Black Lives Matter and Kant

Two different aims are being run together in the Black Lives Matter movement: one for which protest is apt, and the other for which protest is not. The difference is essential.

One aim of the BLM movement is to make sure officers who kill innocent blacks are not protected by police departments. This is the immediate aim. It’s clear what would count as succeeding in this aim, and when the protests can stop: if police departments reform their practices and hold officers accountable for killing innocent black citizens.

But there is something much bigger which the BLM movement highlights: that America is waking up from its fantasy of the last 50 years. There has been the illusion that the civil rights movement of the 60s basically made America equal for all its citizens. Part of what the BLM movement is bringing out is just how untrue this is: ending slavery didn’t make blacks equal as citizens, and ending segregation didn’t either. Much more work was needed after ending slavery, and there is much more work to do after ending segregation. This is the bigger aim. But protest doesn’t help with this aim.

Protest to achieve the bigger aim assumes there is already a theoretical answer about what true equality in America looks like. Protest is seen as the way to actualize that answer. But do we actually have such an answer even in theory? Who figured it out?

The implicit assumption in our society is that the (white) founders of America, as part of the Enlightenment, already figured out the answer. That Enlightenment thinkers like Locke and Kant, and through them Washington and Jefferson, laid the theoretical foundation for a fully pluralistic, democratic society. As if since then we are simply going through the practical revolutions needed to realize the already discovered theoretical answer.

This is not true. Kant articulated a beautiful vision of equality, but his view no more tells us, even theoretically, how diverse societies can live together than the Bible does because it speaks of heaven. When it came to telling even an abstract story of how people of diverse cultures can live together, Kant cheated. He punted the problem by assuming that Europeans are the most civilized, and harmony is achieved by Europeans leading everyone else. Kant didn’t even raise the question most pressing for us: how can whites and blacks and everyone else live together as equals and share their cultures and histories?

Rawls updated Kant by saying how Kant might have answered this question. In the veil of ignorance there is no reference to any culture, white or black. Harmony is achieved not by Europeans leading the way, but by everyone setting aside their cultures in the deliberative process. But the impossibility of setting aside cultures this way is shown in the irony of what Rawls is most famous for: reawakening interest in the history of European moral and political philosophy. Rawls didn’t help us get beyond cultures. He ended up reinforcing the philosophical value of a particular culture.

This is the society we live in. The most celebrated philosopher of the Enlightenment didn’t even address the question of how blacks and whites can live together as equals. The most famous political philosopher of the twentieth century addressed the question but in a way which reenforced only the achievements of European philosophy. No wonder there is rampant inequality in our society.

To achieve the bigger aim of the BLM movement, it has to be accepted is that no one has already figured out for us the answer of how whites and blacks and everyone else can live together. The fundamental block to greater harmony is ignorance. Just as we don’t how how to cure cancer, we don’t know how practically people of different backgrounds and cultures can live as equals. You can’t protest ignorance, but you can raise consciousness that there is ignorance.

We need protesting for the sake of the immediate aim of BLM. And for many other immediate aims. But to address the bigger aim, we need public gatherings not as protest but as signs of self-reflective solidarity. Want to make people really think? Let us gather in large crowds in parks or halls to discuss Du Bois or Fanon and their criticisms of a false universality built into the Enlightenment narrative. Or let us meet to think about Dewey and Wittgenstein, who, even as white men, provided great internal criticisms of the modern Western philosophy which is at the foundations of our society.

There is much Kant got right, including this great beginning to his essay, “What is Enlightenment?”:

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another.

This is no less true if the guidance we are falling back on is that of Kant or other Enlightenment thinkers. We are not thinking for ourselves if we assume that others at some time before us (say in Europe in the 1700s) have already figured out what a just society looks like, and our task now is only to demand that the people in charge live up to those ideals.

To have racial equality in America we need to stand on our own two feet and tackle the questions which Kant and Hume failed to address. We need to emerge from their shadow into the full light of our own intellectual maturity.

4 thoughts on “Black Lives Matter and Kant

  1. Derek Bowman

    The idea that “no one has figured out the answer” is especially important, and I would add the (probably already implicit) point that part of the reason no one has figured it out is precisely that too many of us wrongly assumed we already knew the answer.

    But I wonder if there’s any sense in which Kant (and perhaps Rawls) has in fact shown us how diverse people can live together: by treating one another as ends-in-themselves. I guess I think what makes Kant’s vision a beautiful vision – as opposed to mere wishful thinking – is precisely that it does show a way of living together despite our differences. What we don’t know is how to achieve that way of living together – how to get from here to there. And in particular it doesn’t show us how to do that in the face of the forms of vulnerability and mutual distrust created by a history of racism, sexism, colonialism, economic inequality, etc.


    1. Bharath Vallabha Post author

      Certainly treating one another as ends-in-themselves is a great vision of how everyone can live together. But by itself it is no different from saying, “living in harmony requires treating each other as God’s children,” or “living in harmony requires being in tune with the Tao”, etc. Kant’s idea of the kingdom of ends and of people as ends-in-themselves is just a secular version of the idea of heaven – a great achievement by Kant to show that morality doesn’t require religion. But there is an altogether different issue of how to achieve that kingdom of ends on earth, and on this issue Kant surely is passe, since his sense of who the rational beings are twisted the problem, and limited it to basically how Europeans can live in harmony and get along with lesser humans.

      I am not dismissing Kant. Kant (and Hume, etc.) were needed to show that morality doesn’t require religion (which is not to dismiss religion). But Kant just did not address the question of how all people can live together on the assumption that all people are equal as rational beings. For that we need to go beyond Kant. Not that we can’t imagine or give a Kantian inspired answer to that question. But then again there is nothing unique about Kant in terms of giving an answer about how to get beyond racism, sexism, etc. We can also give Du Bois inspired answers, or Aurobindo inspired answers, etc. In an important way these thinkers, and many others like them, who were speaking as subjugated people got started on the question that concerns us now more than Kant did.


  2. Dylan Bianchi


    Thank you for your recent set of posts. I read each of them with great interest, and your efforts to forge a way forward in philosophy but outside of academia provide an important reference point for my own efforts to find philosophy’s place in relation to other valuable life projects of mine.

    Your claim in this post that enlightenment philosophy falls short as a framework for people of different cultures, races, and histories living together is fascinating and to my ear has a ring of plausibility. But I wanted to invite you to pose the philosophical problem here with a little more precision. What are some of the challenges that must be overcome for different people to live together well which you think cannot be overcome by enlightenment ideals of equality, rationality, and deliberative participation? After all, many manifestations of racism (institutional racism in the workplace, differential treatment by police forces) do on their face seem to contravene these very ideals. I ask these questions with the hope that greater clarity about what the problem is will help point a way toward the answer.


    1. Bharath Vallabha Post author

      Dylan, Thanks for the invitation to pose the problem more precisely. The idea isn’t that the ideals of equality and rationality aren’t enough to help people of different cultures, races, etc. live together. Of course, those ideals are what we need to strive for. But the criticism of the Enlightenment philosophy is that continuing the institutions based on how Enlightenment philosophers lived and the institutions they helped to erect will not lead us to en equal, democratic society.

      A distinction is needed between the ideals Hume and Kant et al pushed for, and how they themselves sought to realize those ideals. With the distinction in place, we can see that the way they sought to realize the ideals fell well short of the ideals themselves. And that moreover the way they sought to realize the ideals are still what are guiding us now, and so we are falling short of those ideals by uncritically following in their footsteps, institutionally speaking.

      An analogy. To have an equal society we need to follow the Christian ideal of loving one’s neighbor as one’s own. The institutions in our society which talk the most about that Christian ideal, in those Christian terms, are churchs. And yet, simply following the way churchs are now is not a way to have an equal society. Because the ideal of the churchs aside, the institutions of the churchs are themselves implicated, as are all of us and all our institutions, in the inequality in our society. To realize the Christian ideal requires being able to be think beyond the latest iteration of the christian institutions and build new social structures.

      The same is true for the Enlightenment. One of the great acheivements of the Enlightenment was to set moral, political, epistemic ideals independent of religion, and so which can be a basis for a pluralistic society. And yet the way those ideals were realized didn’t really open up all the way to a full pluralism. We need to push changes in the institutional framework to better realize those ideals. This is not merely a practical matter, but a philosophical, intellectual one, since how to realize those ideals is not obvious.



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