“A state . . . is a society of persons which no one else has the right to command or dispose of except the state itself. It is a trunk with its own roots. But incorporating it into another state, like a transplant, is to destroy its existence as a moral person, to reduce it to a thing.
It looks like it could have been written this week after Putin, against international law, declared large parts of Ukraine to be part of Russia now. But the philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote these words in 1795 as he sought to propose a way for mankind to walk away from war and other violent actions between nations. He proposed lasting peace between nations through sound international relations as the goal to be achieved.
Kant based his view on the belief that people, through the use of reason and morality, can rise above violent and destructive behavior to live together in mutual respect and cooperation. He believed that we could see this in certain local communities and religious groups, for example, and that it was beginning to flourish in certain nations. He was not naive about human nature and thought we saw many signs of what he called “frailty” (weakness in not doing what we know we should do), “impurity” (doing the right thing partly for selfish motives) and “wickedness” (desiring to do what we know to be wrong). But he believed that it is possible to learn and grow as can be seen in certain communities and groups.
In his political philosophy, he held that he can see the gradual growth of states or nations as republics in which laws are made that lead people away from violence and domination towards governments by the people in which the rights of all can be respected. During this Enlightenment period, Kant might have seen this in the ideals of the newly formed United States, for example.
It was there that he developed new ideas. Just as people in a nation are seen as individuals or moral entities worthy of respect and fair treatment, nations themselves can learn to treat other nations as parallel moral entities equally worthy of respect and fair treatment.
In this system of international order, there should be enforceable laws and rules of conduct. It would take, according to Kant, an international federation of republics to both promote and enforce the proper procedures and laws. If it sounds like the United Nations was supposed to be a step in that direction, I think that’s correct. Have we achieved the goal? Obviously not. But the pursuit of international law, justice and cooperation is the path, I believe, to a meaningful and lasting peace. Now is not the time for isolation or unhealthy nationalism; rather, it is a time to promote and develop cooperative relationships with nations that share our ideals and to encourage other nations to move in the direction of those ideals. Nor is this the time to abandon the United Nations; it is rather the time to help it become stronger, more linked to democratic principles and more effective.
It is no coincidence that Perpetual Peace (Zum ewigen Frieden) is the title of Kant’s document in which the quotation and the main ideas given above are found. It is definitely worth reading and contemplating.