Kant on War

Immanuel Kant was born on April 22, 1724, in Königsberg, East Prussia, now the Russian city of Kaliningrad. Kant is considered to be one of the greatest philosophers in the history of Western Civilization. He was also an opponent of perpetual war. Possibly influential in Kant’s thinking about war was the fact that his family were Pietists, which were a Lutheran sect similar to Quakers.

The European wars of Kant’s era included the Russo-Swedish War (1741–1743), the War of Austrian Succession (1740–1748), the Seven Years War (1754–1763), the Russo-Turkish War (1768–1774), the Partitions of Poland (1772–1775), the American War of Independence (1775–1783), another Russo-Swedish War (1788–1790), the French Revolution (1789–1799), the Russo-Persian War (1796), and at the very end of his life, the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars (1797–1815).

The Seven Years War was probably the first “world war”, pitting Britain, Prussia, Portugal, and smaller German states against France, Austria, Russia, Sweden, Saxony, and Spain, with fighting raging in Europe, North America, and India. Another modern aspect of this war was that it began as pre-emptive defense, when Prussia attacked Saxony based on suspicion that Austria and Russia were planning to attack Prussia. Another modern aspect of this war was that the small German states were proxies for the larger conflict between England and France each striving for global imperial dominance.

Kant published his booklet on “Perpetual Peace” in 1795. (See L. W. Beck’s 1963 translation in Kant on History (pp. 85-135), NY: Macmillan). As with the wars of his era, his essay has many modern aspects. First, as with our contemporary academics working to oppose war, Kant expected that his efforts would be dismissed by those in power, those who decide to make war. In his preface, Kant wrote (1795, p. 85) that “The practical politician assumes the attitude of looking down with great self-satisfaction on the political theorist as a pedant whose empty ideas in now way threaten the security of the state”. But Kant (1795, p. 85) was nevertheless fearful that he might be accused of being a “traitor” or a “terrorist” for criticizing the militarism of the state, and cautiously closed his preface with the statement that “the author desires formally and emphatically to depreciate herewith any malevolent interpretation which might be placed on his words”.

Kant’s essay was comprised of six preliminary articles for perpetual peace, and three over-riding definitive articles. Kant’s (1795, pp. 85-91) six preliminary articles derive from the rational requirement to avoid contradictions. For example, Article 1 states that “No treaty of peace shall be held valid in which there is a tacitly reserved matter for a future war” because that would essentially be a contract made in bad faith and would furthermore violate the concept of a “peace treaty” which by definition terminates the causes of future wars.

Article 2 states that “No independent states, large or small, shall come under the dominion of another state” because that destroys the moral basis of the nation. Kant reasoned that a nation is by definition “a society of men whom no one else has any right to command”. For one nation to subsume another nation contradicts and destroys the essence of being a nation. Our contemporary Israeli-Palestinian conflict is unresolved and maybe unresolvable, in part, because Israel had taken dominion of another people, the Palestinians, who Israel will not accept as part of the Israeli state but also will not allow to be a coexisting state. The logic of the conflict thus leads to the conclusion that Palestinians have to somehow disappear, by enclosing them behind high walls, by emigration, by denying them the resources for survival, etc.

Article 3 states that “Standing armies shall in time be totally abolished” because they are preparations for war which reveal bad faith, cause distrust, and result in an arms race. There is the practical matter that an arms race makes the cost of peace more oppressive than the cost of a short offensive war. This puts pressure on nations to instigate real wars in order to save money. Standing armies also degrade the moral rights of individuals in their own persons because soldiers become “mere machines and tools in the hand of another”. As robotics begin to replace humans on the battle field, it is becoming clear that the soldiers in fact had been mere machines.

Very modern and very relevant to our contemporary crisis is Kant’s (1795, p.88) Article 4, that “National debts shall not be contracted with a view to the external friction of states”. Public debt that serves the domestic economy is reasonable, but public debt in excess of that becomes an inexhaustible war treasury, that will inevitably lead to default and bankruptcy, thereby entangling and harming many innocent nations. This is Kant’s warning to Americans for borrowing billions and billions to make war, and his warning to the Chinese, Japanese, and Arab Emirates, that they may lose those loans when the USA defaults on its debt or devalues the dollar to worthlessness.

Article 5 states that “No state shall by force interfere with the constitution or government of another state”. To do so contradicts the concept of a nation. “Regime change” as we now call it, infringes on the rights of independent people and makes the autonomy of all nations insecure.

Finally, Kant’s (1795, p. 89) Article 6 states that “No state shall, during the war, permit such acts of hostility which would make mutual confidence in the subsequent peace impossible”, including assassins (terrorism), poisons (biochemical warfare), incitement to treason (subversion), and breaches of capitulation (killing or torturing prisoners). These kinds of acts make peace impossible, and a war without the possibility of peace turns into a war of extermination. Again, our contemporary religious conflicts come to mind, covert operations, assassinations, torture, use of banned weapons like white phosphorus, tungsten, and depleted uranium, for example, in our attacks on Fallujah and Gaza.

Of Kant’s definitive articles, Article I states that “The civil constitution of every state should be republican” because such states rest on the rational principles a) that individuals have inherent freedom, b) that all individuals depend on a single system of legislated law, and c) that all individuals are equal before that law. Kant reasoned that a free citizenry will rarely consent to war since they suffer the costs and calamities of war. Kant (1795, p. 96) defined despotism to be “the autonomous execution by the state of laws which it has itself decreed”. Democracies are despotic if there is no effective separation of executive and legislative powers. Nations that allow their politicians to break laws with impunity are not democratic nations.

Article II argues that “The law of nations shall be founded on a federation of free states”. Kant argued that nations, like individuals, need rule of law, which can only be created by a freely assembled “league of nations”, what we now call the United Nations. If nations do not have a system of law, and a means of adjudication, then they resort to war to settle disputes even though victory in war is not a basis for confidence that the right and just settlement has been achieved.

Article III argues that “The law of world citizenship shall be limited to conditions of universal hospitality”. Kant (1795, p. 102) explained that “Hospitality means the right of the stranger not to be treated as an enemy”. This is a principle of human equality, which is the foundation of all human rights. Kant (1795, p. 103) explained that we “must finally tolerate the presence of each other,” and that “originally, no one had more right than another to a particular part of the earth.” Peoples must be allowed to freely emigrate and be treated as equals in their new nations. In our contemporary conflicts and “clash of civilizations”, it is curious, and should be a point of analysis, that the Islamic cultures traditionally have put a very high priority on obligations of hospitality, more so probably than most Christian cultures. Even in contexts of war zones and impoverishment, reporters and NGOs comment on the hospitality they have received, for example, in Gaza, or Iraq, or Afghanistan.

Kant (1795, pp. 121) also warned about the ways lawyers in government will twist words and reasoning in order to make war. His description of lawyers who enter into politics seems well to describe those who gave legal opinion to the US and UK governments to wage war on Afghanistan and Iraq and to violate constitutional and treaty prohibition on torture of prisoners:
“Instead of possessing the practical science they boast of, these politicians have only practices: they flatter the power which is then ruling so as not to be remiss in their private advantage, and they sacrifice the nation and, possibly, the whole world. . .”

Kant (1795, p. 122) lists three principles of false reasoning used by politicians in corrupting constitutions in order to make war.

A) “Seize every favorable opportunity for usurping the right of the state over its own people. . . Boldness itself give the appearance of inner conviction of the legitimacy of the deed. . .”

B) “What you have committed, deny that is was your fault. . . if you have conquered a neighboring nation, say that the fault lies in the nature of man, who, if not met by force can be counted on to make use of force to attack you.”

C) “. . . if it is foreign states that concern you, it is a pretty safe means to sow discord among them so that, by seeming to protect the weaker, you can conquer them one after another.”
It is obvious that Bush, Blair, Obama and other aggressive politicians continue to use these rhetorical tricks and tactics.

Finally, Kant (1795, p. 129) argued strongly for the benefits of “transparency”. Any government decision or strategy that requires secrecy to succeed, is by that fact an immoral and irrational decision or strategy: “All actions relating to the right of other men are unjust if their maxim is not consistent with publicity”. Rational, moral, just governments do not need to hide their decisions and plans. Our contemporary democracies increasingly resort to secrecy, which is a sign that they are not serving the principles of their constitutions nor deeper principles of equality and justice.

In conclusion, 200 years ago, at about the same time the USA became a nation, Kant warned us about the dangers of perpetual war, and how to avoid it. It seems that we have not heard his warnings, that we prefer perpetual war to perpetual peace.

FLOYD RUDMIN is Professor of Social & Community Psychology at the University of Tromsø in Norway. He can be reached at frudmin@psyk.uit.no

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