Review Essay: Paul W. Kahn’s Out of Eden, Chapter Five - Political Evil: Killing, Sacrifice, and the Image of God
“Political Evil: Killing, Sacrifice, and the Image of God”
by George A. Dunn
Author: George Dunn
Published: October 27, 2014
James Cameron’s critically acclaimed movie Avatar was nominated for nine Academy Awards and received countless accolades. But beyond its cinematic splendor, can Avatar offer us insights into business ethics, empathy, disability, and the relationship between mind and body? Avatar and Philosophy is a revealing journey through the world of Pandora and the huge range of philosophical themes raised by James Cameron’s groundbreaking film.
About the Reviewer
George A. Dunn lives and works on two continents, teaching in the Philosophy and Religion Department of the University of Indianapolis and as a visiting scholar on loan to the Ningbo Institute of Technology in Zhejiang Province, China, as part of a Sino-US partnership. His interests include moral and political philosophy, Asian philosophy, and the philosophy of religion. A writer on philosophy and popular culture, he has edited five books, including the recent Sons of Anarchy and Philosophy and Avatar and Philosophy.
“A politics of sacrifice is also one of murder.”
~ Paul W. Kahn
In Out of Eden: Adam and Eve and the Problem of Evil, Paul W. Kahn argues that the modern world has lost the ability to make sense of the phenomenon of evil. Focusing especially on those forms of political evil that have blighted the modern political landscape—torture, the production of weapons of mass destruction, unjust wars, slavery, and genocide—he argues that they elude the categories of liberal, rationalist political thought.
Modern liberalism can understand evil only as a failure of reason—a product of ignorance to be remedied through advances in knowledge or a symptom of psychological and social pathologies that might be amenable to the right kind of therapeutic intervention. But, for Kahn, the proper framework for understanding political evil is a “political theology” that reveals the roots of evil to lie not simply in ignorance or in the vices of particular political actors, but in the very nature of political associations themselves.
This invocation of “political theology” is bound to court misunderstanding among some readers, however, suggesting perhaps that Kahn is drawing on some sectarian religious faith to develop a critique of the secular realm of politics, thus violating one of the cardinal strictures of liberal political theory and etiquette. But Kahn’s point is that politics is always already animated by a religious or quasi-religious faith that underwrites our loyalty to the state, investing it with a kind of transcendent authority. Understanding the nature and workings of this faith is the key to grasping the modern forms of political evil.
The potential for evil, far from being something that latches itself adventitiously onto modern nation-states that are otherwise benign in nature, is bound up with the very constitution of popular sovereignty. If modern political theory is unable to fathom the modern phenomenon of political evil, then Kahn believes that the reason lies in its inadequate conception of the nature of political phenomena itself.
For Kahn, the inadequacy of the liberal theory of the state is epitomized in a conundrum, basic to modern politics, on which he believes the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) founders. Hobbes was one of the earliest architects of the modern social contract tradition, which, as refined and elaborated by such subsequent philosophical luminaries as John Locke (1634-1704), Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), and John Rawls (1921-2002), has become a cornerstone of political liberalism.
Though Hobbes might not be considered very liberal by today’s standards—after all, he expressed a definite preference for monarchy as the most stable and reliable form of government—his emphasis on reason and utility as the grounds of our loyalty to the state puts him squarely in the same camp as his liberal successors. But Kahn believes that Hobbes stumbles in a way that is emblematic of a huge blind spot in liberal political theory, namely, its failure to account for the right that all states claim to order the death of their own citizens.
For Hobbes, the authority of the state derives entirely from the authority of reason. To understand why we owe strict obedience to the laws of our nation, there is no need to posit some “sacred” source of authority or divine right of kings to underwrite the temporal authority of the magistrate. Hobbes’s argument appeals solely to the reasonableness of entering into a contract with others to secure our mutual safety.
We secure ourselves by collectively surrendering the boundless liberty we enjoy as our birthright in the state of nature and agreeing to submit to a powerful governing authority with a monopoly on the legitimate means of violence—a sovereign. Our contract is what invests the state with sovereignty, its right to demand our obedience. But the ultimate ground of our obedience is reason, since the alternative is a return to the state of nature, where having a license to do as you please offers us no protection against those who would be pleased to kill us for the sake of gain or glory.
On this account, then, the sole source of political authority is the good sense of rational agents who, fearing a violent death, are willing to exchange liberty for protection. Hobbes also highlights an additional benefit of this social contract: under the protection of the sovereign, we are able to enjoy the increased prosperity and creaturely comforts that living under the rule of law makes possible. In sum, the state exists for the sake of its citizens.
More precisely, it exists in order to protect our lives and to enhance our physical and material wellbeing. To the extent it succeeds at realizing these ends, we owe it our allegiance. At the heart of the modern narrative of progress, Kahn argues, is just this vision of the steady advance of a political order based on reason and law, in which the resources of the state are pressed into the service of preserving our bodies, reducing our suffering, and fostering our health and wellbeing.
And yet, though Kahn concedes that “Hobbes got the name right” when he designated as “sovereign” the supreme political authority at the center of this vision, “he never offered an adequate explanation of that one power that characterizes the sovereign: the power to claim the life of the citizen” (249).
Indeed, consistent with his belief that submitting to the authority of the state is reasonable only so long as it can protect our lives, Hobbes explicitly states that we have no obligation to sacrifice ourselves, to allow ourselves to be killed, or even to kill the enemies of the state unless doing so is necessary to achieve the end—self-preservation—for which the state was established in the first place.
But, Kahn insists, if citizens are unwilling to put the cause of their nation ahead of their own personal survival, refusing to recognize the right of the sovereign to demand the sacrifice of their flesh and coming instead to view the state as simply an instrument to serve the needs of their bodies, then there is no real “sovereign” worthy of the name.
Kahn’s point is a simple one: Much more than reason and utility are required to secure our allegiance to a state that can demand the sacrifice of its citizens. Reason is universal—which is why the ultimate terminus of the march of reason through history can only be a community of nations united under a single system of international law—but political loyalties are always particular, structured around the distinction of friend and enemy.
Even more to the point, whereas physical wellbeing is the measure of utility in the narrative of progress, actual nation-states invariable rally their citizens around a very different kind of narrative, one of pain and sacrifice. Our national narratives celebrates as martyrs those who have died on the battlefield, erecting shrines in their honor and setting aside days for their remembrance.
A friend of mine recalls her student days in China, when as part of her school uniform she wore a red scarf, dyed—she was told—in the blood of Chinese soldiers. Our national identity is forged, according to Kahn, through memorializing the sacrifices of these victims and embracing their pain as our own.
In short, then, the sovereign is born of sacrifice, not contract or rational calculation, and it exists for only so long as the populace continues to identify with the pain of its nation’s history. The democratic state, in particular, is sustained by a symbolic imagination that depicts us all as equal participants in the formation of a single transcendent entity—“we the People,” conceived not simply as a contingent confluence of interests, but as the transtemporal body of the sovereign, spanning both history and space.
We participate equally in the sovereign because we all identify ourselves equally with the suffering of our nation’s past, but as equal participants in the sovereign we also incur an obligation to offer up our own bodies as sacrifices on the national altar, should the sovereign ever see fit to make that demand.
Crucial to Kahn’s analysis is the recognition that this history of sacrifice is a sacred history, one that supplies our lives with a meaning otherwise absent from our quotidian pursuit of material wellbeing. Transcending our mundane concerns, the demands of the sovereign can also decisively trump them. Consequently, when we sacrifice ourselves on behalf of the nation, declaring our willingness to kill or be killed for the popular sovereign, we participate in an act of “transubstantiation,” investing our lives with transcendent meaning and transfiguring them into sites for a manifestation of the sacred.
Stated so bluntly, the claims of the sovereign smack of idolatry. Yet Kahn only makes explicit what is already very near the surface of the militant rhetoric of contemporary nation-states, as has been highlighted by such theorists as Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle in Blood Sacrifice and the Nation (1999), Richard Koenigsberg in Nations Have the Right to Kill (2009), and Stanley Hauerwas in War and the American Difference (2011). As former war correspondent Christopher Hedges states in the title of his recent book, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2014).
This perspective shows violence in a very different light than how it appears within the modern narrative of progress. For the latter, progress is measured in part by our success in reducing the amount of violence to which the state must resort in order to achieve its legitimate ends—namely, the reduction of suffering and the promotion of well-being.
On the domestic front, coercion is steadily replaced by the rule of law, while international courts and arbitration gradually make war between nations obsolete. As a deeply regrettable means to an end, war loses its entire raison d’être as nations work out less costly ways to achieve their goals.
That, at least, is the liberal pipe dream. Yet, despite the indubitable sanity of this aspiration, wars continue to be fought for reasons that make little sense on such terms. Armies clash over worthless territory, over religious and ideological differences, over slights to national honor and ancient grudges, and over a host of other issues that Thomas Hobbes would undoubtedly label as species of vainglory, the most irrational and inexcusable of the causes of quarrel.
Kahn argues that it is impossible to grasp the meaning of these conflicts from within the perspective of the modern narrative of progress, which can only see the celebration of such senseless slaughter as “the face of evil in the modern politics” (240). However, it all makes sense when we see the nation-state as a manifestation of the sacred, for which pain and suffering are not scourges to eliminate but forms of testimony.
The seemingly inconsequential matters over which nations fight come to be invested with ultimate meaning precisely by the willingness of armies to kill and die over them. Sacrifice imbues them with sacredness. Of course, to someone outside the particular symbolic order inhabited by the combatants, their sacrifice may appear as gratuitous torment and their allegiance to the sovereign as a kind of idolatry. Indeed, they can appear that way even to an insider when his or her faith in the sovereign fails.
Bob Dylan’s song “John Brown” describes just such a loss of faith. In the song, John Brown’s mother proudly accompanies him to the railway station to see him “off to war to fight on a foreign shore,” grinning in anticipation of the medals he will bring home for her to display on the wall when he returns. When he finally does make it home from the war, however, he has been transformed into something nearly unrecognizable, his body maimed and mangled, disfigured about his face, barely able to speak.
But speak he does and, as he recounts his nightmarish experience, the sacred veneer of sacrifice melts away before our eyes, until there is nothing left to behold but the useless suffering of a broken body. He recalls the collapse of his faith in the symbolic order that gave meaning to his suffering, as the sacred narrative of sacrifice collided with the profane reality of young bodies reduced to cannon fodder.
Oh, and I thought when I was there, God, what am I doing here?
I’m a-tryin’ to kill somebody or die tryin’.
But the thing that scared me most was when my enemy came close
And I saw that his face looked just like mine.
The substance of John Brown’s deconversion from the political faith of his nation is cogently summarized by Kahn. “No longer understanding the sacred character of the political, we see only the tortured bodies of the victims,” he writes, describing the shift in perspective that turns sacrifice into slaughter. “We can no longer distinguish clearly between friends and enemies among those broken bodies. Do we not all die the same death?” (274)
In the manufacture of those tragically meaningless deaths, we encounter the distinctively political form of evil in the modern world, the senseless excess of pain and suffering that attests to something having gone deeply wrong with the sacrificial production of meaning.
To Kahn, the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes exemplifies the failure of liberal political theory to grasp the true nature and source of political sovereignty in the sacrifice of its citizens. But perhaps we should see it instead as a response to having lost faith in the sort of mortal god that would demand such sacrifices. Hobbes wrote in the 17th century, the century of religious wars, and his emphasis on reason and utility could well be thought to signify his recoil from the evils generated by the theologically-motivated politics of his day.
It is unlikely that Hobbes was as innocent of the connection between politics and the sacred as Kahn makes him out to be. Acutely aware of the dangers of that coupling, he made it the aim of his political philosophy to detach them. The widespread acceptance in the modern world of the liberal narrative of progress is one measure of his success. The continuing capacity of the rhetoric of sacrifice and the politics of fervently embraced national identity to rally populations to wars of ever-increasing ferocity is, on the other hand, a measure of the recalcitrance of reality to that lofty liberal vision.