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Political Obligations and Provisional Rights: A Study in Kant's Politics of Freedom


This dissertation argues (with Ellis 2005) that Kant’s political philosophy must be re-read in view of his commitment to the Provisionality Thesis (PT). PT states that, in our world, external rights are provisional, never peremptory. In Chapter 1, I lay the grounds for such a reading by showing how Kant’s notion of external freedom, properly understood, drives the development of his political theory (by generating duties to leave the state of nature, to form a body of international law, and to respect each person’s cosmopolitan rights). Chapter 2 then establishes (against competitors), that Kant’s theory so understood is committed to the Provisionality Thesis. Chapter 3 locates the language of provisionality in the political writings of Leibniz and Rousseau, and shows that Kant’s usage differs considerably from his predecessors’. Whereas Chapters 2 and 3 examine the conditions and meaning of provisional right, respectively, it is only in Chapter 4 that I explore PT’s full normative implications. I argue (against competing accounts) that we best capture the difference between a provisional and peremptory right by distinguishing between their correlative obligations. Whereas provisional rights correlate with formal obligations, peremptory rights correlate also with material obligations. Chapter 5 reinterprets Kant’s position on political authority given that political obligations reduce to formal obligations, and argues that PT places Kant’s account nearer to philosophical anarchism than is usually appreciated. Chapter 6 argues that Kant’s theory, so understood, sharply distinguishes between two-tiers of normative analysis: One at the level of provisional right (which emphasizes the freedom-relevance of the rule of law), and one at the level of peremptory right (which demands that coercive law itself be deployed only for the sake of rendering freedom mutually consistent). This dual structure affords Kant a response to the objection that his political theory is normatively impoverished. In chapter 7, I argue that Kant’s position is closer to “realist” methodological views than has been traditionally supposed, while retaining significant (and attractive) elements of “moralism”. Chapter 8 applies this framework to the political problems generated by refugee crises, and argues that its verdicts are more plausible than the standard interpretation’s.

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