Good Global Institutions From Not so Good People?

By: Michael Kessler

September 27, 2015

Religion and World Order

Tom Banchoff’s overview of the religious-secular interaction in global affairs raises many important questions, most especially his measured optimism at the end: “one can imagine the emergence of a powerful, transnational coalition of religious and secular forces mobilized around ethical principles that works through governments, markets, and international organizations to advance basic civil, political, economic, and social rights, and peace on a global level.” Those who approach these questions from the standpoint of moral and political theory might cheer in the hope that global structures—particularly those institutions like political nations and markets—might one day embody norms of human dignity and reproduce individuals and generations who hunger and thirst for justice and are motivated to act under the guidance of moral norms.

Yet the moral and political theorist has many reasons to be skeptical: How does such a “powerful, transnational coalition” come into being such that the coalition actually shapes global agents to act with goodwill? How can justice be desired when so many other global forces promote selfish and harmful interests and outcomes? 

Since the creation of the UN and the ratification of the international legal regime after World War Two, global institutions have been in place to mediate conflict and settle disputes. Treaties and instruments declare and embody norms that aim to guide global agents to channel power and conflict in peaceful and respectful ways (See esp. Mary Ann Glendon’s account of the discussions leading to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in The World Made New). We all know, however, that these institutions are hamstrung by a lack of sovereignty and coercive power that could force compliance with global norms. Nations that want to mistreat humans get away with it and can even do so with utter transparency. One need only observe the catastrophe in Syria today—visible via social media for the world to watch—and recognize the utter inability of the modern nations to agree on how to respond, let alone resolve to act in curtailing the massive human devastation. Varied and disputed interests by powers around the globe leave unsettled and indeterminate what constitutes the right way to treat individuals and groups and what constitutes justice and deviance. Naked self-interest and pathological disregard for the dignity of others finds no block or check when institutional mechanisms are impotent in shaping actors to intervene. Institutions that create conditions of civil right and justice are aspirational but ineffective if the humans in them are inclined toward other ends. 

As Kant made clear in his political writings, this general lack of acting according to civil right (both among individuals and between states) perpetuates the natural state Hobbes so aptly described, leaving the lives of nations and humans living within them to be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Even when the international community is composed of some nations who treat their citizens mostly well (still an as-yet utopian ideal), the global order seems divided among those nations who have a condition of right roughly operative between them, and groups and nations at the global margins who are left in its wake, not quite part of the international community, whose peoples are suffering in the international state of nature. 

Kant’s own optimism that humans would create this global order (and also act according to its norms) was focused on the awakening age of enlightenment which Kant thought would lead humans to recognize that ‘necessity compels’ them to join into an ever-expanding civil condition since their natural inclinations and “propensities do not allow them to coexist for very long in wild freedom” (Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Intent, 5th Thesis). Yet Kant is thrown into a wildly speculative and nearly-deterministic account of how this happens: he spoke of the “cunnings of nature” that place us in geographic disparities using many tongues, exacerbating tensions and wars, all of which providentially leads us from the state of nature to our own national civil condition and ultimately to embrace a condition of international right. 

Banchoff, thankfully, does not speculate about what might bring about this global coalition that will soften our hearts and awaken the hunger and thirst for justice. It is certainly the case that we have improved our species along many metrics in the modern period, yet we do not live in an enlightened age. We have put in place impressive institutional structures to adjudicate disputes and maintain order and security. We have thought through and promulgated international norms that reflect principled norms of dignity and justice. These are available to guide us toward better interactions with our fellows. We also have the growing recognition that for all the progress, there is a dialectical underbelly of modernity that continues to be a miserable condition for many. What we still lack is the formation of the wills of humans around the globe to think and act beyond their own naked interests. Global institutions and coalitions can act toward a more just world only if the people who compose them are open to that goal. Softening the hearts of humans and sharpening their minds to think beyond their own interests is an old and antiquated task, but one all the more necessary today if justice is to be achieved.

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