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New Feature (OMG!): Read Julia's Old College Papers!

Yeah, I just wanted to include "OMG" in the title.   It didn't really make sense, contextually.  I know this.  I'm okay with it.

Anyway, when I was home in Chicago last week, I found myself in the attic digging through my old college photos and term papers (it was either that or hang out with my parents & TurboTax.  Note to self: never, EVER come home the week prior to April 15th.)

Found this photo, circa 2002, in the dressing room before a Georgetown Hoyas basketball game.  They probably lost that night.  They always lost back then. (I'm second from the right, FYI.)

Anyway, in addition to wearing small outfits with "G" on them, I also wrote papers!   I turned them in late, of course.  But along the way, I did actually produce some more or less intelligent commentary on fairly esoteric subjects.  Yes.  This shocks me as well.

Of course, I remember approximately 3% of everything I learned.  Which is a pretty bad return on my dad's investment, but ... um ... memory was never my strong suit.  Christ, I can barely remember the plot of the last book I read, let alone shit I studied four years ago.  Oops?

Given that my chosen career seems to center entirely on discussions of the intricacies of shagging men, the life of Anna Nicole Smith, and which American Idol is fattest/weirdest/has posted the most nude photos-est, it's a relief to know that at one point in my life, I could define "deontology" and use it properly in a sentence.  It's frightening how quickly one's brain atrophies when not used for anything other than flirting.

In any case, I've decided to go back and re-read all my old term papers, then post them here.  Honestly, I do this for no reason in particular, save my own amusement.  And maybe yours.

Today's paper is from my 2003 Ethics & International Relations class.  Topic?  Kant's categorical imperative.  Hear that?  Kant, baby!  FUCK YEAH!  Nothing like a little philosophical analysis to brighten up your Monday morning.

Paper is after the jump.

Caveat - I don't promise this will be interesting.  Or good.  And if you're in the mood for something a little heavier on political history, try "Kennedy's Vietnam Dilemma."

Georgetown University
Ethics & International Relations
Fall 2003

Kant’s Ethical Framework for International Relations

I find Kant’s liberal theory inherently just, and as such, the most compelling of the ethical frameworks we have studied.  It is rooted in a more consistent ethical tradition than the concrete but ever-shifting determinism and it is more fair than the brutal and inequitable realism.

Kant takes the principles of Liberalism, that is, the moral freedom of individual, and expands upon it.  Liberalism has experienced great success in international relations, proven empirically superior, some argue, because no constitutionally secure liberal democratic state has ever fought another liberal democratic state.

Three tenets underlie Kant’s philosophy: 1) the state is seen as a moral being 2)  Everyone shares ownership of the earth and all its resources communally 3) we must always strive for world peace.

Kant’s strongest argument, in both his moral theory and his international ethical theory (which is merely an expansion of the former), is his core moral test.  The way to assess the morality of anything, he says, is to apply the categorical imperative. Arguing that others should never be treated as the means to our ends, the categorical imperative requires that a moral act uphold the “equal and unqualified value” of every single being.

Testing our acts hypothetically, Kant says that we each should think of our actions as if that action would be done by all.  Before performing an act, we must ask ourselves this question: “Under relatively similar conditions, would it be moral and desirable to will that everyone in the world follow this principle?”  This exercise is both universal and emphasizes that every rational being has value in and of themselves. 

We may not think much of the American government taking prisoners of the war on terror and confining them in Guantanamo Bay without trial, but we would not think it were just if everyone did that – to our citizens as well!  Thus, Kant would say that the categorical imperative determines that particular act to be without morality.  The key benefit to this test is that it is blind to selfish interests – it is truly fair and universal.

By using a deontological approach to international ethics, Kant rightly emphasizes the duties we each must feel toward every being on this planet.  Too often we are self-centered and inconsiderate, thinking only of our own “rights” and not of our corresponding obligations to others.  Although we may intellectually understand that rights require duties, we too often pass off those duties to others – other people, our government, or other nations’ governments.  The rights-based approach is limited; we should refocus our international ethics on duties instead, for “duties ground rights: rights entail duties of forbearance or action by those who are bound to respect them.”   Kant’s theory allows us to do this.

Kant also claims, correctly, I believe, that motivation is key to properly evaluating an act as moral or not.   An act, performed with certain motivations, we may judge as moral, while the very same act, performed with different motivations, we may judge as immoral.  Intuitively, we sense the difference, and it is upheld (somewhat) in the American justice system, through the idea of “intent.”  If an actor causes the death of another without intent to kill, they will be convicted of manslaughter.  But if their intent to kill is proven, they will be convicted of first-degree murder.  The consequences of the act are identical – the victim is dead.  But we instinctively sense an important difference in the morality of the two acts; one is a tragic mistake, the other a sinful crime.

How is it that we can sense the fundamental moral difference between the two acts?  Kant would say our a priori reason guides us to delineate basic morality and immorality.  It is such reason that should guide our moral principles, as Kant advocates, not state interests, as realism suggests, for “the essence of acting morally does not lie in achieving self-interest or national interest.”   Practically, Kant’s point here is crucial.  Allowing for the possibility that our own laws (at the local, state, national or international levels) may be “unreasonable” means that we have the authority to protest unjust laws, if they are not in accord with what we rationally determine to be moral.  Kant thus ties “rationality to the heart of moral deliberation.”

I find this argument especially compelling, for throughout history, various acts have been judged by the status quo governments or communities to be “legal” but were in fact, using Kant’s categorical imperative, patently unjust.  Slavery, women’s subjugation, racial discrimination and human rights violations of all sorts are just a few examples of the wrongs perpetuated.  Sadly enough, these injustices would have been considered acceptable under the determinist or realism ethical theories.  Kant’s theory eliminates that possibility, by making all acts subject to the categorical imperative. As such, the categorical imperative is the great equalizer.  No matter what age, no matter what nation, the question, “What would the world be like if everyone was subjected to the act I am about to commit?” works to bring to light moral wrongs that may have masqueraded as acceptable under the deep grime of prejudice.


Some critics, like scholar Steven Luper-Foy, believe people’s inherent differences — such as their nationality, or their level of wealth — might lead them to will different outcomes.  But this misconstrues Kant’s essential point: “the subject of the categorical imperative is never more specific than that of a ‘rational being.’”   This being is neither American, nor black, nor a woman or a child.  Just a being, whose only characteristic is that he/she is rational.  John Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” helps to further explain this concept.  If you had to make a decision with no way of knowing who you were in the world, what decision would you make?

He advocates the idea of “cosmopolitanism,” that is, one should “treat all humans, by virtue of their shared rationality, as citizens of a single moral order.”   Thus Kant upholds the truth of morality that stretches beyond borders and across cultures.  Although applying his categorical imperative may be difficult – separating oneself from personal or national biases is never easy – that does not remove our duty to do so.

The idea that we can make moral judgments without bias from an anonymous, generic form, is not unique to Kant.  The Christian faith shares a similar belief, as St. Paul explains: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”   This reflects the same implicit fairness of Kant’s doctrine; we are all equal under his moral philosophy.

Other critics argue that by focusing on the motivations, Kant ignores important consequences of the acts.  Indeed, Kant “refused to make consequences the moral litmus test of action,”  but I believe that was necessary.  Consequentialism can spiral out of control very easily if not reigned in by a Kant-type moral test.  Witness a favorite example of ethics professors across the nation: a suspect knows the location of a bomb but refuses to disclose it.  Should you torture him, even though you believe torture to be morally wrong?  Many say yes, that in this case, torture is not immoral.  Why do they believe this?  Because of the consequences.  They weigh the consequences of torturing against the consequences of not torturing, and find the former to be more acceptable morally.

But Kant did not mean that we should not consider consequences whatsoever.  In order to follow the categorical imperative we must imagine a world “following a hypothetical maxim” – thus testing the empirical consequences of our moral choices.  Intention is key to moral praise or blame, and Kant cites an example of two soldiers attempting a mission; one fails, the other succeeds.  Kant says that although the consequences were different, they both deserve the same praise or blame “despite the fact that the outcomes of the two acts were quite different.

Most importantly, Kant believed that “the way the world is cannot be used to derive the way it ought to be.” There is no more imperative stand in ethics. His two essential sources for knowledge – that of the a priori and the a posteriori – refer to knowledge known simply by “rational reflection” and knowledge learned by experience.  Our sense of “must” is a priori knowledge, its genesis is “a demand of reason in application to action.”

Kant declares that we should ignore completely the “feasibility” of the end, and make our moral decisions without regard to such so-called probability.  This makes sense for two reasons.  The first Charles Beitz points out, that “the ideal cannot be undermined simply by pointing out that it cannot be achieved at present.”   The second is merely logical – proving that something is impossible, is, well, impossible.  We often confuse “improbable” or “difficult” with “impossible,” serving as an excuse for people who wish to retain unjust status quos.  (For example, slavery.)

I agree with Kant that ethics should be ultimately normative, not empirical.  Good ethics are not made by “deriving statements about how people ought to behave from statements about how in fact they do behave.”  We may believe that such an “ideal” society could never come to be, but we must nonetheless make our actions accountable to the morals that society would demand.

Furthermore, if we based our morals on “accepted acts” of the international cooperation, we would have an extremely volatile and questionable morality.  Espoused by the determinists, Kant is rightly skeptical of this philosophy.  That some states are willing to work with each other does not establish a moral basis for their decisions!  Scholar Donaldson writes:

“Even if the world were … a barbarous Hobbesian free-for-all, with each nation insisting on its own peculiar morality, Kant would argue that practical reason forbids indiscriminate killing, intentional lying, and other acts violating our hypothetical postulated citizenship.”

Morality existed before the league of nations, before the United Nations, before any conventions deemed certain practices acceptable or unacceptable.  “States share virtually every general universalizable obligation possessed by rational individuals.”   There is no reason to see state autonomy as any different than individual autonomy.  Although Kant recognizes inter-state groups have trouble enforcing moral laws, he believes (as I do) that the state cannot—and should not—avoid moral responsibility by being an unaccountable actor.  Hobbes’ idea of the “state of nature”—a world in which states may do what they please— is therefore “unjust in the highest degree.”

The only relevant criticism of Kant are the dilemmas inherent in any set of so-called “universal” moral principles.  In other words, there are always exceptions.  Even the most basic morals, such as “never kill” or “never steal” can be refuted in certain circumstances.  Critics say that we must look to the consequences to determine how to morally proceed in these situations.  A good question Donaldson asks is: “if the exceptions defining application of deontological principles are hostage to consequential considerations, then are the principles themselves not also hostage?”   I do not believe they are.

Any moral theory, just like any body of law, can never be perfect.  Human beings come up with an infinite number of possible situations.  The best we can do is attempt to be as moral as possible.  Ultimately, “reducing the good for all humankind to the prejudices of a single community, collective, or nation” is flawed and we must insist, as Kant does, on “principle over calculation.”

I believe Kant’s theory allows us to do that in the best possible way in the vast majority of situations. Ultimately, his philosophy is optimistic, drawing the conclusion that we may have what it takes to evolve morally in such a way that we can achieve “impossible” goals.  World peace, anyone?

Work Cited

Beck, Lewis White. 1960 A Commentary on Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Feinberg, Joel. 1966. “Duties, Rights and Claims.” American Philosophical Quarterly, 3: 137-44.

Kant, Immanuel, 1965 “The Metaphysical Elements of Justice” [1797], Part I of The Metaphysics of Morals. Trans. John Ladd. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Luper-Foy, Steven, ed. 1988. Problems of International Justice. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Rawls, John. 1971.  A Theory of Justice. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.

Vincent, R.J. 1986. Human Rights and International Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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