I am in the process of writing a new definition of positive and negative liberty as it applies to the the U.S.
I teach Kant every year. This time I decided to write a paper for my own assignment. Blame the broken foot for such pedantry. Kate
“Virtue never tested is no virtue at all.”
Thoughts on Kant, “What is Enlightenment?”
According to Kant, enlightenment and competence equate in the individual to the same thing. Following the age of majority, when one examines with inborn reason ideas previously imposed, one becomes competent. This is release from self-incurred tutelage, Kant’s definition of individual enlightenment. In his essay “What is Enlightenment?” the philosopher explains that a society can become enlightened when all barriers to individual competence are removed.
Despite the fact that it is human nature to think for oneself, people choose to think as they are told to out of fear and laziness. In essence, they happily accept their status as sheep under the guardianship of a shepherd. The most absurd situation occurs when such a guardian is him- or herself incompetent and unenlightened, simply mimicking the ideas of others. Ritual is passed down from high, and liturgy becomes mere repetition of words, devoid of any real meaning and exciting no passion or faith. Unchallenged faith is not worthy of its name.
Certain social conditions must exist before one can become competent; one cannot and should not dissent in every situation. A society needs rules in order to function. (Even kings are subject to the rules of grammar, e.g.) The enforcement of regulatory rules equitably creates a stable society in which a person has room to question all authority, even the logical basis of said rules. Strong centralized government is required to preserve external freedom so one can concentrate on exercising internal freedom of thought. One thinks only of security if security is not otherwise guaranteed.
Kant thus explains the difference between the use of private and public reason. In one’s daily discharge of duties and engagement in social coexistence, individuals must obey even if obedience conflicts with one’s own opinions. This is private reason. When one is not performing a social, cultural, occupational or other standardized duty and answers to no one, then the individual has a duty to question all authority and speak publicly about objections to doctrine. Obey, but disagree. Such disagreement on one’s own time is public reason. The scholar-teacher is obviously the exception; in her, the source of public and private reason occupies the same space and creates a duty to question all authority. This is called academic freedom.
Public reason presumes an a priori guarantee of freedom of speech maintained by a strong centralized government, what I call positive liberty or state enforced egalitarianism. Weak centralized government with a minimum of enforced rules, what I call negative liberty, fails to protect equitable freedom of speech. Rather, it encourages licentious behavior, the growth of petty dictatorships, and trampling of others’ rights. It is rule by the loudest or the biggest. Taken too far, negative liberty can devolve into anarchy just as positive liberty can devolve into dictatorship.
When addressing “What is Enlightenment?” Kant explains how individuals become enlightened and offers a calculus to determine whether a state is currently in an enlightened age or in an age of enlightenment. An Enlightened Age exists if all external barriers to critical thought are absent and each individual is capable of challenging and digesting for oneself all information on which he or she has previously been fed. It is the death of the intellectual fait accompli.
Kant concludes that that his society had the perfect government in the monarch Frederick for the enlightenment process to proceed. Frederick asked external obedience but not total control over internal thought. No monarch would tolerate consolidation of power in the hands of any other than the ruler’s. Conversely, in a republic, with its permissive growth of petty dictatorships, institutions may evolve that prevent the individual from rejecting tutelage. Kant did not, however, examine the historical likelihood of malevolent monarchs.
In essence, Kant describes a positive liberty society that refuses to foster consolidation of power in the hands of the few but is powerless to proscribe social dictatorship. When such conditions exist, even though their influence wanes, a society can be described only as an Age of Enlightenment, a transitional period moving toward the universal exercise of individual reason.