'Completely misunderstood' – Arthur Ripstein explores Immanuel Kant's views on war


A colleague of Arthur Ripstein once described the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant as “the philosopher for people who like philosophy too much.”

Ripstein freely admits to belonging to this group.  He’s spent decades researching and teaching Kantian legal and political philosophy and is currently finishing his latest book about the philosopher, Kant and the Law of War. It will be available in September.

Immanuel Kant (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)

“My aim with this book is to develop Kant’s actual views about war – he offers a novel perspective on the grounds of going to war, the conduct of war and what happens at the end of the war,” says Ripstein, a University Professor of law and philosophy.

“Over the last 30 years we have seen the emergence of new types of war. And people have said we need a different way of thinking about it. Kant’s work is often referred to by people taking pretty much any position at all in debates about war, but his views have been completely misunderstood.

“Pretty much everything is wrong with war, and that makes it hard to think about it systematically,” he says. “Obviously, the fact that lots of people die and things are destroyed and lives are disrupted is something that’s wrong with war.”

But that can also happen by other means, such as earthquakes, floods and natural disasters. “So the question is whether there's something extra wrong with war. Kant has a view about what is distinctively wrong with war, that it is the condition in which force decides everything – which side prevails does not depend on who is in the right.”

Throughout history and particularly in the Middle Ages in Europe, many people, including thinkers as serious as Dante believed that winning a war was a sign that you were right, that success in war was an endorsement from God.

Ripstein says that allowing force to decide things could be described as war’s “distinctive immorality.”

“In order to address that immorality, war has to have a distinctive morality governing it,” he says. “And so the thought is that by thinking about what's distinctively wrong with war, as the condition in which force decides everything, we get insights from Kant into what could ever be an acceptable grounds for engaging in war, the ways in which wars can be conducted, and what the moral and legal consequences of the end of a war are.”

Ripstein’s book also brings Kant’s work to present day, as he discusses new kinds of wars that currently plague the world, including wars of secession and wars involving loosely organized transnational organizations. He also explains the distinctive role of public legal institutions, both domestic and international.

“Since 1945, we've had the United Nations and international institutions that are morally and legally significant,” says Ripstein, adding that Kant was an early advocate of these types of groups long before they came into existence.

The book ends with a discussion about cosmopolitanism – the belief that all people are entitled to equal respect and consideration, no matter their citizenship status – exploring Kant’s view that public legal institutions play a key role in mediating human relations.

A testament to the influence and importance of Kant and the Law of War for fellow scholars, another book, The Public Uses of Coercion and Force will be released this summer. It will feature contributions from leading political theorists, philosophers and legal scholars who reflect on the major themes addressed in Ripstein’s book.

“I think Kant offers a powerful way of making moral sense of the world,” says Ripstein. “There are fundamental distinctions that organize not just philosophy or moral thought, but our fundamental orientation within the world. Kantian philosophy starts with these most basic ideas and tries to work through them systematically. I think it's intellectually thrilling.”

For his contributions to philosophy, Ripstein was recently awarded the prestigious Killam Prize by the Canada Council for the Arts. The prize recognizes select Canadian researchers who have achieved international scholarly eminence in their fields and is considered one of the most distinguished recognitions a Canadian scholar can receive.

“When I won the prize, my immediate response was to contact my mentors to thank them for all of the support they had given me early in my career,” says Ripstein.  

"One of the peculiarities about a discipline like legal philosophy is that some of the most supportive things take the form of disagreement. I was thrilled that one of my former teachers, still teaching at age 87, told me he was excited to announce my prize to his class. His planned lecture for that day was on why I was wrong about everything! 

“It is difficult to think of a greater honour.”

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