Dec. 8, 2012Seven-year-old Walid, right, is comforted as he mourns a fallen Syrian rebel fighter taken away for burial in the al-Fardos area of Aleppo. The orphaned boy is staying with this unit of rebel fighters after his father was allegedly killed by the regime. His mother’s whereabouts is unknown. After months of fighting, the city is without power, and running water and basic commodities are getting scarcer.Odd Andersen / AFP/Getty Images
The goal is perpetual peace.
The means to that end is the moral evolution of humankind. Sadly, at the same time, the primary hindrance to that goal is the moral evolution of humankind. In the decision to ask Congress for its approval of a military strike in Syria, President Obama and all of trembling humanity are caught between two Kantian precepts of perpetual peace, facing hard realities of war and peace with a Christian realism articulated by Reinhold Niebuhr in 1940.
In his essay, “Perpetual Peace,” Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote of several precepts that he thought could lead to lasting world peace. One is the idea of republicanism as the best form of government. Kant writes: “The Civil Constitution of Every State shall be Republican.” Here Kant is thinking of representative democracy where citizens are free and all are equally dependent upon “a single common legislation.”
In matters of war and peace a republic is less likely to go to war because the citizens will not want to bear the cost in blood and treasure of a military adventure. After a decade of costly war, after having been misled by the George W. Bush administration about the rationale for going to war in Iraq, both the American people and the people of the world are rightly skeptical and reluctant to see U.S. military intervention in Syria.
Another principle of perpetual peace is the principle of cosmopolitanism. Kant writes: “Cosmopolitan Right shall be limited to Conditions of Universal Hospitality.” In this precept Kant is thinking about how societies treat strangers, but he is also thinking about a mutual moral duty that the peoples of the earth share. He writes:
“The peoples of the earth have thus entered in varying degrees into a universal community, and it has developed to the point where a violation of rights in one part of the world is felt everywhere. “
The reason the use of chemical weapons in Syria is the business of the United States and of the entire world is because we are all at once citizens of our particular societies and citizens of the world. The use of weapons of mass destruction is a threat to the entire human community. The United Nations and other regional international bodies is the closest thing to the international federations that make international laws Kant envisioned.
So, President Obama, the Congress, and the world are faced with the challenge of enforcing the international norm against the use of chemical weapons while ordinary citizens do not want to bear the cost and see the expansion of war. This is evidence of human moral evolution.
Yet, there is Reinhold Niebuhr, the Christian realist, reminding us still of the sin nature of humanity. I do not believe that human depravity and human nature are one and the same. However, when we understand sin as essence, as being, we understand the essential character of humankind is the ability to make a decision, and very often those decisions are predicated upon fear, a will-to-power, and the preservation of our singular, individual existence. We make decisions that separate us from others and that cause others to suffer. This is sin.
Such have been the sinful decisions of Bashar al-Assad and the individuals who put their hands on the chemical weapons that they are believed to have then dropped on civilians, including children. A universal morality based on Kant’s categorical imperative—act as though the act would become a universal law—and one based on the Golden Rule—In all things do unto others as you would have them do unto you– calls for international action against al-Assad.
At this moment, humanity trembles. It trembles in fear, anger, weariness with war, confusion, frustration, and a sense of helplessness. Just peace theory is neither a pacifistic nor a militaristic theory. It holds that peacemaking is work we ought to do day by blessed day. At the same time, the world cannot stand by silently in the face of chemical weapons attacks upon children. We cannot presume that a man who would use chemical weapons on any human being would honor a call for a cease fire. President Obama is right to consult Congress. He ought to seek a vote in the UN Security Council, and the world ought to hold al-Assad accountable for his actions and work to uphold the international norm against the use of chemical weapons in war. And yes, this may mean an American military strike against Syria.
Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of JustPeaceTheory.com and author of Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.