When we talk about things, says Peace Research Institute Oslo
(PRIO) researcher Henrik Syse
, we can talk about them normatively
When we talk about the normative (also known as the prescriptive) aspect of something, we're talking about something as it ought
to be. Speaking descriptively, on the other hand, is more about describing how something is
rather than how it could or should
Ethics, understandably, is a normative conversation.
Thomas Hobbes is a think often discussed when it comes to society and conflict, mostly because of his contribution to political science in the book The Leviathan
. The Leviathan in question is an absolute monarch, and Hobbes thought we need one because human nature, without an authority to keep us in line, tends to fall back to a chaotic, violent state of nature. We need to be controlled if we don't want to live in chaos. And so, on the topic of war and international peace, he says that we can have domestic peace, because at the head of the country is a powerful Leviathan. But we can't have world peace because we don't have a big enough Leviathan, or at least not yet.
Immanuel Kant, coming after him, argued that peace is possible on the basis of norms that everyone would be counted on to respect. He criticizes Hobbes for living in a non-ethical world, one where ethics is only a set of rules that we can agree on (or be forced to accept). In this worldview, that there's nothing we can appeal to. But Kant looked to the medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas (Dominican monk, long dead) in his description of a 'moral law', similar to the religious concept of natural law. It's something that can be appealed to beyond ourselves, which the American Declaration of Independence called inherent dignity, a force that is thought ot maintain its integrity even in the face of the Holocaust or atomic bombs.
But dignity can't be quantified, not really. And when we try to make abstract qualities like this a basis for international law and peace, it can get problematic. Some argue against the idea of international law, saying that while domestic laws are possible you can't enforce them on international affairs because they're all about territory, power and solving our differences by war. You can only influence other states using your will, power and guile. This line of thought is one aligned with something called political realism
, which emphasizes the state and its capacities.
But skepticism about an international order goes further back than Hobbes: Dante, the poet of Inferno fame, describes the only way we can achieve it is through a one-world government.