MAY 15, 2003
The Political Pretension to Grand Values
W. Clark Gilpin
Jean Bethke Elshtain, ethicist and political philosopher at the University of Chicago, has recently challenged theologians and religiously concerned citizens to rethink the relationship of war to justice in light of the war on Iraq. Building on her own extensive writing about the just war tradition, Professor Elshtain argues this tradition is not simply about war, but is a broader "theory of comparative justice applied to considerations of war and intervention." She proposes that "there are times when the claims of justice override the reluctance to take up arms" and that the conduct (or, perhaps better, the extreme misconduct) of the regime of Saddam Hussein may well represent such a time.
It is surely a daunting task to evaluate when a theory of comparative justice entails preemptive, armed intervention on the international stage. And I am inclined to agree with Professor Elshtain's conclusion that grand appeals to such values as peace or justice are not very helpful in arriving at the difficult prudential judgments required in the political arena.
Professor Elshtain expresses concern that such grand appeals to values are coming from American religious communities: "From our pulpits these days the word most frequently on the lips of pastors, ministers, and priests is 'peace.'" I am far more concerned that such grand appeals are "most frequently on the lips" of President George W. Bush.
Mr. Bush's patriotic speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1 had a pronounced tendency to specify the national source of grand values, transmuting justice into "American justice." He was quick to point out that these values, fully endorsed by the prophet Isaiah, happily coincide with the nation's international interests: "American values, and American interests, lead in the same direction: We stand for human liberty."
One of the central public contributions of the theologian, in the face of such rhetoric, was aptly summarized in 1935 by Reinhold Niebuhr in An Interpretation of Christian Ethics. There, Niebuhr exhibited his characteristic skepticism about the appeal to grand values.
One reason why modern social conflicts are more brutal than primitive ones is that the development of rationality has actually imparted more universal pretensions to partial social interests than those of primitive men. . .The consequence is that modern men fight for their causes with a fury of which only those are capable who are secure in the sense of their righteousness. Thus all modern social conflicts are fought for 'Kultur,' for democracy, for justice, and for every conceivable universal value. A rereading of the pronouncements of men of learning and philosophers, as well as of the statesmen and politicians, who were involved in the world war, fills the reader with a depressing sense of the calculated insincerity of all their pretensions.
For the full text of the reflections on war and justice by Jean Bethke Elshtain, Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago, I encourage you to visit the Marty Center's website at http://marty-center.uchicago.edu/webforum.
W. Clark Gilpin is the director of the Martin Marty Center and the Margaret E. Burton Professor of the History of Christianity and of Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School.