Immanuel Kant viewed war as an attribute of the state of nature, in which ‘the freedom of folly’ has not yet been replaced by ‘the freedom of reason’.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.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.
• 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.
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.