Could Kant Support Human Rights? Kant's Arguments and Their Contemporary Relevance

40 Pages Posted: 19 Aug 2013 Last revised: 25 Aug 2013

See all articles by Christopher Meckstroth

Christopher Meckstroth

University of Cambridge -- Faculty of History

Date Written: 2013


This paper presents and engages Kant's views on international and cosmopolitan justice, both as a study in the history of political thought and to advance a substantive argument about the possible sources of human rights. First I detail Kant's own arguments against anything corresponding to most contemporary understandings of human rights. I suggest that these arguments are good and pose serious challenges to both orthodox and political approaches in the contemporary literature. Next I consider what would have to be the case if anything like human rights were to be defensible in Kant's framework. I argue that human rights could exist only if one may posit a sovereign global general will which can be taken to have legislated those rights as binding interpretations of the conceptual preconditions of any possible global rule of law. Finally, I consider why Kant himself rejected this possible argument from his own premises, and how we ought to take the significance of certain historical changes since he wrote, on the letter of his own view. I argue that his view builds in a very specific way of understanding the relation of normative concepts and objects of historical experience, and I show how this works with the crucial concept of a legitimate sovereign. In the end, I suggest that Kant's arguments provide support for a distinctive, in principle democratic, political approach to human rights and international justice, while also helping to clarify several persistent ambiguities in contemporary discussions. In doing so they contribute to an emerging alternative to both orthodox and Rawls-inspired political approaches, while pointing toward some unique conclusions and drawing attention to certain crucial unresolved questions about relations among morality, politics, and law and the difficulty of resolving contextual conflicts among competing claims to represent a potentially sovereign international community.

N.B.: The original title of the paper, "Where Do Human Rights Come from? A Democratic Argument," has been changed.

Keywords: Kant, Human Rights, Cosmopolitanism, Global Justice, International Law, Perpetual Peace

Suggested Citation

Meckstroth, Christopher, Could Kant Support Human Rights? Kant's Arguments and Their Contemporary Relevance (2013). APSA 2013 Annual Meeting Paper, American Political Science Association 2013 Annual Meeting, Available at SSRN:

Christopher Meckstroth (Contact Author)

University of Cambridge -- Faculty of History ( email )

West Road
Cambridge, CB3 9EF
United Kingdom

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