Kant's just war theory

Journal of the History of Philosophy 37 (2):323-353 (1999)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Kant’s Just War TheoryBrian OrendKant is often cited as one of the first truly international political philosophers. Unlike the vast majority of his predecessors, Kant views a purely domestic or national conception of justice as radically incomplete; we must, he insists, also turn our faculties of critical judgment towards the international plane. When he does so, what results is one of the most powerful and principled conceptions of international justice ever constructed. Kant’s central concept, that it is a demand of our own practical reason that we forge a cosmopolitan federation of free republics, based on the rule of law, human rights, and cultural and commercial development, still resonates today as a plausible and hopeful prescription for humanity’s future.Much of Kant’s international theory has recently received searching analysis and evaluation. But the bulk of this consideration has focused on Kant’s descriptive, as opposed to prescriptive, claims. Lavish attention, for example, has been showered on his assertion that perpetual peace is inevitable—that our natural antagonism will irresistibly incline us, after many failures, to establish an international juridical condition. Comparatively little has been done on thoroughly evaluating Kant’s normative claims of international justice, particularly with regard to his ideal corpus of international law and his concrete recommendations for moving from a global state of nature to a cosmopolitan civil society.1In this paper, I would like to contribute to the latter task by focusing on the moral problem that war poses as, arguably, the most frequent and severe cause [End Page 323] of ruptures in the functioning of the international system.2 In particular, I would like to argue in favour of the controversial, and original, thesis that Kant has a just war theory.3 I would then like to develop that theory in some detail and to explain its strength and suggestiveness. The focus on war seems both helpful and timely. It is helpful in that it provides a specific, graphic example with which one can apprehend more clearly the abstract architecture of Kant’s international vision. It is timely in that, in the wake of the very recent conflicts in Bosnia and Rwanda, and in light of the subsequent formation of the International War Crimes Tribunals at The Hague, renewed attention has been paid to considering what, if anything, constitutes a just war and what is permitted, and what punishable, in terms of conduct in war. A rigorous consideration of what one of the true giants of moral philosophy thought about these issues can only serve to illuminate our understanding of these current events.1. THE TRADITIONAL READING OF KANT: NO JUST WARNearly every commentator on Kant’s international theory of justice who discusses the problem of war in any detail believes that Kant not only has no just war theory, but that he is, moreover, a vicious critic of the core propositions of classical just war theorists, such as Augustine, Aquinas, and Grotius. Howard Williams, for example, says that “Kant has no theory of just war … (j)ustice and war are in conflict with one another and it is our duty as human beings to try to overcome war.” Fernando Teson contends that “Kant dismisses the idea that there could be a just war” and Georg Geismann asserts that, for Kant, “there is no such thing as a just war.” Similarly, W. B. Gallie asserts that “Kant agreed … that nothing but confusion and harm resulted from regarding any wars as just … ” There is a bevy of quotes in the Kantian corpus to support this reading.4One prominent anti-just war quote occurs in Perpetual Peace, when Kant [End Page 324] reflects on the contributions of traditional just war theorists and arrives at the following judgment:It is therefore to be wondered at that the word right has not been completely banished from military politics as superfluous pedantry, and that no state has been bold enough to declare itself publicly in favour of doing so. For Hugo Grotius, Pufendorf, Vattel and the rest (sorry comforters as they are) are still dutifully quoted in justification of military aggression, although their philosophically or diplomatically formulated codes do not and...



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Brian Orend
University of Waterloo

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