A commentary on the ‘Perpetual Peace’ of Immanuel Kant

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A commentary on the ‘Perpetual Peace’ of Immanuel Kant

Caspian Richards
University of Aberdeen, Scotland
E-mail: c.richards@abdn.ac.uk

Key words: Kant, Perpetual Peace

This letter aims to draw attention to one of Immanuel Kant’s more accessible works, Perpetual Peace – A Philosophical Essay, and to explore its relevance for us today. Kant’s essay begins by setting out the ‘preliminary articles’ to the establishment of a perpetual peace between states– those conditions which must be met in order to make a perpetual peace a possibility – and then proceeds to the ‘definitive articles’, upon which a lasting peace may be built. Here we shall relate briefly the contents of both sets of articles, before moving on to examine more closely the underlying tensions which these articles – and Kant’s programme as a whole – seek to reconcile.

Kant’s title, he tells us in a preliminary remark, is taken from a ‘satirical inscription’ on the sign of a Dutch inn, where the legend ‘Pax Perpetua’ appears above the image of a graveyard. Either Leibniz had drunk at the same inn, or Kant had read of the signboard in Leibniz’s correspondence, for the translator produces a reference to it from a letter of the latter to Grimarest. Kant suggests various possible targets of this ‘satire’ – it might be mankind as a whole, the rulers of states ("unwearying in their love of war"), or "…only at the philosophers who cherish the sweet dream of perpetual peace." Kant numbers himself amongst this last group, and the essay which follows is his attempt to show how this ‘sweet dream’ might eventually be realised. In one manner, he portrays ‘perpetual peace’ between states as an attainable, if distant, ideal; in another, it is seen to be a principle towards which we are morally compelled to strive, regardless of whether or not its realisation in practice is feasible. In true Kantian fashion, it transpires in the end that the moral and practical aspects find in each other a happy concord, so that this is "…a problem which gradually works out its own solution."

Nevertheless, the essay proper presents a programme for action, while the account of how perpetual peace might arise of its own accord is relegated to the essay’s First Supplement. The articles Kant sets out are of a prescriptive rather than a descriptive nature, and fall into two categories: the preliminary and the definitive. The text of the articles themselves is brief, and is as follows:

Preliminary articles:

No treaty of peace shall be regarded as valid, if made with the secret reservation of material for a future war.

No state having an independent existence – whether it be great or small – shall be acquired by another through inheritance, exchange, purchase or donation.

Standing armies shall be abolished in course of time.

No national debts shall be contracted in connection with the external affairs of the state.

No state shall violently interfere with the constitution and administration of another.

No state at war with another shall countenance such modes of hostility as would make mutual confidence impossible in a subsequent state of peace: such are the employment of assassins (percussores) or of poisoners (venefici), breaches of capitulation, the instigating and making use of treachery (perduellio) in the hostile state.

This group of conditions evidently aims to address the climate of mistrust between nations, and to bring about an environment within which a perpetual peace could arise. As such, they seek predominantly to stabilise the relations between nations, rather than to set principles for the arbitration of conflicts. Consequently, these articles are not to be applied retrospectively – in the case of Article 2, for example, Kant stipulates that "the prohibition refers here only to the mode of acquisition which is to be no longer valid, and not to the fact of possession which, although indeed it has not the necessary title of right, yet at the time of so-called acquisition was held legal by all states, in accordance with the public opinion of the time." With this in mind, then, the objectives of the preliminary articles are to freeze the current shape of nations by assuring the sovereignty of each (Articles 2 & 5), to remove apparent threats to the sovereignty of other nations (Articles 3 & 4), and to reassure each nation that the word of another may be trusted (Articles 1 & 6). Once attained then these measures, addressing the form of relations between nations, may be succeeded by principles governing future relations. Without such principles, Kant tells us, a lasting peace is impossible, as a present peace carries no guarantee against future war – Kant sides with Hobbes in seeing war as the natural state, and thus "…the state of peace must be established." This can only be achieved by the application of the following definitive articles:

The civil constitution of each state shall be republican.

The law of nations shall be founded on a federation of free states.

The rights of men, as citizens of the world, shall be limited to the conditions of universal hospitality.

What exactly a ‘republican’ constitution means in practice is perhaps one of the hazier areas of Kant’s essay, although certain elaborations are made: the principles of a republican constitution are the freedom of its members, their dependence upon a common legislation, and their equality as citizens. Its necessity in bringing about a perpetual peace arises from the fact that under this form of constitution, all subjects must themselves apparently consent to fight and to meet the costs of war, an eventuality which is supposed unlikely if the citizens weigh up their decision properly beforehand. This is contrasted with the declaration of war by a despotic ruler who has no intention of being personally involved in combat, and consequently has not the same deterrent in committing the country to war. The ‘law of nations’ is in most respects analogous on the level of states to the republican constitution binding the citizens of each state, ensuring their ‘freedom’ (or sovereignty), dependence on common laws, and equality. ‘Hospitality’, in the final article, "…signifies the claim of a stranger entering foreign territory to be treated by its owner without hostility."

Underlying all the articles, preliminary and definitive, is a set of partially implicit principles that will be familiar from Kant’s other writings. First and foremost, there is the role of reason in revealing to us our duty, in this case to work towards the establishment of perpetual peace. As we have seen, Kant sees war as the ‘natural’ state and peace as that to be ‘established’; through his emphasis on the power of reason to determine moral and practical right, it appears that the barrier to peace is not the warlike tendencies of mankind as such, but the widespread failure to see reason when the prospect of war arises. Kant’s ‘reason’ is the highest faculty of thought, unique to mankind; this mode of passionless perception and detached contemplation apparently produce the same result regardless of the identity of the reasoner. The unity of reason may be seen as the foundation of other Kantian principles, notably those of equality, freedom, and transparency. These latter principles might be described in turn as constituting the environment most conducive to the exercise of reason, and Kant’s implication is that if people are rarely reasonable, it is because the conditions which best suit reason are lacking.

In this way it seems that reason begets reason : reason reveals duty, and our duty is to act to bring about the conditions within which reason may be freely exercised. The state of ‘perpetual peace’ is one way of describing these conditions, and Kant’s programme for action sets out the self-perpetuating course shown by human reason to be our duty. Nevertheless, in the First Supplement to the essay, Kant attempts to show that the route to perpetual peace is the destiny of the world irrespective of whether mankind obeys the rule of reason; there is thus both a mechanical and moral necessity to this end. Whether it is called ‘Fate’ or ‘Providence’, Kant argues, there is in nature "…a predetermined design to make harmony spring from human discord, even against the will of man."

Expressed by Kant in animistic terms, as the actions and intentions of ‘Nature’ concerning human beings, the argument for the mechanical necessity of perpetual peace runs along the familiar lines of the contract philosophers, as follows: If each person is motivated purely by self-interest, they will then seek laws to protect their own interests against other people, and peace to guarantee their own security. With the additional factor of a commercial interest, which "…sooner or later […] takes possession of every nation" and is incompatible with war, it thus appears to Kant that "…nature guarantees the coming of perpetual peace, through the natural course of human propensities: not indeed with sufficient certainty to enable us to prophesy the future of this ideal theoretically, but yet clearly enough for practical purposes." The outcome is sufficiently finely poised to provide a role for human duty, rather than allowing us to wait for the inevitable to happen; the practical necessity of perpetual peace is therefore seen to be an essential concomitant of its moral necessity, as reason cannot dictate that we labour towards unattainable ends.

While the practical and moral paths to perpetual peace may be conjoined, Kant nevertheless cautions against a deference to practical rather than moral ends. This distinction he expresses in an appendix to the essay proper, through an elaboration of the archetypes of the ‘moral politician’ and the ‘political moralist’. The former practises politics within the bounds laid down by morals, the latter selects and contorts morals in order to satisfy the political demands of the moment. The moral politician is held up as an exemplar, while the political moralist is an out-and-out villain in the Machiavellian mould. An alternative way of formulating the distinction between these two types would be whether primacy is given to faith or to experience : Kant’s reason dictates that we strive towards an outcome – perpetual peace – that lies beyond our current range of experience, whereas the cynic would reject the possibility of this state ever arising, on the evidence of past and present wars. Kant’s argument for the practical necessity of perpetual peace serves therefore to provide an object of faith to light the moral path, and it appears to be included in his argument for this rather than any other purpose. After all, we can only pursue perpetual peace as moral agents – while ‘Nature’ pursues its own practical course independently of our actions – but our efforts in this direction are only tenable if we also know them to be practical, i.e. we believe in the reality of their ultimate goal. The argument for the practical necessity of perpetual peace thus falls into the category of ‘useful beliefs’, and has an ontological status within the argument – if we believe that perpetual peace is a practical aim, and if we follow the dictates of reason, then we will act from a moral standpoint to bring it about; this in turn increases the practicality of the aim.

To conclude this exegesis, then an axiom of this programme for the attainment of perpetual peace is the essential freedom of human reason. In Kant’s schema, this freedom is the basis of moral thought, and allows us to focus on such ultimate ends as a perpetual peace between nations. With this in mind, the role of the preliminary and definitive articles may be seen not only as a direct route to the cessation of conflict between nations, but also to providing a political environment in which everyone is free to exercise their reason. In this sense, the moral and practical aspects of the thesis are once again intertwined, as the practical realisation of a perpetual peace between nations is simultaneously the moral reformation of the human race.

With this outline of the content and purpose of Kant’s thesis behind us, let us briefly consider some of its implications for the present day. His theory of perpetual peace poses many questions not only to the philosopher, but also to the social scientist. He has predicted that the world will tend towards the establishment of perpetual peace, and he has provided us with two sets of articles that might be used to measure progress towards this state. It would surely be a worthwhile project for some empirically-minded historian to attempt to determine whether perpetual peace is any closer today than it was when Kant wrote his essay in 1795 (it is unfortunate that the bicentenary – surely an opportunity to persuade reticent publishing houses to back such a project – has already passed). In addition, given Kant’s foresight in providing the kinds of criteria that fascinate us in our current age under the names of ‘deliverables’ and ‘performance indicators’, there is a great deal of scope for Kant’s programme to be championed by some consultancy firm. Nevertheless, perhaps the principal appeal of Kant’s text for us today comes from the fact that many of the implied criticisms of his age might be applied equally to our own. Readers will no doubt have their own views regarding the extent of the distance yet separating us from perpetual peace, and of which of the specific articles set out in Kant’s essay are furthest from being fulfilled. One striking difference, though, lies in the form of internal political constitution of each state advocated by Kant and of that generally portrayed as the most desirable in our own time. As this is one of the themes expanded upon at greatest length within Kant’s essay, it seems worth elaborating further here.

Kant proclaims that each state should have a republican constitution, and while it is not entirely clear what precisely this might amount to, Kant is nevertheless explicit on what it is not. He is particularly concerned to expose "…the common error of confusing the republican with the democratic constitution," as the latter type lies furthest of all from Kant’s ideal. While the ‘republican’ and the ‘democratic’ are seen to belong to different categories (the former referring to the form of government, the latter to the form of sovereignty), they come into direct conflict due to the fact that a ‘democratic’ form of sovereignty is seen of necessity to entail a ‘despotic’ rather than ‘republican’ form of government. This terminological matrix is complex, and in some ways at odds with the manner in which many of these words are employed today. The term ‘democracy’, in particular, is used to mean the government of the majority of the people, rather than the election, by the majority of the people, of a sovereign group from amongst the class of career politicians. From this point of view, Kant would doubtless find no ‘democracies’ amongst our present range of governments. Nevertheless, his remarks on democracy have a considerable bearing on the increasing tendency in certain western countries to govern on populist principles, taking focus groups and referenda as indicative of the will of the majority.

Kant’s objection to ‘democracy’, then, is that "…democracy, in the proper sense of the word, is of necessity despotism, because it establishes an executive power, since all decree regarding – and, if need be, against – any individual who dissents from them." By contrast, republicanism entails "…severing the executive power of the government from the legislature." In other words, if the majority legislate, they should not then execute that legislation; there is consequently a need for a separate sovereign (or sovereign group) to perform this task in accordance with republican principles. These principles embody "…the spirit of a representative system," which is by definition impossible under a democratic government, as "…the "whole people", so-called, who carry their measure are really not all, but only a majority: so that here the universal will is in contradiction with itself and with the principle of freedom." Kant’s solution, then, resembles in outward form that of Hobbes : "…the smaller the staff of the executive – that is to say, the number of rulers – and the more real, on the other hand, their representation of the people, so much more is the government of the state in accordance with a possible republicanism…" In other words, Kant argues that it is better to hope of one ruler that they will prove benign and follow the course of duty as revealed by reason, namely to represent the whole of the people, than to abandon the possibility of republican principles by entrusting legislative and executive power to the majority. The moral purpose of a sovereign is therefore to provide a focus through which the will of the whole people who populate a state may become united, whereas government by majority is seen to be an essentially divisive process.

Part of the value of this argument for us today is that it challenges our assumptions regarding the political terminology we have come to adopt unquestioningly, and prompts us to ask in what respect our own political systems are ‘republican’ or ‘democratic’. After all, given the ideological charge carried by this latter term in particular, it is instructive to see its original semantic principles stated and challenged. However, perhaps the over-riding message to emerge from Kant’s meticulous examination of forms of government is once more the central role reserved for faith and idealism in bringing about perpetual peace. Many readers may deem the premises – benign sovereigns, the designs of Nature, the power of reason – too implausible to merit much consideration. Nevertheless, this is the very essence of the conundrum posed by Kant – perpetual peace is simultaneously both a chimera and a concrete vision. His essay, protesting perhaps overmuch the practical prospects of perpetual peace, is first and foremost an attempt to inspire his readers with a sense of moral purpose to bring about the desired end, and as such, his essay is as relevant today as it has ever been.

Kant, Immanuel, 1992 [reprint of the original English edition of 1903], tr. M. Campbell Smith, Bristol: Thoemmes