Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Kant vs. Bush

A colleague of mine forwarded to me the following piece of skywrighting offering a Kantian reading of Bush by a Bruce Merrill:
Here is an election day quote from the close of the 18th century (1795), which applies (I contend), to the current president of the USA.
"Just as we view with deep disdain the attachment of savages to their lawless freedom-- preferring to scuffle without end rather than to place themselves under lawful restraints... consequently preferring a mad freedom to a lawful one-- and consider it barbarous, rude, and brutishly degrading of humanity, so also should we think that civilized peoples (each one united into a nation) would hasten as quickly as possible to escape so similar a state of abandonment. Instead, however, each nation sees its majesty... to consist in not being subject to any external legal constraint, and the glory of its ruler consists in being able, without endangering himself, to command many thousands to sacrifice themselves for a matter than does not concern them."
Thus Kant notes, in his essay on "Perpetual Peace" [Perpetual Peace, and Other Essays on Politics, History, and Morals (HPC Classics Series)], which, despite the rationale for a past social contract that everyone acknowledges, individual nations and rulers continue to behave in a barbaric & brutish manner.

Well, [Merrill writes] certainly our ruler "sees [his] majesty... to consist in not being subject to any external legal constraint." International law and UN sanctions are for other weaker nations. Certainly not for those born-again men who swagger out of Texas. And then, too fearful to "endanger himself" in 1972 in a war which he ostensibly supported, and hardly endangered now, he takes great satisfaction-- "bring it on!"-- in the power of sending those not as wealthy and entitled as he to the front lines, where they fight & die a war whose true rationale (the geo-political game-plan of the Bushites) remains essentially concealed, and "does not concern them."
To this, I offer the following brief rejoinder:

Kant's "Perpetual Peace" was written under the Enlightenment assumption that sin is a myth and that the scourge of war, like the aberrations of interpresonal conflicts, could ultimately be resolved through universal Reason. Hence, when planning his world-government, Kant had not the fears of England's Lord Acton, who said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. By contrast, I find at least some small comfort in the notion that our tradition of liberal democracy, whatever its many shortcomings, emerged from the widespread assumption that the checks and balances upon human government are necessary ("that government is best which governs least") because human nature is fallen. The Christian ideal without doubt is a theocracy with Christ as King. Short of that, we are left incapable of the best three forms of government described by Aristotle (monarchy, aristocracy, and polity), because our we cannot trust our own nature to govern for the wellbeing of the governed; and thus we must have recourse to the least opressive of the worst types of government described by Aristotle (democracy, oligarchy, and tyranny). Since tyranny is out of the question, we're left with democracy (government by the greed of the majority) or oligarchy (government by the greed of the rich). Of these two, the least objectionable is democracy, which has the virtue of slowing the inevitable progress of society towards tyranny by its colossal inefficiency.

Our country's reluctance to submit to the tribunal of international judgment could in fact be motivated by a primitive and barbaric desire for selfish autonomy. But it could just as readily be motivated, at least on the part of some, by distrust of any tribunal in which the highest recourse is the arbitrary law of the majority, subject to no further sanction of divine or natural law. I find it interesting that those most hesitant to trust the judgment of the United Nations and/or World Court tend to be individuals who believe in natural law, if not divine law, while those most trusting of these international bodies tend to be individuals who believe in nothing higher than the voted will of the majority, which makes me think of the French Revolution and Rousseau's lovely notion of the Volente General and of dissidents who must be "compelled to be free." Our country today may no longer have the virtues observed by Alexis de Tocqueville, but I like to think that the American people, including the local farmers and Joe Six Packs, are still possessed of a sufficient residue of that legacy in their common sense, that I can repose more trust in their collective judgment than in that of the power-mongers of world government. Of course, I could be sorely disappointed. We're all merely human, after all.