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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Friday, July 27, 2007

Just war theory

Over the past year or so, I've gone to a couple of papers - and read a number of others - on just war theory and its application to contemporary decisions about developing weapons systems and going to war. Rob Sparrow, my associate Ph.D supervisor presented a fascinating paper today; this got me thinking, although the problems have been festering in my mind for much longer.

Just war theory is politically handy because it is given a lot of credence by military planners themselves, as Rob reminded us, and because its prestige enables the framing of arguments with a degree of moral authority in the public sphere. Certainly, a genuine application of it would have had a salutary result when the US-led invasion of Iraq was under consideration: it is inconceivable that this could have counted as a just war.

And yet, I find myself rather uncomfortable with some of the arguments that I hear or read from time to time - even when they support my position with respect to Iraq - and I have been trying to work out why. Part of the problem is that it is difficult to see exactly how the concepts used in just war theory are grounded in anything deeper, though there is some prospect, I suppose, of treating them like the sorts of moral rules that would be favoured by a rule-utilitarian.

I have difficulties with any form of utilitarianism, in any event: I think that it makes unsustainable superlative demands on us (why should we want to maximise total utility, as opposed to adopting more human-level aims such as trying to reduce the suffering in the world, or trying to prevent social breakdown?). At the same time, it does not cover all our values or all of our reasons for supporting the institution of morality.

However, I also think that morality has to be given some kind of broadly consequentialist justification in the end. Roughly speaking, our morality protects things that we value and protects us from things that we fear. I don't mean this formula to be read literally or restrictively - for example, part of our morality's point is, indeed, to reduce suffering, and not just our own suffering. We are sympathetic creatures who place a disvalue on the suffering of other sentient beings, even if we don't exactly "fear" it. (At least, most of us disvalue the suffering of others ... and the minority who do not are a danger to the rest of us. What to do about such hardened, or even psychopathic, people is a separate problem.)

What would be a justification for the concepts involved in just war theory, such as jus ad bellum and jus in bello? Presumably, it would be something like a recognition of the horror, cruelty, suffering, and so on caused by war, and a wish to minimise these things. Hence, when we look deeper, we have good reason to try to establish an international standard according to which nations must not go to war for such reasons as the pursuit of "glory" or economic success, or to pander to the egotistical desires of rulers who wish to gain more territory and more subjects - the imperial urge. We have reason to want to condemn the use of war except for such purposes as self-defence or the avoidance of humanitarian catastrophe.

Furthermore, once we involve ourselves in war, we have a reason to do whatever is required to minimise the suffering on both sides. While we may have very good reasons to want to win a defensive or humanitarian war, and this may mean giving priority to minimising our own losses, we also have compassionate reasons to cause no more suffering to others than is strictly necessary to achieve our aim. (There might also be reasons to do even less than that if it involves something like torture, but I think that that could raise issues going beyond just war theory.)

To the extent that just war theory packages up these ideas, it is surely quite defensible. However, the detail of the theory tends to go further. That may be a good thing in many cases. For example, the wish to create only the minimum possible suffering for the "other side" may lead us to try to avoid killing non-combatants who are no serious military threat. Accordingly, it's doubtless a good idea to adopt a rule against deliberate targeting of enemy civilians.

However, there are problems.

First, if we are going to draw up a checklist of things that should not be done in war - perhaps because we think that a simple, clear code of rules will be pragmatically useful - we should remember that the aim is to devise rules that will minimise suffering (and whatever else we are ultimately trying to achieve). It is not that breaches of the rules, per se, are intrinsically wrong. A war is not worse if there are more breaches of the rules but less actual suffering. What makes war so bad is essentially the suffering that it causes.

I'm happy for there to be an international code of war crimes that is applied fairly inflexibly by a human rights tribunal or similar body, but any such code will have the status of positive law. It will not be a list of actions that "just are" intrinsically wrong, because there are no such actions.

Thus, we should aim to develop, through treaty-making and international bodies, a code that really is likely, in current circumstances, to minimise suffering. If the concepts found in just war theory do not provide us with the best code from that viewpoint, then they are not the concepts that we need. Even if the more detailed concepts of just war theory have been useful, historically, I can imagine that some changes will be required to deal with contemporary circumstances involving insurgency, terror, computerised weapon systems, asymmetrical tactics, humanitarian interventions, and so on.

Second, think of the situation where we are choosing new weapons systems. It is easy to imagine a weapons system (call it System X) that will both minimise the suffering in foreseeable wars (compared to some alternative System Y) and work in such a way that it sometimes tempts military personnel to breach whatever code of rules for the conduct of war is in place at the time. System X may do so by affecting the psychological outlook of some personnel in undesirable ways (perhaps because they are able to attack from greater distances, which may reduce feelings of empathy for the enemy).

What should we do in this situation, choose System X or System Y?

What if System X is likely to tempt our enemies into more breaches of the rules of war (perhaps it involves elaborate armour suits that make our personnel look less human, and so encourages our enemies to respond with less empathy; or perhaps its military effectiveness simply makes our enemies feel more desperate)? Imagine that, despite this drawback, it also makes our personnel so much more effective that they are able to fight in a way that reduces overall casualties on both sides. Imagine that it thereby reduces the total amount of suffering in the wars in which is used.

It is clear to me that, in these situations, we should introduce System X, rather than System Y. We should also train our personnel in such a way as to reduce their breaches of the rules of war. However, if adopting System X will foreseeably cause many, though relatively minor, breaches of the international code, while also reducing suffering overall, whereas System Y produces fewer breaches of the code, but only at the cost of forcing us to fight in a way that creates greater overall suffering, I know which system I prefer. The aim is always to reduce suffering, not to turn any positive legal code into a fetish.

The ultimate aim of all our policies is not to minimise the number of breaches of the positive code, whatever form it takes, even though we do want to reduce this number. There will be good grounds to enforce the code and to attempt to comply with it, but subject to the ultimate aim, which is always to reduce human suffering.

There is probably a good basis to conduct a thorough critique of just war theory, and perhaps even to debunk part of it. However, my point is not so much that we should be hostile to the theory; it is more modest than that. I merely wish to point out that any such theory needs to be given a naturalistic grounding in what we actually value (or fear, or disvalue, etc.). If some of the means we have historically adopted to reduce human suffering are in contradiction to the end, then we need to revise the means, rather than make the end subservient. If we are going to continue to rely on just war theory, we probably need to revise it, in order to bring it up to date.

I think there is an important project here for someone to carry out a rigorous critique of the uses and limitations of traditional just war theory in the circumstances confronting Western nations in the twenty-first century.


Anonymous said...

Iraq is a complex situation. Before we went it, I'd been a long time follower and sympathiser with the Kurds, so because of that, (and partially due to the evidence of WMD) I supported it.

To go through what went wrong since that day would take me hours of typing, a testament to the idiocy of the Bush administration. When people assume I am against the war I never really know how to answer. I guess the answer is yes, I am against it, but you cannot deny that huge benefit that one of the most persecuted minorities has received.

I was once listening to a debate on BBC radio between three Iraqis, (a Sunni, Shi'ite, Kurd) and an American. The Sunni was exclaiming "America has brought war to Iraq! It was America that has brought death to Iraq!" The Kurd interrupted and said. "Please do not say America has brought war to Iraq. I am 41 years old, and have not seen a day of peace in my life... and neither has my Grandfather".

Combined with the recent elections in Turkey, things are looking up for the Kurds.

I also wanted to say I had my first lecture with Robert Sparrow this week, political philosophy, and I was blown away. I haven't been this excited about a subject since time self and freedom with you.

Unknown said...

Have you heard of a very controversial Indian holyman by the name of OSHO ? He had an interesting thery about war. He said that war is kind of a pressure valve release event. When we get frustrated and stressed to the point of breaking, war comes around and saves the day.

This is quite true if you consider the number of clicks in any website on wars which are ongoing. Similarly with boxing. We like to see people or countries fighting and place our bets and our frustrations on them. It is a means of stress release. And this is , please excuse me... bloody primitive.

Osho then suggests that we find more creative and non violent ways to release our tensions.

War is part of human nature. Transcending human nature would also mean transcending the state of war. I am not asking for global peace... but it is possible if all our frustrations were either reduced or found an escape hatch that is much less gory.


Russell Blackford said...

I sent Rob an email drawing his attention to this post. Even if he doesn't have time to contribute, I hope he pops in and sees how nice we're being about him here (even as we struggle intellectually with issues about the justification, or otherwise, of war).