Kant and Iraq

by Chris Bertram on February 19, 2004

According to conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, “Immanuel Kant would have been a supporter of the Iraq war”:http://www.opendemocracy.net/themes/article-5-1749.jsp . I’m posting this as a curiosity, really, since it seems unlikely to me that Kant, who didn’t allow peoples the right to overthrow despots (however much he might rejoice at the consequences) would have allowed the legitimacy of one people overthrowing another people’s regime (however despotic).



Kieran Healy 02.19.04 at 10:30 pm

I can’t be the first person to think that “Scrutonize (v.)” should be in a dictionary somewhere. Perhaps Ophelia can help us out.


Russell Arben Fox 02.19.04 at 11:08 pm

I agree with Chris. Still, it’s not a wholly flawed interpretation. The key is the way Scruton sets states like Iraq outside the rational law which Kant held to be available to all men, should they only open themselves up to the “maxims of the philosophers.” The rational republic would embrace the principle of non-revolution, and fit more or less seamlessly into a philosophical League of Nations-type arrangement. Scruton argues that “a League of Nations can establish a genuine rule of law only if its members are also republics. Unless that condition is fulfilled, nations remain in the rivalrous state of nature.” Which means the rational law would be on hold for non-republics like Iraq. In other words, Scruton holds that Kant’s imperative would itself justify acting in violation of otherwise Kantian principles if the context itself wasn’t (or hadn’t yet become) Kantian. Bingo: Kant becomes a kind of rational imperialist, imposing republicanism categorically. I think a lot of the universalist rhetoric of certain liberal hawks (think Oxblog, for example) is somewhat Kantian, in this sense.


Miriam 02.19.04 at 11:34 pm

Well, there is a dictionary definition for “scrutonize.” Sort of. Vide the philosophical lexicon:

scrutonize, v. “To conflate two disciplines at a superficial level so that dinner party conversations could continue in the spurious belief that matters of moment were being discussed while the port was passed.” – David Dunster, Architectural Design, December 1979, p. 327.


Curtiss Leung 02.19.04 at 11:40 pm

Does Scruton say which cigarette the now-liberated Iraqis should smoke?


bob mcmanus 02.19.04 at 11:49 pm

All I can say is that Kant is really hot right now, for a 200-yr-dead irrelevant difficult philosopher. And I guess this means I got to read Perpetual Peace tonight, which is on my hard drive. Sigh.


Matt Weiner 02.20.04 at 1:51 am

At least Scruton namechecks mine hosts….


gretchen 02.20.04 at 2:55 am

Even if we allow that Kant might have supported the overthrow of the Iraqi government, he surely would not have condoned the use of false pretenses in order to gain public support for the war.

Scruton sidesteps this issue by making it an issue solely about despotism.


Russell Arben Fox 02.20.04 at 3:41 am

Good point Gretchen. Even if you accept this reading of Kant’s formula for perpetual peace, then you’re still faced with the personal Kantian imperative to move towards this end without duplicity. Thus, Scruton’s Kant would be, at best, one of us many doubting hawks, confronted with the possibility that the actors entrusted with the war actually ended up invalidating the argument for war by the way they carried it out.


dsquared 02.20.04 at 11:32 am

Thank you from the bottom of my heart for the opportunity to recall one of Germaine Greer’s finest moments, when she said in a radio panel discussion that “The problem with Scruton is that he’s writing about Kant and he doesn’t know the first thing about Kant”. Since the short German “a” in “Kant” is not unlike an Australian short “u”, and since the natural interpretation based on both Greer’s history and Scruton’s sexual politics would be the obscene one, it gave the presenter a nasty few moments.


Chris Bertram 02.20.04 at 11:53 am

Ah yes: the presenter was Mark Lawson and his account of the incident is reproduced in comments to “this post”:https://www.crookedtimber.org/archives/000820.html (scroll down to comment by Kes).


John Isbell 02.20.04 at 3:29 pm

Well, Kant would certainly have argued that we cannot reach a definitive judgement regarding the noumenal existence of Iraqi WMD, nor frankly should we bother. Their phenomenal existence is another matter, of course.
I see the noumenal ones as kind of floating around in mid-air, maybe after dark. This may have some bearing on Scruton’s claim and should be sent his way.


carpeicthus 02.20.04 at 3:49 pm

One would think that Roger had read Was ist Aufklärung. Still, Kant did come around to supporting the French Revolution.


Matt Weiner 02.20.04 at 4:11 pm

Yes, excellent point Gretchen. I don’t know enough specific Kant to know if this question has application, but: If his account of state actions is like his account of individual actions, what matters will not be the action that the U.S. performed but the maxim under which it was performed. So if the U.S. did not go to war with the intention of making Iraq into a republic, the war wasn’t justified even on Scrukantian* grounds.
The question would be, how do you identify the maxim under which a republic acts? I’d guess you look at the war resolution, in ideal circumstances. But maybe there’s an answer somewhere in Kant’s actual writings.
*Scruton’s interpretation of Kant, a la “Kripkenstein.”


Matt Weiner 02.20.04 at 4:17 pm

I’d better change “with the intention of” to “for the purpose of making Iraq a republic.” Even I will not deny that the Bush Administration intended to make Iraq a republic, if it could be done easily (which they thought it could).


bob mcmanus 02.20.04 at 4:23 pm

“But it would be quite different if a state, by internal rebellion, should fall into two parts, each of which pretended to be a separate state making claim to the whole. To lend assistance to one of these cannot be considered an interference in the constitution of the other state (for it is then in a state of anarchy)” — Perpetual Peace

This could be used as a justification, though we did not want the Kurds declaring any kind of independence. But in general, he was very firm in not overthrowing despots, argued in a way entirely consistent with his moral system. And the other prohibitions (i.e., spies and inciting treason) make our actions in Iraq un-Kantian.

I found this quite interesting:

“But as an opposing machine in the antagonism of powers, a credit system which grows beyond sight and which is yet a safe debt for the present requirements–because all the creditors do not require payment at one time–constitutes a dangerous money power.” — Perpetual Peace

“…dangerous because it is a war treasure which exceeds the treasures of all other states; it cannot be exhausted except by default of taxes (which is inevitable), though it can be long delayed by the stimulus to trade which occurs through the reaction of credit on industry and commerce.”

“Therefore, to forbid this credit system must be a preliminary article of perpetual peace all the more because it must eventually entangle many innocent states in the inevitable bankruptcy and openly harm them. They are therefore justified in allying themselves against such a state and its measures.”


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