From Circuit Debater LD
Jump to navigation Jump to search


Kant is one of the most popular philosophical frameworks ran in LD debate. In contrast to theories like utilitarianism, which determine whether actions are just based on the consequences of an action, Kant advocates for a deontological theory, where the goodness of an action is intrinsic to the action itself. Kant can be a very strategic framework since many judges at least understand the basics, and it largely differs from utilitarian frameworks, so as a result, you can exclude much of your opponent's offense. Below is a brief description on how many Kant frameworks are justified in LD debate.


Many Kant frameworks contain the idea that human beings are intrinsically valuable. There are intrinsic properties, that all humans share, that make them valuable as agents. Often, rationality is used to bind human agents together.

These frameworks start with the premise that all human agents are rational beings. A rational agent is one that is capable of setting and pursuing their own ends, essentially, being able to think of an action and act upon it. There are various justifications for this argument which you can see in the sample cases, but for instance, whenever we choose an action, we deliberately set out to take all of the steps necessary for fulfilling that action.

Next, given that all agents are rational, an action that is justified for one agent must be justified for all agents. Logically, it could not be moral for one agent to take an action, but immoral for another agent to take that very same action. Kant then lays out a "test", so to speak, to determine whether an action would be justified for all agents to take.

Kant proposes we universalize an action to determine whether it would be moral for all agents to take. For instance, suppose Agent wanted to murder Agent . By universalizing the action of murdering, that is, imagining the world in which every single agent took that action, Agent would murder Agent . Therefore, Agent would be unable to carry out the original action of murdering, because they would be dead. Clearly, this leads to a contradiction, which is illogical, and thus immoral under a Kantian framework. This is called a Contradiction in Conception because it is impossible to conceptualize a world in which both actions are being in taken.

Another type of contradiction is called a Contradiction in Wills. Here, it would be possible to conceptualize a world to universalize a given action, but it would not be an ideal world. For instance, if Agent walks past Agent , who is drowning in a pool, technically, Agent is under no obligation to save Agent by a contradiction of conception, as one could perfectly conceptualize a world in which drowning people were never saved. However, if Agent was in the position of Agent , they would presumably want to be saved, so therefore, by seeing themself in the place of the other agent, the world would not be ideal. Therefore, Agent could be under some indirect obligation to save Agent . As an aside, in the debate sense, this might only be relevant if there is no act-omission distinction.

In any case, the conclusion of a Kantian framework is usually a standard of "consistency with the categorical imperative", where the categorical imperative is this imperative previously mentioned to make sure that contradictions do not take place upon universalizing an action. You can refer to the sample cases for examples of Kantian offense employed in debate.

The State

However, many LD debate topics are not questions of an individual's action but rather questions of government action.

While the categorical imperative applies to individual moral agents (i.e. people), it doesn’t make sense to apply it to states. Unlike individual people, states do not have coherent, unified states of moral action. It would not make sense to say the state of France thought about a decision and pursued it. Individual French policymakers may have, but the state itself did not.

Thus, if we have an LD topic that questions what a government should do, we must understand how the obligations of a government are distinct from those of an individual.

This raises a basic question: why should the government exist at all? If Kant cares about freedom, why would he justify the existence of a government that taxes and coerces its citizens by its very nature? Could Kant simply be an anarchist?

Unfortunately for the budding revolutionaries reading this, Kant was very much not an anarchist. He believed that the categorical imperative grants individuals rights. If the categorical imperative prohibits murder, that is equivalent to saying that agents have the right to life.

However, rights do not exist as abstract moral entities. If they did, they would be useless. Would a violent murderer be persuaded to stop if their victim explained that, in fact, murdering violates the categorical imperative? This argument might be persuasive to an LD debater but will probably not save our poor victim's life.

Instead, the way we enforce rights is through the state. The Kantian state is responsible for punishing those who commit rights violations. There are a few important things to note about this punishment:

  • First, it is retributive. For Kant, punishment is an intrinsically just response to crime. While it may be nice if this happens to deter future crime, this would be a side benefit. Rather, the state must punish because it is a logically necessary response to a rights violation. For a more complete account of retributive justice, see this.
  • Second, it is backward facing. The state cannot punish for a predicted crime, or because it believes punishing someone innocent will deter future crime. The state only punishes in response to crime that has already happened.

A useful analogy is that of a computer program. Given an input, a computer program should produce a predictable output. It should not change its output due to factors unrelated to the intrinsic qualities of the input. Similarly, the Kantian state receives a crime as an input and outputs a proportionate punishment.

While Kant is no anarchist, his focus on punishment does lead to a somewhat libertarian state. There are a few other things the state may do, but only because they are necessary for its main role of punishing rights violators. For example, the state may own a limited amount of property to facilitate punishment (e.g. a jail).

If you have an LD topic that speaks to government action, your framework must make the transition between moral philosophy (i.e. the categorical imperative) and political philosophy (i.e. the state); otherwise, your framework is incomplete.

For further information, the best resource for Kantian political philosophy is Arthur Ripstein’s Force and Freedom.


Velleman, A Brief Introduction to Kantian Ethics

Wood, Kantian Ethics

Korsgaard, Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity

Ripstein, Force and Freedom

Sample Cases

JF20 - AC - Kant CD.docx