February 23, 2004


Immanuel Kant and the Iraq war: The German philosopher Immanuel Kant thought his way through the global conflict sparked by the American and French Revolutions. His response was an appeal to enlightenment, law and reason. Two hundred years on, the distinguished English philosopher Roger Scruton asks: where would Kant’s principles lead him today? (Roger Scruton, 19 - 2 - 2004, Open Democracy)

There is always a danger, when reading Kant, of overlooking his profound critique of reason and its aims. Although he believed that reason is the distinguishing mark of the human condition, and although he upheld the Enlightenment view of our nature – as free beings guided by rational choice – Kant also believed that reason is prone to overreach itself. An example of this is when reason interprets a merely ‘regulative’ idea as a constitutive principle.

The idea of a world republic is just such a regulative idea. For Kant, it does not indicate a condition that can actually be achieved, but an ‘Ideal of Reason’ – an idea that we must bear in mind, by way of understanding the many ways in which mortal creatures inevitably fall short of it. The principal way in which we fall short is by failing to establish any kind of republic, even at the local level. And Kant is clear that a League of Nations can establish a genuine rule of law only if its members are also republics. Unless that condition is fulfilled, nations remain in the rivalrous state of nature.

In a republic, the people themselves are the authors of the laws that govern them, and no official can claim exemption. The members of a republic are not subjects but citizens, bound by reciprocal rights and duties and governed by representative institutions. Although Kant was suspicious of democracy and tolerant of constitutional monarchy, he nevertheless believed that free beings demand accountable government, and that nothing less could enable them to realise their potential.

Furthermore, we are commanded by reason to treat each rational being as an end and not as a means only. States in which this command is not obeyed by the rulers, or made impossible to be obeyed by anyone else, are states that violate the moral law. They also fail to conform to the version of the social contract that Kant derived from his vision of morality. Such states are intrinsically illegitimate, which means that their disappearance is good in itself, and the aim and desire of all rational beings.

This does not mean that the violent overthrow of despotism is justified, since violence has moral costs that may not easily be accepted. Although Kant was a passionate defender of the American and French Revolutions, and even inclined to turn a blind eye to the crimes of the Jacobins, news of the Terror and of the judicial murder of King Louis XVI horrified him as it horrified his contemporaries.

Nevertheless, the recourse to international law, he believed, presupposes that members of the League of Nations are republics. If they are not republics, but regard themselves as in a state of nature vis-à-vis other states, then it may be necessary to confront them with violence, in order to prevent them from imposing their will. Of course, the violence must be proportional to the threat, and its aim must be to bring about a lasting peace. But war conducted for the sake of peace was, for Kant as for his predecessors in the ‘just war’ tradition, a paradigm of legitimate belligerence.

If the regimes are illegitimate why is their violent overthrow not justified?

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 23, 2004 8:43 AM

Wow, was that title a Hall & Oates reference?

Posted by: andrew at February 23, 2004 9:34 AM

Mr. Judd;

Because you can' always afford everything you're justified in having. Perhaps I'm reading in to the quote, but I view it as saying that one must weigh the moral cost of violence against the moral cost of leaving an odious regime in place and that the latter is not a priori always less than the latter.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at February 23, 2004 4:46 PM

The moral cost is always lower than leaving it in place, though the physical may be too high for folk to willingly pay.

Posted by: oj at February 23, 2004 5:28 PM

Because outsiders cannot determine the legitimacy of a regime. The French are not allowed to have a say on the legitimacy of Bush's election.

We act, and justify acting, when we do act, based on our firmness in believing in our own legitimacy.

Follow your reasoning and you end up a United Nations one-worlder.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at February 25, 2004 12:45 AM

Of course we can. We just can't let others determine the legitimacy of ours.

Posted by: oj at February 25, 2004 12:53 AM

Because there is no one-world gov't, (yet), in the end the legitimacy of any nation rests on its ability to defend its borders from invasion, and its government from revolt.
Thus, should the US, or any other powerful nation, decide that the actions of another country or government are beyond the pale, their response is "legitimate".
Therefore, the French CAN have a say about Bush's Presidency, any time they want to conquer the US.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at February 25, 2004 3:44 AM