Pascal and the absurd notion that the principles of justice vary across state borders (1669)

Blaise Pascal

The French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) points out that artificial lines drawn on a map do not invalidate moral laws which are derived from the nature of man. It is “absurd” to think I have the right to kill a foreigner because my sovereign orders me to do so:

Theft, incest, infanticide, parricide, all have found a place among virtuous actions. Can there be any thing more absurd than that a man should have the right to kill me because he lives across the water, and because his prince has a quarrel with mine, although I have none with him? There are no doubt natural laws, but fair reason once corrupted has corrupted all. Nihil amplius nostrum est; quod nostrum dicimus, artis est (“There is no longer anything which is ours; what I call ours is conventional”). Ex senatus consultis, et plebiscitis crimina exercentur (“It is by virtue of senatus-consultes and plebiscites that one commits crimes”). Ut olim vitiis, sic nunc legibus laboramus (“Once we suffered from our vices; today we suffer from our laws”).

Pascal asks some very profound questions in this chapter on Justice and Customs in his collection of Thoughts (1669). He laments the fact that too many people are willing to obey the laws of their country unquestioningly even if they do not comport with natural law but are merely the conventions in which they have grown up (“unjust custom”). The example he cites is that of going to war to kill an unknown personal across a national border just because one’s sovereign orders one to do so. However, he recoils from the full consequences of this line of thinking by concluding that it is perhaps better not to examine the origin of the state too closely because one might find some very unsavoury and unpleasant things: “it is necessary to cause it (the law) to be regarded as eternal and authoritative, and to conceal the beginning if we do not wish it should soon come to an end.”