Kant at Le Bourget
It is natural to adopt a cynical view of the global climate change conference now taking place outside Paris. Behind the noble public declarations self-interest is ruthlessly asserted in the private negotiating rooms. Rules are bent, scrutiny is resisted and numbers are manipulated to hide emissions.
Yet from another standpoint, there is something magnificent taking place at Le Bourget. For here we have, under the auspices of the United Nations, the leaders of all of the countries of the world coming together to attempt to agree on a collective solution to a common threat.
Throughout most of human history such a venture would have been regarded as fanciful, even if the idea has been around for a long time. At the end of the 18th century, at the dawn of the modern era, Immanuel Kant, the “all-crushing” philosopher of reason, published an essay on the question of how to ensure perpetual peace in a world plagued by war.
He imagined the states of the world coming to agreement on an international constitution, and the formation of a “league of nations” that would protect all, especially the weak and vulnerable, with “a united power acting according to decisions reached under the laws of their united will”. Kant foresaw a historical process of growing cosmopolitanism among free and rational peoples.
Isn’t this just what is taking place at Le Bourget, a league of nations coming together to act collectively under their united will to protect the weak and vulnerable, not from war but from warming? And they are attempting the seemingly impossible task of negotiating a settlement allocating the fair and just contribution of each state to the common task.
A few years after Kant another German philosopher, Friedrich Schelling, would explore the master’s idea further. If a state is created when it is agreed to impose order on the savage proclivities of its own members, it still remains that states act as if they were savages in their dealings with other states. And so he imagined a “state of states”, a world in which states freely submit “to a single communal law” under a universal constitution.
The philosophers were not unaware of the practical obstacles to states submitting themselves to a universal constitution. And it required a resolution of perhaps the knottiest metaphysical problem of modernity, how to reconcile freedom with necessity. How can freedom submit itself to moral law?
At Le Bourget this is precisely the conundrum that the nations of the world are wrestling with. Some nations are less willing to sacrifice their freedom while others accept they must submit themselves to law. And so one of the most contentious questions is whether a Paris agreement should be “legally binding”, and what it means for states to yield to such an international law. Can it be legally binding if there are no penalties? How would states collectively police adherence to any agreement they may come to?
The metaphysical problem of how to reconcile freedom and necessity caused the philosophers to think deeply about the idea of history, and whether it is true that one can make sense of the concept of history only if strands of necessity run through it. If that is not the case then history is merely a collection of random events reflecting free choices, and there can be no order or meaning to it.
GWF Hegel thought he had solved the problem by conceiving of history as the progressive realization of the consciousness of freedom so that all individual free choices take place within the grand unfolding of history understood this way.
Whatever the resolution, I think everyone who considers it would agree that the Paris conference is “historic”, not in the journalistic sense of “very important” but in the sense that it is a decisive event that takes its place in a world history that has some direction, order and meaning to its evolution.
One way of understanding this evolution is to see the conference as the culmination of the growing human impact on the natural world and the breaching of its limits. In this sense it can be seen as the continued playing out of Kant’s problem of the untenability of giving free rein to our autonomy in a finite world.
This situation makes the task of the negotiators at Le Bourget doubly difficult, for they are attempting to find a way to reconcile the exercise of free choice by some parties when those choices conflict with the interests of others, but with the added complication that the Earth itself is an actor in the negotiations, repeatedly intervening (via scientific spokespersons) to remind the negotiators that what they have just agreed will not work because it is inconsistent with the continued safe operation of natural systems.
So here at Le Bourget a great historical event is taking place; nowhere in the history of diplomacy have all 195 nations come together in this way, each having first presented to the rest of world their national plans for the next 10, 20 and 30 years.
The unwelcome truth is that, taken together, their visions of how they will pursue their sovereignty are incompatible with the common goal. So the magnificence of the event takes on a different hue when, as Bruno Latour commented, the nations of the world are saying: “This is impossible; we cannot live together on this Earth.”
First published in The Conversation 8 December 2015