Kant’s critique of slavery and colonialism (1795)

In this passage, from a work outlining the conditions for establishing perpetual peace, the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) constructs moral categories of savage and civilized behavior that cut across the ways that contemporaries generally thought of the concepts. He plays with the assumption that “modern” states in Europe constituted the high point of state development by arguing that their propensity to brutality and oppression suggest that something else is required to ensure peace. In making this case Kant is unstinting in his criticism of colonial conquest and slavery as uncivilized practices, a position informed by a shift away from his earlier endorsement of racial hierarchies toward a more cosmopolitan view. At the same time, he reproduces hoary stereotypes of non-Europeans, showing how he could articulate a universalist critique of colonial and racist oppression while remaining shaped by contemporary prejudices.

Jeff Bowersox


The state of peace between men who live near one another is not the state of nature. The natural state is rather one of war. In this state, if there are not always actual hostilities, they at least continually threaten. The state of peace must therefore be created, for it is not necessarily secured by the mere absence of hostilities. Even if hostile acts are not committed by one neighbor against another (a state which only the existence of law can bring about), the one can always treat the other as an enemy when he pleases to challenge him to hostilities.

2. Second definitive article for the establishment of perpetual peace. – International right shall be founded on a federation of free states.

Peoples considered as states may be regarded as individual men. In their natural state, that is, without the restraints of outward laws, they are liable to do one another injury because of their proximity one to another. Every one of them, therefore, for the sake of its own safety, can and ought to demand of the others to enter with it into a constitution, like that of the citizens of a state, in which each of them can be secured in its right. This would be a federation of peoples, but not necessarily an international state. For this would involve a contradiction; because each state contains the relation of a superior, or lawgiver, to an inferior or subject, while a number of peoples brought together in a single state would form but a single people. This would contradict the principle laid down, since we are here considering the rights of peoples in reference to one another, in so far as they are to be regarded as so many different states and not as fused into one.

We now look with deep disdain on the attachment of savages to their lawless freedom, their preference to be engaged in incessant strife rather than submit themselves to a self-imposed restraint of law, their preference of wild freedom to rational freedom. All this we regard as savagery, coarseness, and beastly degradation of human nature. One would think that civilized peoples, each constituted into a state, would eagerly hasten to get out of a similar detestable condition in their relations to one another, as speedily as possible. Instead of this, however, every state considers its majesty (majesty of a people would be an absurd term) to consist in submitting itself to no external compulsion of law whatever, and the glory of the ruler is held to consist in his being free from danger himself and having at his command thousands ready to sacrifice themselves from him in a cause in which they have not the slightest interest. The difference between the European savages and the American consists chiefly in the fact that while many tribes of the latter are entirely eaten up by their enemies, the former know how to make a better use of their captives than to roast and eat them. They use them to increase the number of their subjects and thereby the number of instruments for still more extensive wars.

The baseness of human nature is openly exhibited in the unrestrained relations of peoples to one another, whereas it is much concealed, through the restraint of government, in the civil life of each people, where law is in force. It is a matter of wonder therefore that the word “right” has not yet been wholly excluded from the policy of war as pedantic, and that no state has yet been bold enough openly to declare itself in favor of such exclusion.

The right to go to war is inconceivable as an element in the concept of international right, for that would be a right based, not on universally valid external laws which limit the freedom of every individual, but on the one-sided principle of determining by force what is right. By the right of war, then, we must mean that men who are so minded do perfectly right when they destroy one another and thus find perpetual peace only in the wide tomb which conceals all the horrible deeds of violence along with their perpetrators. For states in their relations to one another there can be, according to reason, no other way out of the lawless condition which inevitably results in war than that they give up their lawless freedom, just as individual men do, accommodate themselves to public constraining laws and so form an international state (civitas genitum) which will grow and at last embrace all the peoples of the earth. But inasmuch as the nations according to their ideas of international right do not wish this, and consequently reject in practice what is right in principle, if all is not to be lost, there can be, in place of the positive idea of a world-republic, only the negative substitute of a permanent and ever growing federation, as a preventive of war. Such a federation would hold in check the lawless and hostile passions of men, which however would always be liable to burst forth anew. As Virgil says:

Impius intus fremit horridus ore cruento.”

3. Third definitive article for the establishment of perpetual peace. – The rights of men as citizens of the world shall be restricted to conditions of universal hospitality.

Here, as in the former articles, the question is not one of philanthropy but of right. hospitality here signifies the right of a foreigner, in consequence of his arrival on the soil of another, not to be treated by him as an enemy. He may be expelled, if that can be done without his destruction; but so long as he keeps his place and conducts himself peacefully, he must not be treated in a hostile way. He cannot lay claim to be treated thus because of any right as a guest, for this would require a special friendly agreement to consider him for a time as a member of some household. His claim is based on a right of visitation, common to all men, by virtue of which he may join any society of men, on account of the right of the common possession of the surface of the earth, over which people cannot spread abroad indefinitely, but must finally endure living near one another. Originally, however, no one had any more right than another to occupy any particular portion of the earth’s surface. The communities of men are separated by uninhabitable portions of this surface, the seas and the deserts, but in such a way that the ship and the camel, “the ship of the desert,” make it possible for men to visit one another across these unclaimed regions, and to use the right to the surface, which men possess in common, for the purpose of social intercourse. The inhospitable practice in vogue on some sea coasts, as of the Barbary States, of robbing ships in the neighboring seas, or of making slaves of shipwrecked people, or that of the inhabitants of deserts, such as the Bedouins, of regarding their proximity to nomadic tribes as a right to plunder them, is thus contrary to the right of nature. The right to hospitality which naturally belongs to foreign visitors extends no further than that degree of social intercourse with the old inhabitants determined by the limits of possibility. In this was remote portions of the world may come into friendly relations with one another which at last come to be regulated by public law, and thus bring the human race finally nearer and nearer to a state of world-citizenship.

If the inhospitable behavior of the civilized, commercial states of our portion of the world be compared with this barbarian inhospitality, the injustice which they show when they go to foreign lands and peoples (for they consider their arrival the same as conquest) becomes simply horrible. America, the Negro lands, the Spice Islands, the Cape, etc., were considered by them, when they discovered them, as belonging to nobody. For the inhabitants they counted as nothing. Into East India, under the pretext of simply establishing trading posts, they introduced men of war, and with them oppression of the natives, instigation of the different states of the country to widespread wars, famine, insurrection, treachery, and so on through the whole category of evils which afflict the human race.

China and Japan, which had had experience with such guests, have done wisely in limiting their intercourse, the former permitting access to her coasts but not entrance into the interior, the latter granting access only to a single European people, the Dutch, whom, however, like prisoners, they shut out from intercourse with the natives. The worst of the matter (or rather, from the standpoint of the moral judge, the best) is, that they get no satisfaction out of this violence, that all these commercial societies are on the point of going to pieces, that the Sugar Islands, the seat of the most shocking and complete slavery, yield no real profit, but only an indirect and at the same time undesirable one, namely, the furnishing of sailors for war-fleets, through whom they assist in carrying on wars in Europe. Thus these powers, which make a great show of piety, drink injustice like water and at the same time wish themselves to be considered as the very elect of the Orthodox faith.

Since the community of the nations of the earth, in a narrower or broader way, has advanced so far that an injustice in one part of the world is felt in all parts, the idea of a cosmopolitical right is no fantastic and strained form of the conception of right, but necessary to complete the unwritten code, not only of the rights of states but of peoples as well, so as to make it coextensive with the rights of men in general, through the establishment of which perpetual peace will come. It is useless to flatter oneself that perpetual peace can be brought nearer and nearer under any other conditions.

Source: Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch, trans. by Benjamin F. Trueblood (Washington, D.C.: The American Peace Society, 1897, orig. 1795).

Kant’s critique of slavery and colonialism (1795) by Jeff Bowersox is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://blackcentraleurope.com/who-we-are/.

Creative Commons License