Perpetual Peace

The Enlightenment project was, if not exactly founded upon, at least encouraged and made international, by the challenge of Saint-Pierre’s A Project for Settling an Everlasting Peace in Europe. All of the eighteenth century’s philosophers took it up, and while they disagreed on the exact means, all felt that reason could lead the way. Saint-Pierre and Rousseau were persuaded that only an international federation, which brought together various European nations and restricted their sovereigns in military matters, could overcome the amour-propre (overweening self-regard) of monarchs. Voltaire challenged the notion that the rule of law would be sufficient to eliminate colonial violence, since he argued that the worst barbarities were performed by Christians against those whose religions they could not tolerate. In this, Voltaire demonstrates a keen grasp of the growing exportation of violence to the empires of the various European states, and argues that toleration for difference, inculcated through the unprejudiced use of reason, is the only solution. (“Peace, without toleration, is a chimera.”) Yet Kant did him one better, arguing that understanding and logic alone could not enforce toleration, but that specifically moral reason must be cultivated: he eventually recognized that this would require a cabal of reason, a sort of secret Masonry that would attempt to change religious and political institutions from within by exerting slow, but constant, rational pressure. Neither rules nor education alone could accomplish world peace: it would be necessary to change both the institutions and the culture simultaneously, which could only happen over time.

In the twentieth century, we’ve largely given up on the association of reason with pacifism. It has become popular to show that Enlightenment sensibilities bring their own, much more deeply embedded reasons for intolerace and barbarity, such that Voltaire’s hoped-for transition from religion to reason is the primary obstacle to peace. Perhaps the most famous argument for this view is Foucault’s book Madness and Civilization, where he argues that our pathologization of difference has gained the respect of medical experts, who allow their prejudices to become diagnoses, and then torture their subjects in an attempt to make them ‘well.’ Foucault’s work sparked a major shift in psychiatric practice, and his general concerns were popularized by novels like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Catch-22: today, we seem unwilling to electrocute those who make us uncomfortable.

Yet after two world wars, and in the midst of the Cold War, there did not seem to be any hope for a cessation of violence as such: just a softening of the domestic injustices that were close enough and small enough for a citizen to intervene. We have washed our hands of reason, since it seems only to supply firmer resolve in war and more dangerous weapons with which to fight it. What happened to any hope that an international federation like the UN might suppress hostilities? Obviously, the UN can’t accomplish anything without abridging the sovereignty of its member-states, just as Saint-Pierre initially proposed. What about education? Well, with such ambivalence amongst the world’s educators regarding the desirability of violence, it’s no surprise that our children come out as divided as their parents and teachers. What about the cabal of reasonable men and women, committed to ending violence a little bit at a time? In this case, I think the pacifists are losing ground to the neo-conservative, fundamentalist, and totalitarian cabals, since the major problem with secrecy is that it always confounds the means of reasonable discourse.

The fact that reasonable people (libertarians, egalitarians, and thoughtful conservatives) are more concerned with marginal tax rates, identity politics, and electoral mishaps than with sharing their freedom from domination with the rest of the world, means that they’ve abandoned the most important part of their participation in reason. They’ve lost track of which goals are worth striving for and devoting your life to, and which ones are simply amusing or interesting diversions. The fact that many Americans think that freedom can be shared at the business end of a rifle means that they’ve misunderstood the entailment relationship between means and ends. We need, I think, a new course of study in teleological reasoning.

Second Opinions