Monday, February 7, 2011

Peace, the Perpetual Problem

By Jeanna Annen Moyer

Editor's note:  The above photograph is of one of the Perpetual Peace Project installations at the New Museum, in the context of their now past exhibit FreeThe Perpetual Peace Project is "predicated on the belief that no one institution or individual can clearly claim or guarantee a mastery of the concept of peace," and aims at understanding peace beyond its being merely the absence of war. With the blue circle as the design platform, scattered throughout the New Museum were kiosks featuring interviews with scholars such as Helene Cixous and Saskia Sassen in response to Immanuel Kant's 1795 essay "Perpetual Peace."  There are a downloadable copy of the essay and video clips on the Perpetual Peace Project website link above.  With the premise that the Perpetual Peace Project has now entered the public commons, what follows is a short essay by Jeanna Annen Moyer, a member of the Dharma Rain Zen Center.


I consider myself to be a recovering academic. Part of the move to Zen practice for me has been about moving away from intellectualizing my experience and moving toward engaging it directly, without a complicated array of concepts and analysis between me and it. I’ve  wanted to put the conceptual apparatus down, and inhabit my life with both body and mind, with fresh eyes. Consequently, I was conflicted when asked if I’d be interested in commenting on Kant’s essay on Perpetual Peace from a Zen perspective. I’ve resisted the scholarly study of Zen in favor of embodied practices like zazen, walking mediation, and work practice. I’ve felt that the last thing that would support balance in my life was more scholarly study. So, the following is a departure for me: writing on a scholarly topic from the personal perspective of my Zen practice.

Re-reading Kant’s essay on Perpetual Peace felt like going home to a family gathering filled with  old, dysfunctional dynamics.  The veneration of reason over emotion, the insistence on duty over all other considerations, the idea that humans must in some sense be coerced in order to act morally-- an old, familiar song. And yet, given Kant’s rather dim view of human nature, the upshot of this essay is quite hopeful: That perpetual peace among people is both logically and practically possible. This is partly based on well-worn  social contract theory arguments that we are all better off if we band together to better serve our selfish interests.  Just as individuals are better off banding together and agreeing to respect each others’ rights, the same is true of nations. And so a federation of nations should be formed, to ensure that each nation respects the rights of others. Kant says that nature has purposively designed  the world so that humans can and should live everywhere in it, and thus made war the natural means of resolving the inevitable conflicts that arise. It is in people’s  mutual interest to unite against war (refer to the First Supplement, "Of the Guarantee of Perpetual Peace," pp. 25-34, found in the document available here by clicking on the title of Kant's essay.).

Although Kant was writing to show that lasting peace among nations was at least theoretically possible, it’s interesting how much of his essay foreshadows actual developments in world politics. For instance, Kant wrote of the desirability of forming of an international federation of nations aimed at preserving the rights of all. He wrote of the dangers of time-honored political tactics that are still with us today : “…if it be a question about other States, then exciting of suspicion and disagreement among them, is a pretty safe means of subjecting them to yourself, one after the other, under the pretence of assisting the weaker." (p. 44 of the online version.). And writing during the time of Frederick the Great, Kant described the benefits of federalism, now the mode of government in what was Prussia.

Despite Kant’s lofty statements on the power of human reason, he seems to have a fairly pithy perception of politics, shown in a statement that could be used to describe some current situations: “…[men in politics] allow all proper honor to this conception [of public right], although they may have to devise a hundred evasions and palliations in order to escape from it in practice...” (p. 45 of the online version.) In addition to a realistic grasp of the machinations of politics, Kant also seems to have been gifted with some foresight about developments to come.

If Kant was right about some other things, what about lasting international peace? Many nations have developed federalist or federalist-type governments; international organizations aimed (at least in theory) at the common good have been formed; and at least the concept of international right is widely accepted. Why hasn’t lasting peace followed? To get a sense of the number of armed conflicts currently occurring, try an internet search on: How many wars in the world today? Or see this link. War seems to be a constant, rather than peace. Is there anything in Kant’s essay that can help us understand why?

From a Zen perspective, there was one section of Kant’s essay that caught my attention.

Now it is admitted that the voluntary determination of all individual men to live under a legal constitution according to principles of liberty, when viewed as a distributive unity made up of the wills of all, is not sufficient to attain [Perpetual Peace], but all must will the realization of this condition through the collective unity of their united wills, in order that the solution of so difficult a problem may be attained, for such a collective unity is required in order that civil society may take form as a whole.  Further, a uniting cause must supervene upon this diversity in the particular wills of all, in order to educe such a common will from them, as they could not individually attain.  Hence, in the realization of that idea in practice, no other beginning of a social state of right can be reckoned upon, than one that is brought about by force; and upon such compulsion, Public Right is afterwards founded.  (italics added, from p. 38 of the online version.).

The idea that public right, a necessary precondition for international right, can only be established through coercion is, from my perspective, a fatal flaw in a system intended to yield lasting peace. Coercion, whether by reason, fellow citizens, or politicians, is a kind of violence, and can only breed further coercion. This is true of federalist, communist, or any other kind of political system. If we start with coercion, we should not be surprised when further coercion, conflict, and war results.

So, what is the Zen answer to achieving perpetual peace between nations? Kant would be disgusted, but this is a point on which I can’t contribute a theory, only my experience. In my opinion, international peace can only sprout from peace among individuals. Peace for me has arisen from turning toward my experience and learning to accept it unconditionally, with an open heart. As my practice in this regard has deepened, an abiding compassion for others has naturally arisen—a compassion that encompasses regard for others, a concern for their well-being, and a growing recognition that my well-being cannot be separated from theirs.

The delusion that we are disconnected from others, that our well-being is separate from theirs—in my opinion that is the true root of war. And so, an approach that presupposes this cannot be a foundation for lasting peace. It is not reason, still less coercion, that provides a sustainable way out of war. It is awakening compassion, and coming to understand that others’ well-being is inseparable from our own. This might seem to be a variation on the theme of avoiding war because it is in our own self-interest. But the deeper point here is that it is not for simply for ourselves, but out of authentic compassion for others that war becomes unacceptable. To put this in other, famous words, “Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed. This is an ancient and eternal law.”