Friday, October 31, 2008

Is War Ever Justified?

In the following post, you'll note a contradictory attitude towards war that appears in the post "Heideggarian Proclivities" or "Dove with Hawk-like Vision". I always fight myself on whether or not I think violence is necessary or morally justified. There is a mess of beliefs that I am trying to wrestle with, but honestly, it might take more reflecting than just blog-writing to get some consistency on these beliefs. As a professor of epistemology told me, "Grad school is about practicing ideas." You have to explore whole sections of the mall before you can shop in it effectively so to speak.

I am wondering whether or not such an answer can readily be provided to such a provoking question. Recently, I bought Larry May's edited anthology, War: Essays in Political Philosophy. These questions have been on my mind from some of the readings. Moreover, as the election rolls around, a reflective look of my nation's foreign policy is largely needed. Presidential elections are a good time for a fresh look at the mistakes and successes (if there are any) of our current President, George Bush.

In this post, war is the active strategy of employing violence for the achievement of some end, whether that end be political, economic or other. States justify war in any number of ways: some moral, others more prudentially. For our purposes, I assume the ethical perspective, that is, looking for moral justification as to why we fought Iraq. I argue that a lacking justification from self-defense undermines how justified we are in having ever fought the Iraq War. Consequently, since we lack moral justification for our waging a war, the longer we remain in Iraq the more complicit we are in doing the immoral thing, even though in keeping the peace we are attempting to stabilize a mess we caused.

In order to understand my argument, we need to talk about what it means to justify morally an action. To say that an action is justified morally is to say some action ought to be done for these reasons. There's an "ought" component, an evaluative reason claiming that some party ought to act or refrain from acting. Usually, a state justifies a war in the interest of preserving itself from a threat. If there is no demonstratable threat from a state, then there is no justification for going to war. In Iraq, we found no WMDs, and the threat of no WMDs fosters skepticism about the original justification for war. In so doing, the United States is now seen as acting preemptively on faulty intelligence. It can be said for these reasons that the Iraq War is morally unjustified.

Yet, this is a typical political response. I'm wondering something a bit more narrow. I'm wondering if there are reasons that "go all the way down" in justifying war. Are states ever justified in fighting a war? If you find that the content of morality is distinguishable, then are there duties to wage war? Immediately, I can think of a consequential argument for the non-existence of moral justification for war. If war hurts more people than those who fight in the war, then when a war happens more suffering is engendered by waging it. In other words, the moral cost of the war is too high to be paid, and since any reasonably educated person ought to recognize that more people suffer in wartime than in peacetime, then the promotion of peaceful ends over those favoring violence create more good in the world.

I don't know if this argument goes far enough, yet it does have some strengths. First, any waging of a war must acknowledge the fact that more suffer from wars waged than those that fight in them. This consequential argument is powerful with respect that you can see that it works for whatever your measure of the good, and many types of good--knowledge, pleasure or virtue. War forestalls cultural development, the stability needed to do science, with perhaps the exception of war related research--which is marginal by the standards of all scientific research and many other valuable activities. So, with these strengths why question the consequential argument against war? The limitations comes in the very form of consequential arguments take to justify morally right action, consequences.

Suppose we can formulate a scenario in which the cumulative goods maximized by not fighting war are outweighed by actually fighting in a war. Such an example would be hard to construe, but certainly not impossibly by any stretch of the imagination. Imagine a rogue state with a nuclear arsenal that has harbored technology that it could fight a massive war to confront the entire Western world. Perhaps, significant innovation in artificial intelligence? All the states must come together in orchestrating one decisive campaign against this rogue state (or even a collection of states) to defeat that which threatens all levels of society. On this score, I have always found consequentialism limiting in its capacity to distinguish satisfactory accounts of right and wrong. It would seem that good consequential arguments are relative to the time-slice in which they are made, and that future scenarios could always be imagined in which doing what is prohibited is better than not doing it.

A deontological argument against war preserves our backward-looking glance at our moral intuitions, and is stronger in making sense of not fighting war. Or is it? A deontological theory grounds rightness and wrongness in independent principle, or principles. These principles are grounded in our rationality, God's law or nature. Deontological approaches characterize matters of right and wrong in the language of rights. I believe a general prohibition on fighting war would turn on protecting the rights of those civilians in the field. However, this approach has a shortcoming that can be seen a mile away. Any defense of someone's rights, such as protecting the innocent from harm might rest on not waging a war to endanger the innocent, or waging a war to protecting the innocent from imminent threat. Such a principle would be grounded in a Kantian way (rationality), in the just war tradition (God's law in some instances) and nature.

The trouble in these last two approaches rests, I think, in that deontology is backward looking at our intuitions, and consequentialism is limited by its forward-looking perspective. What is needed, if there is a reason to never fight a war, is a normative theory that can preserve the large negative impact war has on those that suffer from its practice. For this is the wrongmaking property of war--the suffering it causes. I think that virtue ethics capable of giving us what we want. In brief, virtue ethics of the Neo-Aristotelian variety tries to achieve a conception of flourishing for all involved in our community by pinpointing those virtues that get us to live the flourishing life. At this stage, we are at the international level, and the question becomes the flourishing of human beings at large. The question then becomes: Does war ever lead to flourishing?

No comments: