Historically, what kinds of government and politics have been influenced by the maxims of Kant's "categorical imperative"?

Take for example, the maxim that one should only act in such a way that the action can be made a universal law, binding on all individuals.

The government can take actions which ordinary individuals cannot. For example, imprisoning criminals, or exacting taxes or fines.

Does this not contradict the above maxim, since the government is acting in a way which necessarily cannot be made a universal law for all individuals?

Thus, could Kant's ethics be seen as supporting an anarchist system?

Or argue the other way - a government may protect its citizens from theft, murder, etc. by preventing and punishing such crimes.

In this case, could it be argued that the government is acting on a universal principle: that no human being should rob or be robbed?

Getting back to my main question, what views of government were derived from Kant's ethics, and how?

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    Just in passing, Wikipedia's entry on the Political Philosophy of Immanuel Kant and SEP's entry on Kant's Social and Political Philosophy might be of some help here (if only for their bibliographies)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Sep 28, 2011 at 0:13
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    I'm not much of a philosophy of law person, but when I did read in the area all I read was Hart and Dworkin. Did you check out the Wikipedia article on the subject? Side note: interesting that there is no Law.SE. Not even in area 51 (this question would be off-topic in Laws and Legal Questions).
    – stoicfury
    Commented Oct 1, 2011 at 6:32
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    This question is unclear due to lacking research - the categorical imperative has nothing to do with government, or vice versa. Apart from that, Kant wrote a lot about politics and political philosophy. I will try to elaborate on that later, but maybe we should consider a major edit to this question.
    – iphigenie
    Commented Feb 25, 2013 at 12:01

2 Answers 2


I think that Kant's ideas on social contract theory may interest you.

In "Theory and Practice" he discusses the practical applications of his ethics in great detail as far as government is concerned. With reference to the "categorical imperative" Kant develops a similar normative concerning the legislation of certain laws. He proposes that no law may be legislated that a whole people could not conceivably consent to. He also overcomes the problem of consenting to a sovereign without the use of coercion which may be of further interest to you.

He argues that freedom is the first of several principles (from the SEP):

  1. The freedom of every member of the state as a human being.
  2. The equality of each with every other as a subject.
  3. The independence of every member of a commonwealth as a citizen.

I hope that this will suffice. I leave further investigation of your question to you and others.


The question completely lacks insight into Kant's political theory. The categorical imperative has nothing to do with politics.

What is politics? In The Perpetual Peace (Appendix 1), Kant writes:

there can be no conflict of politics, as a practical doctrine of right, with ethics, as a theoretical doctrine of right.

If politics are to be morally just, then there can be no gap between what morals demand and what politics demand. While the individual is obligated by the moral principle, the categorical imperative, it doesn't apply to the government, which is an artificial person. Even if the government consists of only one person, the monarch acts not as an individual, but as the executive authority (ideally speaking, in theory), and as such, other demands are made to their actions. Right concerns only with external actions, that means the actions between individuals. An action is right if it can exist with everybody's freedom as a universal law (Metaphysics of Morals). While the categorical imperative demands that you apply it to your actions out of duty, right does no such thing - you can act right or not, but you must be prepared that others will coerce you, if you don't (which is impossible for internal actions). What I'm trying to show is that the actions of the government, even if it consists of only one individual, are external actions, therefore they are evaluated in aspect of legality, not of morality (in the narrower sense), and as the execution of a state, the government doesn't necessarily have to be following the categorical imperative to be executing right.

We then have to ask what kind of government Kant advocated. He wrote a lot on that, and again, the Perpetual Peace gives insight (First Definitive Article):

The Civil Constitution of Every State Should Be Republican; The only constitution which derives from the idea of the original compact, and on which all juridical legislation of a people must be based, is the republican. This constitution is established, firstly, by principles of the freedom of the members of a society (as men); secondly, by principles of dependence of all upon a single common legislation (as subjects); and, thirdly, by the law of their equality (as citizens). The republican constitution, therefore, is, with respect to law, the one which is the original basis of every form of civil constitution.

As the SEP writes on Kant's Social and Political Philosophy:

“There is only one innate right,” says Kant, “Freedom (independence from being constrained by another's choice), insofar as it can coexist with the freedom of every other in accordance with a universal law” (6:237). Kant rejects any other basis for the state, in particular arguing that the welfare of citizens cannot be the basis of state power.

As to be free means to follow one's own rational principles, only the individual living in a civil society with rational laws (i.e. laws the individual would agree with) can be called free. As Kant advocated a republican constitution, not a democracy, how would the sovereign or the government know about what laws the free citizen of the state would agree to? Kant "invents" a touchstone to answer that question, the touchstone of Publicity, again in the Perpetual Peace (Appendix II, note that there is a strong resemblance to the categorical imperative in the formulation and the universal demand):

This principle is to be regarded not merely as ethical (as belonging to the doctrine of virtue) but also as juridical (concerning the right of man). A maxim which I cannot divulge without defeating my own purpose must be kept secret if it is to succeed; and, if I cannot publicly avow it Without inevitably exciting universal opposition to my project, the necessary and universal opposition which can be foreseen a priori is due only to the injustice with which the maxim threatens everyone. This principle is, furthermore, only negative, i.e., it only serves for the recognition of what is not just to others. Like an axiom, it is indemonstrably certain and, as will be seen in the following examples of public law, easily applied.

I'm probably overseeing argumentational gaps. If there is something missing, I will gladly add that.

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