29. March 2024

Borders Are Arbitrary, but Inviolable Borders Are Arbitrary, but Inviolable

Kant’s doctrine of world citizenship, his view of migration and its contemporary significance

Everyone has the right to visit and reside in a foreign country: thus a central aspect of Immanuel Kant’s doctrine of global citizenship. In this interview, Professor Christoph Horn (University of Bonn) from the Digital Kant Center NRW explains Kant’s view of migration, why he considered the drawing of borders to be arbitrary, and the contemporary relevance of this doctrine.


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Das Kant Jubiläum wird in Bonn mit einem Kongress gefeiert. © designlevel 2
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When asking about Kant’s view of migration, people immediately think of the word “cosmopolitanism”. What exactly did Kant mean with this term? 

the right to world citizenship is a central concept in the thought of Immanuel Kant and developed from his efforts to regulate the legal relationship between individuals and third countries. He saw that in failing to regulate the legal relationship between individuals whilst they reside outside their home state, the international law of his time exhibited a central deficit. His doctrine of world citizenship postulates the individual right to move to a foreign country and to reside and work there without hindrance.

Prof. Dr. Christoph Horn
© Katharina Wernli Photography, Zurich www.katharinawernli.com

Is that a liberal doctrine?

Although Kant is viewed as a liberal, we cannot class him as a national liberal, as he lived in a pre-national time. He views the groupings that constituted an individual state as an arbitrary phenomenon not rooted in any considerations of ethnicity or descent.

The same applies to their borders, the drawing of which he regards as the result of historical contingency or political decisions that are not necessarily justified by considerations of justice or morality. At the same time, he regards these borders as inviolable, as re-drawing them to reflect considerations such as ethnicity would have unforeseeable consequences. Even today, many nation states have a heterogeneous population, for example France. Moreover, a range of conflicts have demonstrated the deleterious consequences of establishing state boundaries along ethnic lines, including the Balkan wars of the 1990s. This explains why Kant views immigration as relatively unproblematic.

How do the peoples of different states relate to each other?

The individuals constituting a state, i.e. the units of the population within its boundaries, exist in a state of competition. Although they have the right to accept or reject new entrants to their community, they cannot do so on the grounds of group hegemony and the desire to maintain the dominance of a single culture, language or religion. For Kant, the host countries must also benefit from the new arrivals. He assumes that there were enough countries willing to accept immigrants, such as North America in his day.

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What does this have to do with our current understanding of migration?

Horn: contemporary migration is an issue of great complexity and is the result of a number of factors associated with the habitability of the world such as climate change, but also with issues such as poverty, political persecution, the growth of illiberal societies and war, such as that in Ukraine. At the same time, it is necessary to bear in mind that the nature of German particularism in the 17th century meant the decision to move between one of the many small German states—say between Königsberg and Bavaria—itself represented an act of migration.

Kant’s time also witnessed large streams of migration, albeit for different reasons. French Huguenots and Dutch or Austrian Protestants left their country due to a lack of religious freedom and found refuge in Prussia.

What does Kant have to say to us today?

A central tenet of Kant’s thought is obedience to the law, provided it is anchored in valid philosophical considerations, i.e. derived from general reason. Since the law is morally justified, obedience to it does not pose any problems. If the state is unjust however, you can just emigrate to another, more just state. This is also one reason why Kant rejects a global universal state, as a universal monarchy can degenerate into a dictatorship. It also explains why he views the right to migration to be fundamental.

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