Sunday, February 25, 2007

Comparing Walzer's just war theory and the traditional Christian just war criteria, Feb 27 class notes

Here's what I propose to discuss in the February 27 class:

I asked you to read two different bodies of stuff. First, Walzer, chapters three and four. These chapters take up what Walzer thinks is essentially wrong with war. He says war is wrong because war is hell, but he gives war is hell a meaning fundamentally different from anything I mentioned in last class's gloss on Sherman's "war is hell." War is hell, for Walzer, fundamentally because it coerces people, combatants and noncombatants alike, in ways that are unjust and which violate their rights. War is hell because, as he says, war is a form of tyranny. This is quite different from any of the readings of that phrase I suggested last week.

This is to say, Walzer thinks that war is fundamentally wrong not because of its bad consequences primarily - of course he acknowledges them, but they are not the sum total of his objection - but because it violates rights. The question is how it violates rights, and Walzer says, well, one way to consider how it violates rights is to consider those (marginal) forms of warfare that do not violate rights - wars consisting of consenting participants who conceive of it as a game.

As we discussed last class, that participation might still be wrong - indeed wicked - but to kill in those circumstances is not necessarily unjust or a violation of rights. (We might think of duelling, for example.) But Walzer confines our consideration of what is wrong with war fundamentally to the question of rights. A theologian - not necessarily Christian, in fact - might object that this is not enough - you cannot give consent to kill or be killed as in a game, because you consent to something that is not yours to consent to. Whereas Walzer is focused on a contemporary and secular way of making out the argument against war, by asserting the idea that what matters in war, and what makes war wrong, is its violation of rights, as evidenced by the lack of consent in nearly all wars. Consent, liberty, freedom for oneself - these are all paradigmatically values of secular modernity - and very different, and providing a different account of the wrongness of war, from the religious view that one's life, and others' lives, belong to God.

This idea that war is a form of tyranny, and a deprivation of rights thereby is a powerful one. It allows Walzer to generate a powerful, and powerfully secular, form of rights discourse by which to talk about what is okay and not okay in deciding to make war, and in conducting war itself. But the move to limit the discourse to a rights discourse also limits the moral impulses, so to speak, on which Walzer's theory draws - and means that it is not really the whole tradition of just war thought and its criteria, which is presumably part of the reason that Walzer does not anywhere lay out the traditional criteria of the just war - the five, six, or more requirements that are usually asserted as the criteria of the just war. He does not do so - in a brief conversation with me at a conference once several years, he sort of said so - because although he is looking for a way to provide a secular theory of the just war that relies on rights but not on God, it is (deliberately) not a full theory of the ethics of war. It is concerned with a particular issue, the violation of rights, the violation of rights that arises from unjustified aggression, and resistance to aggression. Walzer's theory is really a theory of resistance to aggression. That is a very large consideration, to be sure. But the tradition of the just war, with its consideration of overall consequences, of prudence, of many historical, political, etc., factors that stretch far beyond a consideration of rights, even to resist aggression, is actually much broader than that.

2. This gets ahead of ourselves, however. Let us now turn from Walzer, and look at the addition readings I gave - from James Turner Johnson, mostly, who is a famous historian of religion and the just war tradition at Rutgers University - in order to state the tradition in its historical form. You'll notice that Johnson offers, in one of those readings, a critique of the limits of Walzer's rights based approach - notably that it is profoundly ahistorical. So, what are the traditional criteria? (We'll walk through them in class, first in summary, and then over the next couple of classes we'll go over them one by one.)

3. What are the differences you can see between these criteria and Walzer's theory? One example of the differences can be found in Walzer's very strong claim that all things being equal, one should resist aggression, and that one is always justified in doing so, even presumably in a losing cause. The traditional just war criteria do not say that. On the contrary, they say one should calculate the likelihood of success, and if it looks like a hopeless cause, one should consider the total consequences, even as against permitting injustice, and consider not fighting. Why are these things so different? I do not think this is a minor difference in assessing factors of just war theory - my view is that this goes to the very heart of Walzer's secular theory of the rights of political communities, versus a religious tradition in which the right action ought to be assessed from the point of view not of a political community, but trying to see with the eyes of God and the angels, as it were, - from the outside, looking down on the total conflict. Am I right about this? (I write about this a little bit on my blog - I'll post the reference later.)

4. Thus, Walzer is one version of a rights based just war theory; the religious traditions of Christianity offer not just one but several other possibilities. I stress that this is a tradition - it is a framework for arguing about war's ethics, not a calculus. You don't simply plop in some values for this or that and, click, out pops an answer. It is a tradition that invites very different moral conclusions about particular wars and their circumstances, depending on how you read the facts, of course, but also depending on how you interpret and read the moral values themselves. For one thing, in part this is a tradition about rights and justice, but it is also consequentialist - as, it would seem to most of us, any discussion of war must partly be - and also about prudence. It is about individuals and their rights, political communities and their rights, and consequences and prudence, and even including Thucydides 'argument upon your safety'. I would hate anyone to come away from this discussion thinking that this framework yields one simple answer; an essential part of this class is being able to articulate different answers that might come out of this same framework.

Okay, where we go from here is to walk back through the criteria one by one and fill in what they mean, or might mean.

No comments: