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Pauline Kleingeld awarded Spinoza Prize

The quest for a just world

Does the world have a set of universal values? Principles that apply to every single human being? UG philosopher Pauline Kleingeld is using the money from her Spinoza Prize to find out. ‘A lot of people nowadays don’t think they exist. But I want to try anyway.’
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Door Christien Boomsma

19 June om 9:00 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 22 November 2020
om 16:15 uur.
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By Christien Boomsma

June 19 at 9:00 AM.
Last modified on November 22, 2020
at 16:15 PM.
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Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur Volledig bio »
Background coordinator and science editor Full bio »

The question she’s asking is one of the big ones. UG philosopher Pauline Kleingeld wants to find out if it’s possible to simply say that slavery is reprehensible, rather than ‘I think slavery is reprehensible’. In short, whether there are universal moral principles that apply to everyone, everywhere.

‘Because now you might say “I don’t agree with that” and that will be the end of the discussion.’

She has spent her entire life on this quest for the fundamentals of ethics. It’s why she decided to study theology when she started university. ‘We didn’t have philosophy in high school. I didn’t know it existed.’

When she was introduced to philosophy and ethics in her studies, she was hooked, even if theology only discussed the difference between good and evil. She left for Germany to study under famous philosopher Jürgen Habermas. She ended up becoming an expert in the eighteenth-century philosopher that would get her the 2020 Spinoza Prize: Immanuel Kant. 


Kant. The man whose work lies at the basis of how we think about freedom, about human autonomy, about moral actions and world citizenship. The philosopher who taught us that our maxims are morally just if they are universally applicable.

‘Basically, you have to ask yourself what would happen if everyone did what you did’, Kleingeld explains. ‘Would I want everyone else to abide by my principles, or am I the exception?’ She hastens to add: ‘Kant himself said it differently, of course.’  

Everyone is always complaining about Kant’s reasoning

Research financier NWO has given the philosopher 2.5 million euros, which she is free to spend on any kind of research she wants. She’s earned it for her ‘ground-breaking insights’, her ‘new interpretations’, and her ability to bridge the gap between eighteenth-century and modern ethical discussions. Obviously, she’ll be spending the money on her quest, hoping to give our modern thinking about moral principles a boost by better understanding Kant. 

Just because the libraries are full of books about Kant doesn’t mean he’s got nothing else to offer. ‘On the one hand, Kant has greatly influenced the way we think about human rights and morality’, says Kleingeld. ‘At the same time, everyone is always complaining about his reasoning.’


Kleingeld wants to bridge the gap between Kant’s important principles and his arguments. She thinks that if we interpret his concepts differently, his arguments start making sense. At least, that’s her hope. ‘It would cement his principles, too.’

The idea came to her during a big project about cosmopolitanism in eighteenth-century Germany. The book focused on a group of philosophers with interesting ideas on world citizenship. The concept was all the more interesting since globalisation was a hot button issue at the time. ‘I realised that the modern debate could learn a thing or two from these two-hundred-year-old insights.’ 

Some thinkers said that all people are morally equal, which means they all had the same right to aid in an emergency, anywhere in the world. Others said that states should work together in a league of nations or federation or, as one philosopher put it, one single world state that governed everyone in the world.

Racial hierarchy

Kleingeld discovered that Kant’s ideas on this issue were fascinating. In a time of war between all the European states, he argued that they should strive to form an international federation. However, they should absolutely not be forced to do this. 

I suddenly realised that Kant used political terms in his ethical philosophies 

While these European states were exploiting their colonies all over the world, Kant introduced the concept of cosmopolitanism: a universal human right that he used to reject colonialism. These ideas forced him to cancel his earlier theories on racial hierarchy, which he’d used to legitimise colonialism. 

But when Kleingeld finished the project, she realised that the sections on Kant had left her with questions. How did Kant come to these conclusions, she wondered. What was his defence of cosmopolitanism? ‘I suddenly realised that Kant kept using political terms in his ethical philosophies. Take the core concept of “autonomy”. Or “moral law”. What about “freedom”?’

Kant uses those terms, but experts on his political philosophies didn’t focus on his ethics. And the ethics experts weren’t interested in his politics.  


Kleingeld discovered that while Kant was writing his ethical works, he was also teaching classes in political philosophy. ‘He’d teach classes on natural law in the morning and continue writing his book on ethics in the afternoon’, she says. ‘I can’t imagine that concepts like freedom and autonomy meant one thing in his political philosophies and another in his ethics.’

Kleingeld started searching through Kant’s old lecture notes; the things he’d said during class, as recorded by his students, something very few people had looked at before. 

What she found was remarkable, to say the least. It’s likely that Kant’s definition for some of his philosophy’s core concept actually differed from what people thought. ‘I’m currently working on a paper on his definition of free will’, says Kleingeld. ‘Kant wrote a lot about that, but people never quite understood him. He’s the black sheep in that discussion.’


Kants sees free will as the opposite of slavery 

Free will is often considered the opposite of determinism. ‘If we’re all a little cog in a deterministic universe, there is no such thing as free will.’ Another interpretation puts free will opposite force. ‘Even if we live in a deterministic universe, we’re still free if no one forces us to do things. When we act without anyone holding a gun to our head.’

But Kant’s lecture notes suggest a third interpretation. ‘He sees free will as the opposite of slavery and dependence’, says Kleingeld.

According to Kant, free will means being able to act on your moral principles without your physical desires getting in the way. Feeling free to follow your principles because you feel that they’re okay. ‘But slavery means you no longer have free will and can’t act in accordance with your own views on what’s right.’  

Wrong interpretation

And that is fundamentally different from ‘not being forced’. ‘Slaves aren’t permanently forced to do things, but their slave state is permanent, which means they’re always being governed by someone else.’

Kleingeld believes that a new interpretation of Kant’s theories can lead to new insights. ‘If you have the wrong interpretation of a phrase that someone keeps using, you’ll never get it.’

She thinks it will do more than just cement his ethics. Kleingeld also thinks it could cement the basic principle of moral universalism. ‘Yeah, that’s going against the tide. We’re living in a time of relativism and scepticism. People who say that universal values don’t exist and that everything is culturally or even individually relative. But I want to try anyway’, she says.

Corona vaccine

People tend to be reflexively biased

What’s next? She hopes to be able to let go of Kant as a man and find out whether his reasoning can be used in modern discussions on moral universalism. If they are, she hopes these can be of use in the debate about refugee aid, about the availability of ICU beds, or a truly fair distribution of potential corona vaccines.  

‘People tend to be reflexively biased. That makes it even more important to come up with principles that everyone needs to obey. To prevent the people with the most power and the most money from taking everything’, she says. 

It’s not like she thinks she can change the world through philosophical work. ‘But I can articulate my ideas. I can formulate what a just world would look like.

Translation by Sarah van Steenderen


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