The greatest philosophical mission of our time, as far as I can tell, is to rescue a belief system — Pacifism, defined on Wikipedia as “the opposition to war or violence as a means of settling disputes or gaining advantage” — from its death bed.
Pacifism is not quite dead yet, but it must be in a coma. In any typical conversation about international politics, the mention of peace talks or agreements will be laughed or scoffed at. It’s our conventional wisdom that meaningful compromise will never be found between Israel and Palestine, or India and Pakistan, or North and South Korea. It’s widely accepted that various African failed states like Somalia, Congo and Sudan are beyond repair. Even my favorite President Barack Obama, who has clearly learned a lot from the great pacifist Martin Luther King, has not found a strategy for the US war in Afghanistan that differs significantly from George W. Bush’s.
How has this hopelessness come to dominate our public consciousness so completely? The famous pacifist Mohandas Gandhi walked on this earth only 62 years ago. John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s good-humored, artistic gestures for peace — a Bed-in, fifty acorns tied in a sack — made newspaper headlines in the 1960s and 1970s. These brave activists faced the same kind of strong resistance any pacifist will face today, but still managed to find threads of hope. Where are the voices of inspiration today? Has humanity’s most vital cause actually taken a step backward since these decades? It appears to be so, at least among the people I speak with.
The ideology most often cited as the humane realistic alternative to pacifism might be called benevolent militarism. Modern democratic nations must continue to dominate the troubled regions of the world through force and intimidation, according to this doctrine, and will be appreciated for doing so because we carry the promise of freedom and prosperity. Only the threat of overwhelming destruction can keep evil-doers at bay. These principles for global politics are widely accepted today.
The key historical event that will always be cited in support of benevolent militarism is the Munich peace treaty of 1938. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made a historic (historically bad) decision to appease Hitler’s forcible annexation of parts of Czechoslovokia, thus giving Nazi Germany a critical advantage in the war that quickly followed. It was the Munich peace treaty, more than any other, that gave peace a bad name.
However, the doctrine of benevolent militarism does not work as well as its enthusiastic practitioners like to believe. The two biggest problems with benevolent militarism are that malevolent states are capable of amassing just as much strength as benevolent states, and that benevolent military occupations, no matter how well-intended, have a history of degenerating into corruption and oppression.
Benevolent militarism scores even worse as an ethical or philosophical proposition. It’s unbalanced at the core, and thus violates the widely accepted Kantian doctrine that any ethical principle must stand up as a universal law. This is no small failure for benevolent militarism. It might even be fair to say that the unphilosophical nature of global politics since the human disaster of World War II is the cause, rather than an effect, of today’s crisis in philosophy.
It’s barely worth trying to explain the doctrine of benevolent militarism in philosophical or universal terms — it just won’t stand up. Yet the principle has strong appeal, because it makes citizens of prosperous Western nations feel safe. Perhaps a pattern can be discerned in the combined history of philosophy and politics: philosophy will be considered most relevant by societies as a whole during those eras when it supports a practical political need (say, during the so-called Age of Enlightenment, when books by Voltaire, Rousseau, Locke and Hume helped to enable the American and French Revolutions).
Conversely, an era when logical philosophy does not seem to point to a palatable political doctrine will be a kind of philosophical dark age. Schools and universities will treat the subject as if it were quaint and irrelevant. A person will be considered unfashionable and tiresome for attempting to discuss ideology at a party or gathering.
If we live in a philosophical dark age today, it’s because we have still not yet emerged from the shadow of Munich, and have not yet recovered from the incredible trauma of World War II. Every major political event since then seems to have emanated from that disaster. World War II still haunts our literature as well, as can be seen in the work of W. G. Sebald, Nicholson Baker, Jonathan Littell, Daniel Mendelsohn and so many others.
It’s because of the darkness of Munich’s shadow that I say the greatest philosophical mission of our time is to wake pacifism from its moral coma. World War II delivered the world a hard, hard lesson. No pacifist will ever have an easy job of explaining Adolf Hitler away.
But the challenge Hitler’s legacy presents to pacifism cannot have been a death blow, because even the best alternatives to pacifism will not sustain our planet. There’s something strangely circular about the philosophical situation we’re in: a new movement to raise a universal sense of ethical awareness will not only help the world. It may also be the only thing that can save philosophy itself.