Would Immanuel Kant Approve of the Invasion of Iraq?

Would Immanuel Kant Approve of the Invasion of Iraq?

This brief paper makes it clear that Kant, solely basing his judgement on the Categorical Imperative (CI), could have never supported the US invasion(s) of Iraq over the past 18 years. There are seven specific points as to why, all of which will be briefly dealt with below. The purpose of this brief essay is to show that there is no way to twist the Kantian doctrine of the Categorical Imperative to justify the various invasions of Iraq that have been led by the United States since the early 1990s.

1. The Categorical Imperative of Kant is rather easy to understand: there are two postulates that both cover moral action and the nature of autonomy. First, one cannot act unless one’s action can constitute a universal rule. Hence, morality is placed on a firm, universalistic basis: one cannot make an exception of oneself. Putting it differently, one cannot commit an act that would lead to social contradiction: for one to justify the robbing of a bank one would have to hold that everyone can take whatever they please whenever they please. Since society would likely crumble under such a rule, then the act is deemed immoral and unsupportable. But this universality principle, second, also contains the concept of autonomy: this means that, in judging an act, one can only have the principle of universality as a touchstone. In other words, universality implies that there can be no personal interest in the evaluation of commission of an act. Acts that have moral worth should be done for duty’s sake, rather than for any specific interest. This duty is summed up in the social and universal nature of the CI itself (Patton, 1971: 49-53).

2. The problem with applying the CI to international affairs is the problem of the units of analysis. Kant referred only to individuals in the initial formulation of the CI, hence, the problem. The primary rational way of dealing with this is to treat states as individuals. Without getting into the niceties of International Relations theory and its own units of analysis problem, seeing states as unitary actors simplifies the problem, and the same rules then apply. For the “social world” that is the object of Kant’s universality, in this case, the world would be the entire globe. Therefore, in our example, the individual that commits a moral act is now transferred to the state, considered a unitary actor much like an individual.

3. The second problem is to deal with the issue of state motivation. The official statements of the US government from the early 1990s onward is that Iraq, first, had no right to invade and occupy the oil rich state of Kuwait, and then later, that the Iraqi government was financially and militarily supporting terrorism throughout the world to the detriment of the United States and western Europe. All of this is very well known and needs no further description. But the problem, as always, is far deeper than this. If one were to apply the CI to the situation in Iraq/Kuwait in the early 1990s, then one can make the statement: “any state that seeks to expand its bounds outside of its present bounds should be stopped with force.” Superficially, this admits of no contradiction. However, since we are now dealing with global politics rather than individual action, there is the multifold problem of enforcement, and the very fundamental problem as to whether or not the state has the right to use its citizens as means, that is, soldiers as means to the ends of the state. This means/end problem is the second half of the Categorical Imperative that vitiates the state’s claim to, first, act as a unitary individuals, dn second, to use fighting men as means to ends that are only formulated in state capitols. In other words, since the use of force seems to treat soldiers as means only, even to the point of death, then military action per se is a moral problem (Patton, 1971: 170-175).

4. But even if one could hold to the position that the state is a unitary actor, and hence soldiers are not autonomous entities but the limbs (so to speak) of the unitary state, there is still the problem of motivation. In this case, in order to justify the invasion of Iraq at any time over the past 18 years, one must consistently hold that the motivations of the United States were based, a) purely on the universalistic moral code of halting state expansion, b) that this motivation had no social or even personal interest within the state itself, and c) that the official position of the US government is borne out by the facts of the case. Regardless of one’s political background, it takes a whole lot of explaining to justify all three of these conditions.

5. In terms of a), it seems that even if one could prove that the US was motivated solely out of social altruism and universalist duty, that the condition itself would be violated by its very commission. In other words, if the principle is that state expansion at the expense of another state is immoral, did not the US expand itself and sphere of influence precisely by so intervening? There seems to be a contradiction right within the very conditions of the moral act itself with applied to international politics (Paul, 2004: 19-20).

6. In terms of b), justifying this seems even more difficult. To hold that the US had no state interest in controlling the movements of Saddam Hussein stretches credulity. While the US only received a tiny trickle of oil from Iraq, the protection of US oil dependencies in the region such as Saudi Arabia cannot be left out of any analysis of the war itself. Even further, the close relationship between the US and the Israeli state (which certainly behaves immorally on Kantian grounds) also cannot be dismissed. Not only because of the strategic interest of the US in Israel, but the famed power of the Israeli lobby in Washington, demanding the destruction of Israel’s most powerful and wealthy enemy in the middle east. Clearly, the main state who benefitted in the Middle East from the neutralization of Saddam was not the US and not the Saudis, not even the Kuwaitis, but Israel, who saw a serious threat eliminated without Tel Aviv having to lift a finger in its own defense. Not to mention that fact that Israel then launched a major invasion of their own occupied territories (occupations that the US actively promoted and financed, against its own condemnation of state expansion) as a result of the US’ involvement in dealing with Baghdad (Paul, 2004: 16-17).

7. Therefore, in terms of c), this position cannot in any way be defended. None of the major positions of the US government were based on social altruism or the CI in any respect. The facts of the case to not admit of a Kantian approbation.

To use a more local example: Consider the government of New York City. Consider that it has several street gangs on its payroll, doing some of its dirty work in the slums. It favors one, a particularly violent gang called the Tels, that it finances and arms to the teeth, including advances, high tech weapons. Another street gang, called the Bags, was also at one time on NYC’s payroll, but recently went afoul of the government by hitting several smaller gangs in the region. The city government could not use the CI to justify eliminating the Bags, partially because in supporting gangs in general, there is no altruistic motives, but purely political and personal ones (i.e the gangs can do what the city cannot against its enemies), but also partially in that it has been supporting the Tels, that regularly pick on its neighbors in a harsh manner, all with the open approval of the NYC mayor’s office.

In conclusion then, there is simply no way to hold that the CI applies to the US government in the Iraqi case. The reasons are first, that it contradicts the well known dictum of the US government hat no state can expand itself at the expense of others. Second, there is the thorny issue of the state using soldiers only as means (which is their job after all). Third, the US support of Israel seems to suggest that the US does not actually accept its own dictum, but accepts state expansion at the expense of others only when it is in its interest, hence blatantly violating Kant’s universality and autonomy principles. Fourth, the perennial canard that Iraq supports “terrorism” is not a viable argument, since the definition of terrorism is so fluid, and is tightly anchored to the political position of the observer, and hence, itself violates Kant’s autonomy principle. Kant could in no manner have approved of the various invasions of Iraq based on the principles inherent in the Categorical Imperative.


Patton, HJ (1971) The Categorical Imperative: A Study in Kant’s Moral Philosophy. The University of Pennsylvania Press

Paul, Ellen Frankel. (2004). Morality and Politics. Cambridge University Press.

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