We are glad to give notice of the talk Kant on Lazy Savagery, Racialized, which will be held by Hauping Lu-Adler (Georgetown University) at the Leuven Seminar in Classical German Philosophy on 25 March 2021, 17:00-18:30 (Zoom). The Seminar is organized by Karin de Boer, Henny Blomme, Stephen Howard, and Pavel Reichl.
Both in his published essays on race and in his writings/lectures on anthropology, Kant portrays native Americans, representing “savages,” as lazy. Although some of his predecessors, particularly Rousseau, also viewed the so-called savages this way, Kant’s approach is unique in that he racializes lazy savagery, treating it as an indelible feature of the American race. In this paper, I explain what this racialization means and why it matters. My analysis will also suggest a new way to address the supposed tension between Kant’s racism and his moral universalism: contrary to most scholars, I will show that Kant’s racial views and his moral universalism are compatible—not because his moral theory is less than universal (as Charles Mills argued) or because his racial views are morally innocent (no scholar would think this), but because they belong to distinct yet complementary parts of his philosophical system.
To begin with, Kant treats native Americans as a distinct race on account of their skin color. He argues (mainly in his three published essays on race) that the original human phylum must contain certain germs and natural predispositions, which developed differently in the early humans as they adapted to four separate climates; four skin colors (white, yellow, black, red), once formed during this early adaptive process, became unfailingly hereditary.
As for laziness, Kant sees it as a universal natural predisposition (that is, all humans have it), but holds that it may be suppressed in some humans while developed in others. He assigns both blacks and native Americans to the latter category: each of these races allegedly developed laziness as an adaptive effect of the climate. For Kant, however, native Americans are also lazy in a uniquely problematic way: their laziness (unlike the laziness attributed to blacks) boils down to a blunted life power and a lack of any usable drives or feelings, for which reason they are utterly useless (whereas blacks can allegedly still be trained for hard labor due to their fear of beating). This physiological laziness is considered to be as indelible as their skin color.
Now, on Kant’s general account of human progress (mainly in his writings/lectures on anthropology, history, and pedagogy), human beings must be disciplined first, before they can be cultivated, civilized, and finally moralized. One is susceptible to discipline, however, only if one has certain drives and feelings. By racializing native Americans’ laziness in the way described above, Kant has virtually denied them this prerequisite for discipline and, a fortiori, for any hope of progressing toward moralization. Since he does so while granting them the same “germs” for morality as he does all other humans, he does not thereby contradict himself.
This conclusion problematizes the way in which scholars (e.g., Bernasconi, Mills, Louden, Kleingeld, Allais) have debated about Kant’s racism: taking for granted that racism contradicts Kant’s moral universalism, they either bite the bullet and ascribe cognitive dissonance to Kant (at least during the 1780s), or contend that his moral philosophy is not really universal. Such is what Kleingeld described as the dichotomy between “inconsistent universalism” and “consistent inegalitarianism.” My case study of Kant’s racialization of lazy savagery suggests that the dichotomy may well be a false one: Kant can be a consistent universalist, who promoted a pure moral universalism for the human being in abstracto while affirming racist views about actual humans in concreto, without thereby contradicting himself.
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