Professor Bernasconi, you wrote a 2005 paper called: ‘Why do the happy inhabitants of Tahiti bother to exist at all?’1 You were paraphrasing Kant, who you strikingly said ‘unwittingly contributed’ to a culture of genocide.

This is, as you point out, an old essay and I would certainly change some details if I were to rewrite it today. I had previously argued that Kant had in effect invented the modern scientific idea of race in terms of a permanent, that is to say hereditary, racial hierarchy. But this 2005 essay marks only an early stage in my attempt to address the role of a number of philosophers of history, and not just Kant, in promoting the idea that the very existence or purposefulness of some peoples was questionable because they could never attain the heights, the perfectibility, that was potentially open to the White race as a race. The actual phrase “bother to exist” was not my contribution; it is to be found in Robert Anchor’s translation of Kant’s review of Herder’s Ideen published in Lewis White Beck’s volume Kant on History. The translation of this phrase is not precise, but it captures perfectly the dismissive tone Kant frequently applied in his polemics.

You were not arguing that Kant had a direct, causal role in the events leading to later genocides, but that the famous Prussian had legitimised genocidal theories like many in his day. Is that a fair characterisation?

Yes. Kant was certainly not advocating or celebrating the extermination of whole populations as later writers would do. But, as I pointed out in my essay, Kant himself recognised that if the meaning of the human species lay in its historical progress, there was an evident problem about the point of races and peoples that did not progress. For example, in lectures he delivered in 1778 he addressed the fact that Native Americans were in the process of dying out. He rejected as gruesome the idea of murdering them, but, given that he saw no role or need for them and indeed speculated that they would eventually kill each other as Europeans advanced into their land, he had articulated a dangerous perspective from which their presence could be seen as an obstacle to progress.

It seems surreal that, as you say, Kant’s thought on ‘the question of the meaning of human existence’ could possibly legitimise genocides. Many people couldn’t imagine the quest for meaning being so dangerous. Is it?

Kant’s starting point in his 1784 essay on history was the apparent chaos of human affairs, which he contrasted with the orderliness visible in the way animals like bees and beavers go about their lives. Whereas nature’s purposes for animal species was visible in each generation, it seemed to Kant that the meaning of human existence emerged only insofar as one took an historical perspective with regard to the species as a whole. But, having adopted this perspective, Kant was explicit that for nature’s aim for humanity to be fulfilled earlier generations are in effect sacrificed for those that came later. And then the question becomes: What does that sacrifice look like?  

You explain that Kant was one of the first Western thinkers to detach this question of “meaning’ from God and attribute it to history, from which he deduced his beliefs that Native Americans are a weak, talentless race, etc.

Or, more precisely, because he believed that their weakness and other limitations were hereditary, there was a problem about how they and races other than the White race contributed to the perfection of the species. It seemed that the logic of Kant’s position about history when combined with his views about race entailed the idea that just as earlier generations sacrificed themselves for later generations, so the less talented races were called upon to sacrifice themselves for the White race that, as a race, was unique in possessing all the talents.  

You also write that Kant defended Native Americans against colonialism. Was this defence unusual for an 18th century European philosopher?

Much is made of what he wrote about hospitality, but discussions of the right to hospitality were widespread throughout the eighteenth century. There was nothing significantly new there. By contrast, we must give him credit for insisting that the right to settle uninhabited lands did not include cases where there were shepherds or hunters. But there is an inner tension in his account. From his perspective using force to remove them was to the world’s advantage, but at the same time he saw the injustice of doing so and he explicitly denied that civilising or Christianising supposedly savage inhabitants could override that. So, a Kantian would recognise the injustice of Indian Removal in the United States in the 1820s, while at the same time acknowledging that it was consistent with nature’s aim.

Kant, you write, held a teleological view of history on which our happiness as individuals was entirely dependent on some collective end state, such as cosmopolitanism, first being secured. This is still a popular way of thinking.

Nobody today can look at the world and not see that the problems of world hunger, fighting disease, and combatting climate change can only be addressed by global cooperation. But those were not Kant’s issues and that is not why he advocated cosmopolitanism. One should beware thinking that what Kant understood by cosmopolitanism is continuous with what the advocates of cosmopolitanism today (who nevertheless try to trade on Kant’s name and attribute their own ideas to him) understand by that term. But buying into the Kant franchise is a much less attractive proposition now that his role in formulating what was effectively a new kind of racism is no longer concealed from the general public, as Kant scholars have frequently done since the Second World War, that is, until very recently.  

Which brings us to Kant’s question of why the Tahitians ‘exist at all, and whether it would not have been just as good to have this island populated with happy sheep and cattle as with human beings who are happy merely enjoying themselves?’2 What about their happiness so bothered Kant?

Kant was provoked by Georg Forster’s description of Tahiti as one of the happiest spots on the globe, but his real target was Herder who understood that there was something inherently vicious about Kant’s 1784 essay on history somewhat along the lines that I have already indicated. Herder believed that all peoples contributed to humanity. He celebrated their differences, but for Kant, although the white race possessed in principle all the talents, the other races were marked by limitations that were the product of the conditions in which they found themselves in the early stages of their existence. He viewed the happiness of the Tahitians as a product of the ease with which they were able to provide for themselves. But by living in such an environment they lacked the incentive to work and improve themselves and this had shaped their character. To Kant the source of their happiness was their downfall.

You write that philosophies of progress—in colonial, nationalistic, and pseudo-scientific forms—became bound up with mass murder in the 20th century. Has this potential link you posit been broken in our day and age?

I believe that there were significant changes, one might say paradigm shifts, that separate the racisms of the late eighteenth century from those of the early twentieth century, so I was not charting a continuous line of development. But I would add that some of the ways that Kant thought about race—his insistence on its hereditary character, his antipathy on biological grounds toward race mixing, and perhaps above all his importation of those two ideas into a progressive philosophy of history—were at very least unusual in his own time and anticipate in some respects what came later. To that extent one can say, with appropriate reservations, that they prepare the way for the biopolitics that took hold in the late nineteenth century. The idea of progress, like that of civilisation, is still frequently associated with some peoples and some races and not other peoples and races, even though we seem to have every reason to question the ideas of progress and civilisation themselves. Unfortunately, the culture of genocide, cultural and physical, is alive and well and the echoes of earlier philosophies, including Kant’s, can be heard in it.

More recently, you wrote on the so-called second thoughts question, i.e. the debated claim that Kant substantially rethought his views on race in later works.3 Have the views you have set out above been altered by this debate?

The idea that Kant changed his mind late in the day has proved very attractive to a number of scholars, even though what evidence there is for such a change is slight and is in any case confined to relatively minor points, given the larger picture. But there have recently been some strong responses critical of the second thoughts thesis. They not only largely vindicate my position, but even demonstrate that things are worse for Kant’s reputation than I had imagined ten years ago. I have learned a lot from these new studies.

If Kant was wrong in making happiness subservient to ideas like progress, how do we learn from his failure as we try to live morally in our own time?

I would be surprised if many people today still want to promote a philosophy constructed around either happiness or progress. Neither of these ideas speak to the moral and political issues of our time. But when it comes to living morally today, one prerequisite is intellectual honesty. There is a fundamental dishonesty in the attacks on critical race theory by politicians in the United States and it is mirrored in the way that academic philosophers have sought to whitewash the role of a number of canonical philosophers, not just Kant, when they promoted slavery and a racially based philosophy of history. In my view, we should be focusing more on the current crises and much less on trying to rehabilitate past philosophies. To that extent, I regret the fact that I have had to spend so much of my time having to show the deficiencies of past philosophies that still have adherents who want to defend them. But I judged it necessary to do so in order to create the space where other approaches might flourish and I believe we are seeing signs that there is now a strong appetite for radical change in the way philosophy is taught.