This audio and transcript is posted with the kind permission of The Brian Lehrer Show, WNYC.
Brian Lehrer: A little over 100 years ago, in February of 1914, the industrialist Andrew Carnegie started an organization whose goal is was to put an end to war forever through rational principles of international law. Reality check: World War I began just six months later.
Tomorrow is that 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. The painful lesson caused Carnegie’s organization to adjust its focus ever since, to the human dimensions of conflict, including less rational ones like honor, self-interest, and fear. One the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, let's talk to the current president of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, Joel Rosenthal. Welcome to WNYC.
Joel Rosenthal: Thank you, delighted to be here.
Brian Lehrer: By way of biographical background, the industrialist Andrew Carnegie, mostly a steel magnate I guess, had two main philanthropic goals in his life: the proliferation of libraries, and to achieve world peace through international law. What was his thinking about world peace before World War I?
Joel Rosenthal: Very interesting question. His idea of peace really grew out of his experience with the Civil War. He had not been in the Civil War as a participant, but he had observed it up close.
Brian Lehrer: Because he was already 80 when World War I started, 79 or 80.
Joel Rosenthal: That’s correct. He died in 1919, so he was well advanced in age by the time the war started, but he had seen the Civil War, and he had seen industrial war, and he had seen the combination of industry, machines, the massing of troops, the effect on civilians—the idea of total war.
As a rationalist, he thought that this is something that the world would evolve away from, just as we’ve evolved away from slavery, just as we’ve evolved away from—and this was one of his favorite examples—dueling, which he called private war. He thought that these were crazy ideas. These were ideas of a barbaric civilization. His view was that civilization was progressing in some way.
Brian Lehrer: Given the fact that World War I broke out just months after he started the Carnegie Council, did he feel like a failure personally when the war began?
Joel Rosenthal: He did. It broke his heart. In fact, the beginning of World War I is really his exit from the world stage. Carnegie had a very interesting persona. He was the Bill Gates of the early 20th century. Everybody knew who he was. Everybody thought of him as the richest man in the world.
Brian Lehrer: Bill Gates in terms of leading a movement to give away a lot of your fortune.
Joel Rosenthal: Right, and that's the next thing, which is philanthropy. He had devoted the last third of his life to giving away his fortune. He was one of the pioneers of the idea of philanthropy as we understand it today. He made a very important distinction between charity and philanthropy.
Brian Lehrer: What’s the distinction?
Joel Rosenthal: The distinction is that charity is the relief of immediate human suffering. People need to eat, they need to be clothed, they need housing, et cetera, help after natural disasters, and so on. Philanthropy was something beyond that, and it was to think in bold and creative ways about how we live our lives, what kind of institutions are available to us. A philanthropist will invest in actually changing patterns of life.
You mentioned public libraries as a good example. This was a profound idea, to give access to books and information to every person, everywhere, free. This was what he meant by philanthropy, and peace followed. Given his progressive views, he thought that the world was evolving in a certain way, and it was up to him to invest in it.
We take for granted now many of the things that Carnegie was investing in, which is international law and organization, that there can be some set of rules, some set of principles, and some institutions that can help to a more peaceful world.
Brian Lehrer: My guest is Joel Rosenthal, president of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, with whom we are marking the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. That 100th anniversary is generally seen to be August 1st, right?
Joel Rosenthal: That’s correct. We actually had a public symposium in Sarajevo at the end of June, June 27-28, which marked the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. That is generally thought of as the beginning event, which set into motion a slow-motion crisis, the crisis of 1914 which really went through July. Some of you will remember from your high school history lessons, the famous blank check and ultimatum, and so on. Hostilities began virtually this week, 100 years ago, in Europe.
Brian Lehrer: So listeners, can rationalism ever top nationalism? 212-433-WNYC, or anything else around this that you want to discuss with Joel Rosenthal. 212-433-9692.
You’ve spoken about some ethical principles worth revisiting as we think about the 100th anniversary: tolerance for difference, self-determination. Is the third one the ability to learn from history?
Joel Rosenthal: That’s correct, right. In Sarajevo, it gave us a moment to think hard about what principles were set into motion at that time, and how we’re doing now, and they relate to current events. The three that you mentioned presented themselves.
The first is pluralism, and if you look at conflict in the world today what you see is the failure of pluralism. It's a hostility to difference, and an inability to live with differences. From my perspective, the word ethics, as much as it is about consensus and trying to figure out how to live together in a positive way, it's also how to live with differences. I have sometimes a minimalist view of ethics. So tolerance is perhaps a good way to think about that.
Brian Lehrer: A minimalist view of ethics, meaning we can only aspire to tolerate, not to love?
Joel Rosenthal: Well, sometimes yes. I mean, I think if you’re talking about this in a global context. I think that Carnegie himself had a little bit of overreach, so sometimes it's very difficult to determine together what the good is, or what the good life is, because there may be irreconcilable differences. However, I do think that we can agree on what's wrong, and that's what I mean by minimalist. My view of ethics is perhaps a little bit less ambitious than Carnegie's.
Brian Lehrer: Even at that, it's much easier said than done.
Joel Rosenthal: Exactly.
Brian Lehrer: We can say tolerance and self-determination until we're blue in the face, but I think no one is more surprised than secular Westerners when they see the persistence of hyper-nationalism, or group religious fervor, at the level that can lead to war.
Joel Rosenthal: Right.
Brian Lehrer: So can you measure that it's at least less? I mean, do we have less of it than we did a hundred years ago?
Joel Rosenthal: Good question. I'm not sure I can measure it. I can refer you to a book by Steven Pinker called The Better Angels of our Nature. The subtitle is interesting, it's called, Why Violence has Declined. Pinker makes an empirical argument, an evidence-based argument, that we are doing a little bit better. [Editor's note: See Pinker's conversation with Robert Kaplan on this topic: Is the World Becoming More Peaceful?]
The reason that we're doing better is that norms, or principles, have evolved in a progressive way. Now this is contested, but I think it's an important contribution to our thinking, and certainly worth revisiting. From our perspective at the Carnegie Council, we want keep that kind of issue front and center. Our tagline is Ethics Matter.
Brian Lehrer: We have a full board of calls. Let’s see what people have to say, or to ask. Bob in Brooklyn, you're on WNYC. Hi, Bob.
Bob: Hi there. This is a very interesting topic, and what I wanted to say is that, of course it's very difficult to control religion and religious fanaticism because, of course, if you feel you have God on your side then you can do anything you want. There are inherent flaws in the human race. Why would a million people be hacked by their neighbors in—
Brian Lehrer: Rwanda.
Bob: Rwanda, with machetes, hacked to death. There's something inherently wrong with human beings, and we're trying to work at changing it. Religion was supposed to change it, but religion's been the cause of more war than probably anything else. One thing that wasn't mentioned, that I'd like to mention, is that especially in a world where half of the people are suffering with poverty, disease, hunger, one of the things that wasn't mentioned was really the inequality of income.
People, when they're satisfied with their life, tend not to want to go to war, I would think. But even Carnegie himself, we have the oligarchs in America giving us foundations, and libraries, and building museums, and at the same time labor unions and their workers are on strike. An example would be the burning to death of strikers in the Southwest against the mining interests, at the same time we're getting lovely museums.
Brian Lehrer: Bob, I’m going to leave it there to get some other people on, but we need to deal with the poverty issue.
Joel Rosenthal: Right. I think that's a very, very important issue, and it's part of the work of the Carnegie Council. I think we do need to think systemically about the institutions in which we live. The Carnegie question would be; Can we do better? Ethics is conventionally thought of as about how we make choices on the individual level, but we also need to take a step back and think about the rules, the norms, and so on, of the institutions in which we live, and this goes to inequality.
Brian Lehrer: And of human behavior, which the caller was very pessimistic about, kind of human nature.
Joel Rosenthal: Right.
Brian Lehrer: I noticed that in the speech you gave recently, that next to your three ethical principles, which we talked about—self-determination, tolerance, learning from history—which might sound idealistic, you cite Thucydides' classic framing of things that motivate human beings more automatically; honor, self-interest, and fear. You can plug that right into practically any war in the world. Ukraine, Russia, Israel, Gaza, pick your one and fill in the specifics for those folks: honor, self-interest, and fear. Pre-rational.
Joel Rosenthal: Right. Again, they may be pre-rational but I still think we can reflect on them in a rational way. Let me just give you one way to do that. Perhaps very simple, but something often overlooked, and I think encapsulated in those three ideas, is the idea that we all act on our self-interests as individuals and as a country, national interests. We see that as proper, appropriate, and correct. We should act in our own interests.
However, to understand our self-interests, we have to understand the interests of other people. Again, a simple point often overlooked, and it gets to the idea of honor. It gets to the idea of fear. So in order to understand our own interests correctly, and to act in an ethical way, one simple idea is to make the effort to fully understand the interests of other people.
Brian Lehrer: So maybe history is a race between honor, self-interest, and fear on side; and tolerance, self-determination, and the ability to learn from history on the other.
Joel Rosenthal: Correct. I actually think one of the best modern speeches on this problem was given by President Obama in 2009 when he received the Nobel Prize. I don’t want to conflate this with the Obama foreign policy, I’m just looking at the text of the lecture itself where he talks about—
Brian Lehrer: He won the Nobel Peace Prize before he ever had a foreign policy, but that’s another story.
Joel Rosenthal: Right. I guess I would submit that, again, without making a political point or talking about the policy, just from an academic perspective, from an ideas perspective, that he cites this problem, that peace is a moral imperative. However, it gets challenged in the ways that you're describing.
Brian Lehrer: Bob, are you in Dover? Is that where you are?
Bob: Yes, indeed. Dover, New Jersey.
Brian Lehrer: Hi Bob.
Bob: Hi. Of the three initial principles, tolerance and self-determination strike me as being mutually exclusive in large parts of the world. Self-determination in certain Middle-Eastern countries is going to result in virtual slavery for half of the population: women. How does that compute with your thesis that these three ethical principles are universal?
Joel Rosenthal: Well I think they are in competition, and this is a problem. What I would say is that I think we could make the assessment that self-determination works in some places as a modus vivendi, as a way of different people living together with differences, but I would agree with you that there's no formula to work this out.
One of the legacies of World War I was the full-throated launching of the principle of self-determination by Woodrow Wilson and by the United States, without thinking through how this would be implemented in places where ethnic groups are mixed, in places where it would be very difficult to implement, in addition to the point that the caller is making, which is that there may be some communities that will self-determine in a way that we find difficult to accept.
Brian Lehrer: There's always going to be this tension between universal ideas of human rights and ideas of tolerance of pluralism.
Joel Rosenthal: What we're trying to do is to generate a rational, reasonable, open conversation around those principles that we believe are common in the human experience. That's not to say that we'’re going to agree with what they are, but that when you say ethics, it's very interesting, even the concept of ethics is universal, and it invites a global conversation.
Brian Lehrer: You mentioned Woodrow Wilson. I read a take from the Cato Institute, a very non-interventionist group, that President Woodrow Wilson made the 20th century worse by getting the United States involved in World War I. That without us, the European sides would have fought to roughly a draw, and would have had to end it with a muddling through kind of compromise. With the U.S. involvement, we destroyed and humiliated Germany, setting the stage for the rise of Hitler, thus World War II and the Holocaust. Are you familiar with that theory?
Joel Rosenthal: I am. I mean, that's sort of almost a conventional, at this point, understanding of the conclusion of World War I, that it was a victor's peace which sowed the seeds for what followed. Getting to your theme about learning from history, I think this is very important. One of the things that I think we can derive as a general principle, making the point of understanding the interests of others, is the poisonous quality of victor's peace.
Brian Lehrer: Did Andrew Carnegie, with his goal of ending war, support U.S. entry into World War I?
Joel Rosenthal: In my recollection, he was not public about that. It was right at the end of his life. He had great hopes for Wilson, and he made a point how Wilson had Scotch blood in him, he was a Scotsman from his ancestry, and that Carnegie, having been born in Scotland, felt some kinship.
Brian Lehrer: A little nationalism creeping in.
Joel Rosenthal: A little nationalism was there. There were a lot of paradoxes with Mr. Carnegie. He had funded the building of the Peace Palace at The Hague. He believed that great powers, over time, would act like litigants in lawsuits. When there was a dispute between great powers, they would bring it to the court for mediation and arbitration.
He was also a believer in the League of Nations. He placed great hope in Wilson to help to get the United States to that point. My sense is that, if he felt the war could end with that as the result, which is an enhanced League of Nations and World Court, that Carnegie may have supported it.
Brian Lehrer: Carol on the Lower East Side, you're on WNYC. Hello. Carol, are you there?
Carol: Hello, this is Carol.
Brian Lehrer: Go ahead.
Carol: I'm looking at the op-ed on Saturday, July 19th, in the New York Times, Timothy Egan writes an article called “Faith-based Fanatics.” In it he writes, "It's not true that all wars are fought in the name of religion. Of the 1,723 armed conflicts documented in the three-volume Encyclopedia of Wars, only 123, or less than 7 percent, involve a religious cause."
Brian Lehrer: So we over-emphasize the role of religion in war, you're saying.
Carol: We often do, yes.
Joel Rosenthal: I think there's something to that. I think that my preferred way of analyzing these conflicts are competitions about power, competitions about interests. I think that religion is frequently used, cynically, in a manipulative fashion, by leaders to pursue power and interests.
Brian Lehrer: Also, sometimes I think conflicts get misunderstood as religious conflicts, when they're really conflicts over resources and depression. Sunnis versus Shiites in Iraq, not to talk so much about today, but when Saddam Hussein was in power his Sunni group, which was a minority in Iraq, had all the power over the Shiite majority.
Joel Rosenthal: Right.
Brian Lehrer: That had consequences for people's economic lives, and everything else, and led to resentment, but then we call it Shiite versus Sunni.
Joel Rosenthal: Right. To get back to what you were saying earlier,I like your phrase, "pre-rational thinking." Religion uses that to instill fear, to instill questions about honor, and to get to people's basic identity of who they think they are and what they stand for. So again, it's a mixed picture, but I think it's sometimes helpful to think about religion from a realpolitik perspective, rather than one that accepts the idea that religion is the motivating force.
Brian Lehrer: One more call. Tedla in Flushing, you're on WNYC. Hey Tedla.
Tedla: Yes, good morning, Brian. For me, I see all wars, it is either somebody's war, or someone doesn't care. Now, in our time, we see conflicts all over the world. If 9/11 hadn't happened here in the United States we would never have got involved, and gone to Iraq big time and done a lot of crazy things.
And now when there is a conflict in the Middle East, as long as we are not there, we are not touched by this, we don't care. So that means we human beings, we don't have this rationale to live in peace, harmony. We don't have it. We fight in our local community. We fight in every minor thing. So for me, where is peace? I don't understand. I mean, we are living in this world, and I think humanity will go on forever fighting. Maybe on a smaller scale, larger scale, I don't know, but I'm afraid that war is part of us.
Joel Rosenthal: Well I think that you raise a profound point. One thing I would say, is an open question: Is there an expanding circle, to use a phrase from the philosopher Peter Singer at Princeton? What he's referring to is the expanding circle of empathy. This is a question about globalization, and I phrase it as a question, not as an answer. Are we more attuned as a process of globalization, to the pain and suffering of others? If so, does it mean anything? These are all questions our Council raises.
Brian Lehrer: We did a series a few years ago, with the author of a book called The End of War. He actually convinced me that the good guys are winning if you look at the really big time frame of history, that people waged war more easily just to get more stuff for themselves in the deep past.
The brakes on that of democracy, and non-aggression, are learned ethics that are much more prevalent than say, 1,000 years ago. Now governments at least have to have a pretext; like the caller was saying and you were saying, religion is a pretext. The caller said that governments have to at least have a pretext of self-defense before going to war most of the time.
Joel Rosenthal: Right. I couldn't agree with that more. The idea that these ethical principles actually matter, as you say, that they have to be addressed. Again, maybe that's just a small beginning, but it's something. I think that it's better than the alternative, which is to really be nihilistic about it and say that principles don’t matter at all.
Brian Lehrer: On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, we thank Joel Rosenthal, president of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. Thank you so much.
Joel Rosenthal: Thank you, Brian.