Monday, December 14, 2009

Hospitality and International Relations, I

Kant on why Copenhagen might fail

By John Taylor; 2009 Dec 14, Masa'il 03, 166 BE

"The law of world citizenship shall be limited to conditions of universal hospitality." This is the title of the "third definitive article" of Immanuel Kant's Sketch for a Perpetual Peace. Here he deals with the questions of sovereignty, ownership of land and the freedom to travel and live where one chooses.

Kant lived at the height of the age of colonialism and, although he did not travel himself, he read carefully accounts by world travellers, such as the journals of Captain James Cook. He was troubled by the injustice of some nations growing by conquering and subjugating weaker, less technologically advanced ones. This he considered cruel and unethical. It is "not a question of philanthropy but of right" when commercial interests and nations,

"make a great show of their piety and while they drink injustice like water, they regard themselves as the elect in point of orthodoxy. ... compare the inhospitable actions of the civilized and especially of the commercial states of our part of the world. The injustice which they show to lands and peoples they visit (which is equivalent to conquering them) is carried by them to terrifying lengths."

One of the common rationalizations at the time for unlawful behaviour to foreign peoples was racism, the idea that some cultures are less human than others are. Overall, Kant was not fooled. All are humans with equal rights. Pride and greed led Europeans to commit cruelty in the name of exploration. Such was the arrogance that they often denied the very existence of natives.

"America, the lands inhabited by the Negro, the Spice Islands, the Cape, etc., were at the time of their discovery considered by these civilized intruders as lands without owners, for they counted the inhabitants as nothing."

By nature, brute competitiveness among separate, unequal nations brings cultures and economies into exploitative deadlock. Such unequal relations, Kant said, are on the same moral level as war and slavery. He praised Japan for keeping these foreign "guests" out and, when they were allowed in, severely limiting contact. Hospitality has to be extended when both parties are ready to benefit. Kant also points out that in many cases those who committed conquest did not profit from their atrocities as much as they had hoped. This point came up later as abolitionists argued that slavery, aside from its cruelty, is ultimately an inefficient labour system as well.

Thus, Kant discerned present trends in their early stages. What we now call the West consistently takes advantage of the laws of hospitality. Though they operate more quietly and subtly today, it is still the case that a bigger, richer and more educated nation or company will take advantage of free contact and set up rules and contracts to ensure that an initially unequal arrangement becomes a permanent condition.


This continues to vex international relations. For example, in Copenhagen right now poor countries are complaining that rich nations plan permanently to freeze in their current lead with an agreement that gives them a permanent right to a disproportionate share of carbon emissions.

Like many, I consider the fate of the human race to hang on the meeting presently going on in Copenhagen. If it fails, and I would be surprised if it did not, it will be for the very reasons that Kant points to in this codicil to his suggested draft for a world constitution. In a word, it will be a failure of hospitality. Since Kant's diction is turgid and his reasoning abstruse, I will plunge into it afresh next time.


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