What does ‘peace’ really mean?

What does ‘peace’ really mean?
Everyday philosophy

There’s a chant that people seeking radical change have used for decades: it was used in the black civil rights movement in the US in the 1960s, and we’ve heard it a lot from the protesters in the past weeks. The chant is: “No justice, no peace.”

The statement being made by the chant is being read by some people as a threat – a threat that until justice is delivered, the protestors will not allow there to be peace.

I think this reading rests on a mistake: a philosophical mistake. The mistake arises because of confusion about the meaning of the word peace.

That word is often understood just to mean something like ‘the absence of war’, ‘the absence of violence’, or ‘the presence of a certain amount of social order’. I am not going to argue that these uses of ‘peace’ are wrong: it’s useful to have a word that denotes these things. I’ll call this ‘thin peace’.

But there is a different concept of peace that I want to discuss here: it’s the concept of peace that’s used in the philosophy and moral theology of the Catholic tradition, and also, I think, the one being appealed to by protestors chanting for racial equality.

This concept of peace is a ‘thick’ concept – a term used by philosophers to mark out concepts that involve both description and evaluation in terms of good and bad. The virtue of ‘honesty’ is an example of a thick concept: when you call someone honest, you are in one sense just describing them (‘she’s likely to tell the truth even when it’s difficult or costly’). But you’re also saying something positive about them: ‘she’s really honest’ is a compliment, not an insult or a purely neutral description.

I could call a society ‘peaceful’ in the thin sense without necessarily saying that the society was good. It could be peaceful but repressive, peaceful but miserable, peaceful but bland.

Peace in the thick sense though, is a moral concept. Certain ways that the Catholic tradition describes it don’t make this immediately obvious. The Catechism quotes St Augustine and defines peace as ‘the tranquillity of order’, which sounds quite a lot like the thin concept. But if you read the surrounding passage in the Catechism you’ll see the following.

“Peace cannot be attained on earth without safeguarding the goods of persons, free communication among men, respect for the dignity of persons and peoples, and the assiduous practice of fraternity… Peace is the work of justice and the effect of charity.”

The ‘order’ being referred to means something like ‘the good and proper functioning of a system’. A peaceful society is one in which things are working harmoniously towards the goal that the society is pursuing. In the Catholic tradition, that goal is the common good: which consists in the people of the society living flourishing lives: the joint enjoyment of everyone in the society of goods like friendship, conversation, and family and religious life. This is the point of thin peace and order: it’s only good insofar as it contributes to thick peace.

Once you’re working with this concept of peace, ‘No justice, no peace’ is not a threat – it’s just a definition. If some group in a society is being systematically discriminated against or excluded from the scope of justice, we might have a peaceful society in the thin sense, but not in the thick, Catholic one. It’s no accident that there is so much similarity between the radical rallying cry and a favourite phrase of Pope St Paul VI: “If you want peace, work for justice.” Or the words of Dr Martin Luther King: “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; is the presence of justice.”

I’ve written before in this column about Ursula Le Guin’s fantasy short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas in which a city is magically preserved in utopian stability by means of a spell which relies on the imprisonment and torture of one innocent child. This society is peaceful in the thin sense: but is absolutely not peaceful not in the thick one, no matter how calm or stable it was.

A critic might say that this is too wide a definition of peace. If we take it as true, there has never really been a fully peaceful society. But societies have been and can be more or less peaceful in different ways. And if you accept it, the thick concept shows the folly of attempting to oppose justice and peace or prioritise one over the other. True peace cannot be achieved without justice being done. Any proposed solution to civil unrest should recognise that fact.