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Rousseau and Kant on their respective accounts of freedom and right Essay

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Updated: Sep 3rd, 2021


Philosophers have viewed the political role as well as the justifications for liberty to be vital in political and ethical matters. Both Kant and Rousseau agree with each other on the significance of liberty in politics, though Kant looks at freedom as autonomy, while Rousseau views it as dependence.

Liberty looks at the norms of rights of independence and equal external freedom, while autonomy looks at the norms of education, perfection, virtue and integrity, among others. The difference in the approaches assumed by Kant and Rousseau regarding the norms of liberty and moral autonomy determine the perspective of their theories of justice. While Rousseau looks at freedom in terms of securing justice in a manner as to attain moral autonomy, Kant looks at justice with a view to attain liberty.

Civil liberty according to Rousseau

Rousseau observes a transformation when individuals shift from a state of nature whereby individuals follow their inclinations without thought, to a civil state, as indicated on page 150, where he states that “Only then, when the voice of duty replaces physical impulse and right replaces appetite, does man, who had hitherto taken only himself into account, find himself forced to act upon other principles and to consult his reason before listening to his inclinations.”

According to Rousseau, man’s action is based on pity and self-love, without considering his involvement, though they are driven by the strongest desire. The society can impose moral notions to individuals, thereby influencing their rules or principles, and causing them to act without consideration their desires or inclinations. Civil liberty is therefore the freedom to act according to the law, without considering individual moral ideas (Rousseau 150).

Kant’s causality property of freedom

Freedom is observed when decisions are made without any external forces or causes influencing them. Kant believes that his definition of freedom does not make it lawless just because it does not refer to the laws of nature. The concept of causality is basically a law, since the presentation of a cause results in the occurrence of an effect. This implies that freedom conceptually follows the law, since freedom involves causality, and causality involves law.

Difference between Rousseau and Kant

According to Rousseau, justice looks at the conditions that can secure moral autonomy. With this line of thought, moral autonomy is attained via the rights of liberty. Kant on the other hand looks at justice in terms of liberty and not moral autonomy or virtue.

This implies that Rousseau views liberty as just one of the components of justice. He also views justice to be realizable only when people realize their moral autonomy. Kant on the other hand views the norms of liberty as the only requirements for justice, which implies that most of the societies that practice liberty have realized justice.

Kant (49) views freedom as autonomy, as seen in his words, “What else, then, can freedom of the will be but autonomy, i.e., the property that the will has of being a law to itself?” Kant (7) believes that the only good thing is good will, which looks at a person doing the right thing for the right reason; a concept only understandable by humans. “It is impossible to think of anything at all in the world, or indeed even beyond it, that could be considered good without limitation except a good will.”

Kant (41) further argues that it is this human aspect that gives man dignity. “Whatever is above all price, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has a dignity…Morality and humanity, insofar as it capable of morality, alone has dignity.”

Autonomy requires that people make rational decisions based on their intelligence. True freedom is attained when people are able to overcome their desires, and pursue morality. Kant (49) states, “Natural necessity is a heteronomy of efficient causes, in as much as every effect is possible only in accordance with the law that something else determines the efficient cause to exercise its causality.” The categorical imperative is a law that helps people to overcome their desires.

It has two concepts. The first states that man should not be used as a means, and the second states that the maxims founded should be universalizable. Kant’s perception of freedom was therefore associated to one’s duty to be moral, as required by the categorical imperative. Kant (10) noted that hindrances and other obstacles that raised challenges to people behaving morally were effective in making the people appear brighter and better, by overcoming them.

The argument put forward by Rousseau suggests that freedom and liberty means observing the laws that individuals set up by themselves, instead of reacting on impulse, which he referred to as slavery. Rousseau (104) argued that “liberty is the noblest faculty of man…” he further stated that the inability of humans to follow reason led to people acting with brutality, as “slaves of instinct.”

Rousseau’s theory of reciprocity

Rousseau argues that justice is not a product of reason alone, but must also include the aspect of reciprocity between the individuals. He further says that justice in social relations requires a symbiotic interlink between individuals. Reciprocity is a result of two social acts, leading to justice. According to Rousseau (43), these are:

“the joint and unanimous act of particular wills to recognize equivalent rights in all others as a claim to justice; not motivated by contingency or necessity, but arising from the motivation of humans to improve their lives and to transcend the state of nature” and “moment of reciprocity constituted by the absolute volition to justice by a general sovereign will towards each particular will.”

Rousseau differentiates between the three types of rights: natural, civil and the sovereign rights of the general will. In addition to this, he observes the contradiction due to independence of the specific will towards its own interests and that of the general will.

Social contract

According to Rousseau’s three stages, the purpose for man establishing social contract was to order the society. In addition to this, social contracts were beneficial in eliminating the wars, common in the second stage (95). According to Rousseau, the perception of dependence and inequality during the civil wars was a version of the social contract propagated by the wealthy people in order to protect their property from destruction.

Despite this, the wealthy were also not free, since every person was in a way dependent on another person. This was seen in Rousseau’s argument, (95) “free and independent as men were before, they were now… brought into subjugation, as it were, to all nature, and particularly to one another; and each became in some degree a slave even in becoming the master of other men…”

Rousseau observed freedom to be attained only when every individual became dependent on the whole as opposed to a particular thing or individual. This was possible by forming a union based on the will of involved parties, whereby justice is replaced with impulse, as an individual reasons before acting, instead of acting based on the preferred course of action.

Theories of freedom

Both Rousseau and Kant emphasize the difference between negative and positive freedom. The two philosophers show the irrelevance of negative or natural freedom, and establish and abstract the metaphysical concept of freedom. This is observed when Kant (49) states that the freedom of causality “is negative and is therefore unfruitful for attaining an insight regarding its essence; but there arises from it a positive concept, which as such is richer and more fruitful.”

Similarly, Rousseau (96), shows freedom to be more useful in its positive sense, though he shows a passion for natural freedom of man in the original state of nature, in his declarations that individuals undergo a shift from a “stupid and unimaginative animal” into an “intelligent being and a man.”

Rousseau (96) believes that the only dignified notion of liberty is the positive one, as seen in his statement that “What man loses by the social contract is his natural liberty… what he gains is civil liberty and the proprietorship of all he possesses…. We might, over and above all this, add, to what man acquires in the civil state, moral liberty, which alone makes him truly master of himself…” on the other hand, Kant’s notion of freedom is fully internal and separated from all physical conditions of life.

According to Kant (3), reason is an indisputable concept, upon which freedom is founded. This is an indication of total abstraction of the spirit from the body. Empirics do not conform to his ideology of morality, as seen when he states that “The moral law in its purity and genuineness… can be sought nowhere but in a pure philosophy.

Therefore, pure philosophy (metaphysics) must precede; without it there can be no moral philosophy at all. That philosophy which mixes pure principles with empirical ones does not deserve the name of philosophy…”

Rousseau speaks of a moral, positive sense of duty, though it is not totally isolated from its surroundings. He observes that the duties and moral aspects of a savage are dependent on the individual’s material condition. The wealthy and the poor members of the illegitimate social contract are affected by their inequality and dependence. He observes that moral existence is only possible when an individual becomes dependent on only the whole, and not a single person.

Rousseau (125) indicates that liberty and equality are interactive principles, as seen in his statement that ” The end of every system of legislation, we shall find it reduce itself to two main objects, liberty and equality- liberty, because all particular dependence means so much force taken from the body of the State, and equality, because liberty cannot exist without it.”

The law that man gives himself

This is an important concept for the two philosophers, though its origin is different. While Kant observes only rationality and duty, Rousseau borrows his concept from general will. Kant (35) observes that only rational individuals are of worth, “every rational being, exists as an end in himself.” In addition to this, Kant (10) observes duty as the only worthy motive, whereby an individual follows a particular course of action, “not from inclination or fear, but from duty-then his maxim indeed has a moral content.”

According to Rousseau, the general will is not known to every individual, though everyone can take part in the freedom of dependence. The internal processes of rationality and duty are not a requirement for individuals to exercise freedom. This is because freedom is not only a metaphysical concept, but is also based on equality and physical aspects of existence.

The theory of freedom according to Kant is consistent in its metaphysical basis, though he fails to consider the realities facing the moral agent. His theory demands that an individual adheres to his principles, irrespective of the instability of the world around him. The same does not apply to Rousseau, as he put into consideration the factors influencing the moral agent. Rousseau acknowledges that rationality is not the only facet of man, since he puts into consideration the factors brought forward by the sensual world.

Epistemological shortcomings of the theories

The theories put forward on the defenses of freedom by both Kant and Rousseau fall sort since they lack a defense and proof of the will, indicating that people do not exist in a deterministic universe. Kant’s theory, for instance, does not provide an adequate argument for freedom, since it is based on the supremacy of the will.

Kant defends the capability of individuals to be rational, and at the same time recognizes the likelihood of error in their reasoning. Kant (47) also observes shortcomings in the reasoning of man, as he states that “the wickedness in human nature which necessitates coercion” and demands that the weak-willed irrational beings make choices based on duty.

Rousseau on the other hand identifies the heteronomous character of individuals, in his view of the state of nature. He supports that individuals create morality and self reflection with regard to freedom in order to ensure equality and happiness.

Rousseau observes that freedom is imposed on individuals due to the organization of society, and not necessarily due to their own will. He identifies that what people need is not perfection in terms of the objectives of society, but the general will provided for people to be dependent on, besides each other (Rousseau 104).


Neither of the theories is perfect, though they are beneficial in helping us to identify and understand our conception of freedom. The theories by Rousseau and Kant help us to understand moral freedom, in a society where freedom, justice and equality are habitual topics for debate, and therefore beneficial in the preservation of human rights and freedoms.

Works Cited

Kant, Immanuel. Kant: Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy) [Paperback]. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Print.

Rousseau, Jean Jacques. The Social Contract and Discourses [Paperback]. New York: Noach Publishing, 2007. Print.

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