Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Walzer and realism - notes for Just War class, February 13

Below are discussion notes I circulated to my law school just war theory class for February 13. Because not everyone has had a basic undergraduate course in ethics, I usually start out with some basic ethics 101 discussion, before moving to ethics and war.

Essential ethics theory background. I want to go back (big surprise!) and add one more element to the thumbnail sketch of the moral theories at play in discussing the ethics of war.

I first raised something that is not actually a "moral" consideration at all - prudence, self-interest, what's good for me - in order to distinguish it from moral considerations, questions of good and bad, right and wrong.

Second, I divided the moral questions into two main theories - two main ways of answering the question "what is right and good?" - into consequentialist theories and deontological (for our purposes, rights based) theories. The difference between those two? Very (very) roughly:

Consequentialism says, the right or good action is the one that produces the best consequences in the real world - usually some slogan like, "greatest good for the greatest number," or, as Mr. Spock put it (as he was dying), "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one." Utilitarianism is perhaps the most widely known version of this theory, and Jeremy Bentham or Mill its classical exponents, with someone like Peter Singer as a contemporary adherent.

In many ways, this is a deeply attractive philosophy and applied by many social reformers in ways that continue to benefit all of us. However ... it also leaves this considerable problem, what I identified as the "Let's chop Forrest up for his body parts" - our needs might outweigh his, but somehow we still generally think it's wrong. We don't think he "owes" us his body - it's him and it's his - and we usually express this by saying that people have certain fundamental rights. Including not to get snatched for your body parts even if it would save the rest of us. Rights theory is not the only deontological - duty-based - theory, but it's the one that will principally interest us in exploring Walzer's rights-based theory of the ethics of war.

So we have consequentialist answers to the question of what the right and good should be. But we also have answers which say, well, sure, consequences are important, but they do not always settle things - in at least some circumstances, we look not to consequences but to a person's rights, which effectively override what a consequentialist answer would be. An assertion of rights is one form of this alternative to consequentialism. Note that even a rights-theorist is not indifferent to consequences - but holds that they do not always settle things.

What I now want to add to this picture builds on something I mentioned in class and moves in a quite different direction. Viz., that when we deal with groups of people - political communities, for example - then the prudential thing can also be, in a certain sense, also a matter of morality. When you act in a way that, in one sense, is self interested, in your own interest, but do so on behalf of people to whom you owe obligations, for whom you have responsibility, then those actions also take on a very important moral quality.

Here's the new wrinkle. When it comes to war, very often, responsibilities for others, for the political community, is very important. But it is more than just a "responsibility." It is, indeed, a bond of emotion, feeling, bonds of affection, and genuinely love. Yet, strikingly, although what appear to be "prudential" considerations are able to encompass bonds of affection, neither of our two genuinely "moral" theories has a very easy time doing so. It is a problem which has been much discussed in moral philosophy in the past 25 years.

If you are a consequentialist, you should be looking for best total consequences - and it should not matter that you save or don't save your husband, your wife, your child, your anything. Consequentialism is very unforgiving of personal relationships.

Yet the same is true of rights theories - and that strand of deontology that arises from Kant - it is an ethics of duty alone, irrespective of affection. Did anyone read that little snippet of Arthur Rex that I posted in the discussion board? It was my ironic Valentine's Day post, a snippet in which Arthur says to Merlin that he will marry Guinnevere and remain faithful to her, whether he loves her or not because, if he has made a vow, her "identity being irrelevant." It turns love into an impersonal duty, and Merlin is highly skeptical. It is as though Arthur proposes to marry not Guinnevere, but instead his marriage vow itself. It's an amusing exchange because we, with Merlin, understand that this is a matter of love, not duty, and that in love identity of person always matters.

The point is that when it comes to war, the sacrifices of war, what persuades people to march off to war, is often the belief in bonds of affection. It is very hard for an ethics of war to really account for how we actually feel about war without taking into account the feelings people in a political community have for one another and that community. Sometimes it blinds them to fighting for an unjust cause, or to fight unjustly, but often it is what motivates them to resist evil on the other side.

As we move into the ethical discussion, one of the very difficult questions for our two moral theories is how affection is built in. Christian tradition says that war can sometimes be an aspect of Christian love, the defense of another; Christianity, unlike our two moral theories, is not an ethics of consequences nor even, surprisingly, an ethics of duty, but an ethics of virtue and acting from the proper virtuous motivation.

Walzer's realism. That said, we turn to realism, both IR realism and ethical realism. In Tuesday's discussion, I want to consider two different parts of Walzer's discussion in order to understand his view of realism and how it connects the prudential realism of a descriptive theory of international relations and an ethical realism that provides, in Walzer's view, the warrant for unlimited war. So:

The Melian dialogue. What is it, what are the claims on both sides? In particular, what is the meaning of those very, very slippery terms - necessity, nature, the nature of necessity, a necessity of nature, and natural necessity? Walzer reads the Melian dialogue in light of Hobbes especially. The argument connects IR realism with ethical realism in the following way. IR realism asserts that the world of international relations, the world of international states, is essentially the Hobbesian state of nature, anarchy, nasty, brutish and short, as Hobbes said, and as someone else said, 'every man for himself and God against all'. If that is the correct description, and if there is no possibility of coming out of that state of nature into an ordered society ruled by a sovereign to impose the rule of law, then we are governed by nature. And the law of nature is that whatever you do to survive is okay. This is natural necessity. A descriptive predicate about the state of the international order is conjoined with a moral predicate about what is morally okay in the state of nature, and the result is, well, anything to survive - and the result is the possibility of unlimited war.

We will try to look back to the Melian dialogue and see if this helps to explain the arguments made there.

(Notice that the Hobbesian argument in the context of political communities in international anarchy makes, in some respects, an even stronger argument for unlimited war in the state of nature than mere individuals do. This is so if one accepts, as I mentioned above, that the apparently merely prudential argument for survival is actually partly a moral argument insofar as the political community bears responsibility for the safety of its members. An individual in the state of nature might take risks with his or her individual life that, as a moral matter, the trustees (literally) of the political community might believe they have no right to take because of their obligations to their members. The result might be an even greater propensity to war.)
(Notice that the moral argument introduces the possibility of another solution to the ethics of war - one that Walzer does not seriously consider, but which is the preferred liberal internationalist solution - let us leave the anarchy of the international system and create a genuine society that will have a sovereign and the rule of law. We will talk about this later in the term; I am very skeptical of this, but it, liberal internationalism is the preferred alternative for many.)

Next week: Sherman's 'war is hell'. I want you to think imaginatively about ways in which this phrase can be understood as an argument about the morality of when and how to fight wars. I will suggest three - only two of which are, curiously, really truly "realist." But you may come up with others.


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