Sunday, December 05, 2004

Partial Consequentialism (Theory)

Further to what I described earlier as "partial (or parochial) consequentialism," as a form of realism, responding to the question of whether, and under what circumstances, war is morally permissible:

It is a peculiar category, and I might at some point be persuaded to abandon it. However, what it responds to is the view, usually regarded as realist, which says that war is not simply a matter of power or desire; it is not amoral or outside of the realm of morality in that sense. There is a morality at issue in engaging in war (whether the question of resort to force or conduct in war), but that morality is a matter of consequences - and, in particular, the consequences to you and yours. It is not a matter of all the consequences, but rather the consequences to those in whom you have an interest.

Is this actually a moral rather than a merely prudential approach to the question of the permissibility of war? It can be framed as a purely interest-based, prudential account, and in that case would be essentially outside morality. This is the usual way in which it is regarded as "realist" - as about power and interest.

But there is a second way of framing the question of "you and yours" which takes it beyond interest and prudence into a genuinely moral obligation to your own. Which is, I think, how most of us think of it. We do tend to regard ourselves has having particular moral obligations to those who are close to us, part of us, part of our political community, and society, even at the expense of others. If that can be counted as part of morality, then looking solely to the consequences for those relationships and obligations in war, while a "partial," in the sense of "partial to," morality, is a morality nonetheless. It is consequentialist in the sense that it looks to consequences rather than paying attention to rights, but it is concerned with obligations (and in some versions might be concerned with the rights of your political community, while not worrying about the rights of others).

What about this idea of a morality that is partial to you and yours? It is our everyday morality, but, as Peter Railton, among others, has pointed out, it is not accounted for in principle under either utilitarianism or Kantian morality, each of which is "universal" and "impartial" and, hence, as Railton pointed out in his article in Philosophy and Public Affairs, alienated from ordinary human relationships. An ethics which takes account of ordinary human partiality we might call "attachment ethics," and one of the many tasks for such an ethics is to describe when partiality is okay and when, instead, impartiality must apply. And, then, what of this question of partiality and impartiality in ethics and war?

It seems to me that many of the views that we lump together as "realist" would be better described as consequentialist-attachment ethics. At least part of what is treated as prudential interest on a realist account would be better described as communal attachments viewed as genuinely moral obligations - deep enough to cause people to sacrifice their lives and the lives of loved ones for them. Isn't this a better meaning for Hobbes' (and Thucydides') 'necessity of nature' than a purely prudential account? Maybe.

I realize it must seem that I am going very far off the beaten track of just war theory, but the question of what to defend, my community or something broader, and partiality versus impartiality, as a matter of not merely prudence but morality, is more important in war than in most matters, at least drawing on my field experience in human rights conflict monitoring. People don't tend to think of their struggles as mere interest or prudence or even amoral necessity, and I am not inclined to think that in many circumstances they should. For example, when I think of the many aid workers I have known in the field, or myself as a human rights monitor in various conflicts, this question of partiality was central. I write more about this question of impartiality and neutrality in the context of humanitarian relief work in war in an article on humanitarian neutrality and inviolability here, in .pdf format (see especially the last part of the article).

More to follow on this question.

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