Towards a theory of peaceful relations

By Garrett Thomson

Even if Peace is primarily a spiritual or psychological state, nevertheless, we also need to conceive of peacefulness as a set of social relations, including those that a person has with him/herself. In other words, if peacefulness is an inner state, then it will necessarily express itself relationally. A theory of peaceful relations will apply not only to relations between individuals and groups of persons, but it will also be concerned with institutions and with the structures of a society.

This theory will include the core idea that peacefulness is a feature of conflict. All relations between individuals, groups, institutions, and social systems are conflictual. People have different interests and understandings; ineluctably, this means conflict. Thus, peace cannot be defined as a lack of conflict. More than this, relational peacefulness only becomes operative when there is conflict. That is to say, we cannot be in a peaceful relation until we are in conflictual relations.

In part, peacefulness is the quality that allows conflictive relations to exist without displacing the other non-instrumental goods that constitute human flourishing. Such peacefulness implies that conflictive relations won’t make destructive waves. For instance, this is embodied in the family when a specific conflict doesn’t affect negatively the other good features of family life. Or, for example, when I squabble with a friend, it doesn’t affect the friendship. In part, the nature of peacefulness, as a quality of relations, is that it mutes conflicts  that  would  otherwise  undermine  wellbeing or flourishing.

The aim of this paper is to illustrate how a conception of peacefulness as a spiritual stance has implications for international politics, or more generally for what socio-political-economic structural systems we should live in. Spiritually and morally orientated understandings of peacefulness have political implications, and are not neutral concerning the structural features of society. We need morally attuned understandings of what it means to be peaceful that have socio-political and structural translations. Furthermore, spiritual peacefulness needs a structural expression: peace cannot fully be an actualised condition of the soul unless it is also a cond tion of the society in which we live.

Transcending the epistemological asymmetry

What does it mean to live in peaceful relations? To answer this, we begin with a hugely important contrast. On the one side, we humans are subject to a systematic epistemological asymmetry. This is the tendency, in our own case, to only see our own good intentions, but in the case of others, to perceive only the results of their actions (which are often bad). This means that we are prone to apply a double standard: we judge ourselves by our good intentions, and others by the results of their actions. This means that I am disposed to see my own actions as always good at heart, and those of others as wrong or, at best, as far from perfect.

On the other side, whenever someone wants something, necessarily they want it under some description that renders it desirable. This doesn’t mean that the thing wanted really is desirable, but it does imply that it is perceived as such by the person who wants it. This has profound implications for understanding others: it means that, to comprehend another, we must see the person’s intentions under the descriptions that make sense to them from their point of view. There is a way of seeing what the other person wants as good. To desire something is ipso facto to see it as desirable.

The juxtaposition of these two points reveals why we humans are systematically susceptible to misunderstanding others. The first indicates that we are disposed to ignore precisely what the second outlines as a condition for understanding others. Having peaceful relations with others requires overcoming this tension. Let us illustrate this. I quarrel with a friend. I am well-acquainted with my own good intentions, but I judge my friend’s actions in terms of their negative effects, thereby ignoring the point of view through which her intentions make sense as being directed to some good. The result is that I misunderstand and blame her. I fail to enter into her point of view, to appreciate that what she intended seemed good to her. Therefore, to understand someone’s desire from their point of view, it is necessary to see what they intended or wanted as good, according to the phenomenologically appropriate descriptions.

Of course, this thesis doesn’t mean that one should condone the other person’s action or intention! Neither does it imply that their intention is all things considered good. One can distinguish between a) ‘X is good/ desirable’ and b) ‘X is conclusively good/desirable, all things considered ’. Nevertheless, the thesis does mean that there is some description of a person’s intention that reveals it as directed towards something desirable. To understand another person well, it is necessary to characterise their desires or intentions in such terms.

Does the thesis imply that there is no such thing as a bad intention? No! It doesn’t prohibit us from describing a person’s intentions as bad. For example, we can still characterise them as selfish, harmful, and inhumane. However, these descriptions would be secondary or derivative because the thesis does imply that, to understand someone well, one must not characterise their intention as primarily, or in the first place as, directed towards something bad. The idea that some people are fundamentally evil depends on ignoring this point. In its extreme form, this can constitute demonising others.

The thesis has an important corollary – namely, that one tends to assume that one understands another person better than he or she understands oneself. In other words, there is a tendency to judge that I comprehend another person better than he/she understands me. This is a consequence of the main thesis because the epistemological asymmetry tends to portray any interaction as follows: I have access to his/her behaviour, but he/she doesn’t have access to my intentions! The corollary is a consequence of the asymmetry of the first-person perspective. It embodies the same epistemological double-standard.

The corollary has yet another devastating implication – namely, that one tends to systematically underestimate the differences between oneself and another. If I have a propensity to think that I understand other people better than they understand me, then I will also be disposed to underestimate the differences between us. This is because I am trying to understand them only on my terms and not on theirs.

These epistemological limitations in understanding others constitute a form of systemic ignorance. Worse still, they are enhanced by the self- reinforcing nature of ignorance. It is the general nature of ignorance that one is predisposed to not know that one is ignorant. One tends to be ignorant of one’s ignorance. Ignorance is like that: it doesn’t know itself.

Here is a summary of the principles elucidated so far:

  1. We tend to judge ourselves by our good intentions and others by the results of their actions;
  2. We tend to assume that we understand others better than they understand us and underestimate the differences;
  3. We tend to be ignorant of our ignorance of others;
  4. Intentions are always directed primarily towards some perceived

We now need to see how these principles play out in group interactions. Because we are essentially social beings, we live in groups, and this means that we have affiliations and allegiances. This implies that we tend to identify with some groups and, in so doing, we don’t identify with some other groups. In other words, identity is necessarily exclusionary. It is a question of ‘us and them’. The ‘them’ gets excluded.

When we combine this point about identity with the four principles outlined above, we obtain a recipe for mutual misunderstanding and ignorance, for non-peaceful conflict.

Concerning the first principle, when we identify with a group, we tend to understand the good that we as a group intend, and ignore the good that the other group intends. We will tend to judge them by the results of their actions. The personal epistemological asymmetry tends to become social- ised between groups, and, as such, tends to become solidified. This is part of what we mean when we say ‘we identify’ with a group, and not with others. We thereby exclude. The declaration ‘this is my identity’ can be akin to an affirmation of allegiance – that is, to perceive relevant situations in a group’s way, which excludes perceiving them in the ways of the opposition groups (or the invisible groups). In short, we tacitly declare: “We intended to do good, but they did something bad.” What starts off as exclusion becomes a tendency to think of some as the good guys and others as the bad guys.

The second principle (i.e., b) magnifies this effect. Extending the asymmetry, we tend to assume that other groups do not understand us (or at least not as well as we understand them). This can become the grounds for attributing bad intentions to the other group: “They don’t understand us because they don’t want to.” This can develop over time into a fully-fledged grievance, which the other group, in turn, perceives as a hostility, and which fuels a vicious cycle of imputing negative intentions between the groups. Alfred Schutz elaborates this point when he claims that the in-group takes its interpretations of the world for granted, as a given, as if it were a part of nature. In contrast, the out-group does not hold these interpretations as self-evident. As a result, the in-group will feel that the out-group’s failure to understand its way of life, “is rooted in hostile prejudice and bad faith” because the in-group assumes that its own interpretations are self-evident. The out-group will sense that the in-group perceives them with hostility, and a cycle of misinterpretation is established.122 This dynamic is also enhanced by the fact that the in-group tends to underestimate the differences between itself and the other groups.

The third principle (i.e., c) shows us that we may be utterly unaware that this is happening and quite ignorant of our own ignorance of the other. Given this second-order ignorance, we tend to portray the situation as a natural condition, rather than as the result of a failed hermeneutic.

In sum, we have characterised some dynamics by which a group that starts off as ‘an other’ becomes, by degrees, transformed into an enemy. Now, juxtapose this with the fourth principle (i.e., d) that all intentions must be for some good. This applies to the intentions of our worst enemy, or the apparently most evil group. There is some description of even those persons’ intentions that makes sense of their actions in terms of some good, and it is possible that we could also recognise it as such. This doesn’t mean that we must agree with the person’s judgments, but it does imply that we should acknowledge that there is some description of the situation that could be seen as good. In short, we should recognise that we could step into the shoes of even our worst enemy. This is implied by the claim that his/her point of view makes sense to him/her in a public language.

Recognition of this point embodies a fundamental ethical principle, which is that other people are equally as real as oneself and that no individual human life is intrinsically more valuable than any other. When we fall prey to epistemological asymmetry, and fail to attempt to see the good in what others will or desire, then we contradict this fundamental ethical principle. In effect, we succumb to the epistemological asymmetry, which is an offshoot of the childish illusion that ‘I am more real and more important than others’. It is a kind of hermeneutical egoism that amounts to an unwillingness or incapacity to try to see the situation from the point of view of the other.

We can conclude that we have ethical obligations regarding how we construct our understanding of other people, especially those with whom we are in conflict. Ethically, we must be guided by the principle that all people are equally real. Epistemologically, we need to be led by the idea that others aim for the good too. Hermeneutically, we ought to be driven by the desire to overcome the afflictions of the asymmetries described earlier.

Usually, the prelude to overt violent conflict is a cultural and psychological violence that portrays the other as an enemy. This psychology is characterised by subjectivities that embody the asymmetries mentioned earlier, and which develops into a political culture of violence characterised as follows. Some groups are implicitly portrayed as less important than others, and the others as better and more important. As these portrayals become increasingly explicit, some groups are painted as lacking good intentions, with the implicit idea that they are evil. This is a prelude to depicting these other groups as less than human or sub-human.123 Such dynamics may be motivated by and intertwined with material interests.

In practice, these dynamics mean that we need to deconstruct our conception of the other as an enemy. The popular portrayals of the other are non-peaceful constructions that can and need to be reversed. They need to be reversed because they contradict the fundamental ethical principle that we are all equals. They can be turned around because they are the cumulative effect of a history based on epistemological asymmetries. This deconstruction can be a long psychological and therapeutic process. However, there are ways or methods to help those who are willing to undertake such a deconstruction.

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