Democracy: The Key to Avoiding Future Wars? (2)

Editor's Note: This is the second in a two-part series. The first part can be found here.

In the Kantian framework, different kinds of agents pursue democracy at three levels: the individuals within a nation, the states in their relationships with one another and also with their citizens, and humankind. In this post we shall look at how individuals within a nation should behave if they want to truly abide by democratic principles. Should they rebel and when? Should they support war, and which type of war if any?

The Individuals Within a Nation

We have two cases: individuals living in a political system that already has democratic institutions and those living in a different type of political system.

In the first case, individuals are free to pursue and further democracy, as it goes in the direction of their political system. As morally autonomous individuals and as citizens, they will try to improve their understanding, “To emerge from their self-incurred immaturity.”[10] They will be interested in the policies of their government and exert their right of freedom of speech and pen. By such progress, they will lessen their risks to be the victims of propaganda and manipulation, which are the best tools of those who want to have a war-prone public opinion.[11] The latest media war surrounding Syria reminds us the importance of this point. Moreover democratic citizens are reluctant to accept war because they have to pay the cost for it.[12] Note that this unwillingness may be currently active in the US. The “cost awareness” is likely to be heightened by education and the habit to think for oneself. Democratic citizens will thus progressively contribute to avoid wars, except in the cases of true self-defense.

This pending danger of needing to defend oneself will prompt our “enlightened” individuals to wish to reduce this permanent insecurity. As they expect their democratic fellows from other states to pursue democracy as they do, the threat would logically come mainly from non-democratic states. Thus they may wish those states to become democratic. May they, in this case, be proponents of intervention, whatever its form, in another state? On the contrary, the principles of democracy and freedom are such that they cannot be imposed upon a nation, but must be entered willingly. Thus intervention to promote a democracy should be opposed. To intervene to change a constitution would be equivalent to despotism, which is contrary to the commitment of our democratic individuals. They cannot either advocate rebellion: Such violence would imply the collapse of the state and bring back chaos and the unlawful state of civil strife. It would increase the instability in the country, in the region and thus heighten the probability for war, as exemplified by the situation in Iraq.[13] The only action that is opened to our individuals is to contribute to educate the inhabitants of other states in the principles of “negative freedom,” to make them aware of their moral autonomy while still respecting the lawful state, however imperfect, in which they live — as sole protector against domestic anarchy.[14]

This leads us to our second case: how can an individual living in a non-democratic state pursue democracy if s/he cannot violently rebel. Kant rules out specifically and clearly such a rebellion:

“And even, if the power of the state or its agent the head of the state has violated the original contract by authorizing the government to act tyrannically, and has thereby, in the eyes of the subject, forfeited the right to legislate, the subject is still not entitled to offer counter resistance.”[15]

If individuals were morally justified to rebel in their pursuit of democracy then they would create more wars. The only way is non-violent protest, passive resistance and disobedience, for example through speech and writing.[16] This cruel tension between a true pursuit of democracy and hope for any achievement may explain the intense fear felt by democratic citizens towards non-democratic states, as well as the resignation of individuals in non-democratic states. Individuals know that to obey democratic principles, they have to forego their happiness. They ought to be unselfish to the point of accepting to never see the fruit of their actions.[17] The violent death of people such as the Mahatma Gandhi, who have decided to follow such a path, can only increase their fear. Yet, some people still choose the difficult but unique path of true democratic pursuit.

Rebellion can take place only when the state acts purely from expediency, when human beings are considered as “incapable and unworthy to be treated as their rights demand.”

Rebellion can take place only when the state acts purely from expediency, when human beings are considered as “incapable and unworthy to be treated as their rights demand.”[18] There, individuals can use violence because the state is unlawful. If we wanted to judge the Egyptian events of June and early July from a democratic principle point of view, as so many did so rapidly during July and August, then rather than to focus on elections, or claim a “righteous outrage” (from a comfortable far away) at the military support given to the 30 June Tamarod movement, then we would have to try answering the difficult questions specified by Kant: Under Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood regime, did the state act purely from expediency? Were human beings and more particularly Egyptians (men and women) considered as “incapable and unworthy to be treated as their rights demand?” Were such trends starting to appear, which begs the question at which point is it democratically acceptable to rebel? Those questions would most probably lead us to wonder if the understanding of human beings and rights held by the Muslim Brotherhood is compatible with the understanding of rights held by Kant as explained in the previous post. Those are difficult questions that may not be answered lightly.

Kant answers to Hobbes and to the vision of human beings held by Realists when he states the case of a “democratic rebellion”.[19] Far from helping to avoid more wars, to be solely committed to power and to refuse to see any morality and the good in human beings can only multiply all types of wars.

This post was provided by Dr. Helene Lavoix, Founder, Director, and Senior Analyst at The Red (Team) Analysis Society. This post was originally published on her organization’s website.

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Header Image: Roadside mural of Bashal Al Assad alngside the Damascus-Aleppa Highway (James Gordon|Wikimedia)


[10] Kant, “An Answer to the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment?,” p. 54

[11] Edward Mansfield & Jack Snyder,“Democratization and War,” Foreign Affairs, (May/June 1995), Vol. 74, No. 3, p.87 and also Robert W. McElroy, Morality and American Foreign Policy: The Role of Ethics in International Affairs. (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1992, quoting Alfred Zimmern, p. 10.

[12] Kant, Perpetual Peace, First Definitive Article, p.100

[13] For the increase of war due to transitions see Mansfield & Snyder, Democratization and War. For the incompatibility between rebellion and democracy, see Kant, On the Common Saying: ‘This may be True in Theory but it does not Apply in Practice: II On the relationship of Theory to Practice in Political Right., pp. 73–86.

[14] Note that individuals can act in such a way because of the cosmopolitan right which allows for transnational contacts. For the demonstration against rebellion, see Kant, In theory and Practice II.

[15] Kant, In theory and Practice, II . p. 81.

[16] see Reiss, Kant: Political Writings, footnote referring to the treatise Religion within the limits of Reason Alone. p. 31.

[17] Kant, In Theory and Practice, III On the relationship of Theory to Practice in International Right p.89

[18] Kant, In theory and Practice, II p. 86.

[19] Kant, In Theory and Practise II, is an answer to Hobbes. See in McElroy, Morality and American Foreign Policy, pp. 13 -21, the anthropological vision of man held by Niehbur (The drive for transcendence leads to God but also to sinfulness and pride — p. 14) and Morgenthau (“the drive for transcendence leads only to selfishness and lust for power” — p.20) — pp. 13 -21.