Immanuel Kant: Universal Principle of Right

“Every action is right which in itself, or in the maxim on which it proceeds, is such that it can coexist along with the freedom of the will of each and all in action, according to a universal law.”

If, then, my action or my condition generally can coexist with the freedom of every other, according to a universal law, any one does me a wrong who hinders me in the performance of this action, or in the maintenance of this condition. For such a hindrance or obstruction cannot coexist with freedom according to universal laws.

It follows also that it cannot be demanded as a matter of right, that this universal principle of all maxims shall itself be adopted as my maxim, that is, that I shall make it the maxim of my actions. For any one may be free, although his freedom is entirely indifferent to me, or even if I wished in my heart to infringe it, so long as I do not actually violate that freedom by my external action. Ethics, however, as distinguished from jurisprudence, imposes upon me the obligation to make the fulfillment of right a maxim of my conduct.

The universal law of right may then be expressed thus: “Act externally in such a manner that the free exercise of thy will may be able to coexist with the freedom of all others, according to a universal law.” This is undoubtedly a law which imposes obligation upon me; but it does not at all imply and still less command that I ought, merely on account of this obligation, to limit my freedom to these very conditions. Reason in this connection says only that it is restricted thus far by its idea, and may be likewise thus limited in fact by others; and it lays this down as a postulate which is not capable of further proof. As the object in view is not to teach virtue, but to explain what right is, thus far the law of right, as thus laid down, may not and should not be represented as a motive-principle of action.
D. Right is Conjoined with the Title or Authority to Compel.

The resistance which is opposed to any hindrance of an effect is in reality a furtherance of this effect and is in accordance with its accomplishment. Now, everything that is wrong is a hindrance of freedom, according to universal laws; and compulsion or constraint of any kind is a hindrance or resistance made to freedom. Consequently, if a certain exercise of freedom is itself a hindrance of the freedom that is according to universal laws, it is wrong; and the compulsion of constraint which is opposed to it is right, as being a hindering of a hindrance of freedom, and as being in accord with the freedom which exists in accordance with universal laws. Hence, according to the logical principle of contradiction, all right is accompanied with an implied title or warrant to bring compulsion to bear on any one who may violate it in fact.

E. Strict Right may be also Represented as the Possibility of a Universal Reciprocal Compulsion in harmony with the Freedom of All according to Universal Laws.

This proposition means the right is not to be regarded as composed of two different elements — obligation according to a law, and a title on the part of one who has bound another by his own free choice to compel him to perform. But it imports that the conception of right may be viewed as consisting immediately in the possibility of a universal reciprocal compulsion, in harmony with the freedom of all. As right in general has for its object only what is external in actions, strict right, as that with which nothing ethical is intermingled, requires no other motives of action than those that are merely external; for it is then pure right and is unmixed with any prescriptions of virtue. A strict right, then, in the exact sense of the term, is that which alone can be called wholly external. Now such right is founded, no doubt, upon the consciousness of the obligation of every individual according to the law; but if it is to be pure as such, it neither may nor should refer to this consciousness as a motive by which to determine the free act of the will. For this purpose, however, it founds upon the principle of the possibility of an external compulsion, such as may coexist with the freedom of every one according to universal laws. Accordingly, then, where it is said that a creditor has a right to demand from a debtor the payment of his debt, this does not mean merely that he can bring him to feel in his mind that reason obliges him to do this; but it means that he can apply an external compulsion to force any such one so to pay, and that this compulsion is quite consistent with the freedom of all, including the parties in question, according to a universal law. Right and the title to compel, thus indicate the same thing.

The law of right, as thus enunciated, is represented as a reciprocal compulsion necessarily in accordance with the freedom of every one, under the principle of a universal freedom. It is thus, as it were, a representative construction of the conception of right, by exhibiting it in a pure intuitive perception a priori, after the analogy of the possibility of the free motions of bodies under the physical law of the equality of action and reaction. Now, as in pure mathematics, we cannot deduce the properties of its objects immediately from a mere abstract conception, but can only discover them by figurative construction or representation of its conceptions; so it is in like manner with the principle of right. It is not so much the mere formal conception of right, but rather that of a universal and equal reciprocal compulsion as harmonizing with it, and reduced under general laws, that makes representation of that conception possible. But just as those conceptions presented in dynamics are founded upon a merely formal representation of pure mathematics as presented in geometry, reason has taken care also to provide the understanding as far as possible with intuitive presentations a priori in behoof of a construction of the conception of right. The right in geometrical lines (rectum) is opposed, as the straight, to that which is curved and to that which is oblique. In the first opposition, there is involved an inner quality of the lines of such a nature that there is only one straight or right line possible between two given points. In the second case, again, the positions of two intersecting or meeting lines are of such a nature that there can likewise be only one line called the perpendicular, which is not more inclined to the one side than the other, and it divides space on either side into two equal parts. After the manner of this analogy, the science of right aims at determining what every one shall have as his own with mathematical exactness; but this is not to be expected in the ethical science of virtue, as it cannot but allow a certain latitude for exceptions. But, without passing into the sphere of ethics, there are two cases — known as the equivocal right of equity and necessity — which claim a juridical decision, yet for which no one can be found to give such a decision, and which, as regards their relation to rights, belong, as it were, to the “Intermundia” of Epicurus. These we must at the outset take apart from the special exposition of the science of right, to which we are now about to advance; and we may consider them now by way of supplement to these introductory explanations, in order that their uncertain conditions may not exert a disturbing influence on the fixed principles of the proper doctrine of right.

The Science of Right, by Immanuel Kant


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