Implications of Kant's Reflections About War

Kant’s view of war between sovereign states flows from his reflections about the rights of states toward each other [Völkerrecht] (Suhrkamp Edition, pp. 466 ff.).  He begins with the Hobbesian reflection that the original relationship between states is one of hostility, precisely like the relationship of savages to one another.  States are in an extra-legal relationship to one another at the outset.  Even if there is no actual war, the relationship between states is such that one might as well consider the relationship one of a war-like nature.  In other words, the right of might rules the world in such a case.

Let’s consider an example.  The contemporary condition of the world is such that some US citizens see their country as a “super-power.”   Such a view includes the idea that the US as super-power is at liberty to do whatever it pleases in this world.   Some of my students have used this argument to justify the war in Iraq , for example.  Whether or not the US has a just cause, as a super-power all its causes are by virtue of being its causes necessarily just.  That status is what Kant sees as the natural, extra-legal condition of states.  Any nations that fall prey to any pressure of such a super-power will experience such pressure extra-legally. 

A federation of nations, thus, is necessary to protect all nations against any such pressure, very much like the social contract for individuals in a state.  Kant carefully mentions that internal wrongs are not the business of outsiders, including the federation of nations.  He says, “[Die Elemente des Völkerrechtes sind,] 3) daß ein Völkerbund, nach der Idee eines ursprünglichen gesellschaftlichen Vertrages, notwendig ist, sich zwar einander nicht in die einheimischen Mißhelligkeiten derselben zu mischen, aber doch gegen Angriffe der äußeren zu schützen” (Suhrkamp Edition Vol VIII 467).[1]  Kant continues to point out that this looking out for one another’s right to peaceful living is not something that one can force on independent nations; instead, it is an agreement of independent nations with each other, which these nations may cancel at any time and which, for that reason, must be confirmed from time to time.  Again, the specific example of the Iraq war shows that both the US and Iraq were members of a federation of nations, and the example shows also that neither had canceled its relationship to that federation of nations.  Iraq ’s internal wrongs are not in any way a concern of the federation of nations, for these were internal wrongs [einheimische Mißhelligkeiten], which did not concern the federation of nations.  By Kantian considerations then, the US has adopted the status of a rogue nation that has unilaterally declared its obligations to the federation of nations null and void.  By the Kantian “Völkerrecht,” Iraq would have had a right to receive protection by the federation of nations against the rogue nation.  Ironically, of course, the super-power status intimidated also the federation of nations in this case.  While a credible proof of the existence of intercontinental rockets that might threaten US territory or a credible proof of an Iraqi involvement in the 9/11 attack might have established a just cause for war, having a bad regime in Iraq is clearly an internal wrong and thus of no concern to any outside nation, in Kantian terms.[2]

But let us suppose that the Iraq War had had a just cause and that all other conditions of a just war had been met [jus ad bellum] and let us further suppose that—generally—that war had been fought justly [jus in bello], Kant also raises the issue of the rights of citizens to be used in a war effort.  First, Kant excludes quite clearly any kind of a professional army or standing army.  In “Präliminarartikel zum Ewigen Frieden,”[3] Kant raises the following as his point 3: “Stehende Heere (miles perpetuus) sollen mit der Zeit ganz aufhören”[4] and he continues, “Denn sie bedrohen andere Staaten unaufhörlich mit Krieg, durch die Bereitschaft, immer dazu gerüstet zu erscheinen; reizen diese an, sich einander in der Menge der Gerüsteten, die keine Grenze kennt, zu übertreffen, und, indem durch die darauf verwandten Kosten der Friede endlich noch drückender wird als ein kurzer Krieg, so sind sie selbst Ursache von Angriffskriegen, um diese Last loszuwerden; wozu kommt, daß zum Töten, oder getötet zu werden in Sold genommen zu sein einen Gebrauch von Menschen als bloßen Maschinen und Werkzeugen in der Hand eines andern (des Staats) zu enthalten scheint, der sich nicht wohl mit dem Rechte der Menschheit in unserer eigenen Person vereinigen läßt”[5] (Suhrkamp Edition Vol XI 197/198).  In the same passage, Kant refers to “Staatsbürger in Waffen” (Suhrkamp Vol XI 198) or citizens bearing arms, who may have periodic and voluntary war-games for practice.  This idea moves Kant closer to the idea of an armed militia or national-guard-like weekend-warriors to be called up as needed and if needed.  In other words, if it had been the case that Iraq had had a standing military with the serious and credible potential for intercontinental rockets or a proven participation in 9/11 and if it had been the case that the US had had no such standing military, then a mobilization of the US and a subsequent—even a preemptive war—would have been acceptable under Kantian guidelines. 

As matters stand now however, the US is the only country with a credibly strong military that might be perceived a threat to others.  Interpreted on that background and given a Kantian view, the attack on September 11 against the US is relatively more defensible than the attack of the US on Iraq .  And, yes, I am aware of saying something here that might make me about as popular as Bill Maher when he attributed courage to the pilots of the attacking planes at the World Trade Center —if I were as well known.  Interestingly enough, Kant offers as the next item in his list of conditions to be achieved for a lasting peace that no state may fight any war with borrowed money.  He relegates credit systems as desirable for the building of roads and other matters of maintaining the infra-structure of a nation; however, a financial might bolstered by huge credits will be conducive to the bankruptcy of other nations, who must keep pace, if such massive debt-accumulation is permitted to prevail.  Thus, wars must be fought with real money, according to Kant (Suhrkamp Edition Vol XI 198/199).

But back to who should fight the war:  Kant raises the issue whether the state has a right to call up its citizens to a war against other states when thus the state forces—even against their will—its citizens to gamble their property and their very lives.  This right to call citizens to war cannot be deduced from their being the property of the state, according to Kant.  Such a notion would clearly be incompatible with the categorical imperative, in which Kant claims that a human being is always to be treated as an end in him/herself, not as a means to another end.  He reasons here (Suhrkamp Edition Vol VIII 468) that any variety of property may be conceivable—controversially now by way of Peter Singer’s observations but not for Kant’s time, Kant includes animals here.  However, humans can never be property, even though such a notion may actually be the sovereign’s justification for calling up citizens.  For example, the buying by the British king and the selling of German soldiers by their sovereigns for the American Revolutionary War is an egregious example of such an assumption.  Since the sovereign, then, does not own the people, the sovereign’s calling the people to arms must then be deduced from an obligation that the sovereign has to the people. 

Kant begins with the reflection that not only through direct hostilities but also through threats a nation may be justified in conducting a war—thus justifying pre-emptive strike.  If a nation increases its arsenal of weapons or if a nation gains strength by way of an accumulation of territory so as to increase the nation’s power, other states may find it in their own interest and in the interest of the people living in that state to conduct a war to re-establish the balance between nations.  It is part of the obligation of a sovereign to see to the security of the people living in the state; thus, the sovereign may call people of the state to serve in a military action, for the people would actually be acting in their own interests, the coordination of the protection of which would then be the sovereign’s obligation to the nation.  Kant specifically allows for a martial response not only to actual hostilities but also to threats.  In other words, the justification of the war in Iraq as a preemptive strike if Iraq had actually had weapons of mass destruction would be compatible with Kant’s view of the justification of war since even ostensive increase of armor is sufficient justification for a martial response.  Again, the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen is closer to being justifiable than the US attack on Iraq .  Look at it as you will, a ship with cannons and other armor is an ostensive increase in martial force.

The gain of territory is not as much of an issue today as is the gain of trade influence. With economic imperialism of sorts, a martial response might be deducible from Kant’s view also.  Thus, the attack on the World Trade Center as a symbol of global trade might be relatively more justifiable than the attack of the US on Iraq .

Kant specifically excludes any punitive wars as wars between sovereign nations.  Since the desired situation between nations is one of even balance of all, no nation may be said to be superior to any other. But punishment implies dominance of one over the other.  He says, “Kein Krieg unabhängiger Staaten gegen einander kann ein Strafkrieg (bellum punitivum) sein, denn Strafe finde nur im Verhältnis eines Oberen (imperantis) gegen den Unterworfenen (subditum) statt, welches Verhältnis nicht das der Staaten gegen einander ist . . .”[6] (Suhrkamp Edition Vol VIII 470).  In the same passage, Kant also excludes wars that wipe out entire nations or that force a people into a position of submissiveness to a dominant power.  One of the difficulties that Kant leaves us with here is the judicial actions that followed World War II and that followed the war in the former Yugoslavia .  Kant writes, “Noch weniger kann Leibeigenschaft und ihre Rechtmäßigkeit von der Überwältigung eines Volkes durch Krieg abgeleitet warden, weil man hiezu einen Strafkrieg annehmen müßte.  Am allerwenigsten eine erbliche Leibeigenschaft, die überhaupt absurd ist, weil die Schuld aus jemandes Verbrechen nicht anerben kann[7]” (Suhrkamp Edition Vol VIII 472).  At the end of WWII, Russia demanded of citizens of East Prussia —mostly women and teenagers—that they sign an agreement to atone for the crimes of the Hitler regime.  The document signed, these people were brought to labor camps in Siberia .  According to a ZDF documentary, about two million people were so deported with about a quarter of them returning eventually. Such an action would not be compatible with Kant’s notion here. Nor would reparations or other forms of collective atonement be proper. 

Kant continues, “Daß mit dem Friedensschluß auch die Amnestie verbunden sei, liegt schon im Begriffe desselben”[8] (Suhrkamp Edition Vol VIII 472).  A general amnesty, in other words, is part of any conclusion of martial activities.  Clearly then, neither the Nuremberg Trials nor the trial of Milosovic nor the trial of the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime are compatible with Kant’s reflections about war and his notion of  a general amnesty.  None of the citizens of a conquered nation ever lose their freedom as citizens, according to Kant.

Kant goes further with limiting any vindictive action at the conclusion of any war.  The victor may not ask for reparations.  If the victor were to do so, the victor would declare the cause for war on the part of the vanquished as being unjust. And even if the victor believes that the cause of the vanquished is indeed unjust, he may not label it as such because in that case, the war will have been a punitive war, which, according to Kant, may not occur between nations of equal standing.  Again, the search for the members of Saddam Hussein’s government and the Nuremberg Trials and the trial of Milosevic might not withstand scrutiny under these Kantian views.  However, Kant does permit the victor to order the vanquished to make deliveries of goods and to make financial contributions.  In what way these deliveries and these contributions are essentially different from reparations is unclear to my way of reading Kant here, although Kant sees as proper a tax-like payment distributed over all members of the vanquished nation but not a loss of property on the part of individuals.

Kant writes a significant passage about the use of means of defense. I will quote it here in full before discussing it:

Verteidungsmittel aller Art sind dem bekriegten Staat erlaubt, nur nicht solche, deren Gebrauch die Untertanen desselben, Staatsbürger zu sein, unfähig machen würde; denn alsdann machte er sich selbst zugleich unfähig, im Staatenverhältnisse nach dem Völkerrecht für eine Person zu gelten (die gleicher Rechte mit anderen teilhaftig ware).  Darunter gehört: seine eigenen Untertanen zu Spionen, diese, ja auch Auswärtige zu Meuchelmördern, Giftmischern (in welcher Klasse auch wohl die so genannten Scharfschützen, welche einzelnen im Hinterhalte auflauern, gehören möchten), oder auch nur zur Verbreitung falscher Nachrichten, zu gebrauchen; mit einem Wort, sich solcher heimtückischen Mittel zu bedienen, die das Vertrauen, welches zur künftigen Gründung eines dauerhaften Friedens erforderlich ist, vernichten würden”[9] (Suhrkamp Edition Vol VIII 471).

The significant general principle here is the moral obligation of the state to the individual soldier not to turn him or her into someone who cannot later be an effective citizen during the peace that is anticipated to follow the war’s action.[10]  Kant lists specifically such activities as might alter the citizen’s mind, more than the anticipation of actual physical hurt.  Being a spy, an assassin, a mixer of poisons—one thinks of the man in the white smock in Borchert’s drama “The Man Outside”—is undesirable for Kant, not because these deeds are in and of themselves wrong but because of what the participation as a moral agent in these deeds will do to the individual’s mind and mentality in the peace that follows the war.  What I find quite curious here is that Kant offers very clearly a utilitarian argument or at least relevant considerations of an anticipated outcome by looking at the consequences of these acts.  Kant also includes sharp-shooters and those who spread false news into the group that will be debilitated by war’s end.  All of these activities, according to Kant, undermine trust, a condition that is necessary to create a lasting peace afterwards.  The manipulation of the news media during Desert Storm, then, would be in clear violation of Kant’s statement here in that the action would undermine the trust one has in the reliability of the news media.  And I think he has a point.

I suppose Kant might have included interrogators, prison guards, and the soldiers in Afghanistan who clubbed the taxi-driver’s knees to a pulp in the list of people that would incapacitate themselves for the lasting peace.  Veterans of the first Iraq war report blackouts, during which some rage against themselves and others, against others.  A veteran who signs herself as “labratfive@<server name>” claims these aberrations to come from the use of depleted uranium, about the not-altogether-depleted qualities of which, she claims, soldiers were not informed clearly enough.  Clearly such results are quite completely incompatible with Kant’s ideas here. 

To my way of thinking, Kant is very relevant to modern times still.  I found his comments convincing in many respects.

All references are to:

Immanuel Kant. Suhrkamp Theorie-Werkausgabe.  Wiesbaden : Insel Verlag, 1956.


[1] [The elements of international justice are,] . . . 3) that a federation of nations, fashioned like the original social contract, is necessary. This federation of nations is not to interfere in any internal wrongdoings of the nations, but it is to protect the nations against wrongdoings from without.

[2] I might add here the little anecdote that I had access to Iraqi TV as channel 5 on GlobeCast’s service.  When the war was anticipated, Iraq rolled out a parade of its arsenal of weapons: small Toyota pick-ups with mounted machine guns.  One would think that if the threat of weapons of mass-destruction had been real, that would have been a good time for Iraq to threaten with them.  However, I am fairly certain that the US-American public had no such access by way of TV and probably had not even any  idea where Iraq might be.

[3] Preliminary paragraphs toward an eternal peace.

[4] Standing armies are to cease in time altogether.

[5] For they [standing armies] threaten other nations perpetually as a consequence of their seeming to be prepared to engage in war at any time.  Thus, they entice other states to compete in the amount of the armed personnel without limits trying to go beyond the number of personnel of the others.  The cost being expended on this arms race becomes ultimately more burdensome than a short war might have been.  Thus the states will themselves engage each other in wars of aggression to rid themselves of the burden of the arms race.  Added to all that is the fact that when one is taken for hire to kill or to be killed, one reduces the human being to a machine and a tool in the hand of another (i.e., of the state), something which is not consistent with the right of humanity in our own person.  [Kant refers to the autonomy principle—the third formulation of the categorical imperative, which of course must be waived by the obedient soldier.—My comment, R.S.]

[6] No war of independent states can be a punitive war, for punishment can take place only in a relationship of a superior to an inferior, a relationship which is not possible as a relationship between states . . .”

[7] Even less can one deduce a serf-like relationship and its rightfulness from the conquest of a people by way of war because one would have to presuppose a punitive war in that case.  Even less can one assume an inheritable serf-like relationship because no one can inherit the blameworthiness for wrongdoing of another.

[8] Amnesty and peace go hand in hand with each other; amnesty is part of the concept of peace.

[9] Any means of defense are permitted for the state besieged by war, except those which would not let the citizens be fully functional members of the state after the war, for then the state hurts its own opportunities of being a “person” in the relationship of states following international justice (these states having a standing of equal rights in that framework).  Part of this disallowed abuse is one’s making the own subjects to act as spies or—and that includes also foreigners—to act as assassins or as administrators of poisons. (This latter group also contains the so-called sharpshooters, who are shooting from ambush at individuals.)  Nor should the state’s citizens be used as bearers of false news; in short, one should avoid all deceptive malice which would undermine the trust necessary to the building of a lasting peace.

[10] Last night, I had the privilege of seeing “Winter Soldier,” a documentary about the soldiers engaged in battle in Vietnam .  The documentary has been suppressed for about 32 years. Last night, one of the young men bearing witness to atrocities in Vietnam in the film was present as a real and meanwhile somewhat older person. He narrated that, during the Vietnam war, he had been in New York and was sorely tempted to open fire on war protesters.  And, of course, we know of others who came back with such a penchant for violence from Vietnam , from the first Golf war, and from Iraq .