Professor Daniel Philpott delivers lecture on the Holocaust, process of political restoration

“Is it justifiable to forego the prosecution of war criminals in order to elicit a peace settlement?  Can conditional amnesties be justified?  May leaders apologize or forgive on behalf of entire states or nations?  On behalf of dead people?  Do states owe reparations to representatives of victims of past generations?  How are amounts to be determined?  Is forgiveness justifiable?  Or does it indefensibly sacrifice just punishment?”

With these questions, Professor Daniel Philpott framed his lecture entitled “Reconciliation: A Global Ethic Whose Time Has Come.”

The lecture, delivered on October 2, was part of “Remembrance: The Holocaust in a Global Context,” a larger special series of lectures, films, and gallery talks commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp Auschwitz.   

Philpott, professor of Political Science at Notre Dame, has a long history of studying global issues of political reconciliation.

“I have been thinking about this topic since 1996, when I began to work in reconciliation efforts as an activist and spent some six years traveling regularly to Kashmir and then, since 2009, regularly to central Africa,” Philpott explained.  He then began studying these efforts in a more concentrated way, publishing Just and Unjust Peace: An Ethic of Political Reconciliation in 2012.

Drawing on this experience, Philpott posed the central question of his lecture: “What is the meaning of justice in the wake of massive injustice?”  Although the question is easily posed, it is not so easily answered.

Philpott began by citing the “liberal peace” as the dominant ethical construction adopted by international organizations and western governments to address gross violations of human rights.  The liberal peace has historically prioritized the prosecution of war criminals and the building of liberal institutions such as democratic governments and free markets, but Philpott explained that this traditional conception of political reconstruction is too narrow in scope to address the diverse array of wounds that war crimes inflict on a people.

“While [the liberal peace’s] commitments to the rule of law, human rights, and democracy are crucial to justice and indeed incorporated into the ethic of political reconciliation proposed here, its array of activities and actors leaves untended a whole range of wounds that dictatorships and civil wars inflict upon people and societies,” Philpott said.  “Its proposed measures often do little, for instance, to acknowledge, empower, or reintegrate victims who have suffered the loss of loved ones, permanent injury, sustained trauma, or devastating economic loss.”

Philpott continued by identifying the Abrahamic tradition—that is, the tenets of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths—as fertile soil for constructing a broad ethic of political repair in the wake of great strife.  These faith traditions, Philpott explained, yield a robust understanding of political reconciliation that takes all aspects of the human person into account.

“Here, reconciliation is itself a concept of justice, one whose core meaning is a comprehensive restoration of right relationship within a community,” he said.  “Exuding holism, it involves a process of restoration as well as a state of restoration, addresses the wide range of harms that crimes cause, and enlists the wide range of persons affected by these crimes in their restoration.”

Philpott outlined this ethic of comprehensive political restoration by first enumerating the six dimensions of woundedness that political injustices inflict upon communities: the violation of the victim’s basic human rights, physical or material harm, ignorance of the source of said harm, failure to acknowledge a victim’s suffering, the message of disregard for the victim’s dignity that the perpetrator’s act communicates, and finally, the harm that this injustice does to the perpetrator’s soul.

However, the story does not end here.  As Philpott explained, “Recognizing this array of wounds, an ethic of political reconciliation proposes an array of matching practices that seek to restore persons who have suffered them and, more broadly, to restore right relationship in or between political orders.  Reflecting the sense in which the Abrahamic traditions envision God’s response to evil as one of action, each practice involves a unique kind of communicative action among victims, perpetrators, members of communities at large, and the state,” he said.

Philpott then listed the six practices of political restoration: building just governments, acknowledging victims’ suffering, offering reparations in the form of material compensation to victims, punishing perpetrators, apologizing for wrongdoing, and finally, forgiving.

Philpott closed his talk by discussing the importance of mercy.  Though the proposed ethic is essentially one of restorative justice, Philpott said, it does not exclude principles and practices of mercy, and in fact, practices of mercy and justice work together.

“Contrary to modern western parlance, then, forgiveness is an act of justice, the justice that restores, and of mercy, the virtue that wills the restoration of all that is broken,” he concluded.


Michael Infantine is a senior PLS major and theology minor who lives in Keough Hall.  He can be reached at