Prophesying Global Justice: Thinkers of the French Revolution on Universal Progress

By Arnarson, Egill | Trames, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Prophesying Global Justice: Thinkers of the French Revolution on Universal Progress


Arnarson, Egill, Trames


1. Introduction

One of the major criticisms of globalization is that it may not only lead to an environmental catastrophe or toward a feudalization of the relationship between rich and poor countries, but that it also leads to a monolithic consumerist culture and behaviour: in an increasing number of cultures, people tend to buy the same products and to adopt the same 'Western' way of life. There may be some resistance to it, and variety still to be found, but this general trend is the prevailing one. Such concerns manifest themselves in a growing scepticism on whether this one-sided process of civilization can be seen as a genuine and legitimate universal program. What, some ask, prevents it from being rather seen as a particular culture and value system that imposes self upon other--and just as legitimate--cultures? Put in other words: What reasons, if any, can there be for any value system to be qualified as universal?

In recent years, Westerners have taken a more critical stance to what could be termed as cultural imperialism, i.e. on the issue what makes it right to impose a particular set of values upon a culture with another value set. Even in cases where this would imply liberating large parts of the world from illiberal value systems, this attitude seems to gain ground. If taken seriously, this view clearly creates a problem for certain theories of international justice, e.g. liberal cosmopolitanism: When Rawlsians such as Thomas Pogge (1989) argue that the Original Position should be seen as a universal one, in which its participants agree on universal Principles of Justice, analogous to the ones John Rawls suggested made the cornerstone of a just society, they may be accused of imposing a typically Western conception of the political subject upon individuals who do not consider the right to political participation to be equal. Among such critics one can find Rawls himself.

It is my intention to examine two different approaches at solving this problem. What makes them unusual is their age: Both are responses to the French Revolution, political agendas based on philosophical conclusions their authors draw from this key event in furthering liberal principles on a global scale. What I hope to achieve by enunciating these projects is, first of all, to bring attention to a philosophical problematic that has been neglected within the field of global ethics. As it turns out, prior to 20th-century work within this field, there were not only solitary philosophers trying to formulate contracts in order to put an end to wars between states. In the first half of the 19th century, various thinkers in France looked for the meaning of the French Revolution of 1789 as an event of universal importance and what it would imply to export it as a political and philosophical program to other nations, if not to the whole of mankind (Chabert 1994, Manuel 1962). What I find surprising, considering only two of these authors, is how diverse their programs are and, last but not least, how related they are to the questions we are nowadays brutally confronted with.

2. Comte's religion of humanity

2.1. The problem of modernity

In his last works, Auguste Comte (1798-1857) presents us with a universal value system with the aim of putting an end to the turmoil of modern age. It strikes the modern reader as an idea of utmost actuality when Comte writes in 1852: "The Orient and the Occident [i.e. the two largest monotheistic religions, Islam and Christianity] have to look for the systematic foundations of their intellectual and moral communion outside of any theology or metaphysics. ... For so many centuries [they] have been waiting for the universal religion to emerge" (Comte 1852:7). Comte's approach is thus to find a common denominator to both religions in a single religion which has, however, the role of transcending their retrograde and unscientific character and to step forward as a universal value system fit for the post-theological and post-metaphysical age of modernity. …

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