By Abigail Mazurek
ARTSSCI 2A06: Social and Political Thought
An introductory note on resilience:
To maintain resilience in an ever-changing world, we must frequently reassess our political principles and apply lessons from our past to new challenges. Contemporary issues such as climate change, technological surveillance, and COVID-19 have forced us to evaluate and amend our understanding of sustainability, privacy, and liberty. Our challenges are new, but the principles associated with those challenges have pervaded human history. It is in learning to apply the lessons and scholarship from our past to new conflicts that we find our resilience. As the complexity of a challenge increases, so must our creativity.
Kant’s "Toward Perpetual Peace" has long stood as an exemplar for the nations of the world on how to operate peacefully with respect to traditional conflicts, such as war and tyranny. Over time, the principles outlined in this famous treatise have been applied to the modern fields of international law (Kleingeld, 304-325) and bioethics (Messelken, 293-321), among others. I now posit that this historical text can and should be creatively reinterpreted to address the modern challenge of human-made climate change. In this way, I seek to contribute to the academic tradition that fosters our resilience to new challenges.
In publishing his treatise “Toward Perpetual Peace”, Immanuel Kant provided society with a philosophical set of principles that should be adhered to in order to promote long-lasting peace between both individuals and nations. In his nine principles, rather than providing concrete rules, Kant suggested the values that all just and peace-loving societies should embrace. Traditionally, Kant’s principles are applied on a geographical axis, providing lessons on how to “tolerate one another as neighbours”, being confined to the finite space of a spherical planet (Kant 82). However, today humanity finds itself faced with a challenge unique in its magnitude and complexity: that of our planet’s swiftly changing climate. If left unchecked, this global crisis has the potential to threaten peace between all nations, with a critical new dimension. Namely, it is now understood that the decisions made by the societies of today will indubitably have an impact on the nations of the future. In light of the potential trans-generational consequences of current decisions, this essay will shift the traditional geographical axis of Kant’s principles of coexistence to examine their applications along a temporal axis. Through this method, this essay will assert that there is a moral imperative to act to mitigate climate change, on the grounds that humanity’s current unsustainable practices violate Kant’s principles of peaceable conduct insofar as future persons are concerned.
In supporting this thesis, this essay will explore three of Kant’s principles for peaceful conduct, evaluating their relevance in the relationship between contemporary society and the nations of the future. First, this essay will demonstrate how a failure to respond to the present-day climate emergency violates Kant’s principle that “no independent state shall be acquired by another state” (Kant 68), insofar as present-day inaction necessarily limits the freedoms of future persons. This paper will then argue that in neglecting the responsibility to mitigate climate change, modern society is compromising the true spirit of republicanism, as presented by Kant. Finally, this paper will address Kant’s concept of universal hospitality, positing that in light of the known consequences of unmitigated climate change for future persons, inaction is analogous to acting with hostility towards a foreign nation.
Kant’s second preliminary article for perpetual peace amongst states declares that “No independently existing state (irrespective of whether it is large or small) shall be able to be acquired by another state through inheritance, exchange, purchase, or gift” (Kant 68). Kant asserts this on the grounds that every nation is composed of moral, human constituents who have a natural right to self-govern without outside interference (Kant 68). In applying this principle along a temporal axis, it is helpful to first consider that, according to Kant, and in light of humanity’s history, “states can be judged as individual human beings who, when in the state of nature… bring harm to each other already through their proximity to one another” (Kant 78). In saying this, Kant was articulating a truth that is salient to the human experience: people can and will harm each other indirectly, simply through their mutual coexistence, when sharing finite resources. In the context of a temporal axis, a nation of the future may come under the dominion of the nations of the present not through direct military aggression, but through the hoarding and destruction of finite resources, which necessarily depletes the resources available to future persons.
The nations of the future can be thought of as states with inherent disadvantages, due to their utter lack of negotiating power and inability to oppose the decisions made in the present. In Kant’s traditional geographical application, this perspective is analogous to a tiny country whose interests oppose those of a mighty empire. Kant would argue that even though this power discrepancy exists, it does not give the mightier nation the right to unilaterally seize resources (such as land) from a smaller state. So too should the societies of the present act civilly towards the powerless states of the future, who also deserve to be granted the resources that they require to self-govern as autonomous moral beings.
It is predicted that society has approximately twelve years to take substantial climate action before the consequences of current lifestyles set off an irreversible chain-reaction of events which will lead to catastrophic challenges for future persons (Irfan, Vox.com). The future challenge that is perhaps most indicative of modern society’s domination over future persons will be that of climate-based migration. The decisions made today have the potential to radically change the natural environments of the future, through phenomena such as ocean acidification, rising sea levels, wildfires, intense weather events, and shoreline erosion (NASA.gov). Each of these natural phenomena are predicted to displace huge numbers of people, potentially leading to the largest refugee crisis in history (Brown, 11). Thus, it is clear that through the abuse of the natural world, current states are indirectly dictating the physical environments of the future, effectively ‘seizing lands’ (along with a myriad of other resources) from the nations yet to come. In making future persons’ environments unable to support their own lifestyles, modern societies are holding dominion over future persons, contrary to Kant’s principle of respecting the rights of all nations’ constituents.
Kant’s first definitive article of perpetual peace requires that “the civil constitution of every state shall be republican” (Kant 76). Kant defines a republic as a form of government in which “the executive power (the government) of a state is separated from the legislative power” (Kant 76). However, Kant goes on to insist that such a system must be representative, in which those who make the decisions act in the interest of the constituents of the state (Kant 77-78). Kant’s support of this republican model was based on the understanding that a nation will be far more conservative and cautious when choosing to engage in war if such conflict is voted on by the members of society who will have to bear its costs. Kant argues that this system is far more conducive to peaceful relations between nations than an autocracy, in which an individual who can only benefit from waging war is responsible for a nation’s decisions.
Today, most of the western world prides itself on its republican structure of government, in which decisions are made by democratically elected representatives of the people of a given nation. However, Kant warns his readers that “the violation of right at any one place on earth, is felt in all places” (Kant 84). In saying this, Kant was acknowledging that the consequences of decisions can and will ripple across time and space to affect the rights of multitudes. This understanding is especially pertinent when considering a population that is making decisions that will affect its descendants. When considering the potential for future conflict, the principles of republicanism must be reconsidered, as the current voting population will not bear the costs of their own decisions. Obviously, persons of the future are not able to participate in the democratic processes of today, even though current decisions will profoundly affect them. To preserve peace in this temporal context, republicanism must exist not only as a concrete structure, but also as a set of philosophical values that preclude individuals from electing to engage in conflicts whose burden will be borne by others. Thus, a contemporary society that truly embraces the Kantian values of republicanism would not even consider it within their rights to make choices that necessitate a future war, as they could not possibly personally accept the consequences of such a decision.
Today, it is widely acknowledged that future generations will be thrust into unprecedented interpersonal and transnational conflict if climate change goes unchecked (Ryan, Stanford.edu). Potential future wars will likely be fought over water and other essential resources, due to the scarcity that inevitably follows environmental collapse (Ratner, Weforum.org). Experts predict that current geopolitical epicenters of poverty and violence will find these issues amplified, with a virtually guaranteed increase in human suffering and mortality (Mares, 768). Policy makers and voting citizens of the present, whose actions will prevent or ensure such future outcomes, will likely not be alive to experience these consequences of climate inaction. Instead, people of the future will bear this burden. Present societies seem indifferent to the conflicts that they are legislating into existence to support their current lifestyles, precisely because they will not be the ones who suffer the consequences. Thus, in choosing not to address climate change, current societies act as Kant’s selfish ruler who, “because [he] is not a fellow citizen… forfeits nothing of his feasts, hunts, summer residences, and such things due to the war” (Kant 75). Just like this archetypal “ruler”, people of today have nothing to lose and everything to gain from consenting to conflict on others’ behalf, and find themselves grappling for reasons to justify their selfishness and hostility (Kant 75). Therefore, if societies of today do not take action to mitigate climate change, despite having the outer trimmings of republican states, they are nonetheless compromising the true Kantian spirit of republicanism, which was meant to ensure that decisions are made by those who bear their consequences.
Finally, Kant’s third definitive article for perpetual peace states that “cosmopolitan rights shall be limited to the conditions of universal hospitality” (Kant 82). The law of universal hospitality is ultimately concerned with the necessity of peaceable interactions between visitors and hosts. On the basis of his primary concern for the welfare of all human beings, Kant asserts that if an individual enters another nation’s geographical territory peaceably, he is not to be treated with hostility. New human beings, who by their temporal distance from current persons and initial infancy are necessarily peaceable, should not be treated with hostility. In applying Kant’s principle along a temporal axis, one concludes that future human beings are not to be subjected to abuse simply for existing in a particular time and place. As previously touched upon, Kant asserts that persons can be judged to have harmed one another even if these harms are the unintended consequences of an elsewhere-aimed, self-interested action. However, Kant goes on to explain that nations must aim to curb these unintentionally harmful, selfish behaviours, in order to protect the rights of all those who subscribe to the social contract (Kant 78). As future persons have the potential to fall within this category, peace-loving societies will aim to mitigate harmful acts that threaten the well-being of future nations, in order to act in accordance with the law of universal hospitality.
The concept of acting peacefully towards foreign persons who have done oneself no harm sounds obvious in theory, but unfortunately is not self-evident in modern-day practices and decisions. Indeed, the actions of present-day people condemn future human beings to great predicted harm. The WHO predicts that future people on this planet will be met with dangerous air pollution to infect their lungs (“How Air Pollution is Destroying our Health”), and damaging UV rays to harm their skin (“Climate Change and Human Health - Risks and Responses. Summary.”), along with the aforementioned elevated levels of violence. These future consequences of current actions have been widely predicted by experts in many fields; modern societies can no longer plead ignorance. In his third definitive article, Kant counter-culturally condemns European nations, who inflict great suffering upon others in the name of economic growth and personal profit. He outlines the evils of the British Empire who, in conquering peaceable Hindustan, violated the laws of hospitality by denying the personhood of those who were foreign to them, and as a byproduct of their commercial interests imposed “expansive wars, famine, unrest, faithlessness, and the whole litany of evils that weigh upon the human species” upon another nation (Kant 83). Today’s policy makers have been told that their current methods of pursuing economic prosperity will compromise the wellbeing of others. In ignoring these warnings, and thus valuing their own economic success over the protection of future “foreign” persons, modern societies are comparable to Kant’s British villain, who immorally infringes upon the rights of others as a byproduct of their commercial pursuits. It is in this indirect way that modern-day societies who fail to address climate change violate the law of universal hospitality, when considering the repercussions of their decisions along a temporal axis.
The work of Immanuel Kant has for centuries been extremely influential in Western political philosophy, providing a framework of values to facilitate peaceful relations between nations. This essay sought to demonstrate that Kantian principles for peaceableness can and should be applied along a temporal axis, in order to facilitate peaceful relations between and across generations. Specifically, this essay was concerned with the application of these principles along a temporal axis in light of the unprecedented global threat of climate change, whose trajectory will be determined by the nations of today, but whose burdens will be borne by the nations of tomorrow. This essay first demonstrated how nations of today can indirectly “rule over” nations that will exist in the future, by destroying shared resources to necessarily limit those available to future persons. It then elaborated on how climate inaction will lead to a mass displacement of future people, effectively seizing their lands through the destruction of their natural environment. Secondly, this essay asserted that to truly adhere to Kantian republicanism is to adopt not only a republican structure of government, but a republican spirit of decision-making, in which those who choose to engage in conflict are those who will bear its costs. It then outlined how contemporary society, effectively voting for future conflict through its climate inaction, is not in line with the true spirit of republicanism, as such inaction is commensurate with consenting to war on another's behalf. Finally, this essay described how, as eventual members of the social contract, persons of the future should not be subjected to undue hostilities, as is dictated by the law of universal hospitality. It then described the ways in which current climate inaction is a violation of the law of universal hospitality, insofar as those belonging to the “foreign” nations of the future will be met with hostile conditions indirectly inflicted upon them by the nations of today.
In reviewing this evidence, it is utterly apparent that contemporary societies have a responsibility to mitigate climate change, as failing to do so will necessarily inflict undue harm on the nations of the future. In the face of looming environmental collapse, humanity is now confronted with one of the greatest threats to global peace that the world has ever seen. This generation has had thrust upon it a monumental burden of responsibility. But with this responsibility comes the opportunity to embody Kant’s principles for peace in their fullest sense, as we strive towards a future in which we can “flatter ourselves to be continually progressing towards perpetual peace” (Kant 85).
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