Friday, July 28, 2006

On the differences between Catholic just war theory and Michael Walzer's just war theory: the criterion of likelihood of success

I am reposting here a discussion in moral theory of the just war, from two years ago, of differences between Catholic just war theory and other versions of the theory, notably that of Michael Walzer in his celebrated Just and Unjust Wars. I have been thinking about these differences in reading the commentary on the Lebanon conflict, particularly that of the Catholic law professor Stephen Bainbridge, here, and also in a Tech Central Station article that I can't at this very moment find. (Let me insert as a footnote, for those of you who go to the link, that I do not at all agree with Ed Morrissey's straight-out rejection of proportionality and, really, the core of just war theory, either.)

One important, although hard to describe, difference lies in the point of view of the moralist. Catholic tradition has a sort of "as though seen by the angels in heaven" standpoint to it - I think of it almost as just war theory as a "managerialist" way of approaching conflict, not exactly neutral, but removed from the parties. There is an important intellectual history to this; one which draws upon the Church as the moral arbiter, at least sometimes, among the squabbling princedoms of Christendom. It also, of course, draws upon the Christian conception of a God who is no respecter of persons. I do not mean by this that the Vatican sees itself, as Joseph Bottum, editor of the Catholic journal First Things, wrote last week in the Weekly Standard, as having a foreign policy agenda, one which happens, at this moment, to be deeply interested in placating and finding common ground with Muslims - although certainly that is true. I mean a deeper, theological commitment to just war theory as a managerial theory whose moral standpoint is, in Thomas Nagel's famous phrase, the "view from nowhere." (If you find I am making no sense here, well, you may be right. Did I say this blog is all first draft?)

Walzer presents an alternative version of theory - in some respects different as to the normative criteria of the just war, but perhaps more importantly different with respect to the 'moral point of view'. Not so very different, in one sense, but very different in another. I discuss it below; the brief point is that Walzer, as he once remarked to me at the end of a conference a couple of years ago, is not presenting a "full" theory of justice and war. That, despite the name of his book. It is, rather, a theory of resistance to aggression. It takes, in subtle and not subtle ways, the point of view of the resistor, not that of God in his heavens. Despite being a theory of rights in war, it is not a Kantian theory. It does not take the wholly objective point of view; it seeks to apply objective moral criteria, but seeks to do so from the viewpoint of a particular actor, those who resist aggression. Nowhere is this distinction more important than in Walzer's insistence - as un-Catholic just war a sentiment as one could make, one distinctly alien, for example, to Professor Bainbridge's moral remove - that all things being equal, a political community is not only entitled to resist aggression, it should do so. That is not a Catholic sentiment, not a Christian sentiment. I don't mean here Christian in the sense of turn the other cheek but, rather, Christian in the sense of the Christian seeking to stand in the moral position of a removed God. And it is that aspect of Walzer's thinking that makes it secular, rather than religious - not the fact that he does not invoke God, but the fact that the moral viewpoint never leaves the planet earth.

As I say below, this element of Walzer's thought - I acknowledge that I am reconstructing Walzer's meta-thought to construct my own position here, and don't want to suggest that he would necessarily agree with the 'moral point of view' point - draws us back to three figures who might not otherwise seem very related - Lincoln, and two Frenchmen, Albert Camus and the poet and contemporary and great friend of Camus', Rene Char. (I have said a lot about Char on this blog - I have more or less taken over his terribly expressive phrase for the moral condition of war - "this time of damned algebra," Char called it in his WWII diary as a Resistance fighter, Leaves of Hypnos.) I won't try to explain the relationship with Char here. But Camus insisted, especially in the closing sections of The Rebel as well as in letters in the collection Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, that our moral task was to find a way to be simultaneously of the earth and yet, in some sense, objective - objective in our judgments and yet committed in our human engagements, including our political ones.

As for Lincoln, well, I refer to the Second Inaugural Address, and the most difficult passage in it, in which Lincoln says in nearly the same breath, let us press on to finish the work we are in - the most sanguinary war this country has yet seen - sure in the right, as God gives us to see the right. Lincoln seems here to be seeking to steer a course between moral relativism and moral absolutism. He concedes neither to the proposition that however we see the right, it is how we see it and anyway it is what God gave us; nor does he concede that we should unthinkingly go forward in war to its bloody conclusion, unreflectively. (I once tried to express this better in a Times Literary Supplement review of books on the Second Inaugural Address - not on SSRN, but available from my law school academic site, here.)

What I mean to say, here, and in the reposted comments below, is that there are versions of just war theory that are subtly different, at the metalevel, from Catholic versions of the theory. Not just the doctrinal collapse of Catholic just war theory in the hands, for example, of American bishops into a form of what George Weigel has aptly called, in his marvelous book Tranquillitas Ordinis, functional pacifism - or what Joseph Bottum describes as the Vatican's foreign policy adventures. But different versions of the theory that take seriously rights, while differing on how much the theory should take into account the moral point of view.

I should add, too, that apart from Walzer, the scholar from whom I have most learned about the just war is James Turner Johnson, who, unlike Walzer, puts just war theory firmly within an intellectual and moral tradition rather than, as Walzer does, making it an essentially ahistorical theory of rights (this sounds peculiar, given that Walzer proceeds by historical cases, but the cases are there for casuistry, not as a source of the intellectual history of the doctrine).

The repost:

Judith in London asks a good question concerning the traditional criteria of the just war. Where, she asks, does the "likelihood of success" criterion come from?

The traditional criteria - they can be stated and parsed in different ways, of course - are (1) just cause (2) just authority (3) just intent (4) just conduct (5) likelihood of success (6) good outweighing evil consequences. You can state these differently and you can add several more, such as the requirement, popular nowadays in some circles, of a "just peace."

As I've stated them here, however, numbers 5 and 6 are consequences-based criteria. That is, they are concerned not with rights as such, but instead with the consequences that might occur even if one is, indeed, exercising one's moral rights. Christian just war theory has traditionally accepted that the criteria of the just war are "mixed" as between those which are about the enforcement and defense of one's rights and the rights of a political community - just cause, for example - and those which are about taking into account ultimate real world consequences. Sometimes the consequentialist criteria are referred to as "prudential," although that has seemed to me to underplay that they are indeed moral criteria, albeit of a different sort.

Likelihood of success matters, on traditional just war theory, because, it is said, if you can predict reliably in advance that your fight is suicidally destined to lose, then you should not engage in the evils that will inevitably result from the fact of fighting alone. The fight might be a just attempt to vindicate your moral and political and legal rights - but if it is obviously doomed from the start, then you should avoid it even at the price of injustice.

Judith asks why Michael Walzer does not give an account of this in Just and Unjust Wars. In part the answer is that the book is not really concerned with accounting for the traditional criteria of the just war at all; it is a narrower theory than that (in a certain sense, and a wider one than just war theory, in another), a theory of resistance to aggression. More importantly, however, Walzer does not accept this traditional Christian constraint on the attempted vindication of rights. Walzer might say that this is because, as a factual matter, apparently lost causes turn out not to be lost after all - who would have thought, for example, that Churchill would come back to win and, for that matter, Europe was quite convinced that the North could never win the civil war and thought it a matter of moral obligation to intervene to end the killing.

But in fact Walzer means something much stronger in moral rights terms - his argument is not factual in principle, but a matter of basic moral principle. He says, at the opening of chapter 4, p. 51:

"The wrong the aggressor commits is to force men and women to risk theirlives for the sake of their rights .... Groups of citizens respond in differentways to that choice, sometimes surrendering, sometimes fighting, depending onthe moral and material conditions of their state and army. But they are always justified in fighting; and in most cases, given that harsh choice, fighting is the preferred moral outcome."

Walzer grants that citizens may decide not to fight, and likelihood of lack of success may be their motivating reason, but he reserves to them the right to fight absolutely and lauds the preference to fight no matter what. Indeed, he goes on to say that it is the "justification and the [moral] preference" for fighting that "account for the most remarkable features of the concept of aggression." (p. 51) (It is hard to believe that Walzer was not thinking in this passage of the failure of the French to fight in the Battle of France.)

Given this kind of language, it seems evident that Walzer does not regard the criterion of likelihood of success - a consequentialist criterion - as having the power to modify how people should act to vindicate rights in the way that the medieval Christian theologians did. Given that Christian theology is not exactly warm to consequentialist arguments much of the time, what might account for the fact that Christian theology accepts it here as against rights-language more than Walzer will allow?

The deepest reason, I believe, has to do with the moral viewpoint from which one views war - the moral place on which one stands to look at war. The Christian fathers, by the nature of their moral place, inevitably see war from the standpoint of God in Heaven, from above, and this "outside" of humanity standpoint makes it much easier for them - altogether curiously, I emphasize - to consider the costs and consequences of war without regard to rights, given that so many innocents in war suffer. It is easy to imagine the angels in heaven simply writing off the right and wrongs of war and instead seeing only the costs of war - calling for an end to the bloodshed as being the most important thing, even if there are indeed rights and wrongs - they, after all, will get sorted out later, in the final judgment of souls. (I am reminded just a little of the great Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt's 1950s play, An Angel Comes to Babylon.)

Unsurprisingly, this is how Christian theologians of mainstream persuasion tend to see war today - they tend to leave aside the actual reasons for war in order to focus on the costs to innocents and hence rarely find war justified, finding nealry always that it fails that other test of consequences, greater good than evil.

Walzer, by contrast, is in his moral "location," if I can describe it as such, much more like the great secular moralistes, Albert Camus above all, and Rene Char as well, who refuse to depart, as it were, to the heavens, but remain on earth and locate themselves morally in the struggle between right and wrong, good and evil. In that case, the consequentialist considerations about war, so easily visible from the remoteness of heaven, seem much less important than the nearby, concrete causes of war here on earth.Yet we want it both ways - and this is true of Walzer as it is true of the ancient theologians. The differences are in degree - profound differences of degree - but certainly Walzer will not say that consequences are irrelevant, nor do the ancient theologians write off the discourse of rights which is, after all, the natural language of natural law. Far from it; all hands admit it is a mixed theory, seeking to vindicate plural moral goods.

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