The Nobel speech as moral argument
Obama and global justice
President Obama’s Nobel acceptance speech was filled with normative claims and arguments. I’ll outline the main ones here.
(1) Non-violence is moral.
I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there’s nothing weak — nothing passive — nothing naïve — in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.
(2) But sometimes violence (i.e. killing other people) is neccesary and just. Moral suasion alone is not powerful enough; morality must take people as they are.
But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason
(3) Any nation, regardless of the justness of its domestic institutions, has a right of self-defense.
I — like any head of state — reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation
(4) Humanitarian reasons can justify war.
(5) Rules and laws of war are necessary or, at least, important.
Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct.
And even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is a source of our strength
(6) The goal is “just peace based on the inherent rights and dignity of every individual.” Obama argues that any other sort of peace will be short-lived. Related, he argues that the debate between “realists” and “idealists” is a false one, insofar as the idealists’ liberal principles further the national interests and power the realists prioritize. A world where all governments respect their citizens’ dignity is peaceful and prosperous. He argues that this just, long-lasting peace requires economic security and opportunity, not just civil and political rights.
(7) Obama appeals to a religious, especially Christian conception of human dignity as the source of an international morality.
[The violent extremist] view of religion is not just incompatible with the concept of peace, but I believe it’s incompatible with the very purpose of faith — for the one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.
Adhering to this law of love has always been the core struggle of human nature. For we are fallible. We make mistakes, and fall victim to the temptations of pride, and power, and sometimes evil. Even those of us with the best of intentions will at times fail to right the wrongs before us.
But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place. The non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached — their fundamental faith in human progress — that must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey.
For if we lose that faith — if we dismiss it as silly or naïve; if we divorce it from the decisions that we make on issues of war and peace — then we lose what’s best about humanity. We lose our sense of possibility. We lose our moral compass.
Let us reach for the world that ought to be — that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls.