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Reading Kant's Perpetual Peace

Reader comment on item: Immanuel Kant vs. Israel
in response to reader comment: Revolution under Kant and under Islam

Submitted by J Kourlas (United States), Aug 22, 2010 at 09:18

Reading Kant is fraught with perils. One often imagines that he is saying what one hopes, only to have the proverbial rug pulled out from under one's feet. Let's examine Kant's "Toward Perpetual Peace" and see how Kant works his bait-and-switch. I'll address his apparent advocacy of republican government and your claim (elsewhere) that he supports a federal "league of nations."

Kant accepts the traditional classification of government (going back to Aristotle, Polybius, and Cicero) as rule by one, rule by a few, and rule by many. Each case has its good and bad variant, i.e. "… the form of a state is either republican or despotic." The determining factor is whether the ruler[s] follow the "general will" (republic) or an arbitrary private will. [8:352]

Kant holds that a republican government can be a single individual (ex. Enlightened Monarch) ruling according to the "general will." He goes even further saying "the smaller the number of persons exercising the power of a state (the number of rulers) and the greater their representation, so much the more does its constitution accord with the possibility of republicanism … On this basis it is already harder in an aristocracy than in a monarchy … but in a democracy it is impossible except by violent revolution" which he is against.

The average American (Aussie, Kiwi, Brit, etc.) would be shocked to find that by "republican" Kant was leaning towards a single ruler, one claiming to embody the will of the people.

Now let's examine his so-called world-federalism. Again, he starts advocating what one might hope: a federation of free nation-states. This turns out to be a practical compromise instead of what he'd really like to see. "[S]o (if all is not to be lost) in place of the positive idea of a world republic only the negative surrogate of a league that averts war, endures, and always expands can hold back the stream of hostile inclination that shies away from right, though with constant danger of its breaking out." [8:357]

His federalism is only a compromise. His ideal is a one-world government. Given his preference for a single ruler, this is even more frightening. Let's remember that one man would shortly arise to try to unite Europe under the banner of the "Rights of Man" and "will of the people" – Napoleon. Indeed, intellectuals of that period (Hegel, Beethoven) initially welcomed the rise of Napoleon. Kant's ideals weren't so strange to those in Continental Europe of his day. But we should be wary.

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