November 29: Laurenz Ramsauer

Please join us on Monday, November 29th from 10:30-12:20 in Haskell 315. Laurenz Ramsauer (University of Chicago) will be presenting his paper entitled Kant’s Racism as a Philosophical Problem. The presentation is read-ahead. The paper is accessible under downloads.


Immanuel Kant was possibly both the most influential racist as well as the most influential moral philosopher in the history of modern, western thought. On the one hand, Kant’s work and handwritten notes contain outrageously racist remarks. On the other hand, Kant’s conception of all rational beings as ‘ends in themselves’ is widely considered a paradigm of moral egalitarianism. This stark contrast between Kant’s racism and his egalitarian ethics has recently inspired a long-overdue discussion about the problem of Kant’s racism: does the combination of these two facts indicate a failure of Kant’s moral philosophy itself? Or does it merely indicate a failure of the person Immanuel Kant?

So far, discussions of Kant’s racism have tended to frame the problem as choice between two interpretations of Kant’s moral philosophy: either Kant was an inconsistent egalitarian, or he was a consistent inegalitarian. Undoubtedly the majority of Kant scholars believe that Kant was an inconsistent egalitarian. On their view, Kant was simply inconsistent in that he failed to draw the necessary conclusions from his own moral philosophy. By contrast, some scholars have recently argued that Kant was a consistent inegalitarian. On their view, Kant’s racist remarks are not incompatible with his moral philosophy, because when Kant wrote about the dignity of all persons as ends in themselves, he simply did not mean to include non-white people.

Unfortunately, I believe that these two interpretive options are not exhaustive. In fact, I take it that the correct interpretation is much more worrisome for Kantian ethics than the two options presented so far. Both sides of the debate agree that there is not merely a tension but a contradiction between the abstract egalitarianism of Kant’s moral philosophy and his racist beliefs. However, there are significant textual difficulties for this assumption. Consequently, I am afraid that the verdict about Kant’s racism and its relevance for his moral philosophy must be far more cynical than both interpretive options in the literature allow. Kant appears to be a consistent formal egalitarian: Kant’s characterization of the equal dignity of all persons is so abstract that it remains almost entirely useless.

If this interpretation of Kant’s work is correct, then philosophers are unjustified in approaching the topic of Kant’s racism as complacently as they have so far. Those who argue that Kant was an inconsistent egalitarian essentially brush off the problem of Kant’s racism as an unfortunate, but negligible, personal failure of Immanuel Kant the person. Ironically, those who argue that Kant was a consistent inegalitarian effectively brush of the problem of Kant’s racism as a personal failure of Immanuel Kant as well. On their view, once we include enough people in what we mean by ‘persons’ the story allegedly has a happy ending, and abstract egalitarianism remains triumphant. In this way, both those arguing that Kant was an inconsistent egalitarian and those arguing that he was a consistent inegalitarian effectively deny that Kant’s racism is a philosophical problem.

By contrast, I argue that Kant’s racism is a philosophical problem precisely because it highlights a blind spot in an entire approach to doing moral philosophy: if Kant’s abstract egalitarianism is compatible with his racism, then philosophers in the Kantian tradition also cannot be certain that their respective ideals of substantive moral or political equality are doing more than justifying their prejudices. Thus, I argue that moral philosophers should recognize the limits of abstract moral philosophy. For if we deny the limits of abstract moral philosophy, we will inevitably turn the limits of abstract moral philosophy into the limits of moral philosophy in general.

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