View from
The Left

The Case for Humanity (Part II)

(General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine)

And this is the rub of Kant’s political critique of nationalist-type arguments. If the nationalist allows too much deviation from the shared identity of the nation, then his society risks becoming one of liberal individuals.”


In my earlier article for this series, I presented some of the major arguments for dismissing universalistic internationalism in favor of a nationalist approach. Firstly, I acknowledged that many actually existent international institutions suffer from a substantial democratic deficit. Secondly, I argued that many of those same institutions have clearly privileged the interests of certain countries over those of others. And, thirdly, I suggested that nationalist critics offered a relevant point about the value of cultural pluralism against the potential homogenizing impact of a global order. This last point was especially crucial, since it struck to the philosophical core of the debate between universalistic internationalists and nationalists. While the internationalist can argue that their favored institutions can be reformed or altered to meet empirical challenges of the type discussed above, a philosophical argument about first principles is harder to disprove by simply presenting alternative organizational schemes. It can only be addressed by presenting an alternate philosophical argument which is more convincing or attractive to readers.

In this second of three articles, I am going to briefly sketch out such a philosophical vision. I will argue that we should reject the virtues of nationalism in favor of a more individualistic approach to communal organization. This argument will draw from a number of philosophical sources, but the most notable will be Immanuel Kant, Søren Kierkegaard, and Martha Nussbaum. In this essay, I will focus mainly on the Kantian argument against nationalism. Kant provides a powerful set of philosophical arguments as to why we should reject the appeal of cultural “heteronomy” in favor of free individuals independently willing the moral law.

However, his argument is largely formal and leans heavily on an interpretation of human beings as rational animals first and foremost. As appealing as this vision is, I think it is inadequate as a persuasive philosophy. It does not sufficiently account for the human need for meaning and belonging, which I have discussed at some length elsewhere. And indeed, the power of the Kantian vision has been such that left-wing thinkers inspired by Kant (and other rationalists) have been far too willing to dismiss these needs as vague, outdated, or irrational. Bentham and Marx are perhaps the most prominent which come to mind, though one could point to figures like Sam Harris more contemporaneously. I think this sense that liberalism and leftism are indifferent to questions of meaning is one of the reasons their universalism is being rejected in favor of nationalism. So in Part III, I will engage in an extended discussion of Kierkegaard and Nussbaum to show that these needs can be answered within a progressive, individualist framework.

Some may wonder what such a discussion has to do with politics, let alone support for international institutions. In Part IV of this series, I will address these questions at greater length, trying to demonstrate why the kind of individualism I propose would be best protected and enabled in an internationalist global community. It will address more of the tricky empirical issues discussed above.

Individualism and Morality

Immanuel Kant is famous for two seminal contributions to the history of thought. The first is his transcendental account of human consciousness, as presented in his masterpiece The Critique of Pure Reason. The second is his argument for and individualistic moral theory in works such as Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals and linking this to support for Enlightenment and internationalism in essays such as “What is Enlightenment?” and “Perpetual Peace.” Obviously the two contributions are linked, and, in a more extensive essay, I would discuss the relation of both. Here I will focus primarily on the second contribution, since it more directly pertains to the heart of this series.

Kant argues that the source of morality itself must, in some sense, lie in the individual’s good will. This is because the world that we experience, the scientific world of matter, seems to have no intrinsic value, which we can independently discern. From a purely scientific perspective, whether one suffers or thrives, kills or saves, is simply a fact in the world. So it is because conscious individuals exist who project value onto the world that we come to regard it as a moral realm. According to Kant we cannot but do this, since our practical reason will always commit us to acting as though the values we project onto the world actually bind us. And, indeed, this is what Kant takes morality to be. We give ourselves rules—or “imperatives”—which govern our action because we take them to be universally applicable moral laws.

How then does this relate to individualism and the critique of nationalism? Kant argues that many people are unwilling to assume the burden of recognizing that they themselves are the source of moral value—and that they must independently will moral laws, which are taken to bind us all. Instead, we all too easily wish to give into “heteronomy;” which is to say the belief systems of the traditions, laws, and authority figures around us. This is because it was far easier to simply accept these belief systems because there has been immense social and even legal pressure to do so. We took the moral rules that others imposed upon us as valid, even though it was often clear that they weren’t because that was simply easier and less risky.

But for Kant, accepting heteronomous beliefs was the equivalent of abandoning our most human capacity; as he put it in “What is Enlightenment?,” we gave up our right to “think for ourselves.” In effect, we transformed ourselves into mere objects in the world. We accepted that our moral beliefs were determined by society, that we ourselves are not responsible for them, and we acted in a mechanical way that was driven by values imposed upon us. For Kant, this was not only undignified, but it destroyed the very conditions for genuine morality to emerge. Since we just accepted the moral rules imposed upon us from the outside, individuals in heteronymous societies were little more that predetermined subjects acting out a script. There was little difference between them and valueless matter in motion. And, indeed, Kant observed that this is why heteronymous societies often embraced transparently wicked and self-serving traditions—from burning heretics to burning widows.

This does not imply that Kant is opposed to traditions, laws, and authority. He is suggesting that we must not base our value system on these alone, since that cedes too much to empirical heteronomy. As he puts it in “What is Enlightenment?,”

“Thus it is very difficult for the individual to work himself out of the nonage which has become almost second nature to him. He has even grown to like it, and is at first really incapable of using his own understanding because he has never been permitted to try it. Dogmas and formulas, these mechanical tools designed for reasonable use–or rather abuse–of his natural gifts, are the fetters of an everlasting nonage. The man who casts them off would make an uncertain leap over the narrowest ditch, because he is not used to such free movement. That is why there are only a few men who walk firmly, and who have emerged from nonage by cultivating their own minds….This enlightenment requires nothing but freedom–and the most innocent of all that may be called “freedom”: freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters. Now I hear the cry from all sides: “Do not argue!” The officer says: “Do not argue–drill!” The tax collector: “Do not argue–pay!” The pastor: “Do not argue–believe!” Only one ruler in the world says: “Argue as much as you please, but obey!” We find restrictions on freedom everywhere. But which restriction is harmful to enlightenment? Which restriction is innocent, and which advances enlightenment? I reply: the public use of one’s reason must be free at all times, and this alone can bring enlightenment to mankind.”

Kant and Nationalism

It is obvious how this could be developed into a critique of nationalism. As I discussed in the last essay, nationalism is often held up as a pluralistic political system which allows different types of societies to form. There is some truth to this. But the question then becomes: what are the independent virtues of these societies and who gets to decide how they are composed? And this is where I think the problem for the nationalist arises. To a certain extent, nationalists must argue that heteronomy should be determinative of moral values. Leaving these to the scrutiny of rational individuals would grant too much liberty to people to deviate from traditions, laws, and authorities associated with a given national identity. The nationalist might counter that it is entirely possible to be a nationalist and respect deviation from the norm. And perhaps this is so. But I am not convinced that this could extend very far before it ceased to be nationalism. If anyone and everyone is allowed to deviate from traditions, laws, and authorities whenever they feel it is right and rational to do so, then the shared identity of the nation would likely dissolve very quickly. The nationalist polity would give way to liberal individualism. So the nationalist must always take some steps to ensure that the shared national identity is enforced and determines the values for, at least, most of the population.  

And this is the rub of Kant’s political critique of nationalist-type arguments. If the nationalist allows too much deviation from the shared identity of the nation, then his society risks becoming one of liberal individuals. If, on the other hand, he takes steps to ensure the shared identity is enforced and determinative for at least most of the population, one begins to question just what is especially pluralistic about the nationalist project? While on a global scale there might be a plurality of nations, maintaining that shared identity within the group will require the enforcement of heteronomy, and thus, homogeneity. I find little attractive about a heterogeneous plurality of nation-states at the global level being maintained through the enforcement of individual homogeneity at the level of the nation state. Freedom for the expression of a shared national identity means little if it means even putting modest restrictions on members of the population who may wish to deviate from the values affiliated with that identity. This is, of course, not to reject the argument for national pluralism wholesale. It is simply to say that individuals should not feel compelled to participate in the national identity if they do not wish to, and I do not know how this could be achieved without providing a substantial number of liberal protections to safeguard the universal human rights of individuals.  


This interpretation is obviously too brief to demonstrate the richness (and often frustrating contradictions) of Kant’s thought. I have made some criticisms of his original argument, while attempting to stay true to the spirit. Part of this is because I feel we should reject aspects of this Kantian argument. While it is powerful, it places such emphasis on the rational and individualistic aspects of humanity and their universal rights, while paying little attention to their need for meaning and belonging. A true answer to the nationalist philosophy will need to provide for these needs. I do not think the Kantian argument can do this independently.

Therefore in Part III of this series, I will be presenting an argument for why individualism of the type presented here can provide people with a sense of meaning and belonging in the right circumstances. This argument will lean heavily on the work of Søren Kierkegaard and Martha Nussbaum. With that completed, I will move from discussing these more abstract topics to commenting on how such individualism is consistent with an internationalist system. In particular, I will emphasize how an international system promoting respect for individual’s universal rights can leave space for shared identities and values.

Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at or added on Twitter via Matt McManus@MattPolProf

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