Kant and Slavery—Or Why He Never Became a Racial Egalitarian

Critical Philosophy of Race 10 (2):263-294 (2022)
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According to an oft-repeated narrative, while Kant maintained racist views through the 1780s, he changed his mind in the 1790s. Pauline Kleingeld introduced this narrative based on passages from Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals and “Toward Perpetual Peace”. On her reading, Kant categorically condemned chattel slavery in those texts, which meant that he became more racially egalitarian. But the passages involving slavery, once contextualized, either do not concern modern, race-based chattel slavery or at best suggest that Kant mentioned it as a cautionary tale for labor practices in Europe. Overall, Kant never explicitly considered chattel slavery as a moral problem to be addressed on its own. Rather, he treated it primarily in terms of its function in human history. If he ended up expressing some qualms about its practices, it was likely because they threatened to deepen intra-European conflicts and undermine the prospect of perpetual peace. The humanity of the enslaved “Negroes” was never part of the reasoning. This was not a casual oversight on Kant’s part. It reflects the complexity of his philosophical system: everything he did or did not say about chattel slavery begins to make sense once we connect his philosophy of history and his depiction of “Negroes” as natural slaves.

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Huaping Lu-Adler
Georgetown University


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