Josh Dunigan |||

Pandemics and perpetual peace

What does the coronavirus show us about international right? Well, for one, it shows us how China will stifle freedom of speech even when it is against it’s own interests. But more importantly, it goes to show that even if you want the international space of interaction to be laissez-faire, the problem of disease still persists. Unless we are to be isolationists, pandemics or at least the threat of them should entice humans, if we are to be rational and peace seeking nations, into entering a system of international right, reciprocally binding each other to laws so that we can all be free.

A short intro to Kant’s international right

For humans, there is only one innate right, that is, the innate right to freedom. Which is

Freedom (independence from being constrainted by another’s choice), insofar as it can coexist with the freedom of every other in accordance with a universal law.

Since we live on a sphere, humans are bound to interact with each other. When interacting with each other, even when humans are good willed, we cannot help but subject others to our own unilateral will. Meaning, when we interact with each other, there may be times that to solve some disagreement there is no way out of subjecting the other to our own reasoning or vice versa. If we are to be truly free, we would want to subject ourselves as humans to only universal law, which does not exist in the state of nature. The civil condition is the one in which we are subjected to universal law since all the people interacting with each other unite to form a state. This state represents the will of everyone, but at the same time no one in particular. Only in the civil condition can people be free.

This scenario in the state of nature among individuals is similar to the state of nature among states themselves. However, it is not entirely analogous. The individuals in the state of nature are not the same as the states. The reason is that the states have some sort of self-legislating internal consitution, there exists a deliberative process. For Kant, individuals can be forced by others to enter into a civil condition since it is one devoid of justice and at worst it is one ruled by force (barbarism). However, a state cannot force another state to enter into a civil condition, an international civil condition, since the state already is internally self-legislating. The international state of nature is better than one that is ruled by a despotic world state (imagine if the United States just coerced every other state into obeying their orders). However, if states are to interact, they should regulate themselves.


Kant was more concerned about war and rightfully so. War seems to be the biggest threat to perpetual peace. Additionally, people are concerned as well with preventing genocide now. These are rightfully some of the most important items at the top of the list of international right. Kant has another area of right, called cosmoplitan right, that in short can be said a right to hospitality. Humans visiting another place have a right to hospitality, but no more. This means that Japan was in right when not allowing certain places to come and trade with them. This means that the Dutch should have (as they did if I recall correctly) to follow the strict trading laws Japan gave them.

So between cosmopolitan and international right, it seems that we have some philosophical tools to discuss pandemics. Even if states wanted to be very lax with regulating interaction such as tourisism and trade, it is in the interests of states to reciprocally bind each other and to enforce laws relating to disease. If states do not follow these laws, it is completely within the rights of states and humans to not want to trade or interact with them. This is because by refusing to enter into a rightful condition, you are left to the unilateral will of another state.

This is what we see with China and the coronavirus. China does not have freedom of speech and so the full scope of the coronavirus outbreak could not be properly measured. The data that comes out from there cannot be trusted by the international community. The way the US or another nation might handle a disease is a lot differently than China, and China would benefit from our way of handling the disease. They even would get full support from the CDC and other scientists that we have. However, if the disease is something that starts in China, it is uncertain if not impossible to trust them due to the way they are internally structured.

The upside … towards perpetual peace ?

Kant had an optimistic view of humanity. He thinks that humanity would tend towards republics. A republic is a place where the people are self-legislating, the executive and legislative branches are separate, there is freedom of the pen (speech), people are allowed their property rights, the only use of coercion is the just use by state in punishment, and other ways states conform to laws. He claims that republics are more peace prone because if the people decide to go to war, they would surely avoid war since they would be the one dying and paying for it, not the despotic ruler.

He thinks that as states themselves interact, they would become more republic as well. As more republic states enter into an international federation, they would in turn become stronger, more profitable in economic terms, and peaceful. The states that are not in the federation would want to join this federation for the same peace and propsperity, but this means that they would have to become a republic as well.

If the international community is as intelligent as Kant thinks humans could be, they should advocate to China to be more honest and transparent, to allow freedom of speech for this scenario at the least. But if China is to allow freedom of speech for situations like the coronavirus, it seems that China would have to start to grapple with the other unjust ways it stifles free speech. The international community should really demand China to conform to right, otherwise we all will be at the whim of the unilateral choice of how China chooses to behave in these scenarios. It is not just China as well, many other places are at fault. China is just one example of a poor response, a lot of the states could have done better as well.

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