Sartre and the Moral Limits of War and Terrorism (Studies in Philosophy)
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Kant's obvious commitment to this principle is so strong as to lead him to include a footnote in Perpetual Peace that may sound particularly strange to contemporary ears. In it, he qualifies a passing reference that he has made in the main text to "difference of religion" by remarking that he finds that expression very strange, as strange as the expression "different morals.
For example, some years ago the American Kant scholar and later politician John Silber invoked the image of "Kant at Auschwitz," indulging in the same sort of speculation with which we are concerned here, namely, what Kant would have thought about a certain very important historical event of our time. Silber's own views are deeply inimical to relativism of whatever kind, but there are other philosophers who have pointed to Auschwitz - whether rightly or wrongly I do not wish to debate here - as having been so uniquely horrendous as to cast doubt on the very possibility of judging it in a universalistic manner, alongside judgments about other historical events.
To express this position, thinkers such as Lyotard have used the term, "incommensurability. Now, Kant was obviously a very sensitive man, measured in his outlook but nevertheless appalled by instances of extreme injustice, and moreover haunted by evidence of the existence of a radical evil in humanity, which he admits, in Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone , is ultimately "incomprehensible.
As shockingly heretical as the mere suggestion of this will no doubt sound to an orthodox Kantian, it is impossible to dismiss it definitively, given the nature of this sort of speculation about what "Kant would have said. In view of the seeming obviousness of my point here, why is it that we continue, nevertheless, to engage in such exercises? It can only be because we, or at least many of us - enough to constitute something of a consensus among Western philosophers - look to Kant as one of the supremely wise men of our civilization's still relatively brief history of approximately two and a half millennia, much as the Ancient Greeks already looked back to the Seven Sages.
It is therefore comforting to many of us to think that Kant would endorse some position that we hold, whereas the mere suggestion that he might disagree with us about some belief causes many to re-examine that belief even though there is of course no one today who agrees with Kant on every significant point! This "wise man" mentality is not, I think, completely irrational - after all, we have read Kant and Aristotle and others and perceived how wonderfully comprehensive and at least superficially consistent their thought-systems are - but it should be maintained only in light of Kant's own restrained, judicious perspective on the matter.
With these serious caveats in mind, then, let us first turn to a reconsideration of what Kant really did think about war and peace and the community of nations, as prelude to our own reflections. Roger Scruton, in the paragraph immediately following the sentence that I cited earlier, does no service to his own scholarly reputation when he observes that, while commentators focus on Kant's famous text of , Perpetual Peace , they should really pay more attention to "the detailed account of republican government contained in the Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals and elsewhere.
It is rather in The Metaphysical Elements of Justice , published two years after Perpetual Peace , in , that such a discussion appears. But interestingly enough, as I have already mentioned by way of anticipation, these two texts do not convey quite the same message. To put the difference as simply as possible, Kant in was considerably more skeptical, even pessimistic, concerning future historical developments than he had been in Weil goes on to say that Kant's own reason, as expressed in the later work, for his now greater skepticism about ever achieving a world state is a purely technical one, so to speak, namely, the fact that such a state would be too vast in size to allow it to govern efficaciously or to provide security.
But, as Weil points out, a purely technical difficulty may in principle be surmountable in the distant future. More fundamental, he says, is the problem that, for Kant, legality is based on coercion exercised by some human beings over others, and perfect legality would therefore have to presuppose the achievement of moral perfection by at least some human beings in ruling positions - a development that Kant regards as impossible in practice for any human beings.
Such pessimism concerning the future is certainly not easily discernible, if at all, in Kant's Idea for a Universal History of He would, on the other hand, have felt far less assured about the historical progress of mankind than he was in Such a conceptualization does not, however, diminish Kant's commitment to upholding and, if possible, promoting fundamental principles of right within this arena, nor his condemnation of those individuals and governments, however numerous, which violate them.
It is in this context that his pronouncements concerning the justifiability of war, and whether a pre-emptive war is ever acceptable, must be understood. In Perpetual Peace , these pronouncements are unequivocal. Famously, Article 5 of the preliminary principles conducive to perpetual peace is "No state shall interfere by force in the constitution and government of another state.
Further on in the same Appendix, in the context of considering possible antinomies between morality and politics, Kant asks whether, if a neighboring power has grown to such size as to warrant apprehension that it might attack, it would be permissible for an allied coalition of weaker states to stage a pre-emptive attack on that state, "even without preceding insult," and answers in the negative.
Here, he returns again and again to the impermissibility of revolution, of the violent overthrow even "of a previously existing imperfect and corrupt [government] for in that case there would be an intervening moment when the entire juridical state of affairs would be annihilated. It, along with the earlier passages from Perpetual Peace that I have recalled, seem to me such clear, prescient object lessons about both the morality and the imprudence - Kant is very adept at showing how often these two disparate considerations coincide in the international arena - of the anti-Iraq coalition's claims and actions as to require little commentary.
There is, on the other hand, one short section in The Metaphysical Elements of Justice , Section 56, that might be thought to offer some aid and comfort to the coalition of willing assailants. I see it as the moment, within this work, at which Kant most fully reverts to the spirit of the first part of De Jure Belli ac Pacis , where Grotius acknowledges that, in a total international state of nature when war breaks out, almost anything is permissible.
Let me cite the two sentences from this section that seem to me most relevant. But if this acknowledgement, by Kant, of a right of preventive war under certain circumstances might at first appear, as I have suggested, to offer some comfort to the defenders of the still-recent military assault on Iraq, a closer reading of the text, which focuses on the possibility of a threat by a superior power, not a weaker one, and of the context, which is one of opprobrium directed toward those regimes that remain completely mired in the state of nature, offers only the coldest of comforts to the proponents of belligerency.
Indeed, this text could more easily be interpreted as furnishing justification for possible assaults on the forces of the anti-Iraq coalition. If ever in world history, at least since the Roman Empire at its height, there has been a potentia tremenda , constantly menacing, shocking, and awing, it is the government of the contemporary United States. While this government does not usually engage in the outright absorption of other states, a practice about which Kant expressed special concern and condemnation, it is renowned for the habit of replacing regimes that it disfavors and of establishing its military presence, of varying sizes, all over the world.
Kant's moral philosophy and the question of pre-emptive war - Sens Public
A recent accounting that I have read suggested that some such presence now exists in approximately nations. At the same time, the current government, more than its immediate predecessors, has repeatedly expressed contempt for numerous international treaty initiatives - Kyoto, the International Criminal Court, landmines, nuclear weapons, etc.
In short, it is quite content to live in a state of nature with other nations, just as long as it can remain the King of Beasts. There are at least two additional sites in the Kantian texts that I have been considering which seem to me uncannily relevant to the current global state of affairs, the state of American hegemony, and which I would like briefly to consider before moving on from these texts. The first of these, Kant's views about democracy, is often passed over in embarrassed silence by Kant scholars, while the second, about the colonization of South Africa, the Pacific Islands, and America, is an especially courageous application of principle that is usually paid less attention than it undoubtedly deserves.
It is hence perfectly possible, according to Kant, for a monarchy to be republican in form. On the other hand, it is impossible for the form of authority called democracy to be anything other than despotic, since democracy as he understands it, that is, in sensu stricto, has no separation of powers, so that disagreement is suppressed. I do not wish to enter such murky waters here.
All that I wish to suggest is that recent events have made it a good deal easier for us contemporaries to understand how a self-proclaimed "democracy" such as the United States may act despotically and in fact become despotic, especially when the constitutionally established separation of branches breaks down as both Congress and the judiciary defer increasingly to an ever more powerful Executive.
The final small point in Kant's texts on war and peace to which I wish to draw special attention is to be found in the paragraph just prior to the Conclusion of The Metaphysical Elements of Justice. Here, we find the most straightforward imaginable expression of condemnation of the way in which America was founded.
Kant says that the encroachment of hunting tribes, such as the American Indians, who depend on large tracts of land to survive, should only be accomplished through contract, not violence, and even then only through a contract that involves what we would today call "informed consent. In other words, he clearly recognized the damnosa haereditas under which we still labor today. The Law of Peoples was written by a self-styled Kantian.
Throughout his career, in fact, Rawls was, if I may be permitted a certain irreverence, a Kant "wannabe. In particular, Rawls invokes Kant's authority to reinforce his own opposition to strong cosmopolitanism, so to speak, that is, the ethical view that endorses an eventual world state. The differences in these texts reproduce, at least in part, the differences between Kant's views of and those of , but, again, I do not want to insist on any of this. In any case, Rawls' Law of Peoples tries to have it both ways, that is, to be both Kantian on the one hand, and original along the lines of Rawls' earlier work on the other hand, and I think that it fails rather spectacularly in both respects.
Since I have discussed this work elsewhere, inter alia in at least one critical review that is soon to be published, I do not wish to go over old ground once again, except en passant. Sartre read The Rebel with disgust. As far as he was concerned, it was possible to achieve perfect justice and freedom — that described the achievement of communism.
Under capitalism, and in poverty, workers could not be free. Their options were unpalatable and inhumane: to work a pitiless and alienating job, or to die.
But by removing the oppressors and broadly returning autonomy to the workers, communism allows each individual to live without material want, and therefore to choose how best they can realise themselves. This makes them free, and through this unbending equality, it is also just. The problem is that, for Sartre and many others on the Left, communism required revolutionary violence to achieve because the existing order must be smashed. Not all leftists, of course, endorsed such violence. This division between hardline and moderate leftists — broadly, between communists and socialists — was nothing new.
With the destruction of fascism, the rupture between hardline leftists willing to condone violence and moderates who condemned it returned.
This split was made all the more dramatic by the practical disappearance of the Right and the ascendancy of the Soviet Union — which empowered hardliners throughout Europe, but raised disquieting questions for communists as the horrors of gulags, terror and show trials came to light.
The question for every leftist of the postwar era was simple: which side are you on? With the publication of The Rebel , Camus declared for a peaceful socialism that would not resort to revolutionary violence. He was appalled by the stories emerging from the USSR: it was not a country of hand-in-hand communists, living freely, but a country with no freedom at all.
Sartre, meanwhile, would fight for communism, and he was prepared to endorse violence to do so. The split between the two friends was a media sensation.
How Camus and Sartre split up over the question of how to be free
Les Temps Modernes — the journal edited by Sartre, which published a critical review of The Rebel — sold out three times over. It was a way of seeing politics played out in the world of ideas, and a measure of the worth of ideas. If you are thoroughly committed to an idea, are you compelled to kill for it?
What price for justice? What price for freedom?
Sartre, the existentialist, who said that humans are condemned to be free, was also Sartre, the Marxist, who thought that history does not allow much space for true freedom in the existential sense. Though he never actually joined the French Communist Party, he would continue to defend communism throughout Europe until , when the Soviet tanks in Budapest convinced him, finally, that the USSR did not hold the way forward.
Indeed, he was dismayed by the Soviets in Hungary because they were acting like Americans, he said. Sartre would remain a powerful voice on the Left throughout his life, and chose the French president Charles de Gaulle as his favourite whipping boy. After one particularly vicious attack, de Gaulle was asked to arrest Sartre. Sartre remained unpredictable, however, and was engaged in a long, bizarre dalliance with hardline Maoism when he died in Though Sartre moved away from the USSR, he never completely abandoned the idea that revolutionary violence might be warranted.
The violence of communism sent Camus on a different trajectory. For even if justice is not realised, freedom maintains the power of protest against injustice and keeps communication open. Even the most venerable and worthy ideas need to be balanced against one another. Absolutism, and the impossible idealism it inspires, is a dangerous path forward — and the reason Europe lay in ashes, as Camus and Sartre struggled to envision a fairer and freer world. Become a Friend of Aeon to save articles and enjoy other exclusive benefits Make a donation. Albert Camus by Cecil Beaton for Vogue in Photo by Getty.
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