Why Kant there be peace?


World peace has often been lauded as a crucial goal for humanity to reach. How exactly such a goal is to be reached, is a topic of great debate. One take on this topic comes from Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant, whose work you may remember from past articles. Though he is well known for his theory of ethics, many people are unaware of his more political writings.  Kant’s “Zum ewigen Frieden. Ein philosophischer Entwurf” (Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch) is, as the title implies, a collection of writings outlining the conditions under which perpetual peace may be achieved.

This column will focus on the preliminary and first two definitive articles due to length. The preliminary articles are ones that Kant deems as critical actions. He suggests that these be put into action as soon as possible in order to cease conflicts. The definitive articles are those that he wishes to put in place over time. Of Kant’s preliminary articles, three stand out as important. The first is “No Treaty of Peace Shall Be Held Valid in Which There Is Tacitly Reserved Matter for a Future War.” The purpose of this article is to ensure that states making peace actually intend on maintaining it. Kant fears that states will use peace treaties as ceasefires, waiting until a more opportune time to strike and continue the objectives of the war.

The second statement runs as follows: “Standing Armies (miles perpetuus) Shall in Time Be Totally Abolished.” Kant advocates to end armies that are constantly prepared for warfare, arguing that their very existence makes war more likely. This is due to the cost to upkeep them and the temptation to use these armies for conquest. If the means of waging war are not available,through rulers must spend time thinking of and preparing for conflicts.

The final key clause states, “No State Shall, during War, Permit Such Acts of Hostility Which Would Make Mutual Confidence in the Subsequent Peace Impossible: Such Are the Employment of Assassins (percussores), Poisoners (venefici), Breach of Capitulation, and Incitement to Treason (perduellio) in the Opposing State.” By this, Kant refers to more than the few crimes he lists. Any action committed by a state that breaches norms and creates deeper hostility must not be done because any such action would make peace an impossibility due to distrust and general resentment. 

Next we will address the first of the definitive articles, “The Civil Constitution of Every State Should Be Republican.” The need for a republican government stems from the matter of representation. Kant believes that if the people have a voice in government then they will be unwilling to support wars of aggression that bring hardship and struggle.  Having said that, we should note that Kant does not mean that all states should be strictly democratic. Instead, he is saying that states need representational government and a separation of executive and legislative powers. Democracy, however, gives too many people a voice, all of whom will wish to be masters. Kant’s representational government actually works better with fewer leaders, meaning aristocracy and monarchy governments will become the most republican forms of power over time. 

Lastly, Kant presents the second definitive article titled, “The Law of Nations Shall be Founded on a Federation of Free States.” Kant now compares the governed state to an individual force of nature. With no supreme legislation or executive to keep them in check, people and states can behave in self-serving ways. The solution, as Kant sees it, is a “league of peace,” an alliance that seeks to end wars amongst its own members. In time, Kant feels that more and more nations will join this league to avoid wars or for protection, thus allowing for perpetual peace.