Sélim Abou
The Categorial Imperative and the Human Rights


It is time to proceed now from the human rights towards what Kant calls humanity rights, in other words, from the status of the individual to that of the citizen, from the individual morality to the political morality. Concerning the individual, the three formulae of the categorical imperative provide him with the mental schemes able to lead him to moral action. As for the nations, what is required and possible is that every nation should have a republican constitution that promotes legal freedom of the citizens, "a constitution that is founded first on the principle of freedom of the members of a society (as men), second on the principle of dependence of all (as subjects) upon a unique and common legislation, and third, on the equality of all (as citizens)."(1)

The supreme task of humanity is to establish, preserve and develop the society of the citizens. In the society of the citizens, the freedom of each one must not trespass the limit of the others' freedom. Men are free in this society, but at the same time they are subject to the law. Freedom and law should be closely linked. Only the republican regime should be qualified as a regime of citizens. The idea of Kant is not based on distinguishing between monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy; what is important, however, is the form of the government, whether it is republican, despotic or barbaric: "The people are rather interested in the form of the government than the type of the regime". The form of the government is exactly the constitution and the idea underlying the constitution is that "those subject to the law must be the legislators together and at the same time". This is "the eternal principle of every regime of citizens". The republican form of government is based upon the separation of the legislative, executive and judicial powers. Such a government requires the representative system; otherwise, everything would degenerate into despotism: "Any form of non-representative government is ultimately a non-government because the legislator can be carrying out his own will at the same time". In the society of citizens, under the republican regime, the government acts according to the principle of law which is conceived as a social contract aiming at the well being of the people.

In this context, Kant reflects upon the violations of the law, either by the sovereign or by the people and draws up the consequences. Despotism or anarchy threaten the life of the state community. The principle of law is thus suspended. Kant confirms then: "If nothing engenders a spontaneous respect based on reason (for example the human rights), no influence whatsoever could control the whims of man. However, the nations tend to behave among each other like the individuals usually do among each other, and the history of the world seems like a place where an endless war is taking place among the nations. For Kant, war is the worst calamity. Therefore, his idea tends to determine the conditions required for establishing an everlasting peace agreement, as a regulating principle to which men should adapt, either in political behavior or the entire moral existence or the private existence. "Reason", said Kant, "absolutely objects to war as a lawful conduct. It is not a matter of discovering whether everlasting peace is viable or not; we have to behave as if it were and endeavour to establish the most appropriate constitution to reach it, thus putting an end to the calamities of the war." But, Kant does not predict how the idea of everlasting peace would be concretized. However, what is certain is that he pleads a confederation of law states and not a world state, especially because, as it often happens in history, the super-states are more likely to be alienated in an abominable despotism and become even more dangerous for the freedoms.

World peace cannot be safeguarded but by a confederation that unites all the free states and is supported by a power capable of guaranteeing the respect of the laws of the state and their treaties. It goes without saying that Kant means by states the states that have a republican legal regime consisting of a society of citizens. Therefore, some international institutions, like the International Criminal Court, the United Nations and the Society of Nations that preceded it, certified that Kant was a visionary, even if they are not endowed by the power desired by the philosopher.

Today, we prefer to use the word ethics to the detriment of morality. Without defining the two words, let's say that letting ethics prevail over morality is simply making a practical choice; it's preferring to start off with the praxis and the intersubjective dialogue that it requires at all times, to measure the motivations of action in terms of the imperative moral, instead of starting off with the imperative that, because it's formal, risks degenerating into a law of prescriptions and obligations that pretend to be imposed on the subject from the exterior.

Nevertheless, in the field of ethics, we cannot ignore the categorical imperative, but we can reject it; therefore, we directly miss the possibility of rationally establishing the theory of values already elaborated; in other words, we miss the possibility of claiming its universalisation. That is what the philosophers understood as they were searching for ethics in reason as it appears either in the discourse or in the conscience, but not in the desire. Consequently, for instance, Karl Appel and Jürgen Habermas, on one hand, and Hans Jonas and John Rawls, on the other hand, agree explicitly with the Kantian theory and try to tailor it to the requirements of the contemporary society.

According to a philosophy historian, "Kant opens, in a certain way, the field of contemporary ethics: reason shows what it is capable of in the sphere of morality and determines what should be done, independently of any speculative exercise, and any metaphysical or theoretical knowledge (...). The universalist formulation of Kant is on the horizon of the contemporary thought (...). Thus, Kant is one of the most important ethical references of our time."(2)

(1) Kant, Vers la paix perpétuelle, Paris, PUF 1958, p. 91
(2) Jacqueline Russ, La Pensée éthique contemporaine, Paris, PUF 1994, p. 16

Sélim Abou
The Categorial Imperative and the Human Rights

© Abou 2006

weltfragen in lebanon

weltfragen im libanon
edited by Andrea Schwarzkopf & Roland Kreuzer
Berlin 2006
With contributions of Sélim Abou, Henry Cremona, Richard C. Dean, Roland Kreuzer, Fitnat Messaiké, Angelika Neuwirth, Doumit Salameh, Ridwan al-Sayyid, Andrea Schwarzkopf, Georges Zeynati.
English, German and Arabic, 80 pages, 50 photographs., 21 x 25 cm, costs including delivery: 10 €