Monday, 10 October 2016

Do We Need Perpetual Peace?

By Bohdana Kurylo
Immanuel Kant viewed war as an attribute of the state of nature, in which ‘the freedom of folly’ has not yet been replaced by ‘the freedom of reason’. His philosophy has influenced the ways in which contemporary philosophers conceive of political violence, and seek to eliminate it from global politics: through international law, collective security, and human rights. Yet is perpetual peace an intrinsically desirable destination for us today?
For Kant, peace was a question of knowledge – insofar as knowledge teaches us human nature and the experience of all centuries. It was a matter of scrutinising all claims to knowledge about human potential, that stem from feelings, instincts, memories, and other results of lived experience. On the basis of such knowledge, he thought, war could be eliminated.

Kant realised, however, that not all human knowledge is true. In particular, our ever-present possibility of war serves as evidence of the inadequacy of existing knowledge to conceive the means and principles by which perpetual peace may be established. Kant’s doctrine of transcendental idealism explained this inadequacy by claiming that humans experience only appearances (phenomena) and not things-in-themselves (noumena). What we think we know, is only appearance – our interpretation of the world. Beyond this lies a real world of things-in-themselves, the comprehension of which is simply unattainable for the human mind.

While realists, on this basis, insist on the inevitability of anarchy and war, Kant conceived that the noumenal realm could emancipate our reason from the limitations of empiricism, so enabling us to achieve perpetual peace. He sought to show that we have a categorical moral duty to act morally, even though the empirical world seems to be resistant to it. And since there is no scientific evidence that perpetual peace is impossible, he held that it ought to remain a possibility. Moreover, since moral practical reason claims that war is absolutely evil, humans have a moral duty to discipline their worst instincts to bring about perpetual peace.

Claiming to be guided by the universal reason, Kant proposed three institutional principles which could become the platform for a transnational civil society, superseding potential sources of conflict:
• The road to peace starts with the transition from the natural condition to an ‘original contract, upon which all rightful legislation of a people must be founded’, which needs to be republican.
• In order to overcome the natural condition internationally, external lawlessness between states should be solved by creating a ‘Federation of Free States’.
• Finally, a peaceful membership in a global republic would not be possible without ‘the right of a stranger not to be treated with hostility […] on someone else’s territory’ – the cosmopolitan right to universal hospitality.
Yet Kant, in spite of wanting to emancipate humans from natural determination and past experience, seems to have fallen under the same phenomenal influence as the realists. His pessimistic view of human instincts, which needed to be suppressed to avoid war, strongly reflected an internalisation of the social perceptions of human nature in his time. Humans, he thought, by choosing to overcome their instincts, ought to move from the tutelage of human nature to a state of freedom. The problem is that this ‘freedom’ was already socially defined. Therefore, viewing war as a purely negative phenomenon that hinders human progress, Kant never subjected his reasoning to the total scrutiny which he himself advocated.

Consequently Kant offered a rather deterministic solution, which merely aimed at social ‘tranquillisation’ through feeding people the ready-made values of global peace. Hence one observes his rather excessive emphasis on obedience to authority: ‘all resistance against the supreme legislative power […] is the greatest and most punishable crime’. Kant’s individual requires a master who will ‘break his self-will and force him to obey’. In turn, the master needs to be kept under the control of his own master. Crucially, this would destroy the liberty to conceive for oneself whether war is necessarily such a negative phenomenon.

Even such pacification, through obedience to authority, is unlikely to bring perpetual peace, for it refuses to understand the underlying factors that lead humans into war with each other. Perhaps more effective would be to try to find the cause of war, prior to searching for its cure.

Kant missed the idea that war may be the consequence of the current value system, which suppresses the true human will. Thus Friedrich Nietzsche argued for the need to revaluate values. Being unafraid of war, he recognised its creative potential to bring about a new culture of politics. Where Kant’s peace would merely be a temporary pacification, a complete revaluation of values could potentially create a society that would be beyond the issues of war and peace.


  1. Thanks,Bo - very topical debate! That said, the issue that is so real has been made so abstract that it seems now that it fails to connect to reality - to provide guidance in the face of crises from Ukraine to Yeman to Syria.

    I believe Kant's view has to be set against Hegel's in this case? That Hegel opposes all restraints on this rising German Spirit, such as international organisations with the task of preventing conflict, explaining in the Philosophy of Right that war is crucial: "Just as the blowing of the winds preserves the sea from the foulness which would be the result of a prolonged calm, so also corruption in nations would be the product of prolonged, let alone 'perpetual' peace."

    The practical import is unambiguous there!

  2. A problem with Kant, which is reflected here, was his preoccupation with an ideal world rather than a real world. Kant's categorical imperative is the pre-eminent example. It represents an ideal, and an ideal imagines a world which is not, or is not yet. Kierkegaard described this as being 'utterly without grace'. It is not only our desired future which deserves our attentions, but our present reality which demands our compassion. So here, too, we have the same old Kant, deterministic, authoritarian and so on, as I think Bohdana fittingly describes him.

    I like Bohdana's essays. While they may not make an easy read, they are thought-provoking and original.

    1. I think that Kant believes that the noumenon is more real. That it's like God. I think that this text exemplifies how Kant was quick to abandon his stated aim to approach the reality behind things, to jump to easy "universal" answers. However, the initial impetus is attractive to me, because I recognize that the "worlds behind" that Nietzsche mocked do seem to exist, as Plato discovered...

  3. History bluntly attests, at least thus far, that John Stuart Mill got it right when he posited, “War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse.” Whether—in a world beyond idealism—‘federations of states’ or single nations or human nature can learn to shake their capriciously instinctual tendencies toward war to right ‘wrongs’ for reasons of moral or other perceived indignity, or out of jingoism, or just to be predatory/covetous remains a curiously open book

  4. It is sad to see that Kant fell for a political ideal that was totally devoid of reason, a world dominated by violent, peace-enforcing international instruments: where is the increased knowledge of the nature of humanity?

    I don't see really where Nietzsche is helping. The most interesting point he makes is the same as Kant's initially – know thyself - and his advocacy for war, unless it's – again – some kind of metaphoric language, is just, imho, another instance of attention-seeking. War in its strictest sense is unquestionably not desirable, just like other horrors; metaphorically speaking, however, war is everywhere. The point I take home, in your essay, is that our a priori about human nature can have huge and unnoticed effects.