Human Nature, Moral Order, and the Quest for Peace

Address at the Inauguration of the Marvin H. Shagam Program in Ethics and Global Citizenship
The Thacher School, Ojai, California
October 3, 2015
John Lenczowski

I am honored and delighted to be invited to address you all today on this felicitous occasion.

It is thrill to see Mr. Shagam again, to see three of my old school friends who are on the Board of Trustees, Bob Johnson, Phil Pillsbury, and Marshall Milligan, and to see your great Head of School, Michael Mulligan.

Being here brings back great memories of my own days at the School.

My nickname in those days was “Wedge.” My classmate who dubbed me that way explained it as follows: the wedge is the simplest tool known to man. I learned a lot from having been so identified. There is wisdom in simplicity. And there is also comfort in coming up with a good cover story.

I fondly remember racing my horse, Whiskey Run – especially with my old chum, Steve Culbertson and his horse, Sunny Weather. We would race madly up Horn Canyon.

One time we raced around the reservoir. As we finished the circuit, I remember how our horses wanted to turn right and go home, but Steve and I wanted them to go left and back around the reservoir again.

So, without saying a single word to one another, Whiskey and Sunny agreed to compromise: they stopped short, just before we were about to crash into a tree at the fork in the road. Steve and I both went flying over the tops of our horses’ heads, and as we were flying into the tree branches, we made eye contact in mid-air both with looks of flabbergasted surprise.

Our horses won that bout and charged all the way back to school where, after our long hike back, we found them consuming vast quantities of hors d’oeuvres in one of the hay barns.

At lunch with the trustees today, I was prompted to recall one other incident. Since I had originally been enrolled at Groton School back east when I was born, I was asked how I came to Thacher.   Well, after moving west, my parents recognized Thacher to be the counterpart of Groton on the west coast and they wanted me closer to home.

Then I was asked what my parents thought of a school where we played soccer on dirt fields that were occasionally punctuated with horse manure. Well, one day when I was home for Christmas, my Mom caught me wiping my hands on my pants. In disgust, she exclaimed: “straight from the pastures of Thacher!”

Today, I would like to share with you some thoughts about one of the great and noble endeavors of mankind – the quest for peace.

This quest lies at the heart of the mission of Thacher’s new Marvin H. Shagam Program in Ethics and Global Citizenship.

The very name of the program points to two of the most compelling means of achieving this goal: ethical behavior that one should expect from a responsible citizen, and citizenship that consists of caring for the well-being of the community.

The question arises: how do we get such behavior from enough of us that we can truly build a peaceful world?

A useful way of answering this question is to examine the causes of conflict that make true community so difficult.

One of the great theoreticians of international relations, Kenneth Waltz, says that the three main sources of international conflict are the nature of man, the nature of different regimes, and the anarchic nature of the international system, where there exists no supra-national authority that can enforce international law.

Examining the nature of man, of course, is one of the principal tasks of philosophy, which we in America don’t study much these days. We often make assumptions about human nature without examining them carefully.

For example, there are two major worldviews when it comes to addressing problems of peace and security.

One is the view of world community or the brotherhood of man. Adherents of this view hope for the reunification of mankind, whereby particularism will fade away; where, eventually, through intermarriage, we will all become a single race; where national identities will evanesce, and individual governments will eventually give way to global governance.

Here, national identity and citizenship are seen as obstacles that must be removed. And once they are, we may all speak the same language, so that no nation or empire will exercise superiority over others with all the divisiveness that such superiority can create. Such a universal language – Esperanto – has already been created for this eventual day.

Underlying this worldview are certain assumptions: that mankind throughout the world will recognize the wisdom of this solution; that everyone shares a common rationality which will lead them to conclude that it is in their best interest to behave accordingly; that they will indeed behave according to these best interests; and that there is a natural harmony of interests in the world that simply must be realized.

One of the assumptions underlying all this is an optimistic view of human nature – that man is capable of rational, enlightened behavior that can eventually result in peace. This worldview inspires that approach to foreign policy that is called “idealism.” This approach focuses on ultimate global goals like world peace, global democracy, global free trade, global protection of human rights, and the like.

A second worldview stresses the reality of diversity. It holds that different societies took shape at different times, in different places, under different circumstances. Individual groups managed to achieve authority, security, and order by gaining control of specific territories. They established governments and legal monopolies of force.

According to this worldview, it is these conditions that form man’s main experience of living in peace. That monopoly of force pertains here in our country, and we enjoy some modicum of genuine peace, except where the mafia or criminal gangs challenge the established monopoly of force in certain neighborhoods.

According to this view, governments – especially legitimate ones that rule by the consent of the governed – afford the principal opportunity for people to live together in peace.

Underlying this worldview is another assumption about human nature: that it is flawed, and that the realization of a global harmony of interests is impossible because there are too many conflicting interests and passions that prevent such harmony in the first place.

This worldview, then, concentrates not on global solutions but on more limited but achievable goals: such as protecting a nation’s security, territorial integrity, sovereignty, and well-being. It is less concerned about the welfare of others abroad. This approach to foreign policy is called “realism.”

Differing assumptions about human nature also lie at the root of different kinds of regimes. We must study those regimes and their philosophical underpinnings because different regimes behave differently in the world arena.

Totalitarian regimes with revolutionary ideologies tend to be more aggressive. They tend to seek revolutionary changes in other countries and in the international system, in contrast to ordinary states which tend to be status quo powers that operate not in an offensive mode, but rather in a reactive and defensive mode.

There has been a debate over the centuries about human nature. For years, in Western, Greco-Roman-Judeo-Christian thought, man does have a nature, a moral nature, where the essence of human life is moral choice, where we all have free will and can choose to do right or wrong. The entire field of ethics arises from this central proposition.

A feature of 18th century Enlightenment thinking, however, was the idea that man does not have a permanent nature, that man is an empty vessel whose character is determined by his environment. If one wants to have a better man, then it is necessary to find the right influences to improve man’s character so that we can bring about a good society. This idea was an essential element of the so-called “Age of Reason” which sought to improve the lot of mankind by liberating it from Biblical morality and freeing it, according to new, rational solutions, to create an entirely new society and civilization.

The corollary assumption here is that man’s nature is perfectible on this earth – and even on a mass scale if only we apply the right formula of social, political, or economic engineering.

As Richard Weaver has taught, ideas have consequences. And the consequences of the ideologies that brought the assumption of human perfectibility to its logical conclusion were the two great socialist systems of the 20th century: national socialism – Naziism – which sought to perfect man through eugenics to make a “master race.” The second was international socialism – Communism – which sought to create the “new Soviet man,” the “new communist man,” or just the “new man.”

These ideologies, based on a utopian interpretation of human nature, attempted to create heaven on earth through coercive measures. The socialist regimes dedicated to this idea killed more of their own people than were killed in all the wars of the 20th century combined.

In contrast, the other, allegedly pessimistic, but perhaps more realistic, view of human nature has had its own political consequences.

For one, this view lies at the foundation of the American system and other republican governments. As James Madison said, if men were angels, there would be no need for government. But men are not angels, and they never will be – at least not on this earth, and certainly not on any mass scale.

As a result, we have built our public arrangements – we have built community – around the idea that we must protect ourselves from the inevitable evils that we know will be committed by some among us.

So, we have a rule of law and law enforcement. To avoid the concentration of power in the central government which might be seized by an evil-doer, we diffuse power among federal, state, and local governments. We then created a separation of powers among executive, legislative, and judicial branches and a system of checks and balances. We have a Constitutional law that is higher than statutory laws, which can be unjust laws, written up in a fit of passion by what can sometimes be a tyranny of the majority.

In establishing these arrangements, the American Constitution is not concerned with global solutions. It sets forth to achieve a more perfect union, to provide for the common defense, and to promote the nation’s general welfare.

But what is noteworthy about the American system is that its legitimacy rests on the assertion in our Declaration of Independence of certain truths that are held to be universal and not just American: that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights. Our Founders called the system arising from these ideas the “Novus Ordo Seclorum” – the new order of the ages – an order that many of them hoped to spread worldwide as the new foundation for global harmony.

The propositions about inalienable rights in the Declaration raise a critical question about the relationship between moral order and political order.

The question is: Is there a transcendent, universal, objective moral order in the world? Are there objective standards of right and wrong that apply to all peoples at all times and in all places?

This is one of the most important philosophical questions that must be addressed in our education. But American higher education, which used to wrestle with this question, avoids it like the plague.

Why is it so important? Because of the consequences arising from the differing answers to it.

The Greco-Roman-Judeo-Christian tradition says that there is such an order. Sometimes it is called the “Natural Law” – the law written on the human heart that forms the basis of conscience.

There is another view. It is that moral standards are neither objective nor universal. Instead, it is said, they are established by personal preferences, so that one person may have one set of moral standards and a second person another set. According to this theory, the standards of society are relative and not objective. They are a social construct: they are the combination of personal preferences realized on a mass scale.

Vladimir Lenin was one who denied the existence of objective moral standards. In his Speech to the Communist Youth Leagues in 1920, which was required reading for every Soviet school child, he said that there are no objective moral standards, and that such “standards” are a “bourgeois prejudice.” Instead, he said that whatever assists communist revolution is good, and whatever hinders the revolution is bad.

This is a contingent morality, determined by circumstances, and ultimately determined by those with the power to judge the circumstances and enforce whatever standards they choose that will serve their purposes.

Whether moral standards are established by the ruling party or a majority consensus within society, it means one thing: they are established by power struggle. This is the doctrine of “might makes right” – whether the might takes the form of a majority vote or the people who possess the biggest guns and the greatest will to use them.

The American system is based on a different theory. It is founded on the notion that majorities – even in seemingly civilized places – can become tyrannical. It is thus founded on the notion that, yes, we have majority rule in America, but we also have inalienable minority rights.

What is a right? In short, it is a just claim. It is that which is justly due you as a human being or as a citizen. But for a right to exist, there has to be a standard of justice to determine whether the claim is just. And that standard of justice requires, necessarily, objective moral standards.

The system of majority rule with inalienable minority rights cannot logically exist unless those rights come from a source higher than the potentially tyrannical majority. The Founders said that they come from what they called the Creator. This Creator could be the God of Abraham or could be something else. Various options were possible. But what was clear was that rights were not conferred on our citizenry by any human law or court decision.

Indeed, certain judicial interpretations of our own Constitution enabled slavery to be possible. But did those interpretations make it just?

Indeed, if objective moral standards do not exist, then who are we to criticize policies and actions taken by other governments and cultures? Who are we to criticize widow-burning in India? Or the Nazi extermination of the Jews, Slavs, and Gypsies, and before those people were slaughtered, the Christian clergy, who threatened the Nazi project with their moral opposition. If human law is supreme and there is no natural law, then all the actions of the Nazis were not only ideologically desirable and legal, but just another lifestyle choice.

If you question the existence of a natural law, then how do you explain the existence of conscience – that little voice that tells you that you are doing the wrong thing? How do you explain the reality that people who do the wrong thing are often haunted? And try as they may to banish its manifestations, the haunting never goes away.

If there is no natural moral law, then how can there be objective ethical behavior? If there is no natural law, then the quest to achieve that ethical behavior which can help build human community worldwide will be very hard indeed.

So, in light of these questions of human nature and moral order, and the diametrically opposed systems of government and foreign policy deriving from them, how can we constructively think about working for peace?

There are various theories of peace. Some are based completely on power relations. Some kind of peace can prevail when there is a balance of power between adversaries. Another kind of peace is possible through hegemony – where one state is so much more powerful than the others and it can dictate its terms of peaceful order. Then there is the peace of empire, where one power takes over all other political entities which completely lose their sovereignty.

Some theories of peace are based on psychology and feelings. They ask that we all treat each other better by feeling more tolerant toward one another. There is validity in all these theories.

But of all the theories of peace I have encountered, the most compelling is the ancient Christian concept of earthly peace. It is not exactly the peace of Christ. It is not the beatific vision. It is what St. Augustine in the 4th century called “tranquillitas ordinis” – the tranquility of order. This concept of peace means establishing political order. It involves the building of human community.

How is this done?

It is all based on a realistic understanding of human nature. First, one must be realistic about the dark side of human nature. If we recognize the existence of evil and the perennial propensity of man to be tempted to do the wrong thing, we are now prepared to acknowledge that there will always be criminals and aggressors among us, whose behavior destroys peace and community.

So, we need laws and law enforcement domestically, and we need armies to deal with violators of international law.

But laws, the police, and armies are not sufficient to build human community. What must also be done is to be equally realistic about the good side of human nature. That good side is man’s capacity for truth, justice, and that love of neighbor that transcends the requirements of justice. And that means mercy and forgiveness.

I like to tell my students that although they all thirst for justice, that isn’t really everything they want. If they got true justice, none of them would have driver’s licenses, because they are all speeders. What they really want is mercy.

During the Cold War, the great Soviet scientist, the inventor of the Soviet H-bomb, Andrei Sakharov, told his masters in the Kremlin: “There can be no peace without human rights. You will never have peace with the West until you have peace with your own people – and that means treating them with justice and protecting everyone’s human rights.”

There is a bumper sticker that says: “If you want peace, work for justice.” This is ever so true. And indeed, justice is the fruit of ethical behavior and living by the Natural Law.

Violations of justice are a perennial source of grievance and conflict. But sometimes justice is hard to achieve.

There is an aphorism from Cicero: “Summum ius, summa iniuria.” The totality of justice is the totality of injustice. What this means is that if you insist on total justice, you won’t get any.

A good example of this is the Palestinians. These people have some legitimate grievances. Many were driven from their homes and lands and want to be able to go back to them.

But Israel exists. Several generations of native born Israelis live there. This is their country.

Most Palestinians — some 70 percent – are ready to live side-by-side with Israel. But a large minority of them are not. They want total justice. They want their old land back and the Israelis out. So what are the Israelis supposed to do? Go back to Minsk, or Pinsk, or elsewhere in Eastern Europe?

In demanding total justice, the Palestinian rejectionists are getting no justice.

In addition to the physical security that comes from police, armies, fences, and the like, what the Palestinians and Israelis want and need – and what all of us really want and need – is mercy, forgiveness, and respect for our human dignity. People want their inalienable rights honored and protected. They want love of neighbor.

All this completes the formula for building community, for establishing a political order whose result is true peace.

It can be achieved – at least within the borders of a given country. This kind of order is not utopian because it has a way of addressing evil. It is realistic about both aspects of human nature and is based on moral order.

Understanding the flaws and frailties of human nature is the first step toward realism about all sorts of unpleasant conditions in the world. The question is whether one can truly achieve greater peace if one ignores these realities.

In their idealism, too many people avert their eyes from some of these realities. Terrorism, mass murder, leaders of foreign powers who congenitally lie and conduct propaganda, disinformation, and strategic deception, states that not only violate treaties, but which have strategies to violate treaties and develop those strategies even before they sign the treaties they plan to violate. Some people are willfully blind toward these things.

George Orwell calls this “the will to disbelieve the horrible.” The great Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn calls it “the desire not to know” – because if one knows, then one may have a moral or strategic obligation to do something about it.

Unfortunately, utopian views of human nature and wishful thinking about the world lie at the root of multiple forms of utopianism in foreign policy.

First, we have the liberal internationalist version: Just give us more negotiations, more dialogue, more mutual understanding, more treaties, and more international organizations like the UN and we will all be able to live in peace.

All these things can be helpful. But all too often, this policy dreams away the evildoers or pretends, as our President is doing with Iran today, that they can be taught to have goodwill toward their neighbor whom they actually wish to dominate, enslave, or destroy.

Then there is a neoconservative version of utopianism that believes that we can march into Iraq and transform it into a democracy as if culture doesn’t exist – as if the habits, traditions, and mentality developed over decades and centuries don’t exist.

Then there is the utopianism of the left-wing or libertarian isolationists who believe that if we just withdraw from active engagement with the world, diminish our military presence worldwide, and perhaps even disarm, then hostility toward us would start evaporating. Some of the adherents of this view seem to forget that there is a concept called “provocative weakness,” where aggressors see disengagement, disarmament, and withdrawal as a signal of weakness that can now be exploited.

Finally, there is the utopianism of the so-called “realists” who believe that it is possible to conduct an authentic American foreign policy solely according to our vital national security interests. This approach holds that it is actually possible to divorce our foreign policy from the humanitarian impulse and moral sensibilities that reside in the American heart.

In the end, peace will be more likely if we don’t imprison ourselves in any of these ideological templates but rather rely on prudence – the application of moral and strategic principles to specific, usually unique, circumstances. Indeed prudence is the virtue of the statesman.

Peace will become more possible we if banish wishful thinking from what should be a realistic appraisal of the conflicts that will inevitably arise around the world – conflicts that come from the desire for power, money, land, empire, prestige, domination over others, ideological or religious messianism, and other motivations of dictators, revolutionary parties, transnational movements, and others.

And finally, we can work on building true tranquility of order by basing all our actions on the development of prudence, honesty, courage, humility, and all those other personal, civic, and cultural virtues that result in justice, mercy and love of neighbor.

At Thacher, as we sing the School song, we call these things “honor, fairness, kindness, and truth.”

These virtues are all the fruits of moral order and are not automatic or inherent attributes. They must be cultivated. Without them, peace is impossible, civilization is impossible.

The task of cultivating them is the job of parents, teachers, the arbiters of our culture at large, and each one of us. It is a blessing that a Thacher education is dedicated to this task – and here let me honor the half century of Mr. Shagam’s pedagogy and mentorship.

Our choices of how to behave become habits. And habits become destiny. The choices you make as to how to behave will ultimately determine whether there will be peace in your lives, in your families, in your communities, and maybe even a little more peace on earth.

There is a prayer:

“Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”

John Lenczowski, CdeP ’67, is Founder and President of The Institute of World Politics, an independent graduate school of national security and international affairs in Washington, D.C. He formerly taught at Georgetown University and served in the Department of State and as President Ronald Reagan’s White House advisor on Soviet affairs (1983-1987).

One thought on “Human Nature, Moral Order, and the Quest for Peace

  1. David Pate

    Well said sir. What concerns me is America is increasingly rejecting an objective, moral order, and with it, any hope for justice and peace. We’re devolving into a tyranny of the secular majority, a majority that instead of loving its neighbor, silences its neighbor into a Soviet “Speakeasy” political correctness. This silences truth, authenticity, and the creative genius that created our prosperity. I hope there is a spiritual awakening that inspires us to return to the realistic, objective peace you describe.


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