Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Categories of response to the moral question of war (Theory)

Is it ever morally permissible, and if so under what circumstances and conditions, to engage in war?

The theory of the just war, as found in Walzer's Just and Unjust Wars, or in Christian moral thought, is one response to that question. There are other ways of responding to that question, however, and the short version of that list is as follows:


Amoral realism - the doctrine that it is morally permissible to engage in war, whenever and however you like, because war lies outside of morality and law altogether, inter arma silent leges. It is a question of desires, glory, gain, whatever moves you and a matter of your power.

Moral realism - the doctrine that it is morally permissible to engage in war, yet war is still governed by morality. The morality that governs war, however, is strictly one of consequences and, moreover, consequences to you and yours. It therefore is not constrained by any rule on when you decide to resort to force or the methods and means of using that force; it is governed solely by your assessment of the consequences to you and your interests, however you define them.


Complete nonviolence - the doctrine that it is never morally permissible to engage in war, because it is never morally permissible to engage in violence of any kind, whether war or any other kind of violence.

Pacifism - the doctrine that it is never morally permissible to engage in war, specifically, although it might be morally permissible to engage in other kinds of violence, such as the violence or threat of violence used by police to maintain order within a society. Pacifism, as used here, distinguishes between war and certain other forms of violence.

The Just War

The doctrine that it is sometimes morally permissible to engage in war, provided that certain moral criteria are met with respect to the resort to force, and that the means and methods of war used also meet certain moral criteria. The classical criteria are just authority, just cause, just intent, likelihood of success, and last resort. It is a theory of rights, rather than a theory that looks solely to consequences, and this is what distinguishes it in the first place from moral realism - just war theory looks not to consequences first or solely, but instead to the violation of the rights of a political community by aggression (per Walzer). As developed as Christian theology, it as a doctrine of natural law (as distinguished from the doctrine of positive international law discussed below).

The Positive International Law Domestic Analogy

The first three theories are all found in Just and Unjust Wars, although I have separated out different strands within each of realism and nonviolence. The fourth is alluded to by Walzer, but does not play a significant role in his argument. In the years since Just and Unjust Wars was published in 1977, however, and especially since the end of the Cold War, this fourth theory has become (perhaps) the greatest competitor to the tradition of the just war.

It is the doctrine that war, as such, is never morally permissible because positive international law has done away with the category of war between sovereigns and replaced it with police action (even if police action of a war-like kind) to force compliance with international law, on analogy to the enforcement actions of police in a domestic society. (An alternative formulation might say that war is morally permissible only when it is authorized as an enforcement action under positive international law to enforce positive international law as embodied in international organizations such as the UN Security Council, again on analogy to the actions of police in a domestic society.) The point of calling it "positive law" is that it relies upon positive, codified international law as its source of authority; the point of calling it a "domestic analogy" is that it relies upon an analogy with how force is used by police in a domestic society.

In my experience, it is what Western Europeans reach to as a theory about morality and war -essentially, the moral question has been supplanted by a regime of law on analogy to a domestic society - a messy and unsettled law, in many respects, but one in which the moral question drops out in favor of positive law. For that reason, the just war tradition is regarded as a sort of quaint moral theory by most European intellectuals I know - or, more precisely, a dangerous calculus that allows Americans to justify any war they feel like, a rhetorical flourish. This is ironic, in one sense, because the just war tradition is used equally by people on both sides of any debate over war in America - but in European sensibilities, it is deeply worrisome, because it threatens what they see not as a matter of morality, but of positive law, the law of the UN Charter.

In my own writing on just war theory, the book manuscript I am working on, I emphasize the central current debate as being between just war theory and the positive law domestic analogy; I think the debate has shifted in exactly this way since the end of the Cold War.


It is possible to come up with other approaches, and I'll detail some of them in a later post.

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