What is Ordinary Hospitality?
This is the third instalment of an essay series on the section of Kant's Sketch of a World Constitution called: "The Law of World Citizenship Shall Be Limited to Conditions of Universal Hospitality." An early draft was entitled "Kant's Codicil on Hospitality and the Oneness of Humanity," written on 17 July 2003. All references are to the Sketch for a Perpetual Peace, in Kant, Immanuel, Philosophical Writings, Ernst Behler, Ed., Continuum, New York, 1986, pp. 270-311)
Immanuel Kant was one of the few thinkers to recognize that hospitality was the central ground of peace in both past and present. In this section of his Peace Sketch, Kant draws a tacit distinction between ordinary laws of hospitality and what he calls "universal hospitality." While closely related in some respects, there is a crucial difference in kind between them. Only universal hospitality can be the pillar of any future world order.
In the beginning, Kant reminds us, the whole surface of the earth was one homeland. In a hunter-gathering or nomadic society, land was held in common; households and entire villages could migrate at will without compromising culture, identity or integrity. When they did travel, the population was so small that contacts with outsiders were few and far between. This was the stark reality for all pre-history and most of history: the seemingly infinite size of our planet. Technology was primitive, travel slow and difficult and large portions of earth were permanently uninhabitable. Seas and deserts divided the commonwealth of humanity. This isolation set up a great need to know what lay beyond the horizon.
With the invention of agriculture, it became possible for the land to support a much larger population. In order for this to happen, though, cultivators had to occupy fields permanently and those supported by them had to dwell in nearby cities. Thus began private ownership of land, cutting off the use of a part of earth from the rest of humanity. In cities, workers learned various trades, and the division of labour began. This too depended upon the same absolute right to property.
Although property allowed agriculture and civilization to come about, it also made the isolation of geography worse than it already was. Static communities had to balance the longing of some to explore with a landowners right to stability and permanence. In order to compensate the loss of mobility and the breakdown in contact with the outside, humans invented the law of hospitality.
This way an owner could permanently section off a private domain and still learn from the rest of the world by living up to the reciprocal obligations of hospitality. Travellers got the right not to be treated as an enemy. Guests accepted that they had to be invited in order to enter, and remain there only on a temporary basis. In exchange for food and lodging, a guest offered answers to certain personal questions and told stories about the outside world. For those offering hospitality, this established an inflow of first-hand information about the outside world, and relieved some of their isolation.
In an age before you could call 911, the law of hospitality also served as an emergency rescue service. A family anywhere was morally obliged to offer succour to travellers in distress. The parable of the Good Samaritan called for universal help for strangers, victims and outcasts, beyond the limited ties of tribe or religion. Islamic law applied this obligation of universal hospitality more broadly and seriously than any civilized society before or since. The Qur'an teaches that learning about differences and similarities from contact between tribes and cultures is one of our reasons for being created.
We should notice that throughout the past, most of the burden of hospitality rested on the family. It was households not inns that hosted travelers from near and afar. Social contact started with an exchange of visits with one's neighbours. The family truly was the cornerstone of culture and society because it took on these heavy responsibilities, often at great material sacrifice. Since then tourism, the world's largest industry, has become entirely professionalized and families have no role in the so-called "hospitality industry." It is now routine to travel the world without once exchanging food and conversation with a local family or individual.
It is important to remember the full extent of what was lost. Through intimate contact with travelers, family members learned about the world at large directly, by talking to a human being. Contact was not limited to superficial images and sound bites orchestrated and mediated by biased mass media outlets. On their part, travelers gained insights from a cross section of local society. The older generation shared its experience of where local culture had been. The young people in the family gave a glance into where it was headed.
Offering hospitality forced both sides to exercise courtesy and the Golden Rule. It was not only professionals and official representatives of large institutions who practiced diplomacy; for a time everybody had to treat a diverse range of people from every level of society as one of their own. In such families, the world became one family.
Such was the ordinary model of hospitality.
As this model extended to international law, the conventions of hospitality decreed that local peoples and nations could not plunder foreigners, as do the desert Arabs or pirates off the Barbary coast (these are Kant's examples, which unfortunately still apply in places like Somalia). In international trade, a guest could not demand to be a permanent visitor -- in other words, violate sovereignty by invading, colonizing or otherwise exploiting unfairly an outside nation. When obeyed, the strictures of ordinary hospitality kept the peace, preserved the integrity of cultures and encouraged trade and a smooth flow of news and information.
Gradually, there was more contact and information sharing. Technology advanced, better ships were built and horses and camels (the desert ship) were domesticated. Finally, distant places came into such close contact and trade so profitable, that the rules of ordinary hospitality were routinely violated. Nonetheless, as Kant points out, in the longer perspective friendlier ties between peoples could only carry peace in one direction,
"... distant parts of the world can come into peaceable relations with each other, and these are finally publicly established by law. Thus the human race can gradually be brought closer and closer to a constitution establishing world citizenship."
World citizenship can only come about, then, after we have rethought, reconstructed and universalized hospitality and sovereignty. As improved technologies of travel and communications bring peoples closer together, the preconditions of hospitality will have to change too. This we will talk about in the next essay.