Reason, Nonviolence, and Global Legal Change

by Beverly Woodward

Editor’s Preface: This previously unpublished 1972 essay by Beverly Woodward is the latest in our series of discoveries from research that we are conducting in the IISG, Amsterdam. Please see the notes at the end for further details, references, acknowledgments, biographical information, and a link to the pdf file of the original. JG

The existing state of international disorder is often referred to as a state of global anarchy. The time honored human remedy for such a state of affairs is the establishment of the rule of law. Thus the remedy for the existing situation is often held to be the creation of more and better international law along with the creation of the institutions customarily associated with the presence of law, i.e., institutions for making, interpreting, and enforcing law. But there are many who are not enthused by the proposal. They include those national elites who speak piously of “law and order” at home, but are definitely less reverent when it becomes a question of forms of law that might be less supportive of their (self-defined) “interests” than the legal structures that they are so anxious to see upheld. They include the anarchists who insist that the current perversions in human behavior are not due to too little law, but to too much law, pointing out, for example, that it is governments that have authorized the great majority of the more brutal and massively destructive acts witnessed in this century. And they include many “ordinary people” who are neither opposed to law in general nor especially privileged by the given arrangements, but who are apprehensive of law formulated at such a great distance from its potential points of application. Even to those not inclined to rail against government wherever it occurs, “world government” or anything similar may seem a rather frightening remedy for what ails us.

Those, therefore, who advocate major change in the global legal arena are likely to find themselves confronted not only with the kinds of justificatory tasks that are almost always imposed on those who advocate any kind of major change, but with the rather particular task of showing why change in the global arena should take a legal form. Granted that humankind, taken as a whole, is not doing too well, why should we expect that changes in or the injection of legal institutions would make any significant difference in its (or, more precisely, our) prospects?

Global legal change, of course, may be seen not as a means to a better world, but as an outcome which will perforce occur if the political changes for which there seems to be such evident need take place. Those agents of change who hold this view tend to see law not primarily as an instrument for change, but as a reflection of more basic processes, which they as agents of change attempt to bend in more progressive directions. This point of view is not unreasonable and is responsive to those criticisms which have attacked the seeming formalism of the “world peace through world law” approach, a formalism that has manifested itself principally in either or both of two ways, i.e., as a naive belief in the desirability of law qua law and/or as a failure to focus on the social and political processes which generally must precede the coming into being of effective law. The sociological point is important and can be expressed in a slightly different way. Where political processes have not provided a firm social foundation for new law, that law is likely to be ineffective, though in varying degrees depending upon the related social circumstances. At the domestic level the history of the civil rights laws, for example, provides a good illustration of the difficulties of implementing laws where an adequate social basis is lacking.

Read the pdf of the complete article here: Reason, Nonviolence, and Global Legal Change

Reference: IISG/Devi Prasad Archive, Box 62. We are grateful to IISG for their assistance and permission.

A NOTE ON THE TEXT: The file in which this manuscript was found has an annotation that states that it is a “preliminary draft” for an article published in an anthology edited by Virginia Held; Sidney Morgenbesser; & Thomas Nagel, Philosophy, Morality, and International Affairs: Essays Edited for the Society for Philosophy and Public Affairs, New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Beverley Woodward was a member of War Resisters’ League, the US branch of War Resisters’ International. She was active in the 1980’s Freeze campaign against nuclear weapons, was a regular contributor to the pacifist journal Peace and Change, and co-authored many pamphlets and tracts about pacifism, including, with Michael Randle, Militarism and Repression, Boston: International Seminars for Training for Nonviolent Action, 1980. Please also see her article previously posted here, “The Institutionalization of Nonviolence”.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi