Lecture on Kantís ďPerpetual PeaceĒ


[The following is the text of a short lecture delivered in Liberal Studies 401 at Malaspina University College (now Vancouver Island University) by Ian Johnston. This document is in the public domain, released June 1999]

For comments or questions, please contact Ian Johnston


Near the end of his essay ďPerpetual PeaceĒ Kant squarely addresses a question that we ought to be thoroughly familiar with by now, because it is almost certainly the most frequent issue we have discussed from one text to another in Liberal Studies. And that is question of the relationship between practical political behaviour and morality, between how people do behave in politics and how they ought to behave.

Any observer of political action recognizes almost immediately that political action, as it actually occurs, is often, perhaps even usually, a morally questionable business (deception, lying, cruelty, self-interest). At the same time most of us have a sense that political behaviour could and should be better than it is. Politicians, we hold, should subject their actions and decisions to some form of moral control.

This is the ancient conflict between what the Greeks called Kratos (Political Force) and Ethos (moral behaviour)--and there is no other issue which we have put on the table more frequently than this one. Before addressing Kantís remarks, then, Iíd like to review some of the formulations. Iím doing this by way of an introduction to the seminar discussions this afternoon, which can address in greater detail Kantís contributions to this on going debate.

Many months ago, at the start of LBST 301, we read the Odyssey. At the conclusion of that story we see Odysseus in disguise carry out a ferocious revenge on the suitors and their supporters--an action which involves killing, cruelty, deception, lies, and courage and which is effective in restoring him to the throne of Ithaka. Homer does not raise political questions directly, but the story puts great pressure on the readers to explore the extent to which Odysseusí effective use of force is justified, is, in other words, an acceptable moral act. And the structure of the narrative leads most of us to accept that what he does is just because the suitors have violated the most important moral rules of that world, the sanctity of the home--a rule which the gods themselves have repeatedly endorsed throughout the poem.

In this case, the suitors have behaved in a recognizably normal way: out of self-interest, ambition, power. And they have justified what they do by an appeal to their own power: What are you going to do about it? We recognize, too, that, in the context of the story they are morally wrong, because the guardians of moral order in the world of the Odyssey, the gods, tell us repeatedly that the suitors ought not to act that way. So when Odysseus carries out forcefully his revenge, we recognize that as a morally justified political act. What makes it a moral act is that it is in accordance with the principles of moral order which govern the Odyssey (we may disagree with those principles, but in the context of the text it seems clear that what Odysseus is doing is good).

The same is true about the Lordís treatment of the Egyptian Pharaoh. Once again, we questioned and debated the fairness of Godís extremely forceful punishment of the Egyptians, but the text encourages us to see that Pharaohís political behaviour is immoral and therefore his forceful punishment is deserved.

The Oresteia obviously makes this question of the just use of political power the central issue in the trilogy. In fact, the resolution of that work strongly suggests that a new organization in the polis--an assembly of citizens responsible for matters of justice--will foster a better union of political force and moral behaviour and keep in check a system of egocentric slaughter of the sort manifested by Agamemnonís treatment of Troy and Clytaemnestraís treatment of Agamemnon and Cassandra.

I mention these stories because they were our first introduction in Liberal Studies to the need to evaluate the use of political force in the context of a moral sense of right and wrong. Put another way, we can say that we all acknowledge that running a human society always requires the effective use of practical force in all sorts of ways; but we also acknowledge that there are right and wrong ways to apply this force, that political force, in itself, is not necessarily good or bad. However, it needs to be guided by some sense of morality if we are to have any sense of Justice.

Over the past months we have looked at a number of texts which have explored this issue. Plato, as we saw, made the balance between Ethos and Kratos central to the Republic, and saw the best hope for a meaningful combination in the education of an elite group of rulers. These people, since they most fully understood the nature of the good (of right and wrong) would have all the power, so that their political decisions would therefore always be just. Their understanding of moral issues is essential if the force entrusted to them is to be used justly.

Itís important to notice that Plato is not in the Republic undertaking an analysis of how human beings actually do behave in the modern political arena (although he does often remark on that behaviour). He is focusing above all on what ought to be the case, on what a fully moral politics would be. And, as we saw, he bases his main moral argument on the belief that some people are capable of achieving full moral development through a specialized education (at least in a thought experiment they are; his hopes that such a program as the Republic outlines is at all practical are far more pessimistic). To those people, his thought experiment concludes, we ought to entrust the power, since they will be the only ones who understand how to use that power morally so as to ensure justice. Anyone else will abuse the power entrusted to him.

Aristotle, like Plato, believed that virtue in the rulers was the best guarantee of justice in the state, but he differed from Plato in how he thought such virtue might be best encouraged and developed so that power in the state was exercised with an appropriate sense of morality. And the Christian tradition, which relied heavily on Plato and especially Aristotle for its thinking about politics, generally agreed that virtue in the ruler, the responsibility of his or her Church educators and advisors, was the surest way to achieve the just use of political force. Hence, justice in the state (the moral use of power) depended above all upon the education of the ruler.

In each of these examples, the education of the person with the force is central, and there is an institutional arrangement to bring about that education: in Plato it is a complex and radically new system of schooling, in the Aristotelian tradition and in the Christian tradition the Church based upon it, the emphasis is much more on tradition. Whether we are talking about a utopian possibility or a practical reform, these thinkers see that society must provide for putting power in the hands of the most virtuous (or, conversely, making those with the power fully virtuous).

The most decisive break with this ancient tradition of virtue comes in Machiavelliís The Prince. For he spends most of his time making the case that if the Prince concentrates on learning about the practical effectiveness of force (of Kratos) then the Princeís virtue can be left out of account. I tried to make the case in the lectures on Machiavelli that this seemed to me an amoral (and therefore evil) position; my colleague tried to make the case that Machiavelli had a moral end in view and was therefore a serious ethical arguer. I donít want to rehash that argument, but simply state here the obvious point that Machiavelli clearly does not believe that any moral education in the Prince is necessary (if you agree with me because morality is irrelevant; if you agree with my colleagueís argument, because the moral ends, like the unification of Italy or the economic well being of the citizens, are self-evident). If he can manipulate Kratos with sufficient skill, cunning, flexibility, cruelty, and practical intelligence (what Machiavelli calls virtu), then everything will be well. Hence the old observation about Machiavelli, that there is no virtue in virtu.

This is a decisive break with the older tradition because it emphatically shifts the major emphasis in political theory away from the moral education of the ruler towards the practically efficient application of political force to ensure the survival and the continuing power of the government. It suggests, in effect, that the way in which politics is in fact conducted is more important than the way politics ought to be conducted.

Put another way, we can say that for the ancient Greeks the supreme question of politics was the way in which virtue in the ruler must guide his or her use of force so as to produce justice. Thus, they focus, above all, on the education of the ruler in morality. For Machiavelli the supreme question in politics is the effective use of force to gain short-term success (which means maintaining or increasing oneís immediate power). He concentrates all his attention upon questions relating to that issue, either ignoring morality as irrelevant or else assuming that the moral ends are so self-evident that the Prince doesnít need to consider them (or his education doesnít have to include any serious moral component).

In a similar manner Hobbes pays no attention to the moral qualities of the sovereign. He seems to assume that, if the sovereign has all the power, his self-interest in having a powerful state will persuade him to leave his subjects alone so that they can make lots of money and keep the blood of the state circulating. The distribution of political power is, for Hobbes, the key question. Educating people to use it properly is largely irrelevant because the moral questions, such as they are, are self-evident.  Besides, thereís no point in relying upon moral awareness of the rulers, simply because, although Hobbes admired virtue, he didnít think there was enough of it to go around to make modern government moral in any traditional sense of the word.

Rousseauís position is very different. He is concerned, above all, with achieving the correct balance of state power and morality. For him, as for so many of his contemporaries, moral freedom is the most vital characteristic of the human individual and any check on that is unwelcome oppression. As we saw, Rousseau strives to deal with this question in a new and very influential way: the power (Kratos) must belong to all people equally. If they are educated sufficiently as rational creatures, share common traditions, and can conveniently meet in an assembly of all citizens to enact legislation (which determines the application of power), then the proper combination of force and morality will be achieved and justice will rule the state (a justice which provides freedom for all because they all participate equally in it determining the application of force).

One of Rousseauís most distinctive contributions to this debate is, of course, his strong sense, that the ideal combination of Kratos and Ethos, the balance on which real justice depends, is possible only in a republic run by a majoritarian democracy. And most of Rousseauís pessimism about such an arrangement stems from his realization that this organization places too high a responsibility on the individual citizen and creates far too tempting a scenario for government to take over. His pessimism amounts to a clear sense that in such a republican majoritarian democracy the balance of power will shift to those who are not ruled by Ethos but rather by self-interest, vanity, and so on. And thus the realities of how people are will probably overwhelm any possibilities for realizing what they ought to be.

Kantís famous admiration for Rousseau comes, in large part, from Rousseauís insistence on the importance of personal and public morality (an ethics based on reason and the choice to live by its rules made by free, independent, self-reliant individuals) in the modern state. But Kant is much more cautious about just what can and cannot be done, and he has no recourse to some utopian model along Rousseauís line. Kant fully acknowledges that what goes on in the name of politics is largely as Machiavelli described it: amoral self-interest. At the same time, Kant holds out the hope that Ethos--the moral guiding of political force--must form a part of political action.

So Kantís task, as an Enlightenment moralist, is to show how in the modern state moral considerations are still of central importance as a means of guiding Kratos. He is attempting to address the old question--as ancient for us as the Old Testament, Odyssey, and the Oresteia: Why should a powerful politician pay any attention to moral issues? In terms of the brief retrospective I have sketched out, Kant might be seen as attempting to show that Machiavelli and Hobbes were wrong: the analysis of the modern political state cannot simply focus on power arrangements and strategies for efficient applications of power.

As a moralist, Kant insists that politics is not just a matter of prudence (i.e., material success in getting oneís way in the daily conflicts of the political world). There must, by contrast, be what he calls ďa limiting condition of politics,Ē so that political affairs are in the command of the moral politician, ďone who so interprets the principles of political prudence that they can be coherent with moralityĒ (128).

This position is central to Kantís call for universal peace, because, as he points out repeatedly, if all statesmen rely only on political prudence (on Machiavellian or Hobbesian principles), then there is no ground for any international cooperation, because power struggles between competing independent states will determine all politics. Only the clear recognition of a commitment to a universal rational moral duty can achieve the reconciliation he sees as essential to peace:

Even a continent that feels itself to be superior to another, regardless of whether or not the latter stands in the way of the former, will not fail to exercise the means of increasing its power, plundering and conquering. Thus, all theoretical plans for civil, international, and cosmopolitan rights dissolve into empty, impractical ideals; by contrast, a practice that is based on empirical principles of human nature and that does not regard it demeaning to formulate its maxims in accord with the way of the world [i.e., in accordance with universal moral laws] can alone hope to find a secure foundation for its structure of political prudence. (128)

Parenthetically, whatís interesting about Kant in this regard, of course, is that he is the first thinker we have read seriously to consider the question of permanent peace between nations (although Rousseau briefly hints at this in the Discourse on Inequality). All of the others have more or less assumed that warfare between states is a given fact of life and that, therefore, in organizing the state we need above all to assume acts of aggression from outside the polis.

What Kant wants us to realize is that there are important reasons for believing that submitting our prudential strategies, our efficient applications of political might, to the scrutiny of moral evaluation and adjusting our prudential political decisions in the light of such evaluation is something we ought to do. Everything in this position depends upon our accepting the central claim Kant makes in all of these essays: that there are firm grounds for acknowledging such a role for rational morality.

To persuade that there are such firm grounds Kant puts forward a number of points. Some of the more important are as follows:

First, Kant repeatedly puts us a the painful situation of having to think about the consequences of rejecting his view of world history. Since we all, as rational beings, want world peace, since we, in our freedom, think that this is something we ought to strive for, how is it to be achieved? This urgent desire makes no sense, Kant argues, in a world that is mechanically governed and in which the concept of moral freedom, as he defines it, is therefore meaningless (128). Thus, to reject Kantís moral interpretation of history is to be thrown into a difficult situation of grappling with a universal moral desire for peace without any means to achieve it (except perhaps by accident). Only faith in the sort of rational moral progress of the sort he proposes answers to the free moral desires of human beings.

Second, if we accept Kantís vision of such rational moral progress, then any politics based merely on prudence (on self-interested use of power for national or personal survival) is going to defeat such progress (129). For then the conduct of politics is ruled, not by universal moral maxims, but by the survival strategies he lists on p. 130: pure Machiavellian principles designed to ensure the forceful success through deceit, denial, opportunism, and so on.

Third, Kant also makes the empirical point (which I tried to stress in discussions of Machiavelli) that an examination of the facts of history does not necessarily establish clearly that prudential politics is, in fact, successful. Machiavellian tactics employed to achieve a particular aim can, as often as not, prove self-defeating. Any practical political measure is going to have an uncertain outcome. Therefore, we cannot and should not base any moral desire for perpetual peace upon it.

Four, Kant also makes the deterministic argument (which is, as we shall see, central to Marx), that if we do not, in fact, put moral considerations into our political decisions making, then history will eventually force us to do that anyway. The inexorable process of history, which will very gradually bring about an increasing enlightenment and a cosmopolitan world federation, is not something we can finally resist. Thus, in effect, he is claiming history is on his side, no matter what we do. However, as rational beings we have a moral obligation to assist this historical process ďto make the state of public right actual, though only through an unending process of approximation to it. . . .Ē (139). One might want to cite environmental awareness as one rational point which history is forcing us to acknowledge, whether we approve of it or not.

It is worth nothing that this last point, about the inevitable progression of history, has very ancient roots in the Old Testament notion that God is on Israelís side, that He has a covenant with the faithful, and that He will lead them to the promised land. Godís providence, acting through history, will resolve issues eventually; however, that does not release the individual Israelite from the religious obligation to follow the rules, to contribute to the progress of history.

Kant has, of course, thoroughly secularized this notion--seeing perpetual peace as the end goal and a rational idea working itself out in history as the engine of progress. But we should alert ourselves as to the extent to which Kantís ethics and his view of history has roots in some of the most deeply held and ancient convictions of Western civilization (particularly the Protestant version of those beliefs).

Whether we find Kantís position on these matters entirely persuasive or not, we cannot avoid the fact that the position he has outlined in this essay has been enormously influential. While our faith in the gradual enlightenment forced upon us by history may be considerably more tenuous than his (and his is far from robust), it seems that many of us still place our best hopes for world peace on a proper balance of force and morality of the sort that Kant suggests. We may have grown quite cynical about many aspects of domestic politics, but we are still, to a greater or less extent, faithful to Kantís notion that if we want to foster international peace, we must recognize our rational obligations to all other human beings, difficult and expensive and unwelcome as such steps may be. Our desire to have international leaders who commit crimes against humanity brought to the bar of justice is a clear expression of this faith.

At a time when immigration policies and Canadaís commitment to peace-keeping missions and foreign aid are under attack, reading Kantís essay is a powerful reminder of why these practical political measures matter from the moral standpoint. For we still have to be prepared to meet the challenge of Thrasymachus in the opening of the Republic that the only valuable political stance is that justice is the interests of the stronger, that might makes right, that we have no moral obligations, only imperatives of power.