Category Archives: ethics

Kant’s ethics of autonomous obedience

I find it puzzling that, while there is a huge bibliography on Kant’s notion of freedom/autonomy, there is next to nothing on his notion of obedience/subordination even though the two notions are inextricably connected in both his ethics and his politics in a “profound paradox” (Paul Guyer: Kant on Freedom, Law, and Happiness, 2000, p. 1).  Freedom, which is only moral freedom, refers to free will under moral law, that is, will obeying its own law.  The exercise of freedom involves practices of obedience. Yet, studies of Kantian freedom focus on autonomy and have very little to say about forms of obedience because they see freedom as liberating and enabling rather than regulating and restricting.

Kant distinguishes between two uses of reason, the free public use and the autonomous private one.  While public reason is unfettered, private reason is obedient to its self-imposed moral law, a practice of “free submission” of the will to moral law for its own sake. Reason disciplines and controls the subject, not the citizen.  Autonomy is a duty and a submission:  The proper way for individuals to be free is to autonomously prescribe for themselves the duty of autonomy, which (duty) is the free submission of their morally self-legislative will to its own law.

I see Kantian autonomy is a kind of “government” that exercises power by “guiding the possibility of conduct,” structuring “the possible field of action” of individuals (Foucault:  “The Subject and Power,” in Dreyfus & Rabinow, Michel Foucault, pp. 220-21).  What makes possible this particular kind of modern government is freedom. Individuals are governed by being required to become self-governed subjects.  “Power is exercised only over free subjects, and only insofar as they are free” (221).

Foucault is interested in these askeses of autonomous obedience, “the technologies of individual domination, the history of how an individual acts upon himself” (“Technologies of the Self,” in Technologies of the Self, 19).  He raises this question: “Which kind of political techniques, which technology of government, has been put to work and used and developed in the general framework of the reason of state in order to make of the individual a significant element for the state?” (“The Political Technology of Individuals,” 153)  I suggest that a major political technique of government is Kantian autonomy, the obedience of those “technologies of the self, which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality” (Foucault:  18).

In all his three discussions of Kant’s 1784 essay “What is Enlightenment” Foucault stresses that obedience is practiced not in public discussion (where citizens may openly express any views they have) but in private government (where subjects learn to police themselves), thus guaranteeing that thoughts of resistance and revolution will be internally suppressed and forbidden. Here are three quotes from these discussions.

In Kant’s view, critique tells knowledge: “Do you know up to what point you can know?  Reason as much as you want, but do you really know up to what point you can reason without it becoming dangerous?  Critique will say, in short, that it is not so much a matter of what we are undertaking, more or less courageously, than it is the idea we have of our knowledge and its limits.  Our liberty is at stake and consequently, instead of letting someone else say ‘obey,’ it is at this point, once one has gotten an adequate idea of one’s own knowledge and its limits, that the principle of autonomy can be discovered. One will then no longer have to hear the obey; or rather, the obeywill be founded on autonomy itself” (Foucault, “What is Critique?” 195).

Kant distinguishes between “on the one hand, a government of self which will develop in the form of the universal (as public discussion, public reasoning, and the public use of understanding) and, on the other, the obedience to which all those who are part of a given society, state, or administration will be constrained” (38).  Subjects obey on their own free will.  “The more you allow freedom to thought, the more sure you will be that the people’s mind will be shaped to obedience” (The Government of Self and Others, 38).

The question regarding Enlightenment as a political problem “is that of knowing how the use of reason can take the public form that it requires, how the audacity to know can be exercised in broad daylight, while individuals are obeying as scrupulously as possible.  And Kant … proposes to Frederick II … what might be called the contract of rational despotism with free reason:  the public and free use of autonomous reason will be the best guarantee of obedience, on condition, however, that the political principle that must be obeyed itself be in conformity with universal reason” (“What is Enlightenment?” 37).  In short, Kant believes that “reason must be free in its public use, and must be submissive in its private use” (36).   Hence the well-known command that he envisioned Frederick as a truly enlightened monarch addressing to his subjects: “Argue as much as you like and about whatever you like, but obey” (The Government of Self and Others, 40). “Far from rejecting obedience to sovereignty, it was Kant’s unique achievement to have grounded obedience on the concept of autonomy.  Critique is a play of power and truth that gives the subject the power to govern itself, a power that is not necessarily opposed to obedience to sovereigns” (Schmidt & Wartenberg: “Foucault’s Enlightenment,” in Kelly:  Critique & Power, 1994, 290).

Autonomist and anarchist thought have not developed any systematic interest in ideas of freedom in Kantian liberalism.  The sources for radical self-institution and self-rule must be sought elsewhere.

February 20, 2019

lundi matin: “The gilets jaunes: Creative violence against State brutality”

“The brutality of finance, of capitalism, pushes bodies into the streets, to hunger, to suicide, to oblivion, to boredom. Violence, in this sense, is only a process of emancipation of constrained bodies against the economic relations which surround them.”

Dilar Dirik: “Women’s Internationalism against Global Patriarchy”

“From the earliest rebellions in history to the first organized women’s strikes, protests and movements, struggling women have always acted in the consciousness that their resistance is linked to wider issues of injustice and oppression in society.  Whether in the fight against colonialism, religious dogma, militarism, industrialism, state authority or capitalist modernity, historically women’s movements have mobilized the experience of different aspects of oppression and the need for a fight on multiple fronts.”

Ruymán Rodríguez: “The call of anarchism: An identity made in practice”

‘Rodríguez champions an anarchism defined in practice.  But contrary to those who would today give second place to any “anarchist” identity, he contends that it is in this practice where the identity must be affirmed.  The essay is not an apology for blind and hyper-activism, while remaining silent over who one is politically, for fear of frightening others.  It is rather the defense of anarchist practice as anarchist.’

Eleanor Finley: “The revolution will be ecologised: social change in the 21st century”

Revolution toward a directly democratic society represents both a return to humanity’s communal roots, as well as a progressive step into realms of scientific, philosophical, and cultural discovery beyond our current conceptual horizons. Just as the Enlightenment revolutions were closely tied to the development of secular sciences like optics and astronomy, the gradational and relational logic of ecology today provides the conceptual basis of a truly democratic transformation. Revolution in the 21st century advances natural evolution not only in content, but in form. Our time is now.”

Tareq Baconi: “What the Gaza Protests Portend”

“In these circumstances, the Palestinian struggle for self-determination has, in effect, dissolved into numerous local battles: equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel, freedom of movement for West Bankers, residency rights for East Jerusalemites, education for refugees, an end to the blockade for Gazans. This fragmentation is not, however, a given for all time. The dense smoke, burning tires, and the masses of people huddled under gunfire on Friday afternoons is what, at this moment, the recalibration of the Palestinian struggle looks like. The images coming out of Gaza are an indication of Palestinian disenchantment with the political process and with their leaders. In a deeper and more significant way, we are also witnessing a revival of the core principles that always animated the Palestinian cause but that were displaced in the tangled maze of political negotiations.”

Chad Kautzer: “A Political Philosophy of Self-Defense”

“To develop a critical theory of community defense, however, we need to move beyond the rhetoric of rights or the idea that all self-defensive violence is quasi-natural or nonpolitical. The self-defense I discuss in this essay is politicalbecause the self being defended is political, and as such it requires both normative and strategic considerations. This project seeks to articulate the dynamics of power at work in self-defense and the constitution of the self through its social relations and conflicts.”

Kaveh Ehsani & Arang Keshavarzian: “The Moral Economy of the Iranian Protests”

The Iranian demonstrators share the familiar anxieties produced by global capitalism’s rampant inequalities and environmental destruction. … What makes the demonstrations against malfeasance and the calls for political change and social justice powerful is the fact that the protesters are accusing Iran’s rulers of violating the revolution’s commitment to a moral economy.”

Stephen Lovell: “The great error”

Yuri Slezkine’s argument in The House of Government: A saga of the Russian Revolution is that ‘the Bolsheviks were not a party but an apocalyptic sect. In an extended essay on comparative religion …, he puts Russia’s victorious revolutionaries in a long line of millenarians extending back to the ancient Israelites; in their “totalitarian” demands on the individual believer, he suggests, the Bolsheviks are cut from the same cloth as the sixteenth-century Münster Anabaptists and the original “radical fundamentalist”, Jesus Christ.’

Mark Bray interviewed: ““Antifa Isn’t A Hobby Or A Fad”

“Agree or disagree with what anti-fascists do, but it’s important to understand their activities in a larger political and ethical context. Which is to say that the violence of fascism and the violence of anti-fascism are only identical if you ignore what fascism means. There is a de-politicization of fascism that sees it as essentially an individual failing committed by a lot of people rather than a force in political history that need to be confronted. So what happens is these confrontations are understood as just individuals committing acts of violence rather than as a political struggle.  Anti-fascists are also leftists of all stripes who also are union organizers and environmentalists and immigrant rights advocates and so forth. These people do a lot of political work and are very committed, and this isn’t a hobby or a fad that people decided to do on a whim. It is the product of serious political analysis. It’s a reaction to what they perceive to be an imminent threat.”