Peace and Peacebuilding: Philosophical Themes

19 09 2013

[Yesterday, the third workshop in the Philosophy and Religious Practices network took place at Liverpool Hope University: Peace and Peacebuilding: Philosophical and Religious Reflections on Social Flourishing. In this post, the organiser, Patrice Haynes, provides a philosophical framework for the event.]

By accident rather than design, the Peace and Peacebuilding Workshop (Wed 18 Sept) takes place just a few days before the International Day of Peace, or Peace Day for short (Sat 21 Sept): http://www.internationaldayofpeace.org/ .  This is a United Nations led initiative that has been running for over a quarter of a century.  In addition to marking a day of global ceasefire, Peace Day invites us to commemorate and re-affirm the ideals of peace between peoples at both national and international levels.  It is also meant to serve as a reminder to all peoples of the UN’s endeavours to secure peace for all.  Of course, on very little reflection, the question of what is meant by ‘peace’ soon presses upon us.  Similarly, the notion of the UN, its role, viability, efficacy and legitimacy, will also find itself subject to critical scrutiny, particularly in light of the recent Iraqi war which saw the US and the British go to war without the UN’s mandate.

Kant’s celebrated essay ‘Toward Perpetual Peace’ (1795) is regularly cited by contemporary practical philosophers as an important source of inspiration for a supranational organization such as the UN, one which aims to realize a cosmopolitan vision of human rights and freedom.  Seeking to avoid a perpetual state of war that could only ever deliver the perpetual ‘peace of the graveyard’, Kant proposed the creation of a ‘league of nations’ which would rationally arbitrate conflicts arising between states and in doing so promote an enduring global peace.  Yet Kant considers perpetual peace to be ultimately an unachievable idea.  That said, he maintained that it can function as a regulative ideal such that citizens should act as if it were attainable.

Contemporary political realists are thoroughly unconvinced by Kant’s conception of a ‘league of nations’.  For such thinkers, the international scene is effectively a state of nature: independent, sovereign states exist alongside each other in accordance to arbitrary power relations rather than transcendent, universal principles.   Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, written twenty-five years after Kant’s essay on peace, foreshadows much of the arguments made by present-day political realists.  For Hegel there cannot be a neutral, disinterested mediation between states.  This is precisely because any such mediation is the expression of a particular (sovereign) will, inflected by factors such as culture, religion and politics.  It is only the progression of world history (the concrete expression of Geist) that will ultimately deliver freedom.  In the meantime, war, according to Hegel, is a quite rational response to conflict between states.

Despite their different conclusions on the issue of international relations, Kant and Hegel nevertheless share important assumptions regarding the value of reason, rights and universality.  They both envisage peace as a neat reconciliation of the particular with universal principles (of justice and freedom).  One consequence of this approach is an emphasis on the sameness of human individuals.  The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) – whose Jewish faith implicitly, if not explicitly, informs his writings – offers an alternative stance to the positions marked out by Kant and Hegel.  In contrast to Kant’s notion of perpetual peace as the ideal that citizens ought to work towards, and to Hegel’s willingness to accept the rational necessity of war, Levinas offers a view of peace as one’s very particular ethical responsibility towards the very particular, embodied other person.  Such responsibility demands acts of justice in our daily lives.  And here, justice is not procedural adherence to universal, formal laws but rather a passionate commitment to the other who is irreducible to me.  For Levinas, peace must be rooted in ethics not politics.  But herein lies the difficulty: how might the ethical relate to the political?  How exactly might my recognition of the other’s mysterious uniqueness inform collective political action?  Levinas’ insistence on the primacy of ethics is in no doubt shaped by his own personal trauma of losing most of his family (who had remained in Eastern Europe from which he originally hails) to the Nazis death camps and his own incarceration in a prison camp during the occupation of France in the Second World War.  Yet commentators have noted Levinas’ own ambiguous attitude towards Zionism.  While it serves as an image of the peaceful state to come, its ideality may be charged with obscuring the bloody conflicts that characterize the present state of Israel.  On this picture, ethical peace and political peace are yet to be reconciled.

The theme for this year’s Peace Day is ‘Education for Peace’.  To what extent, I wonder, might education offer a way to negotiate between ethical and political conceptions of peace?  In seeking to foster discussion beyond the pages of obscure academic journals, it is my hope that the Network’s Peace and Peacebuilding workshop can begin to yield fresh insight in response to questions such as this, which may in turn inspire concrete actions from the grassroots and beyond.

Patrice Haynes

Liverpool Hope University

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