Waging Peace

Ben Franklin on war

A couple of years ago I posted How to wage war on war and last year I reviewed Alan Grayson‘s comments on the Libya conflict, No Fly: A Tactic in Search of a Strategy?

The present situation with Syria is just another in a long list of regional wars and civil wars in which the US has taken an interest. Should we mind our own business?

No. The instinct to intervene between aggressors and victims is in the DNA of  human society. Such empathy is fundamental to morality, justice, and civilization. We turn our backs on injustice anywhere at our own peril.

However no individual nation has the right to police the world, and when anyone does assume that kind of role even for the best of reasons the ends still don’t justify the means.  The rule of law is fundamental to a civilized response to injustice. The US has a poor record on abiding by the rule of law in international relations. Instead of spreading peace and democracy, US intervention has often spread violence and corruption. At the same time that some are motivated to intervene out of a sense of justice and compassion, others are motivated by opportunities for personal, political, or corporate gain. And war is definitely a huge cash cow for the media so they’re all up in bed with the corporate war profiteers.

There is an even more basic set of laws than those established by governments: things like the law of cause and effect, that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,  for example. Laws of complex adaptive systems and the principle of uncertainty for example.  US foreign policy has a history of creating horrible blow-back and runaway escalations of violence which (coincidentally?) serve to reinforce the power and profits of the military-industrial-financial complex.

My friend Natural Lefty puts it all in a nutshell: “the issue is how to support the virtuous, secular and democratic groundswell within places such as Syria, without engaging in culturally arrogant social engineering or supporting people with the wrong priorities.”

What can we learn from the historical record and empirical evidence concerning international interventions?

Many of the negative consequences of interventions can be anticipated and thus can hardly be called unintentional. We must maximize the peace utility of our interventions by minimizing conflicts of interest and rejecting means that undermine our ends.

I’m neither a hawk, an isolationist, nor a pacifist. I would prefer a greater level of international law and international law enforcement in the service of peace and justice. Hawks, isolationists, and pacifists are all about the same in terms of their constructive utility, i.e., very little.

The rule of law, human rights, due process, proportionality, transparency, exhausting less violent means before escalating to more violent ones, etc. are all well established principles. I won’t go over that ground here. The US abides by none of those principles anyway. I only want to make a point about utility and dis-utility.

There might be more peace utility in having “Made in USA” labels on lots of items delivered to refugee camps than in similar labels found on tear gas canisters and bomb fragments. In the long run there might be more peace utility in dollars invested in the former than in the latter, too, regardless of the labels. Governments that consider military action and citizens who consider enlisting in the military to defend people in other countries should also consider the relative utility of development over destruction. In recent decades the neoliberal domination and profiteering of big aid and development programs has given them a very bad smell, but there are many NGOs that still do legitimate international aid and human-scale development work in conflict countries.

In any case, no one should ever be allowed to deliver weapons of any kind to any party in a zone of active violent conflict. This principle should supersede all political and military alliances, contracts, etc.

The only exception to this is that duly constituted international authorities such the United Nations should be permitted to send armed forces into such locations for the purpose of protecting all parties from each other–i.e. real peace-keeping. Such forces would maintain direct and exclusive control of their own weaponry at all times.

I realize that the logistics for such intervention would be massive and  the rules of engagement would be complex. Such forces and their international hosts would require far more investment than we have ever devoted to such a purpose (though less than we’ve spent on other kinds of intervention). But failing to do what is right and effective is no excuse for doing anything that is wrong and ineffective.

A straw-man argument against this is that the perfect is the enemy of the good. We don’t have adequately prepared and managed international peace-keeping forces so we must do the next best thing, whatever that may be, which usually turns out to be throwing gasoline (or weaponry) on the fire. Unintended consequences be damned. And that is the argument that generally prevails because most humans have plenty of empathy, but we are too stupid for peace and democracy. If we were smarter, we would be waging world peace through sustainable development and economic justice on a scale that really worked.

Responsibility To Protect (Wikipedia)

The responsibility to protect (R2P or RtoP) is a United Nations initiative established in 2005. It consists of an emerging norm, or set of principles, based on the idea that sovereignty is not a right, but a responsibility.[1] R2P focuses on preventing and halting four crimes: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing, which it places under the generic umbrella term of Mass Atrocity Crimes.[2] The Responsibility to Protect has three “pillars”.

  1. A state has a responsibility to protect its population from mass atrocities;
  2. The international community has a responsibility to assist the state to fulfill its primary responsibility;
  3. If the state fails to protect its citizens from mass atrocities and peaceful measures have failed, the international community has the responsibility to intervene through coercive measures such as economic sanctions. Military intervention is considered the last resort.[3][4]

In the international community R2P is a norm, not a law, however it is grounded in international law.[5][6] R2P provides a framework for using tools that already exist, i.e. mediation, early warning mechanisms, economic sanctioning, and chapter VII powers, to prevent mass atrocities. Civil society organizations, States, regional organizations, and international institutions all have a role to play in the R2P process. The authority to employ the last resort and intervene militarily rests solely with United Nations Security Council and the General Assembly.

This doctrine needs to evolve from simply being a voluntary “norm” into a binding covenant among all UN members. The biggest obstacles will be autocratic rogue states like the US.

I think all these “free trade” agreements the US gets up to are largely a tactic to head off the development of good magna-carta-style international law and preempt it with corrupt-cronyism-style (a la East India Company) international law. Nature (and power) abhors a vacuum. If the UN doesn’t get off its ass it will soon find itself in the dustbin of history. The UN or some upgrade of it has to demonstrate something  functional with some teeth before citizens will push politicians in that direction. It will probably require a bunch of countries to impose economic and legal sanctions on the US and perhaps a few other too-big-to-prosecute international warmongers before we will sign on.

Poor Richard

Golden Rule the World

Bernard d'Agesci (1757-1828), La justice, musé...

Bernard d’Agesci (1757-1828), La Justice. Holds scales in one hand and in the other hand a book with “Dieu, la Loi, et le Roi” on one page and the Golden rule on the other page. (Photo credit: Wikipedia. Click image for larger versions)

Some friends of the delightful and brilliant  Karen Armstrong recently started a website called Charter for Compassion. The charter is based on the Golden Rule (See Karen’s Ted Talk video at the end of this page). This got me to thinking about the Golden Rule in more detail than usual…

The version most familiar to me is this:

So in everything, do unto others what you would have them do unto you,  for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.  (Matthew 7:12)

The Golden Rule is the simplest expression of two primal axioms of sociality, empathy and reciprocity. This is the basis of all that we call justice and morality. All that has been written on justice and morality over the ages almost seems to obfuscate those issues when compared directly with the Golden Rule. Maybe that’s why Jesus is quoted as saying  this single sentence “sums up the Law and the Profits.”

Without empathy, there could be no kindness or compassion. Empathy, kindness, and compassion are far more primal than religion, philosophy and ethics. Empathy has its own type of brain cell, called the mirror neuron, which is also found in other animals. This suggests that the evolution of empathy preceded human beings.

“The feeling of compassion is the beginning of humanity.”

Mencius, 372 – 289 BCE

But the Golden Rule doesn’t stop at empathy. It also includes reciprocity. Like empathy, reciprocity has its roots in pre-human evolution. It is involved in the process of natural selection. Empathy and reciprocity are the biological and  instinctive forces that make animals social and from which all complex human sociality evolved.

Somewhat like the principles on which it is based, the Golden Rule predates recorded history. It was around long before Christianity or Judaism or even religion. It may even predate language. Of course, it would. It is in our DNA — literally.

The Golden Problem

In practice there may be a bit of a rub to the Golden Rule. What if someone doesn’t want to be treated the way I might want to be treated, but the way in which they wish to be treated is perfectly reasonable and agreeable to me? Then perhaps I should do unto them the way I would want them to do unto me if I were them.  This would make the rule somewhat recursive.

Then, what if the way some people wish to be treated is bad for them? All responsible parents and guardians face this problem. The recursive property doesn’t help in this case. Nor can the parent necessarily treat the child the way the parent might wish to be treated if she is perfectly honest with herself. We are all a little too childish and selfish ourselves to follow the Golden Rule to the letter without indulging each other far too much. Another modification is needed.

"The Golden Rule" mosaic

“The Golden Rule” mosaic (Photo credit: Wikipedia. Click image for larger version)

Golden Solution: Enlightenment

A certain amount of indulgence is good for us, especially as children, but enough is enough and too much is bad for the character (and often for the waistline, too). Responsible parents sometimes attempt to treat their children the way an enlightened person would want to be treated, hoping that such patterning helps a child to develop into that enlightened person. We can apply this to everybody, really, since all of us can stand to become a little more enlightened.

But what is enlightenment? Who is enlightened? What does an enlightened person want? How would they wish to be treated? I guess this is what all the books on justice and morality are about–maybe this is why we need them. They are trying to tell us what enlightened people should believe, what they should want, or how they should behave; and they are written (broadly speaking) by our best and brightest (i.e. most enlightened) minds.

But what good is the Golden Rule if we are still thrown back into this quagmire of disputed and contradictory theories of right and wrong? Is there no simple rule for enlightenment?

According to Emmanuel Kant, the Golden Rule could be formulated in a broad, general way that he called a categorical imperative. It is intended to minimize the subjective variations in what different people consider good behavior by removing the relative advantage of acting selfishly in the pursuit of one’s own personal good:

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

In other words, don’t do anything you aren’t willing for  everyone else to do right back at you. I don’t think it solves any of the above problems, though. Kant’s deontology still turns upon consequences. What are rules of behavior but after-the-fact consequentialism? Any practical kind of deontology or consequentialism must be derived from experience. What else could we base either one upon, unless we want to base or morality on legend, myth, or superstition; fictions which like Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy are more suitable for ignorant children than responsible adults.

Corollaries of the Golden Rule

I will propose several corollaries to the Golden Rule, which I hope will fill in some of the blanks and answer some of the questions left hanging by the Rule. To qualify they must be consistent with (if not directly implied by) the Rule, and they must share its simplicity of expression in plain language. The aim of this short list of corollaries is nothing less than to dispense with the rest of the Prophets and the Philosophers of law, which the Golden Rule failed to do on its own.

Utility – the greatest good for the greatest number

This corollary helps to answer some of the questions about enlightenment I asked above. I will do unto you what I would have you do unto me if it is also in your best interest and (as much as possible) for the greatest good of  the greatest number.

Enlightened self-interest

This is the principle that persons “do well by doing good.” This meansthat acting to further the interests of others (or the interests of the group or groups to which they belong), ultimately serves one’s own self-interest.

Turn the other cheek

When possible, respond to an aggressor without violence. The phrase originates from the Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament:

38 ¶ Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: 39 But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. 41 And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. 42 Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. (Matthew 5:38–5:42 KJV)

In the Gospel of Luke, as part of his command to “love your enemies“, Jesus says:

27 ¶ But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, 28 Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you. 29 And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloke forbid not to take thy coat also. 30 Give to every man that asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again. 31 And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. (Luke 6:27–31 KJV)
Note that in Luke 6:31 above, the doctrine of turning the other cheek is directly related to the Golden Rule. This principle, in less absolute or categorical terms, may also be the basis for certain versions of the legal doctrine of proportionality. But unlike the “eye for an eye” kind of proportionality, the New Testament kind of proportionality favors the least severe response necessary to satisfy a compassionate and forgiving standard of  justice and to maintain peace.
“A soft word turneth away wrath…” (Proverbs 15:1 KJV)
BTW, by using bible quotes (familiar to many of my tribe) to illustrate some of my corollaries I don’t mean to imply that they depend on any religious authority. No. They have numerous secular expressions.
Hey, before you abuse, criticize and accuse, walk a mile in my shoes” (Joe South).
I recommend the full lyric and the video.
“Side B” for this this corollary is “Before you accuse me (take a look at yourself)” by Mr. Bo Diddly. (The Eric Clapton version is pretty sweet, too.)

Or, to put this another way, “Judge not, that ye be not judged,” again from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:1). Saint Matthew goes on to say:

3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? 4 Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me cast out the mote out of thine eye; and lo, the beam is in thine own eye? 5 Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

This is all about empathy and reciprocity, the foundations of the Golden Rule. But lest you doubt me, does Matthew 7:12 sound vaguely familiar:

All things therefore whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them: for this is the law and the prophets.”

Jeder nach seinen Fähigkeiten, jedem nach seinen Bedürfnissen!

Literally translated, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”  This is the phrasing of Karl Marx, but the first known description of the principle was given by Étienne-Gabriel Morelly (1717 – ?) a French utopian thinker and novelist, but an otherwise “obscure tax official.” (Wikipedia) Morelly proposed in his 1755 Code of Nature :

  • Every citizen will be a public man, sustained by, supported by, and occupied at the public expense.
  • Every citizen will make his particular contribution to the activities of the community according to his capacity, his talent and his age; it is on this basis that his duties will be determined, in conformity with the distributive laws. (Wikipedia)

I don’t know (or care) much about Communism, but I think I know the Golden Rule when I see it. Who would not want to be treated in such a fashion, from each according to ability and to each according to need, unless they had previously been brainwashed by some cruel and perverse ideology (I won’t mention any names)?


This one is a little more technical, but its not complicated. Decisions and authority should be vested at the lowest practical level of an organization or institution. This is a clear “do unto others” corollary — do you want to maintain your human dignity in your place of work or your community?

Subsidiarity is the idea that decisions are better made where they have immediate effect. The idea is a key because it enables people to make decisions for themselves. Human Dignity demands more than becoming a cog in a wheel.”  (Solidarity With Salisbury)

subsidiarity [səbˌsɪdɪˈærɪtɪ]

1. (Christianity / Roman Catholic Church) a principle of social doctrine that all social bodies exist for the sake of the individual so that what individuals are able to do, society should not take over, and what small societies can do, larger societies should not take over

2. (Government, Politics & Diplomacy) the principle of devolving decisions to the lowest practical level


“Solidarity is not a matter of altruism. Solidarity comes from the inability to tolerate the affront to our own integrity of passive or active collaboration in the oppression of others, and from the deep recognition of our most expansive self-interest. From the recognition that, like it or not, our liberation is bound up with that of every other being on the planet, and that politically, spiritually, in our heart of hearts we know anything else is unaffordable.” – Aurora Levins Morales


“Men are free when they belong to a living, organic, believing community, active in fulfilling some unfulfilled, perhaps unrealized purpose. Not when they are escaping to some wild west. The most unfree souls go west, and shout of freedom.” ― D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature

I’m going to stop on that note, but please suggest any other corollaries to the Golden Rule that you think should not be left out. The goal is not to include everything but the kitchen sink, but to include essential corollaries that keep the Golden Rule from being overly ambiguous, or from being too silent on important social issues..

Poor Richard

Karen Armstrong: Let’s Revive The Golden Rule

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RSA Animate – 21st century enlightenment

How to wage war on war

Hawaiian shirts, digital cameras and cell phones…

I think there are only two ways to really make war on war:

1. Keep your own nation from entering a war. Lay down in front of a tank if possible.

2. Send about 200,000 people trained in non-violent action, preferably little old ladies and guys in wheel chairs, into the middle of a war zone with Hawaiian shirts, digital cameras and cell phones.

Some people do a version of this as “peace hostages” in many conflicts but the numbers are usually very small. The wider progressive community doesn’t have the nerve.

Unless you are willing to risk your life, you can’t declare any real kind of war on war. Anything else is 99% wishful thinking.

Poor Richard


The Moral Equivalent of War

(William James, 1906)

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