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Immanuel Kant’s Possible Views on Nuclear Weapon and Nuclear Deterrence

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In his popular book “Perpetual Peace; A Philosophical Sketch”, Kant, a prominent late Eighteenth century German political philosopher, pencils down the possible ways to attain his conception of perpetual peace. For this purpose, he prescribed in his book, six preliminary articles which described the steps that should be taken immediately and three definitive articles (plus a secretive article) which described the steps which should be established in future by working towards them, in order to deter warfare/establish peace. If Kant were to present his views on the acquisition of nuclear arsenals and the nuclear deterrence policy that has been adopted by many countries today, he would most likely criticize and condemn the idea. This essay outlines several supportive evidences from Kant’s own writings to substantiate the claim of Kant’s disapprove of nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence and suggest Kant’s ultimate conclusion on this discourse.

Nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction which use the process of nuclear fusion, fission or both to release energy in an explosive manner causing unmeasurable amount of destruction. In History, such dreadful method war has only been used twice in world war II by United States against Japan and the fatal consequences of this exists to the present day. The strategy of nuclear deterrence has been used since then.

According to Britannica, Deterrence is the military strategy under which one power uses the threat of reprisal effectively to preclude an attack from an adversary power. Countries possessing nuclear weapons use the deterrence theory to explain their purpose of acquiring and keeping nuclear arsenals. Whatever the reason may be, nuclear weapons, nevertheless, are a direct threat to the world peace. Kant believes that the state of nature is not a state of peace but a state of constant war, but this does not justify the existence war. Kant believes that as moral progress continues, people will ultimately come to hate war and move towards establishing peace. Since war hinders the ultimate goal of establishing perpetual peace, the use of nuclear weapons in war can also be considered as an obstacle in the attainment of peace.

According to first preliminary article for perpetual peace among states, Kant states that “no treaty of peace shall be held valid in which there is tacitly reserved matter for a future war (Kant).” He believes that any such treaty is merely the delay of hostility and not the attainment of perpetual peace. Treaties like Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear weapons have been signed by many countries in order to promote peaceful uses of nuclear energy, prevent the spread and use of nuclear weapons and ultimately lead to nuclear disarmament. Unless these treaties do not become effective immediately, Kant would hold them invalid. For example, the limited test ban treaty signed in August 1963 which prohibits nuclear weapons tests in the atmosphere, in outer space, under water, and in any other environment if the explosions cause radioactive debris to be present outside the territory of a responsible state. Such treaties would be considered null and void by Kant as they do not ensure the complete elimination of possibility of a future war.

The treaty of prohibition of Nuclear weapons (TPNW) which completely does not allow countries to possess nuclear weapons could be considered valid according to Kant as it eliminates a source of war thus, reducing the possibility of a future war. Hence, possession of nuclear weapons even when states agrees to not use them, does not completely eliminate the possibility of them not using these weapons in future.

According to the third preliminary article for perpetual peace among states, Kant believes that abolition of standing armies as soon as possible is a necessary step which should be taken in order to perpetuate peace (Kant). He believes that the existence of standing armies itself cause aggression and a threat of war to others. In present world the possession of nuclear weapons can be referred as a standing army since it serves the similar purpose. The whole theory of nuclear deterrence itself exists on this basis I.e. a weapon set ready for war. Most of the countries that possess nuclear weapons today, claim that they have obtained nuclear weapons merely for defensive purposes. But according to Kant, this would serve the purpose of a standing army anf hence, a probable cause of future war. Furthermore, Kant would suggest that the amount of finances used for the acquisition and maintenance of nuclear becomes a burden on the state which the country would eventually want to get rid of by using it. The use of nuclear weapon would also mean, being ready to sacrifice its own people if the war starts and since the idea is hardly compatible with the rights of mankind (according to Kant), the objective of attaining perpetual peace by eliminating war and progressing human rights, would again be compromised.

The Fourth preliminary article for perpetual peace among states, states that National debts shall not be contracted with a view to the external friction of states (Kant). Here again, Kant indirectly proposed that countries should not allow the financing of war to become easy. He suggests that when countries take financial aid/debt from other countries for war purposes, it creates a dangerous money power in one country. This facility in making war, together with the inclination to do so on the part of rulers – an inclination which seems inborn in human nature – is thus a great hindrance to perpetual peace (Kant). Today countries trade nuclear weapons among themselves and even take debt from other countries in order to finance their nuclear programs. Kant disapproves any such trades since they hinder the attainment of perpetual peace and can become possible cause of war.

Furthermore, the sixth and the last preliminary article for perpetual peace among states also supports the claim that Kant would criticize or even condemn the act of possessing nuclear weapons or nuclear deterrence. In this article Kant states that no state shall, during war, Permit Such acts of hostility which would make mutual confidence in the subsequent peace impossible. Although here, Kant mentioned other evil acts such as sending spies, poisoners, the act of using nuclear weapon on another country would have similar effect. For example, since the US used the nuclear weapon against Japan in world war II, the relation between the two countries haven’t established properly. This act created hostility among countries for years. Also, the countries who have not agreed on signing any treaty regarding no use of nuclear weapon, become a cause of hostility for other states and can become a possible cause of war.

Although most of the writings of Kant suggest that he totally opposes war and believes that peace will be attained only when all possibilities of war end, he does agree that the state of nature is a constant state of war. Through war, nature has allowed man to discover the world and to become who he is.War made man accustomed to living under laws, because war necessitates that men unite with others politically. Kant states that even if people were not constrained by internal discord to submit to public laws, war would make them do it and it is merely by organizing the nation well (which is certainly within man’s capacities) that they are able to direct their power against one another… Man, even though he is not morally good, is forced to be a good citizen (Kant). But this does not suggest that war is inevitable, and we cannot do anything about it.

To Conclude, it can be said that most of Kant’s writings suggest that if he were to present his views on the possession of nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence, he would openly oppose the idea and would consider it as a hinderance in the attainment of perpetual peace. He would conclude nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence to a probable source of future war since they impose a threat to the weaker countries that do not possess them and creates a universal hostility among countries.

Works Cited

  1. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Deterrence.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 12 June 2017,
  2. Kant, Immanuel. Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Essay, 1795. London: S. Sonnenschein, 1903. Print.

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