Programming, philosophy, pedaling.

Thoughts on Perpetual Peace

Feb 23, 2019     Tags: philosophy    


I originally wrote this in January and never finished it. I’m publishing it now because I want to do (read: release) at least one blog post a month this year.

I recently re-read Kant’s Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch1 and had some new thoughts on it, particularly the second section. I informally summarize them below.

Some cynicism regarding the limits of rationality

Now the republican constitution is the only one which does complete justice to the rights of man. But it is also the most difficult to establish, and even more so to preserve, so that many maintain that it would only be possible within a state of angels, since men, with their self-seeking inclinations, would be incapable of adhering to a constitution of so sublime a nature. But in fact, nature comes to the aid of the universal and rational human will, so admirable in itself but so impotent in practice, and makes use of precisely those self-seeking inclinations in order to do so. (KPW 112)

These first two sentences align generally with Kant’s view of happiness — that all rational beings necessarily possess it as an end, and that it frequently contravenes with our other, potentially duty-based, ends.

But the third sentence goes further: it suggests that rationality is impotent “in practice” (a loaded phrase for Kant, for whom any sensible theory is necessarily practical), and that producing a recognizably just state of affairs among peoples (i.e., a republic2) perhaps requires the inputs of our selfish inclinations.

Hints of Rawls, intersubjectivity, and reflective equilibrium

In the same vein of thought:

[…] we cannot expect their moral attitudes to produce a good political constitution; on the contrary, it is only through the latter that the people can be expected to attain a good level of moral culture. Thus that mechanism of nature by which selfish inclinations are naturally opposed to one another can be used by reason to facilitate the attainment of its own end, the reign of established right. (KPW 113)

So the reasoning goes: individuals acting out of self interest (“selfish inclinations”) will come to form (or at least prefer, if they cannot form) republics3 as the best civil constitution for protecting those interests. The existence of that constitution, in turn, will produce a “moral culture”.4

Crucially, neither the good will nor duty is anywhere to be found in either process. This bears an interesting resemblance to the Rawlsian approach to justice, which likewise assumes nothing other than self-interested parties. While not intentionally intersubjective in the manner of Rawlsian principles of justice, talk of “moral culture” threatens some Kantian orthodoxy by way of moral worthiness: to what extent can we say that a person is morally praiseworthy (i.e., has acted purely from duty) if their culture has made such behavior easy?

The similarities with Rawls continue in the appendix to PP:

A state may well govern itself in a republican way, even if its existing constitution provides for a despotic ruling power; and it will gradually come to the stage where the people can be influenced by the mere idea of the law’s authority, just as if it were backed up by a physical force, so that they will be able to create for themselves a legislation ultimately founded on right. (KPW 118)

(Bold mine.)

I’m mostly grasping here, but this reminds me of Rawls’s morality of principles: we ultimately come to find the principle of justice (as both specific prescriptions and as a self-perpetuating system) itself to be the most compelling motivator for moral behavior, and thereby replace (override?) our earlier moral stages (authority, then family/community role-playing) with one based largely on a priori principles of right. Those principles can be Rawlsian (Original Position) or Kantian (various forms of the Categorical Imperative); the metaethical result is the same.

  1. In Kant’s Political Works ed. Hans Reiss, trans. H. B. Nisbet, Cambridge 1970. 

  2. I’ll use “republic” here and throughout for consistency, but it’s worth noting that Kant means something roughly equivalent to our contemporary sense of democracy (i.e., a representative one). When Kant says democracy, he means it in the way Aristotle does: mob rule. 

  3. Kant outright states that perpetual peace can only occur when all civil constitutions are republican, but elsewhere hints that other constitutions may incrementally approach (but perhaps never completely obtain?) a state of political right. See KPW 118f. 

  4. I don’t have the original German or know whether this phrase carries special value for Kant (cf. “self-murder” vs. suicide in the GMS). However, it feels out-of-place given Kant’s characterization of political right as an “applied branch of right,” and the background knowledge of what right and morality mean for Kant.