Just and Unjust Peace:

Reconciliation in the real world

posted by Daniel Philpott

In Just and Unjust Peace: An Ethic of Political Reconciliation, I argue that religious traditions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in particular—offer a way of thinking about justice that poses an alternative to the globally dominant liberal peace and that holds out great promise for societies rebuilding in the wake of massive injustice.

Bronwyn Leebaw, in her post, notes that I seek to stave off the fate of Sophie Wilder, a character in a novel who converts to Catholicism then becomes estranged from her friends and family. Mirabile dictu, unlike Sophie Wilder, my book has met with great efforts to understand it, absorb it, and engage it thoughtfully, this at the hands of six reviewers each of whose own scholarship has contributed crucially to the contemporary conversation about the justice of dealing with past injustice. I am grateful. I am heartened, too, that each reviewer fundamentally “got” the book, grasping and in many ways finding sympathy with what I strove to argue.

The disagreements, though, are more interesting in a forum like this one so herein I focus on them. Two main criticisms appear in the reviews. Both concern the application of the ethic to the real world. One has to do with the overlapping consensus I have sought to construct among four schools and traditions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the restorative justice movement. Leebaw, Colleen Murphy, Leslie Vinjamuri, and Alex Bellamy question whether this consensus leaves out many other traditions and perspectives in the realm of transitional justice. Mark Freeman states a different version of the criticism in asking whether I stretch the terms of the argument too widely in trying to accommodate multiple perspectives. The second has to do with the ethic’s aspiration to holism. Is it not utopian? Murphy, Leebaw, and Vinjamuri each ask this question in different ways, worrying that the ethic is unable to provide guidance, resolve dilemmas, or handle backlash, adverse effects, political manipulation, and other problems of politics as usual.

Let us begin with the question of consensus. Murphy doubts that the ethic will receive the endorsement of secularists who do not subscribe to restorative justice, while Vinjamuri believes the same is true for a range of “local traditions and customs,” “many faith traditions,” some liberals, the Burmese, and communities that have mediated human rights in locally particular ways.

Consensus, however, is not the first or most important criteria by which my ethic—or any ethic—ought to be judged. As Murphy recognizes, my ethic has two tasks, the first of which is prior to the second. This first task is to set forth and defend a concept of justice. This concept, like any other ethic, whether that of Confucius, Kant, or Averroes, should be accepted or rejected, endorsed or argued with on its merits, not on whether a given set of people agree with or disagree with it. A valid criticism of this first task would be, “this is not an adequate notion of justice because it omits, contradicts, fails to specify,” and the like, and not simply “this or that group thinks differently.” The purpose of an ethic, after all, is to judge, practices, actions, and other concepts of justice. This would not be possible if the ethic found “agreement on every side of a multifaceted argument,” to use Freeman’s phrase. Just as we would not expect advocates of racial equality to seek agreement with segregationists or religious freedom with defenders of blasphemy codes, so we should not judge an ethic of restorative justice inadequate because it fails to find agreement with, say a consequentialist or a balance retributivist (two of the competing conceptions that I outline in the book). Now, the disagreement between my ethic of political reconciliation and its interlocutors is not as sharp as in these examples; some of the reviewers remark upon my efforts to find common ground with other points of view. I make these efforts indeed. Still, disagreements there are—with liberalism, consequentialism, balance retributivism, opponents of forgiveness, “agonistic” theorists, and other points of view. Whether the zone of disagreement with these other views can be reduced depends, as with any argument about ethics, on what sort of persuasion takes place in conversation among the viewpoints, not on whether the ethic converges with positions that exist prior to the conversation.

It is only once the substance of the ethic has been developed—the job of the first task—that I am interested in trying to show that it can command widespread endorsement. Because the ethic is generated from particular religious traditions and a school of justice, and because I hope that it will have wide applicability around the globe, I am interested to show that it might achieve endorsement beyond any one of these traditions. Leebaw argues that I draw from the Christian tradition more than any other. She is right; I do. I then try to show that the core commitments of the ethic—its notions of justice, peace and mercy—find resonance in the Jewish tradition, the Islamic tradition, and the restorative justice school of thought. Restorative justice is important because it has secular articulations and thus shows that the ethic is expressible in secular terms—an important trait if the ethic is to travel to the United Nations or organizations that typically operate in secular terms.

It is not my aim, though, that the ethic will be practiced only among these traditions. For the sake of realism I choose to develop this group of traditions. The framework of overlapping consensus, though, is one in which other traditions might join. In my travels in Africa, I have discovered numerous tribal traditions whose rituals and practices of reconciliation deeply resonate with the ethic of political reconciliation. They are holistic and involve several interconnected practices, many of which are the same as those in the ethic. One of the greatest theorists of restorative justice, Australia’s John Braithwaite, argues that restorative justice is the approach to dealing with the past that resonates with the vast majority of the world’s cultures and religions over the course of history. This is a big claim whose validity I am unable to evaluate. But if Braithwaite is even close to being correct, then the potential for overlapping consensus is strong.

None of this is to deny the challenge and the likelihood of partial results in finding resonance on the ethic among traditions. Traditions themselves contain internally conflicting schools; in the book I note these in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as dimensions of the ethic in which convergence between these entire traditions will fall short. It is difficult to say ex ante, prior to the hard work of searching for mutual resonance,how much convergence between the ethic and any given tradition will be possible. No tradition will converge fully. As Murphy and Vinjamuri rightly note, many ethics will not sign on given their currently extant beliefs, prior to a conversation in which mutual persuasion is attempted. Most importantly, the pursuit of consensus, the object of the second task, is a pursuit based upon a fixed set of commitments, those developed in the first task. Given these commitments, given that they will converge and diverge with the range of views out there in the world, how wide can the zone of agreement be extended?

The real world is also the subject of the other major concern raised in the symposium. I do not account adequately, the criticism runs, for what will likely happen when the practices hit politics: backlash, backfire, manipulation, strategic use on the part of the powerful, and breakdown in moving from practice to product. The ethic’s notion of justice is too encompassing of everything to make hard choices and resolve dilemmas about anything and is unable to show in what sequence practices ought to be adopted. My response is threefold.

First it is all true! That is, politics is replete with all of these dynamics. I might add to my interlocutors’ litany the constraints imposed by the balance of power between rivals during a transition as well as the effects of time, over which possibilities for justice expand and contract. Here it is worth quoting a passage from the book:

Commending reconciliation does not deny the difficulty of reconciliation any more than advocacy of human rights or economic equality denies that both of these values are massively violated in the world today. One practice but not another will occur in one country while another combination of practices will occur in another country; any practice will occur in pieces and in parts and will remain imperfect and fragmentary. While the justifications for the practices will show how, in principle, they might be restorative, none of these rationales warrants assurance that these restorations will be successful where citizens have suffered colossal injustices. Political reconciliation will be compromised by the obstructions of the powerful, the destruction of institutions, the chaos of the aftermath of war and dictatorship, and by the simple complexity of the practices. (61)

I might add that I argue for political reconciliation, the kind that applies to citizens in the political sphere, and not comprehensive reconciliation, relevant to all of life. Political reconciliation is more circumscribed and limited and less ambitious.

I suspect, though, that my interlocutors will not be satisfied by my admission that the ethic will be partially achieved. They seem to be asking that my theory predict, explain, and provide guidance through these complexities. I am doubtful, though, that this is possible, precisely because of the utter complexity and variability of these factors. Let me add to the above litany of breakdown a further complexity: the real world is also replete with breakthroughs. Though all of the six practices in my ethic are fraught in their application, all of them have taken place abundantly all over the world in the past generation: truth commissions, reparations settlements, apologies, acts of forgiveness, trials, and so on. In my reading of the cases, I discovered that along with unintended effects and perverse incentives, there are truth commissions for which polls show victims approving, cases of victims whose demand for revenge is dampened by effective acknowledgment, acts of forgiveness that victims report as healing and that sometimes change the hearts of perpetrators, and so on.

Once the range of malfunctions and successes alike are factored in, it becomes an extremely ambitious task to account for what sort of dynamic is going to obtain in what sort of situation. I do make some limited claims about sequence. For instance, I note that practices like forgiveness and acknowledgment best take place after a war has ended or a dictatorship has fallen. This is a weak claim, though, and even it is too simple. The anti-apartheid movement in South Africa espoused reconciliation even during the struggle against apartheid, a theme that would have great effects after the transition. Even the premise behind sequencing—that events are discrete phenomenon with a clear beginning and end—may prove questionable.

It is really social scientific knowledge that is needed to understand these dynamics of application, not ethical reasoning, which is the sort that I take on in the book. Perhaps social scientists will make progress in offering strong and useful generalizations about what sort of dynamics obtain under what sort of conditions. In that case, ethics and social science could be complementary. Vinjamuri, for example, has done valuable comparative case study work showing that trials undertaken during war rarely facilitate and often hinder the achievement of piece—a useful thing to know. Still, my sense of the potential of social science to yield broad generalizations—a sense that I have developed in over two decades in political science—is that even the best empirical work will not yield laws and patterns that are strong and robust enough to tame the vastly situational judgment that decisionmakers must bring to their choices. Perhaps I will be proven wrong, but this is my strong sense.

Does this mean, then, that the framework is so vague, abstract, and removed from political reality that it provides no guidance? Such a conclusion would be disappointing, for one of my hopes for the book is that it would reduce the gap between theory and practice. My second response to my interlocutors is that the ethic does in fact provide significant guidance for just action. It cannot and should not supplant the zone of choice in which a decisionmaker must apply prudential judgment but it does point the way to some approaches rather than others. What the ethic does for the justice of dealing with the past is much analogous to what the just war theory does for war. Its norms definitively rule out some courses of action like the intentional killing of innocents and preventive war and offer other criteria for action like proportionality, last resort, and right intention. Even these criteria, especially the latter ones, leave substantial room for judgment as to whether they are fulfilled, while no criterion can substitute for strategy, battle plans, or the likely effects of choosing one course of action over another. Even if a given attack is just in principle, will it likely inflame the enemy population into a debilitating counterattack? Even if a plan secures a just victory, will its losses so harm the morale of the troops that the war will be lost and its just cause defeated? No ethic can answer such questions. I follow Aristotle and Aquinas in bequeathing them to the virtue of prudence. Still, though, the ethic provides criteria that will rule out some choices and narrow down others. It certainly provides far more criteria than Realism’s open-ended notion of the national interest.

So if my ethic of reconciliation provides concrete guidance, of what does this consist? Here are eleven illustrative resultant conclusions:

1) We should reject a “cheap reconciliation” that lacks human rights, the rule of law, accountability and other values. This stands as a sharp critique to numerous leaders who have advocate reconciliation in just these terms.

2) The ethic has an answer to the question of amnesty and the dilemma of peace vs. justice. It says that amnesty is always a sacrifice of justice but one that might be justified (though still as a second best) if necessary to secure peace or a transition to democracy and that ought to be accompanied by other restorative measures.

3) We should reject the dichotomy of punishment vs. forgiveness that has been deployed by a wide range of practitioners in the international community, usually to the detriment of forgiveness. Showing how these practices are compatible opens the door to a wider practice of forgiveness (judicial punishment already has strong support).

4) The ethic also addresses numerous other objections to forgiveness that stand in the way of its advocacy and practice.

5) Community justice forums as a mode of practicing punishment ought to be expanded and improved (while less ought to be expected from the International Criminal Court).

6) Apology and reparations are complementary. One ought not to be practiced without the other. Examples show victims rightly complaining when one appear in isolation.

7) Reparations ought to focus less on restoring victims to their status quo ante and focus more on acting as a symbolic communication. This has implications for determining reparations’ magnitude and mode of delivery.

8) Acknowledgment is at its best when it involves victims in an active, personal way. Local community forums perhaps perform this best. A commission that offers a report in which victims are little but statistics performs this worst.

9) Collective apology is ethically justifiable but ought to respect the right to dissent from it.

10) Collective forgiveness, a practice that is rare, is justifiable and might become more widespread.

11) It is entirely appropriate for religious actors and religious actors to be involved in transitional justice; the record shows that they have much to offer in terms of leadership and resources. They should not be sidelined by secular arguments for “public reason.”

Again, none of these conclusions can tell us, say, when a leader should agree to amnesty rather than continue to fight and pursue prosecution, what to do in the face of backlash and denial, and the like. The conclusions do offer judgments, though, that favor some courses of action and disfavor others and that ally with some existing paradigms and stand opposed to others.

Third and finally, we do well to remember that the purpose of ethics is not simply to prescribe specific courses of action. One of its purposes is to guide judgment and assessment, whether or not one is directly involved in the action. Again, a passage from the book, this one from the conclusion, helps to make the point:

What does justice consist of in the wake of its massive violation? I chose this as my framing question for a deliberate reason: because justice matters for its own sake, as an end in itself, even apart from whether or how often it is enacted and with what results. To hasten to results is to ignore this intrinsic importance or else to adopt, perhaps unreflectively, an ersatz consequentialism. Two friends sit in a café hotly debating the death penalty. Neither is an employee in the criminal justice system, an activist, or a friend or relative of a victim or defendant. Their country’s death penalty laws are not about to change; each of their votes matter infinitesimally. Still they argue, cajole, and rejoin, ever more heatedly. It matters to them a great deal what sort of justice their government renders, what sort of society in which they live. Conversations like this one take place continuously, ubiquitously, over innumerable issues. To the people who engage in them, justice matters. Justice matters all the more if one believes, with philosopher John Rawls, that it is the first virtue of social institutions. (286)

In countries confronting past injustices and seeking to move forward, too, thousands of ordinary people simply want to know how to think about justice. They turn to their frameworks, religious, cultural, and philosophical. So, the frameworks are important.

Even for those involved in the action, though, ethics is not simply a matter of making hard choices and confronting difficult dilemmas, though it is importantly that. It is also a matter of reconceiving the field of possibilities, of thinking creatively and expansively so as to open up pathways that might not have been conceived otherwise. Thinking of justice, peace, and mercy in a new way does not merely show us what move to make within a game but also helps to restructure the game—that is, the ends and means of politics. As Nukhet Sandal recognizes most directly, this is what I believe religious traditions can help us do.

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