Just and Unjust Peace:

Janus-faced justice

posted by Bronwyn Leebaw

I read Daniel Philpott’s new book, Just and Unjust Peace, around the same time that I finished a novel by Christopher Beha, entitled What Happened to Sophie Wilder? In Beha’s novel, the titular Sophie is a precocious writer who, to the surprise and bewilderment of her friends, undergoes a profound conversion to Catholicism. Sophie’s conversion distances her from her cohort in Manhattan, where she was the star of her graduate writing program. Although they do not come right out and say it, her friends are puzzled that this brilliant and sophisticated writer could embrace religion with such devotion. They no longer know exactly how to communicate with her and she is unable to convey her experience in a way that they understand. Her former friends treat Sophie with polite regard across what seems an unbridgeable divide. But Sophie’s dying father-in-law responds to her piety with ridicule and anger. “God. The first totalitarian,” he says. “Has to control everything…I don’t see what’s to admire.”

One of Philpott’s goals in Just and Unjust Peace is to challenge both sorts of reactions to the role of religion in debates on ethics and justice: the polite, but perhaps patronizing, stance of detachment, as well as the presumption that religion is essentially incompatible with democratic freedoms. He proposes bridging the two as a way to broaden and better ground an ethical debate on the central question that animates the book: What does justice consist of “in the wake of its massive despoliation?” (3). This is the question that has been at the center of ongoing debates on transitional and international justice, but Philpott goes about addressing it in a wholly original way. Instead of grounding the inquiry in a preliminary engagement with prevailing international legal standards, he begins by articulating a general theoretical approach to justice and reconciliation, and then uses it to examine contemporary institutions and practices.

The result is an impressive and rewarding discussion that addresses debates on transitional justice, as well as debates on the role of religion in international politics. Philpott’s theory of justice emerges as a grand synthesis of traditions and goals that are routinely taken to be in conflict with one another. He rejects the opposition of forward-looking and backward-looking approaches to justice, calling for practices that are “Janus-faced, peering in both directions” (6). He dismisses the persistent view that the pursuit of justice is in tension with the goal of political reconciliation, insisting that justice must encompass reconciliation and that any ethically grounded conception of political reconciliation must also entail a commitment to justice. At the same time, Philpott proposes a theoretical approach that aims to bridge the gulf between religious and secular responses to injustice.

Philpott addresses claims asserting the incompatibility of religion and rights by suggesting that such claims tend to be premised on the view that religious believers invariably identify their ethics with a kind of argument by fiat, such as, “policy X is ordained by the Lord and that is that!” (111). This kind of logic, insists Philpott, is typical of bad religious arguments, but not religious arguments per se, adding that “we do well to remember that there are secular forms of these arguments too” (111). He reminds readers that the international humanitarian legal tradition emerged out of Christian theological writings on just war theory and that religious activists have played an important role in various struggles to expand civil and human rights.

At the same time Philpott takes on the claim, prominent in liberal political thought, that political argumentation must be expressed in a secular “public” language. To exclude religious rationales from the process of public justification, he argues, implies that people should offer rationales other than the ones that actually motivate them in efforts to defend their political views. As an alternative, Philpott proposes an approach to integrating religious and secular ethics that is grounded in what he calls “rooted reason”—one that invites those motivated by religion to present their full rationales, but also insists that they remain open to alternative views and be capable of re-expressing their ethics in a secular language. The goal he envisions is a “mutual resonance, involving a reciprocal back-and-forth process of comparison and efforts at mutual understanding” (21).

From this starting point, Philpott seeks to ground his approach to justice in an “overlapping consensus” between the liberal tradition and ideas drawn from ancient texts in the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions. In a series of chapters dedicated to examining ideas from each tradition, Philpott relies primarily on ancient texts for guidance, with less attention to the way that living traditions and contemporary religious practices might inform responses to the specific problem of political injustice. The theoretical framework that emerges seems to be organized around a discussion of reconciliation that is drawn largely from the Christian tradition, while works from the other traditions are mined for potentially compatible ideas. It seems to me that the kind of mutual understanding Philpott calls for in his preliminary chapters would benefit from greater attention to what might be learned from unique and conflicting approaches to framing the problems that he sets out to address. Nevertheless, these chapters make for interesting and evocative reading.

Just and Unjust Peace advocates a restorative approach to justice that addresses the “wounds of political injustice,” conceived broadly as encompassing violations of human rights, harms to persons, lack of knowledge about political injustices, and the absence of acknowledgment from officials. In keeping with restorative justice principles, Philpott’s approach encompasses harms or damage experienced by the wrongdoer as well. To this list, Philpott adds the wounds inflicted by the “standing victory” of the wrongdoer’s injustice. Philpott argues, given that political injustices are associated with a particular political order or program, the failure to effectively oppose or defeat that political order will continue to be experienced as a wound by its victims.

Philpott grounds his theory of justice in ethics and principles, but articulates it as an array of practices aimed at ameliorating these various wounds. Such practices, he argues, ideally ought to include efforts to build socially just institutions, acknowledgment, reparations, apologies, punishment, and forgiveness. Philpott’s discussion of these practices offers an interesting counterpoint to scholarship that has sought to measure the impact of individual transitional justice through statistical analysis of cross-national data. “The practices complement one another, complete one another, and weave together,” he argues (174). The implied critique of a certain emphasis on isolating and measuring the impact of individual transitional justice mechanisms reminded me of Michael Pollan’s response to nutrition science. The problem with the kind of approach, Philpott suggests, is that it can blind us to the complicated and dynamic ways that various strategies work together synergistically.

One of the most interesting chapters in the book is on the theme of punishment, which makes an important theoretical intervention in ongoing debates on restorative justice and legalism. These debates have tended to position restorative justice in opposition, not only to prosecution, but also to retributive rationales for punishment. Philpott rejects this opposition. He offers a compelling case that retribution is a dimension of restorative justice and one of its most important moral responses to political injustice. At the same time, he takes on those who have attempted to analyze the role of war crimes trials only in relation to their impact on goals such as improvement in human rights practices, stability, democratic change, or deterrence. The fundamental problem with this essentially consequentialist approach, Philpott observes simply, is that it “does not deal with the past” (91). Indeed, it is a strange thing to consider that the literature on transitional justice, an arena of study and practice that emerged in connection with the goal of “dealing with the past,” has increasingly identified “success” with achievements that have very little to do with the quality of their response to past wrongs. Philpott counters this trend by making the case for the integrity of retribution as a moral response to political injustice, while also rejecting the “inordinate focus on incarceration,” characteristic of Western criminal justice systems (65). He does so by situating the role of punishment in the larger context of efforts to pursue reintegration and repair.

Philpott’s theoretical approach is so holistic that one gets the feeling that many of the questions or potential criticisms that one might raise for him would likely be acknowledged and then swallowed up into his grand theoretical framework. This quality enriches the book, but is also one of its vulnerabilities. There is integrity in the way that Philpott engages his theoretical interlocutors. In presenting his own arguments, he takes care to identify and acknowledge what is most compelling in the strongest opposing view. In making the case for forgiveness as a practice of justice, for example, he begins with the voice of Francine, a victim of the Rwandan genocide, whose narrative immediately reveals how absurd—even obscene—appeals for forgiveness can appear to those who have survived atrocities. Such passages model the kind of “ethic of engagement” that he takes to be integral to the goal of establishing dialogue across lines of conflict and belief.

In addressing various critics, however, Philpott never seems to name or fully confront what is perhaps the most significant challenge animating various debates on the theme of addressing political injustice: the threat of backlash. Political injustices are defined here as violations or deviations from international norms, but they are also, importantly, crimes of obedience. Despite all of the various forms that they take, political injustices share certain features as a result. These are abuses that have been rationalized, normalized, or legalized by officials under a prior order, and actively or tacitly supported by a significant portion of a population. Efforts to acknowledge such wrongs as wrongs, let alone punish those who committed them, are invariably met with backlash and denial to varying degrees.

Most, if not all, of the positions that Philpott engages here, most theoretical debates on transitional justice, have taken shape in response to this particular challenge. The potential threat of backlash and denial is the main reason that scholars have perceived the goals of peace, or reconciliation, and justice to be in tension with one another. The “peace versus justice” debate, in all of its many forms, is premised on the view that peace requires some form of preliminary effort to address the potentially volatile forces of denial. The persistence of efforts to deny or rationalize past wrongs is one reason that so much attention is given to truth commissions as a mechanism for addressing political injustice. It is also the reason that many scholars and policymakers have suggested that forward-looking responses to the past may be in tension with backward-looking responses. Calls for retribution, acknowledgement, and apologies in response to past wrongs are blamed for stirring up conflict and destabilizing the peace precisely because they aspire to challenge persistent forms of denial.

Philpott’s assertion that these debates are positioned around false dichotomies depends on his having set such problems aside. As it is elaborated, the model seems to envision a world in which those who supported the political injustices in question have already come to appreciate that they were in the wrong. In such a world, the message of censure associated with punishment or acknowledgement should not be rejected as illegitimate “victor’s justice” as long as these responses are conducted in accordance with established norms and certain procedural guidelines. Although Philpott recognizes that any remedy for political injustice must begin with efforts to establish just institutions, the theory says little about the fact that it is due to the persistent threat of backlash that such efforts have often been associated with compromises on backward-looking responses to political injustice. The model also sidesteps the question of how transitional justice practices may be manipulated, limited, and utilized strategically by those in power, or how they have been in many of the exemplary cases that he discusses.

How, then, should the forces of denial and backlash be addressed in efforts to remedy political injustice? If Just and Unjust Peace avoids a direct response to this question, it offers three indirect responses. First, the broader logic of the argument presented in Just and Unjust Peace seems to suggest that the most promising way to resolve such conflicts, as well as conflicts regarding the role of religion in politics, is to begin by focusing on points of possible convergence rather than difference, and that from this starting point, a foundation for common understanding might be established and deepened over time. There is wisdom in this suggestion, but it raises a difficult question. When does such an approach provide a foundation for bridging differences and when does it function instead to avoid conflict or mask compromise? Second, Philpott sometimes seems to suggest that, working together synergistically, the various practices of justice that he enumerates will function to effectively neutralize those who continue to deny or rationalize past wrongs. For example, punishment conducted in the restorative mode advocated here, situated in the context of broader measures aimed at advancing reconciliation and repair, might be less likely to trigger hostile backlash than punishment conducted with the goal of stigmatizing or excluding. This is a useful suggestion, but I think it minimizes the intensity of backlash that often accompanies even minor forms of acknowledgment. Ultimately, if they are to function as he suggests they should, Philpott’s practices of justice must be accompanied by significant political struggle and transformation.

The third way that Just and Unjust Peace addresses the problem of backlash is the most interesting to me. In a larger sense, the book may be read as insisting upon the value of articulating an ethic of justice and reconciliation that is held at a remove from calculations regarding backlash, power dynamics, or ongoing rationalizations of abuse and violence. Like Socrates in his response to Thrasymachus, the book insists on the importance of disentangling our discussions of what justice might mean from the manner in which it has been institutionalized, and hold such discussions at something of a remove from our assessments of what is possible or practical at a given time. For all of its attention to empirical studies and professed pragmatism, Just and Unjust Peace is, in that sense, a visionary exercise. It outlines an ethic that is “not so much a solution to evil as it is a response…that in the political realm will always be partially achieved” (5).

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