Some of the world’s violent conflicts are mainly economic, territorial or tribal. But many seem to come, at least in part, from conflicts between the belief systems of different groups. How far do these differences have to be accepted as a brute fact, and how far is it possible to transcend them? How far is fruitful dialogue possible between members of conflicting national or religious groups who hold sharply different beliefs about the history of their conflict? How far can we reason with each other about the deepest differences of religious or political belief? To what extent can any set of beliefs claim to be well supported? 1

It is worth distinguishing disagreements over the correct historical narrative of a conflict from disagreements about basic political or religious ideology.

The narrative disagreements raise questions about the possibility of historical objectivity. Given honesty and goodwill, could a group of Serbs and Croats reach agreement on an account of the break-up of what was once Yugoslavia? Is there such a thing as an objective account? If there is, can it be arrived at?

The ideological disagreements raise parallel but different questions. Is there an attainable truth about whether God exists? Is it possible to decide on the truth of the claims of different religions? Is it possible to decide on the truth of the various claims about the world and about values made by adherents of different moral outlooks or of different political ideologies?

Of course narrative disagreements and ideological ones are often interwoven. In the Israel-Palestine dispute, the narratives of some groups start with the claim that “God promised the land to us”. But it seems analytically promising to start by treating the two types separately. Here I will say a little about narrative conflict, before going on to consider ideological conflict more extensively.


Disagreements about the story of a conflict usually include rival selections of which threats, actions and deaths to emphasise. Take the 2006 conflict in Lebanon:

“For nearly two weeks Israel has been waging a war of terror and aggression against Lebanon… The war has already resulted in the killing of around 400 and wounding of more than 1,000 Lebanese. Most are civilians (a third children), crushed in their homes or ripped to pieces in their cars by Israeli bombs and missiles.”

“Israel today is facing a sustained onslaught from one of the world’s most dangerous and effective terrorist organizations. In the past few days, 1,000 rockets and 1,200 mortar rounds have been hurled across the border by Hizbullah at hospitals, schools and homes… Israel is fighting back. Israel’s use of force is entirely proportionate to the extent of the threat that Hizbullah poses. A third of our people are in immediate danger of Hizbullah missiles and are sheltering for fear of their lives.”

They also often include different accounts of which side’s actions count as starting the conflict:

“Israel was forced to enter this conflict after an unprovoked attack by Hizbullah terrorists across the border, in which three soldiers were killed, and two kidnapped.”

“In the context of the continued occupation, detention of prisoners and repeated Israeli attacks and incursions into Lebanese territory, the capture of the Israeli soldiers was entirely legitimate. The operation was fully in line with… the right of the resistance to liberate occupied Lebanese territory, free prisoners of war and defend Lebanon against Israeli aggression.”

Each side’s narrative usually places a different interpretation on the intentions of the two sides:

“Their intention is the killing and maiming of Israelis in general."

“Hizbullah has tried from the start… to limit the escalation by adopting a policy of limited response while avoiding civilian targets.”

“The Israeli onslaught is aimed not only at liquidating the resistance and destroying the country’s infrastructure but at intervening in Lebanese politics and imposing conditions on what can be agreed.”

“Israel’s goal, first and foremost, is to ensure that, when our operations end, Hizbullah no longer controls the border with Israel, and may not reignite fighting at its whim.”

And, in wars, each side usually likes to present its actions as a legitimate defence against the aggression of the other:

“International law also allows peoples and states to take action to protect their citizens and territory.”

“International law recognises the right to respond to the extent of a threat, and Israel has therefore acted within international law.”

The question of whether dialogue could lead to an objective account centres round whether an account could be constructed that includes all the facts from which the conflicting narratives are selectively constructed, and whether it is possible to determine what degree of emphasis it is appropriate to give them. It also raises the question of whether a correct account of the causal sequence is possible, and of whether it is possible to adjudicate between the rival accounts of each others’ intentions.


The quotations above are about a relatively short-term episode: the 2006 war in Lebanon and Israel between the Israeli forces and Hizbullah. But this episode is part of a much longer historical conflict, the central part of which is between Israelis and Palestinians. The conflicting Israeli and Palestinian narratives are obviously part of what sustains their conflict. Equally obviously, the differences between the narratives make any progress towards constructing a shared account very difficult. However, there are some strategies that may help loosen up some of the rigidities.

We need an educational project about these rival narratives. It should be about how they are constructed, about what they leave out, about their contribution to conflict, and about how far it is possible to transcend the biased group narrative.

One such project would be making films. It would involve one team from each side of the conflict. Each team would be given the task of making a film about the history of the conflict, from the perspective of its own group. They would be given technical support for this. They would be encouraged to film interviews with victims from their own side, and interviews with participants and others who remember the events. They would have access to news film in the public domain. The aim would be for each team to present their group’s version of the story as powerfully as possible (compatible with avoiding intentional distortion of the truth). It would be their own group’s memories, their hopes, their fears, their bitterness or resentment.

The two groups would then meet, to see each other’s film. The idea would be for them first to share some of the practical difficulties they had experienced in making such a film. Then there would be discussions of the problems of objectivity in film making on such a subject. The central question would be how far it is possible to produce an account that does justice to both sides, the film that God, or perhaps Tolstoy, might have made. The next task would be for the two groups (now merged into one) to produce that film.

If this project succeeded, its educational value would depend on the process of “film making followed by discussion followed by film making” itself being filmed so that whatever is learnt can be conveyed to a wider audience.

This project involves some philosophical contribution, in the discussion of the possibility of objectivity. But its main thrust is the attempt to reach some agreement through detailed discussion of the two narratives and their limitations. It is in the other kind of conflict of between beliefs, ideological conflict, that philosophy is likely to have a larger role. It is this that I will talk about today.


It is clear that some conflicts between groups are, at least in part, ideological.

By calling something a “conflict”, I do not necessarily imply that it involves violence. The Cold War was an ideological conflict between Soviet and Western belief systems. Yet (despite “proxy wars” such as Korea and Vietnam) it did not involve direct war. In a pluralist society, there is often non-violent “conflict” -in the sense of disagreement over beliefs and competition to win the debate and win converts- between political or religious groups. But of course often the main reason for concern about ideological conflict is the danger of it generating war or other violence.

By calling a conflict between different groups “ideological”, I mean that it involves a contest between rival belief systems, whether political or religious. There is a degree of vagueness in this claim, partly about what it is for a group to hold a belief system. How many people in a group have to share the beliefs? How intensely must they hold them? Must they all subscribe to all the beliefs in the system? I assume that not everyone in such groups as “the Soviet Union” or “the Catholic Church” need have a firm commitment to every item for it to make sense to talk of the belief system of the group. But I deliberately leave the boundaries not precisely specified.

The other vagueness is about what counts as a “belief system”. This is partly about the level of generality: should we think in terms of Christianity and Marxism as belief systems, or of Protestantism and Trotskyism, or of the belief system of the Dutch Reformed Church and of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party? There is also a continuum from beliefs that are consciously structured (in creeds, party programmes, etc.) and those that fall into a pattern unnoticed by their unreflective holders, a pattern waiting to be pointed out by some anthropologist, psychologist or novelist. Where on this continuum are the boundaries of what counts as a belief system? And does a belief system have to be political or religious, or could we include evolutionary theory or psychoanalysis?

Again, I want to leave the answers very open. In some contexts Catholics and Protestants share a belief system and in some contexts they have different systems. I do not want to specify precisely how articulated a belief system must be. And, even apart from the vague and disputed boundaries of what counts as “political” or “religious”, there are reasons for not confining the term within these categories. (It may be valuable to compare the workings of the belief systems of a Darwinian and a Creationist.) I am assuming that, despite its boundaries being vague and context-dependent, our rough intuitive idea of a belief system is useful enough to let us discuss whether philosophy can help with ideological conflict.

The very idea of such help may seem wildly optimistic. Certainly people trying to cope with the threat of a religious war do not think of calling in philosophers. It would indeed be absurdly optimistic to think of philosophers as providing an emergency service ready to extinguish a potential ideological war. The hope of philosophy making a practical contribution has to be cast in terms of a less dramatic model, such as preventive medicine. Philosophical argument only rarely brings about instant changes of belief, or even immediate willingness to reconsider beliefs. And not everything called “philosophy” is likely to be helpful.

But there is reason to think that, over time, exposure to philosophical questioning and discussion does change the way people think. Sometimes it plays a part in making people more rational, more open-minded or more aware of the limits of their knowledge and the uncertainty of some of their beliefs. So, just possibly, if philosophy develops in the right ways, it might help ease the conflicts between rival dogmatic certainties. But, even if this hope is right, philosophy will never be a quick fix. Its influence is slow, the result of patient questioning and discussion. So, in any project of alleviating ideological conflicts, philosophy can at best be part of a long, slow strategy. But perhaps the parallel with preventive medicine holds. Over time, the long, slow strategy may be at least as important as the immediate interventions needed in emergencies.