Immanuel Kant's Theory of Rights

31 Pages Posted: 16 Nov 2006  

Gunnar Beck

Government of the United Kingdom - HM House of Commons; University of London - Department of Law


It is common for Kant's rights-based liberalism to be contrasted with the communitarian authoritarianism of the later Fichte and of Hegel, and it is the concept of autonomy that is generally regarded as the theoretical fount of Kant's theory of natural rights, providing the analytical link between Kant's moral philosophy and his political and legal theory. The author argues that this view is erroneous: The notion of autonomy ultimately remains contentless and incapable of providing practical political and legal prescriptions without Kant's substantive account of human nature, an account specifying both the proper moral ends that humans should strive for and the anthropological limits of human perfectibility. Kant's theory of rights is informed by both sets of considerations. Contrary to the received view, Kant develops a socially sensitive account of the self in his later writings, and comes to believe that individual autonomy depends in large measure on the realisation of certain propitious sociocultural and political arrangements. For Kant, natural rights, like individual freedom, are not ahistorical, universal standards of political justice but the historical outcome of the long process of enlightenment. As such, what is right will depend on what is timely. Here Kant is much closer to Fichte and Hegel than is generally acknowledged.

Suggested Citation

Beck, Gunnar, Immanuel Kant's Theory of Rights. Ratio Juris, Vol. 19, No. 4, pp. 371-401, December 2006. Available at SSRN: or

Gunnar Beck (Contact Author)

Government of the United Kingdom - HM House of Commons ( email )

United Kingdom

University of London - Department of Law ( email )

London, WC1H 0XG
United Kingdom

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