Which Is The Higher Good: Truth Or Peace?

"Peace if possible, truth at all costs!"  Thus heralded Martin Luther half a millennium ago, and let no man accuse him of failing to practice what he preached.  Of course, whether or not a Christian agrees with Luther's particular interpretation of truth will determine whether he is a Catholic or a Protestant.  But less obviously and perhaps more interestingly, whether or not a modern American agrees with Luther's principle-- that despite the very real goodness of peace, truth trumps it each and every time--will in large part determine whether he is a conservative or a liberal.

While the conservative agrees with Luther and recognizes truth as a higher good than peace, the liberal would again and again subordinate truth to peace for the sake of maintaining societal harmony.

Which is the higher good: truth or peace? To ask that question is to answer it, for of course what the question wants to know is the truth of the matter about which is better. But, should the reader remain skeptical, here are two further arguments to persuade the unconvinced.

First, we can know that truth is more important than peace because the only peace worth having in the first place is true peace. Hence Jeremiah’s curse on those who cry “Peace! Peace!” when there is no peace. But truth, on the other hand, is worth having even when it leads to conflict. For example, battling slavery in the United States led to animosity, violence, war, and death. But because of the importance of the cause—namely, upholding the inherent dignity of all human persons—peace could be justifiably sacrificed to defending this truth.

Secondly, a la C.S. Lewis in his essay “First and Second Things,” we can know that truth trumps peace because when we subordinate truth to peace, we lose not only truth but peace as well. The eugenic plots of so many totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century are a prime example of this. The goal there was essentially to stabilize and thus bring peace to society, but because such important personalistic truths were sacrificed at the altar of utopianism, there was less peace and more instability than ever before. 

So while the liberal’s desire for peace is good, he errs in putting peace first, making toleration the summum bonum, and embracing moral relativism for the sake of avoiding conflicts. The conservative on the other hand, following in the longstanding tradition that stretches back to Aristotle and beyond, recognizes that our political order ought to follow from the moral order, which itself flows from our human nature.

Where does this battle between conservatives and liberals finally end? If our opponents emerge victorious, nowhere good. For the logical conclusion of liberalism—which liberalism fights against in the name of peace, but which liberals insofar as they are men must be led towards by the natural reason they try to suppress—is Nihilism, the most terrifying worldview imaginable. Eventually, “my truth” and “your truth” are seen for what they really mean: No truth. And a culture without any grasp of truth is a culture without any connection to reality, a culture thus doomed to die. We can still avoid demise, but to do so, we need a hefty dose of metaphysics, a serious consideration of truth to serve as the guiding principle of our civilization.

This Blog Posting has been adapted and edited from Michael Hannon's original article titled, "Peace If Possible; Truth at All Costs"  Michael Hannon studies philosophy, religion, and medieval studies at Columbia University.