Thoughts on the Philosophy of Peace Conference

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with pictures!

The ‘Philosophy of Peace III’ conference at Boğaziçi (Bosphorus) University, Istanbul ended two days ago. My last three posts write up each day of the conference. The biggest conference focus was on Kant’s essay ‘Perpetual Peace’ (‘Zum ewigen Frieden’). The front cover of the first German edition is shown above. Not every paper referred to Kant, but his philosophical view of the possibility of permanent peace was discussed many times. Those papers which did not directly refer to Kant still engaged with the issues that Kant deals with: how there can be universal peace, and associated issues of communication, justice and ethics.

I won’t react to the conference by detailing my reaction to individual papers, all of which were summarised on the last three posts. I will list, in no particular order, some things I learned in general mixed in with some points I would like to work on in reaction to what happened at the conference.

The tension between ideas of natural law (law that supposedly all humans agree on if they are thinking clearly and which therefore come from nature rather than human institutions) and socially constructed order, in thinking about how human communities might move towards peace.

The permanence of war in the sense that peace can only be maintained by states (or possibly one integrated global state) using a monopoly of violence to repress threats to peace within the state and in relations between states. Since politics is the competition to control the state monopoly of violence, politics and all associated social conflicts must be seen as war of some kind.

The likely necessity of war in bringing the world closer to perpetual peace, as aggressive states have to be defeated. Efforts to defeat aggressive states, along with violent non-state organisations, are not only likely to require violence, they are likely to cause reactive violence. The movement towards perpetual peace must be labyrinthine.

There is no purely moral government, state or political leader. That may seem to be a statement of the obvious, but work on ‘Peace’ tends to be hovering on verge of assuming the goal of a purely non-violent ethical order, of law without force. This could only happen from a anarchist perspective. When I say anarchism, I do not mean chaos, I mean anarchism as a political project. In general the political project of anarchism is a society governed by laws which have been adopted by peaceful consensus of the community as a whole. I do not think this is a realistic project. As was pointed out in the conference, stateless ‘primitive’ communities fight each other and have a high rate of death by violence.

War as we know it is inevitable for many future decades, at least, and war in the general sense that politics always refers to the state’s use of force is inevitable in any conceivable society. In that case we must be concerned with the ethics of war, so we can pursue the highest ethical standards in all out military wars and in the war of politics. When I say highest ethical standards, I do not mean that ethical purity is possible, I mean that the labyrinth of individual and collective passions and interests needs to be regulated from the point of view of some ethical standard.

War cannot be taken in a purely negative sense, even though we should work for a world without war, at least in sense of the full out military conflict. Kant himself though war can be morally elevating if conducted according to laws of humanity. There are various ways in which military virtues have played a part in the history of moral thought, and taken in its broadest sense that includes the role of war and warriors in artistic works with moral qualities. War has often been associated with broad political and social changes, and all of us can think of some political or social changes associated with some wars, which we find desirable however much we hate the suffering of war. Military ideals have appeared in political thought in all traditions, liberal and Marxist as well as conservative and nationalists. Sometimes conservatism is more pacific than other political currents because of fear of the social and political changes brought about by war.

If Kant is a convenient starting point for the study of peace, then Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831, portrait at bottom of post) is a convenient starting point for the study of war, in his unfinished but still monumental On War (Vom Kriege, front cover of first edition at bottom of post). The lives of Kant and Clausewitz overlap and they were both German subjects of the Prussian monarchy. It is widely accepted that Clausewitz’ writing is marked by German Idealist philosophy. If Clausewitz belongs to the study of war, he must belong to the study of peace as Kant must belong to the study of war. Just as we can find antique precedents for Kant’s cosmopolitanism in antique Stoicism and Virgil’s Roman-Augustan universalism in the Aeneid, we can find antique precedents for Clausewitz in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War and in Homer’s account of the Trojan War in the Iliad.

I will end just by referring to the classic explanation, and justification, of Samurai spirit in Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s (1659-1719) Hagakure (The Book of the Samurai), which suggests that the Samurai warrior belongs with the Buddhist priest in the practice of compassion and of fearlessness before death. Tsunetomo himself was a samurai from the end of the Samurai era who became a Buddhist monk.


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