liberal" in the Enlightenment sense. But what he professed to be or how his apologists attempt to depict him is entirely secondary to the fundamental ways in which he actually undercut reason (and therefore science) and set the groundwork for the onslaught of irrationalism which followed him. Look at the negative philosophical effects of Plato in that regard - who is also generally regarded as a proponent of reason.

Whenever you hear people talk today about the discoveries of science merely being "models" or "constructs" of reality and not about reality itself - and thus that we can never really know the truth - this is the influence of Kant.

Remember also that Marxists also claim to be advocates of reason and defenders of science and thus we get "dialectical materialism" claimed by them to be a "scientific" way of viewing history and "the class struggle".

I don't

TRowland's picture

doubt it for a minute. After all, part of the project in general was to save science from what Kant saw as Hume's attack. But the issue is deeper and wider than whether or not Kant said he loved oaks and indeed whether he grew oaks. It's whether he taught men to burn acorns at the same time and whether he knew that's what he was doing or not. As you know, I believe that the answer to both questions is yes. You disagree. Perhaps someone will write an account that argues the case on my side of this issue with sufficient strength that convinces even you someday. It won't be me, more than likely, so my disagreement with you here is merely for the record.

Kant and Science

seddon's picture


Not only did Kant praise science, he did science. He did work on fire, the tides and, of course, is the first name in the famous Kant-Laplace nebular hypothesis. As George Walsh puts it, "Kant was a convinced Newtonian and a major scientific worker in the theoretical physics and astronomy of his time." (JARS, v2, #1, 73).


Kant's destruction of Enlightenment Science

TRowland's picture


Taking your short precis of Jaki's book at face value (I haven't read the book itself) indicates that there is at least some controversy here and maybe less of an uphill battle than your post claims.

Fred's response--that Kant's glowing praise of science constitutes proof that Kant didn't do the dirty deed--is like citing a book called "Why I Love Oak Trees" as proof that it's author isn't destroying oak trees, while simultaneously witnessing the burning of every acorn in sight by the same author.

CPR burns everything in its path. That the arsonist involved praises the beauty of the things being destroyed in the fire proves nothing.

Objectivism advocates the heirarchy of concepts and knowledge. Fred's continued efforts to relieve Kant of the charges against him are prime examples of the effort to sidestep this issue -- widely discussed on this site and elsewhere.



TRowland's picture

Consider, as a clue to the answer, the torture of Galt. Which is worse, Ferris' use of torture to save the country, or Taggart's use of torture for the sake of torture with no desire for any end but the end of seeing Galt scream and die?

Kant and Science

seddon's picture


You wrote, "Thus any argument that Kant destroyed "enlightenment science" has even greater uphill battle than the claim that Kant was responsible for the holocaust."

I just had occasion to read some of the Preface Kant wrote to the second edition of the CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON and one would have to be an idiot (i.e., someone who actually thinks Kant was evil) to miss his glowing respect for science. Ah, the "starry sky above."


Peikoff and Kant

Marcus's picture

Peikoff writes in "the philosophy of Ayn Rand" that:

"Plato and the medievals denied existence in the name of a fantasy, a glowing super-reality with which, they believed, they were in direct, inspiring contact....[whereas Kant] is the first philosopher in history to reject reality, thought, and values, not for the sake of some "higher" version of them, but for the sake of the rejection."

Therefore, according to Peikoff, it is much less evil to reject reality based upon some fantasy you have no evidence for, than to reject reality for the sake of "nothing".

Now think about it, and wonder how many acts of evil you know of that were based upon "nihilism", and how many were inspired by some fantasy "higher power". (Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Hitler – all claimed to be on the side of a higher “power” in order to commit evil acts.)

I realize Peikoff is referring mostly to the destruction of "values" and "ideals" by Kant as the worse evil. However, if those "values" and "ideals" are instead based upon an imaginary fantasy you want to kill and die for - how can Kant’s version be considered more evil???

Kant and Science

Neil Parille's picture

Kant was interested in science and wrote a book and several articles on scientific topics. He believed that his philosophy was able to provide a foundation for Newtonian physics. The "back to Kant" movement c. 1870 was motivated in part by a desire to see how Kant's philosophy could relate to the advances in science.

Thus any argument that Kant destroyed "enlightenment science" has even greater uphill battle than the claim that Kant was responsible for the holocaust.

Interestingly, catholic philosopher of science Stanley Jaki (a Thomist/Aristotelian) in his book The Road of Science and Ways to God has a lengthy discussion of Kant's philosophy and science and argues that if taken seriously, Kant's philosophy would undermine science. I would be interested in seeing if there are any parallels between his views and Harriman's.

Hey Freddie Boom-Boom

Lanza Morio's picture

Hey Freddie Boom-Boom,

It's in The Objective Standard which I like very much. It's a quarterly journal. You can subscribe and read the online version for $38-. To have a hard copy sent to your physical mailbox it's $48-. It's 100+ pages.


seddon's picture


What is the title and where is the article by David Harriman located? Is in on line?



seddon's picture


You wrote, "I notice that you don't (can't?) take issue with Kant being the intellectual progenitor of the modern welfare state, as in fact he was."

I do and can take issue with " Kant being the intellectual progenitor of the modern welfare state." Do you have a passage in mind? The reason I think he ain't even close is what he says in a small work entitled, ON THAT OLD SAW: THAT MAY BE RIGHT IN THEORY BUT IT WON'T WORK IN PRACTICE (a popular work even you may be able to understand) he tells us that "whenever a man needs to acquire things from others in order to live, he will acquire them only by DISPOSING of what is HIS own..." Sounds like trade to me. So much for this vile canard about Kant being the intellectual progenitor of the welfare state.

I do agree with you that we must distinguish what Kant said from what suceeding generators made of him. I hold him responsible only for the first.


Marcus and Jason

Jody Gomez's picture

are both seemingly misunderstood, or simply evaded. I don't see Jason as telling you that you can't make a judgement of this nature, but he's practically begged that if you are going to make the claim that you can make this judgement, then state your objective standards so that he will understand this. If someone said, "I can calculate the hypotenuse of a right triangle given the measurements of the two sides", and when asked how, they rambled on about it not being impossible, rather than simply giving what was asked in the first place, i.e., a^2+b^2=c^2, you would soon start to doubt their claim. This thread has turned into numerous posts of people saying nothing more than, "uh-hu, can to prove that"...while Jason has simply been asking for the "how".

Two bol weevils grew up in

Ross Elliot's picture

Two bol weevils grew up in Alabama. One moved away to California and made a great success of his life. The other stayed in Alabama and never amounted to much.

He was known as the lesser of two weevils...

Hey Marcus,Hitler shoots

Lanza Morio's picture

Hey Marcus,

Hitler shoots your dog and laughs about it in your face. Kant is your best friend who takes your dog for a long walk, shoots him, and on his return he lies about what happened.

Kant did his absolute best to undercut man's mind. In principle, what could be worse than to trick a man out of using his mind? Only to do it on a grand scale.

Are you getting The Objective Standard Marcus? There's an excellent article in there about the fall of Enlightment Science by David Harriman that put a lot of what Kant did into context.

Jesus is the "most" evil?

Marcus's picture

I think Jason's point is being mis-understood.

He is merely stating that in order to agree that Kant is "most evil", he needs to see the evidence to back it up. And up until this point, nobody has shown him that evidence to back it up.

Neither have I yet been convinced that Kant is the "most" evil.

The argument often used to argue for the proposition is by "how many" great acts of evil Kant's ideas have caused.

To my mind, by this measure, those that have introduced and propagated religious philosophy have given rise to far more acts of evil then Kant.

So religious figures like Jesus, St Paul, Mohammad and Buddha - would be leagues ahead of Kant.

Not completely necessary,

Landon Erp's picture

Not completely necessary, but it's good to have a point of reference when trying to evaluate actions and ideas.


It all basically comes back to fight or flight.

Judging evil

sjw's picture

Why do we need to know who the most evil man in history was?

Judging Evil

DianaHsieh's picture

Jason, if a person had to survey all the evil people in the world to see who was most evil, that would be impossible. However, we have only a handful of candidates who might even make the first cut, e.g. Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Marx, Mao, Hegel, Kant, and so on. And you'll cut the list in half by eliminating the dictators or the intellectuals. Of course, understanding the nature and magnitude of the evils of the intellectuals is much harder than understanding that of the dictators: you can't just count up the millions of dead. Still, a very thorough knowledge of the history of philosophy is certainly possible with some years of study.

Or -- I should ask -- do you have loads of other candidates for the distinction of "most evil man in history"?

-- Diana Hsieh


Jason Quintana's picture

I am saying that I have never encountered someone who has convinced me that they do have this level of knowledge. I am not saying that it cannot be accomplished.

I suppose that if someone were to dedicate years and years to research and study about evil people (and assuming they use a solid objective standard for judging evil) they might be able to make a rational argument to back up a statement like "Kant is the most evil man in history".

If there is an epistemological shortcut I would love to know about it, but right now I don't see one.

- Jason


Peter Cresswell's picture

"This kind of judgement would require an extensive set of knowledge about both Kant and every other major evil historical figure."

Are you saying that no one ~has~ that knowledge, Jason, nor that they ~could~ have it? Really?

Measuring evil

Peter Cresswell's picture

"You're right that evil cannot be quantified. We can't say that Kant was 193.5 units of evil, whereas Hegel was merely 187.4 units of evil."

Are you sure?

If we defined a 'milliRand' as the ability to blow one irrational philosophical premise one mile high in one sentence, then we may be able to measure Kant's ability in reverse. I believe he would be high into negative figures. Smiling

Where are they?

Jason Quintana's picture

I agree with your whole post, but I'm not convinced that the extent of knowledge you describe in this quote exists among anyone -- and this includes Ayn Rand.

"Some Objectivists know enough to rationally agree with AR that Kant was the most evil man in history."

This kind of judgement would require an extensive set of knowledge about both Kant and every other major evil historical figure.

- Jason

Know Thy Facts

DianaHsieh's picture


I've been arguing for just that kind of extensive knowledge to make that kind of judgment of late.

In general, a person should not make claims in excess of their knowledge. Some Objectivists know enough to rationally agree with AR that Kant was the most evil man in history. Others should limit themselves to the claim that, as you put it, "Kant's ideas were evil, very influential and ultimately destructive." And others might have to limit themselves to saying that what they know of Kant is very bad. Since contexts of knowledge differ, there's no one-size-fits-all glove here, as your "we Objectivists" statement seems to suggest.

-- Diana Hsieh


Jason Quintana's picture

"Those judgments are complicated in the case of evil, because they aren't perceptual, but that doesn't render them impossible."

But I think it does make comments like "Kant is the most evil person in history" or even "Kant is the most evil philosopher in history" pretty useless without a very extensive set arguments and an incredible amount of research.

Until then we Objectivists should avoid this kind of overstatement and stick to the position that Kant's ideas were evil, very influential and ultimately destructive.

- Jason

More and Less

DianaHsieh's picture

Oh, I think I see your point now, Marcus.

You're right that evil cannot be quantified. We can't say that Kant was 193.5 units of evil, whereas Hegel was merely 187.4 units of evil. However, qualitative judgments do admit of a more or a less, as Aristotle would say. For example, "tall" is a qualitative judgment, but I can still say, "I'm less tall than my father, the tallest man in my immediate family." We just need to be able to compare the mores and the lesses to see who is the most and the least of a given quality. Those judgments are complicated in the case of evil, because they aren't perceptual, but that doesn't render them impossible.

-- Diana Hsieh

Ha, ha....

Marcus's picture

"Evil requires choice, but we do not control the random ideas that might pop into our noodle."

Who does then? Smiling

Whether or not we can be evil by choice is not my quibble though. Of course evil actions require a choice to be made.

I am saying that the thoughts or musings of a philosopher (or anyone)can indeed be considered evil. Of course they can. But that judgement is a qualitative and not a quantitative assessment in my opinion.

I was thinking back to the original statement that,
Kant is the MOST evil.

Christian Thoughts

DianaHsieh's picture

Marcus, evil in the realm of ideas does not merely concern thinking random evil thoughts. (That's the Christian view.) In Objectivism, the question is: Are the ideas that you accept and advocate consistent with reality or not? Did you arrive at them by thought or evasion? Evil requires choice, but we do not control the random ideas that might pop into our noodle. We do control what we do with those noodlepops thereafter -- and that's the grounds of moral judgment.

-- Diana Hsieh

Evil is...

Marcus's picture

The problem with arguing about whether "ideas" are "evil" is the qualitative nature of "evil".

1) I think "evil" is used in two different senses. "Evil" as in a moral judgement. To do "such and such" an act or want someone else to do it for you is clearly an evil act.

2) However, merely to think "such and such" is "evil".

By definition (2): all humans on this earth (including yourself) have committed "evil", according to your own moral code.

Therefore, defintion (2) is pretty useless as judging the severity of "evil~" according to defintion one.


AdamReed's picture


One of Kant's most destructive innovations was to make moral philosophy unusable by the ordinary person. No, it is NOT "OK" to write moral philosophy "for professors," if it leaves the ordinary citizen believing that he is not qualified to make his own fully moral decisions independently of superior authority. When ordinary men are placed in that position, their tendency is to rely on the authority of a presumably more qualified guide (in German Führer) - and we know the consequences.

Ever since Kant, Europeans were taught that the main implication of treating one's fellow citizens "as ends in themselves," was a duty to provide them unconditionally, without requiring anything in return, with the means to exist with dignity. I notice that you don't (can't?) take issue with Kant being the intellectual progenitor of the modern welfare state, as in fact he was. Self-interested trade, even if praiseworthy and not unavoidably immoral (at least when it provides the means for fulfilling one's "duty" to others) was held by Kantians to be inferior to the truly moral life of serving others unconditionally, "as ends in themselves."

Ultimately, I am less interested in reading Kant's mind (that is, in "getting him right") than in what I need to do - for myself - in dealing with how Kant's ideas impacted human life, and especially my life, in reality. From my perspective, Kant's squeamish evasions - the ones you document so well - make him more, not less, worthy of being hanged.


seddon's picture


"How in blazes was an ordinary person supposed to figure out for himself, without the benefit of Führung from someone of greater authority, exactly what action on his part this "universalizability without contradiction criterion" demanded in any particular context? Hell, can you?"

Kant was writing for a specialized audience, professors, not for the ordinary person. That's ok isn't it? Not everyone has to be a popular writer. Besides, Kant did write some stuff for the lay audience, see for example, WHAT IS ENLIGHTENMENT, where he advises people to "dare to know" and to "think for themselves."

"when we trade, each of us is using the other as a means to his ends, and therefore NOT treating the other as "an end in himself."

You've really got Kant wrong here. Kant does NOT prohibit treating other people as means--he prohibits treating them MERELY as means. It's the difference between "love making" and "rape." In the former I treat a person as both a means and as an end in themselves--in the latter I treat them as a MERE means. Understand the difference? Here is his exact formulation: "So act as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end, never as means ONLY." How do you do that? HOw do you treat someone as both means and end simultaneously? You get their consent. CACA, or capitalists acts between consenting adults, is a good example of what Kant has in mind here.

"Thus capitalist trade is made out to be an act of immoral exploitation"

Wrong again. Kant has a trichotomy working here. The immoral, the amoral and the moral. CACA can be either of the latter two but NEVER the former. And even when you are an honest businessman from prudential rather than moral motives, Kant calls the former "praiseworthy" not, I repeat, not Immoral.

Before we hang Kant, and here I echo Linz, let's get him right.




AdamReed's picture


How in blazes was an ordinary person supposed to figure out for himself, without the benefit of Führung from someone of greater authority, exactly what action on his part this "universalizability without contradiction criterion" demanded in any particular context? Hell, can you?

You ask: If you had written that "man is an end in himself and should never be used as a mere means to another's end," what would you have thought people would make of that principle?

Let me put myself in the position of an ordinary educated person of the time. I've learned from Hobbes, Locke, Smith and others that one of the necessary means for me, to achieve my own ends by benefiting from productive trade with other men, is for us to respect each other's rights. So that when we trade, each of us is using the other as a means to his ends, and therefore NOT treating the other as "an end in himself." Now Kant tells me that this is wrong; that in capitalist trade, my trading partner is exploiting me, immorally treating me as a means to his ends rather than as "an end in myself." Thus capitalist trade is made out to be an act of immoral exploitation; other men should consider me "an end in myself" and therefore, if they are moral, provide me with the means to exist in dignity without any consideration of whether or not I am able to provide them, in trade, with value toward their ends.

The actual result of this "principle," first in Prussia and then wherever Kant was influential enough, was - IS - the modern welfare state. Kant, I think, was intelligent enough to know that this would be the result - and coward enough to evade the actual enslavement of the individual that it entailed.

Reply to Adam

seddon's picture


You wrote, "while leaving no objective way for men to determine what this alleged "duty" was, or why." But he did. It is called the "universalizability wtihout contradiction criterion." Now this may not do the trick, and Tara Smith thinks that it won't, but she is at least fair enough to recognize that Kant tried to base morality on reason. She concludes that in reason there is not enough reason to be moral--but that hardly marks Kant a subjectivist. I do recommend Tara's book. She is very fair to Kant while still disagreeing with him. See her crititque on pp. 38-53 of VIABLE VALUES.

"I don't question that Kant fooled himself into denial, of the obvious uses to which duty ethics would be put by men more public and less squeamish than he was."

Hindsight is, well, you know the rest. If you had written that "man is an end in himself and should never be used as a mere means to another's end," what would you have thought people would make of that principle?



AdamReed's picture


I don't question that Kant fooled himself into denial, of the obvious uses to which duty ethics would be put by men more public and less squeamish than he was. Having destroyed, at least in the minds of his followers, the Enlightenment (and classical) grounding of ethics in self-interest, he then put "duty" in its place - while leaving no objective way for men to determine what this alleged "duty" was, or why. This put the ordinary European, unable to determine what he was supposed to do but neverthless trying to be moral, at the mercy of any scoudrel with the gall to offer him Führung as to what that ordinary European's "duty" was supposed to be. As to Kant's total evasion of what the consequences of his ideas were likely to be in Praxis, you have indeed documented that evasion, to the satisfaction of any reasonable man.

Reply to Hsieh

seddon's picture


Nice to hear from you again. The last time we talked was over dinner. I want to make two quick points.

(1) You state, “The opinion of Fred Seddon (perhaps the most unreliable secondary source ever) is not a substitute.” I never said one should take my opinions on Kant as a substitute for reading the man himself. Does you parenthetical remark imply that you have read all secondary sources and have found me to be the “most unreliable.” That’s a lot of reading. By the way, do you have even a single argument in mind so that other SOLOists can read it and check for themselves. We are left only with your statement and, alas, no argument.

(2) I agree with your statement that “AR's remark [about Kant’s evil] was made in the context of introducing LP's article on Kant and self-sacrifice -- and that article is clearly intended as the justification for her assessment.” So we ought to take a look at LP’s article. Let me make just one point about that article. LP uses a technique I call the “sneak quotation.” After several quotations from Kant, Peikoff sneaks in a quotation from The Fascist Decalogue, point 8 which he quotes as follows: “ There do not exist things important and things unimportant. There is only duty.” This is cute, but not clever. Why? Because it is a gross equivocation on the concept “duty.” The quotation comes from “The Ten Commandments of the Italian soldier” and Mussolini intended his men to obey it and him unquestioningly. But obedience, questioning or unquestioning, is anathema to Kant’s morality. [NB. Adam] Anyone familiar with the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals should know this. (Peikoff surely has “read” the book since he quotes it 46 times in the endnotes to this article.) I’m referring to a section of that work that bears the title “Autonomy of the Will as the Supreme Principle of Morality” and this autonomy is the “property the will has of being a law to itself.” (Ak. 440)
On the other hand, taking orders from anyone, God or Il Duce, is an instance of heteronomy, which is, Kant tells us, the “source of all spurious principles of morality.” (Ak. 441) I don’t know how Peikoff could make such a simple mistake.
Now is this conclusive? No. But what it does illustrate is that a careful reading of both Peikoff and Kant are required before one can accept this article as a justification for Rand’s claim that “Kant is the most evil man in mankind’s history.”

Fred (the most unreliable secondary source ever). Tee hee.

Poor Jean-Jacques

Rick Giles's picture

Apart from his failings as a human being (let he without sin cast the first stone...) I think Lindsay overlooks some of Rousseau's good contributions.

He tore down the whole sham of having the human face caked in makeup and wigs (or at least he dethroned it).

He gave us Romanticism, of which the 'Romantic Realism' Objectivists believe in owes- for argument's sake- 50% of its inspiration.

He gave passion to a world with none- where would SOLO Passion be without Jean-Jacques Rousseau? But he was all passion and the other side of the split was all reason, it was for Objectivism to bring them together.

The worst thing that he ever did, of course, was re-inventing passionate music and writing a romantic music manifesto, and composing an opera, which inspired Mozart (for one) and stormed the world. That's pretty evil.

On Kant

Neil Parille's picture

As I’ve pointed out, Kant may be understood in various ways. Rand and Peikoff’s view is simply one interpretation. It is rejected by everyone I’m familiar with who is knowledgeable about Kant. Here is a post from a guy who got his doctorate in Kant –


The issue however is how Kant was interpreted by those who modified his system and by more strict believers. Those who wish to show that Kant destroyed the Enlightenment, paved the way for Hitler or Stalin, or is responsible for “African math” should do the reading in the primary source material and trace step by step how this happened. (Considering how error-ridden The Ominous Parallels is I don’t see any reason to accept Peikoff on this issue.) That Rand thought an orthodox Kantian should believe such and such is beside the point.

For the reasons I put forth in a post below, this would take a tremendous amount of work.

Certainly some explanation is called for of why Cassirer and von Mises were anti-Nazi. Cassirer apparently didn’t think that Kant’s view on lying required blind obedience to Hitler, since he fled the Nazis. Von Mises certainly did not interpret Kant as having replaced objectivity with "collective consensus." Does anyone deny that von Mises was as familiar with Kant as Rand?

Kant on belief in God

mcohen's picture


Here is a quote from the "Critique of Pure Reason" (A828f-B856f):

"Thus even after reason has failed in all its ambitious attempts to pass beyond the limits of all experience, there is still enough left to satisfy us, so far as our practical stand point is concerned. No one, indeed, will be able to boast that he knows that there is a God, and a future life... No, my conviction is not logical, but moral certainty; and since it rests on subjective grounds (of the moral entiment), I must not even say, 'It is morally certain that there is a God, etc.', but 'I am morally certain, etc.'"

This argument is far worse than claiming that reason and belief in God can be reconciled. Kant divorces reason from moarlity and does it with a vengeance. Once morality is divorced from reason and is founded on subjective "moral sentiment," it's possible to convince people that anything is the true "moral sentiment" which they must follow, against their reason.

-- Michelle

Who is more evil?

Marcus's picture

I was always under the impression that Kant did in fact believe that there was a mystical reality that was part of the mind of "god".
Maybe, that was Hegel.

However, if Kant is "most evil" for having spread a pure version of Plato's philosophy, then Ayn Rand is "more good" for having spread a purer version of Aristotle’s philosophy.

No qualms there.

But to be consistent, this would make Fichte, Hegel and Marx more evil then either Kant or Plato.

Anyway, can someone please tell me why "reference to a higher power" makes the philosophical ideas less evil?

How is belief in a God "less evil" than a denial of reality?

On Kant

DianaHsieh's picture

I've studied Kant's philosophy fairly extensively, including the spread of his ideas. (To concretize that: With about 15 minutes preparation, I could give a pretty decent 50 minute lecture on his metaphysics and epistemology, his ethics, or his influence.) I don't mean to knock anyone else, just indicate that I'm not just regurgitating some Objectivist line.

I don't have time to say much here, but I would like to make a few observations.

* Understanding the thorough evil of Kant's ideas and their cultural influence requires fairly extensive study of Kant's works. The opinion of Fred Seddon (perhaps the most unreliable secondary source ever) is not a substitute. A person needs to see, with his own eyes, not just the overall structure of Kant's philosophy, but also the particular claims, arguments, and conclusions therein. Without that kind of study, a person cannot evaluate the justice of Ayn Rand's moral assessment of him, nor trace his influence in our culture. (AR's remark was made in the context of introducing LP's article on Kant and self-sacrifice -- and that article is clearly intended as the justification for her assessment.)

* Kant did not merely advocate self-sacrifice. He originated the idea of sacrifice for its own sake. Plenty of philosophers before Kant advocated sacrifice, but always for the sake of some supposedly higher good, such as Plato's perfect organic state or Christian bliss in heaven. Morality is thus wholly divorced from any human ends. In particular, any personal interest in an action renders it morally suspect, since a person might have acted from "inclination" rather than from duty. And you are obliged to act according to your duty, whatever the consequences. So if a murderer comes to your door, you must tell them where your family is. (That's Kant's own example!) By wholly divorcing moral demands from human purposes and facts of reality, Kant's philosophy renders people impotent to protest the demands of dictators about their duty to sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice. To the extent that a person accepts Kant's ideas, they no longer have any grounds upon which to protest a Stalin or Hitler.

* Whenever you hear someone say that even actions helpful to others (e.g. a doctor healing a patient or a student serving soup to the poor) aren't morally good because they were motivated by self-interest (e.g. the fee of the doctor or the pleasure of helping people), you are hearing Kant. Similarly, justifications for "human rights" in terms of "dignity" are thoroughly Kantian in origin -- and busily destroying genuine rights. The replacement of objectivity with collective consensus (e.g. all that matters is that we all vote ourselves into slavery or that scientific fact is just the consensus of scientists) is a direct product of Kant. The racist multiculturalist idea that people's ideas are conditioned by their race or sex (e.g. Western versus "African" math) is just a slight variantion upon Kant's epistemology.

* Kant killed the Enlightenment. He killed it dead. Philosophy took a decidedly awful turn after Kant, his "Copernican Turn," in fact. Of course, the individual philosophers who opted to follow his lead are fully responsible and blameworthy for that choice. However, an evil genuis like Kant was required to make all those lesser demons possible. He gave them a grand system from which to work. They never would have gotten off the ground without that framework. Similarly, Lois Cook, Gus Webb, and Lance Cloakey would have languished in well-deserved obscurity without Ellsworth Toohey.

* Also, I should mention that Kant did not merely say something so innocuous as "Forget reason, go with your heart!" That still leaves the choice clear in people's minds. Instead, Kant perverted the very idea of reason. That's much, much worse.

All for now!

-- Diana Hsieh

The battle for minds

Marcus's picture

"While one has to dig a little to trace the influence of Kant on subsequent history..."

I have yet to find any evidence of Kant's direct influence upon politics or pop culture. I doubt many people (outside of academic philosophy) have read his work, let alone have heard anything of it.

If it wasn't for his famous "das Ding an sich", he may well be entirely forgotten by now.

I think that only the intentions and actions of a philosopher can be evil.

But those that denounce a philosopher as evil for their ideas alone and wish those ideas could be erased - either have a low opinion of their own philosophy (as an antidote) or paradoxically have a high opinion of their opponents arguments.

However, in this case, I think that Rand actually took Kant's ideas much more seriously than anyone else. Therefore her reaction was understandable.

Of course I may be wrong about this, but I am still waiting to see the evidence.

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