Kant: Genius in Metaphysics, Mediocre in IR Theory

“This facility in making war, together with the inclination to do so on the part of rulers–an inclination which seems inborn in human nature–is thus a great hindrance to perpetual peace.” -Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch, 1795

Here I notice that Kant accepts the Freudian premise that humans are naturally aggressive, even warlike. This disconcerts me as I thoroughly reject this notion, while at the same time have been a great admirer of Kantian philosophy. It is also probably the reason why my political philosophy teachers told us to read this essay on our own, as they found Kant’s other writings much more important.

My favourite rebuttal to this is best expressed in Barbara Ehrenrich’s Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War, where she elaborates that if humans are by nature so aggressive and violent, why do they go through such elaborate processes to prepare themselves for war? For instance, how soldiers must be brainwashed into a certain mentality in order to become obedient to their commanders and be able to live in a constant state of fear and stress. As well, wouldn’t post-traumatic stress disorder be almost non-existent in soldiers if they had such a propensity to harm their fellow man?

I am relieved to see that Kant’s first necessary condition to perpetual peace is that every state be republican, namely a democracy. He also implies that individuals are responsible for the foreign policy of their leaders, such that they can elect or reject a leader that can be morally accountable on the international stage, not only in terms of war but also in terms of law and universal hospitality.

“Hospitality means the right of a stranger not to be treated as an enemy when he arrives in the land of another. One may refuse to receive him when this can be done without causing his destruction; but, so long as he peacefully occupies his place, one may not treat him with hostility. It is not the right to be a permanent visitor that one may demand. A special beneficent agreement would be needed in order to give an outsider a right to become a fellow inhabitant for a certain length of time. It is only a right of temporary sojourn, a right to associate, which all men have. They have it by virtue of their common possession of the surface of the earth, where, as a globe, they cannot infinitely disperse and hence must finally tolerate the presence of each other. Originally, no one had more right than another to a particular part of the earth.”

Here is the refutation of the critique of liberal democracy, at least liberal democracy as elaborated by Kant, Mill, Locke and others. Sovereignty does dictate who is included and excluded from the state in the Schmittean decision, but Kant strongly advocates for a moral obligation of states to accept and tolerate human migratory flows, such that securitization is an inhibition of the individual’s natural rights and that no state can inhibit his or her free movement for the sake of maximizing his or her own human development and contribution to the world at large.

Even so, I reject his frequent references to the inherent evilness of humanity and wish that his treatise on peace would speak more often of the constructs of peace rather than the avoidance of war.


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