Publication Title

Journal of Human Rights


peace, philosophical tradition, subjectivity, universal human right

Document Type



So long as there is law there can be no universal human right to peace. This is because legalized violence, whether in threat or in deed, constitutes the very antithesis of peaceful relations from the point of view of those whom law represses. Law cannot define peace as the absence of all violence—and still less as the absence of all legalized suffering—without gainsaying justice, for as Pascal says, “Justice without might is helpless; might without justice is tyrannical.” Although legal outcomes, like falling boulders and pouncing lions, can always be imputed to historical causes, experience teaches that legal actors generally seek to legitimate their deeds by grounding the law in some non-causal narrative of the right or the good. According to a tenet of political liberalism that can be traced to Descartes’ discovery (or invention) of the irreducible “I” that thinks, the legitimacy of law’s narrative is both given and taken by free and rational politico-legal subjects.

In truth, however, the Western philosophical tradition gives us two separate grammars for discussing what it takes to be two different kinds of rational subjects: the causal subject and the grounding subject. The causal subject stands in a relation to the world. Acting strategically as the cause of effects, it uses the object world and other human beings as means to its ends. But the causal subject is also itself caused: its desires and actions are effects of history in the largest sense of the word. Such a one is fated by grammar and custom to become an object and a means in its own right: an object for scientific inquiry and knowledge, for example, and, more generally, a means to the ends of other causal subjects. From the standpoint of the causal subject, there can be no human right not to use or be used as a means.

Unlike the causal subject, the grounding subject is supposed to be a genuine origin rather than a mere link in an infinite chain of causes and effects. In Greek terms, this subject is an archē as opposed to an aitia. It also corresponds to the original Latin meaning of the word “sub-ject”: it is thrown (jacere) under (sub) its world as (not in) an unmediated relation to its projects. This second kind of subject has gone by many different names, including “soul” (Plato), “freedom” (Kant) and “Spirit” (Hegel). In one way or another, the idea of the grounding subject performs its primary task within the moral sphere: it is supposed to provide a secure foundation which explains how it is possible for its doppelganger, the causal subject, at once to accomplish something in the world and to refute Plautus’s notorious argument that man is wolf to man. If the causal subject reacts in the manner of an animal, then the grounding subject allegedly responds in the manner of an animal rationale. If the causal subject produces effects, then the grounding subject is supposed to create and bear responsibility for those effects.

Given the foregoing distinctions, the most pressing juridical and moral question facing twenty-first century humanity seems to be: How can law and politics become at once effective and just, coercive and compassionate, responsive and responsible? How, in short, is it possible (to borrow Kant’s somewhat quaint terminology) to use oneself and other human beings simultaneously as ends and as means? But here, as elsewhere in philosophy, appearances can be deceiving, for this question presupposes far too much.

This paper investigates the strong connection between the foregoing concepts of subjectivity and the notion of a just peace. The question is not, “Are there rational subjects and can they found something new, such as a just peace?” Instead, the question at the heart of the matter is how something as flimsy and ephemeral as an “idea” could ever found anything at all. I will attempt to unmask the terrible tensions or contradictions between justice and ethics, freedom and responsibility, and reason and compassion, and trace them to their origin: the will (or desire) to deny tragedy. I claim that the concept of the grounding subject represents a desperate and ultimately futile attempt to repress awareness of (and) evade personal responsibility for the essential sadness and tragedy of the world. Reason and faith provide the human body with a thin tissue of grounding statements comprised of symbols and images. At best these symbols and images are mere stimuli: action-triggers that will never adequately span the vast existential distance separating the grounding subject from the causal subject, our ends from our means, our words from our deeds, and, more generally, human suffering from the endless secular and religious casuistries we offer to justify it.



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