Philosopher’s Dreams of ‘Perpetual Peace’ and the War in Ukraine
Abstract: War is a difficult topic for philosophy precisely because it represents the breakdown of reason and rational argumentation in the conduct of human affairs. And, whatever its permutations throughout the centuries, understanding the universe around us and human actions and relations rationally, have remained as the telos of philosophy. But there has always been a competing tradition, running from Machiavelli and Hobbes to Nietzsche and Freud, that saw reason as being driven by passions and emotions it could not control. For this tradition, war is no surprise.
There is yet a third strand of philosophical thinking about war whose main aim is to ensure that peace endures, and that even if wars are inevitable, they must be controlled by moral principles worthy of human dignity. The foremost thinker of this tradition is Immanuel Kant, who in his 1795 essay on “Perpetual Peace,” both accepted that war among nations takes place, and nevertheless, formulated rational principles through which conflicts among nations could be resolved through peaceful means. Kant developed a “realist utopia” of peace among nations, in John Rawls’s words.
Over the centuries, the Kantian definitive articles of perpetual peace – such as that the constitution of every state should be republican; that nations should form a “pacific federation” to settle conflicts among themselves; and that nations should exercise hospitality toward strangers – have inspired the development of international law and international institutions.
The Russian aggression against Ukraine which violates Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter, and many other humanitarian laws of war as well, must be condemned in the strongest possible terms. This war signals a return from the rule-based international order of the post WWII period (however faulty it may have been) to the emergence of an order based on an authoritarian and expansionist ideology of spheres of influence among hegemonic powers.
Author: Seyla Benhabib is the Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy Emerita at Yale University. She is currently Scholar in Residence at Columbia Law School. Professor Benhabib is the recipient of the Ernst Bloch prize, the Leopold Lucas Prize, and the Meister Eckhart Prize. She has written or co-edited over 15 books, including Situating the Self: Gender, Community, and Postmodernism in Contemporary Ethics, The Rights of Others. Aliens, Citizens, and Residents, and Exile, Statelessness, and Migration: Playing Chess With History from Hannah Arendt to Isaiah Berlin.