November 9, 2007

Road to hell paved with Nobels

It is revealing that in 1938, Adolf Hitler was on the shortlist of the Nobel Peace Prize committee. Before faulting the committee for its lunacy, however, it’s worth keeping in mind that a dangerous shortsightedness is built into the very institution of the Prize. It is thus profoundly troubling that so many commentators in the West have depicted the awarding of this year’s Prize to Al Gore as a forceful vindication of his efforts to combat global warming. A healthier reaction would be to welcome the Peace Prize as a minor celebration of benevolence and nothing more.

According to Alfred Nobel’s will, all of the Nobel Prizes should be given to “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” Concerning the Peace Prize specifically, he wrote that it should be awarded to “the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between the nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and for the holding or promotion of peace congresses.”

The most egregious assumption that Nobel made was that the goodness of an action can be judged immediately—that what appears good in the short term is inevitably so in the long term. There is no recognition of the value of hindsight, no acknowledgment that every peace is fragile, none of Solon’s insight that no man can be counted happy until he is dead. Peace congresses do not lead automatically to peace, as Neville Chamberlain could have attested. And in retrospect, the aim of abolishing standing armies seems pitifully modest. The Kellogg-Briand Pact, signed by Germany and 61 other nations, abolished war itself in 1928.

Outrageously, Nobel equates those who have done the most work for peace with those who have done the best work. In the real world, there is little correlation between noble intentions and positive results. Misguided idealists who work for peace often prolong the agony of war. As Edward Luttwak explains in “Give War a Chance,” published in Foreign Affairs in 1999, it is because of these idealists that many modern conflicts “...are interrupted by a steady stream of cease-fires and armistices that only postpone war-induced exhaustion and let belligerents rearm and regroup.” Although war is on the whole a great evil, he notes, a little more of it can be a good thing if it leads to lasting peace. By promoting the fallacious notion that righteous ideals and efforts to create peace are valuable regardless of their long-term consequences, the Prize may actually be undermining its own goal of creating a more peaceful world.

It also strengthens one of the most disturbing and perilous principles of classical Western thought: namely that the root of moral character is not in the effects of one’s actions but in the purity of one’s intentions. As Kant put it, the “usefulness or fruitlessness” of an action is irrelevant; in other words, it’s the thought that counts. It is this principle that Chamberlain must have had in mind when, after announcing to his people in September of 1939 that Britain was about to enter war with Germany, he told his listeners: “We have a clear conscience…. We have done all that any country could do to establish peace.”

Tens of millions of deaths later, was Chamberlain still entitled to his “clear conscience”? By continuing to idolize an award that implicitly frees well-wishers from the responsibility to consider the consequences of their actions, the West has answered with a resounding “yes.”

Nathan Bloom is a third-year in the College majoring in NELC.