Thursday, April 24, 2008

Just War Theory

Okay I realize this is a really long post, but I plan to continue to post work from class to keep some fresh content and conversation starters up.

Just War Theory is a series of ethical guidelines designed as a moral framework for both when war can be waged, as well as how war ought to be conducted. It addresses questions such as: how much force is appropriate; who can wage war; who are legitimate targets; and, what are just causes for going to war? Just War Theory is not a set of enforceable rules like speed limits and building codes, but rather reasonable moral principals that attempt to circumvent unnecessary conflict and restrain excessive force in warfare (Moseley, 2006). As an idea, Just War Theory is as old as warfare itself, growing from simple codes of honor among soldiers, to a defined compendium of ideas that can be held up as an example as well as offer accountability to all nations.

In Just War Theory, “Just” refers to the moral argument for or against war; that is, to justify a war one must show it to be morally defensible. Therefore, before an argument can be made for or against war as it relates to Just War Theory, the question, “what is moral?” must be answered.

Philosophers, humanitarians, and clergy have debated morality for centuries. These scholars have put forth a multitude of arguments concerning ethics by either trying to show the source of morals, (such as God or culture) or by presenting and defending a system of ethical thought. Since the existence of God is not universally accepted, “because God said so” is not a satisfactory answer to moral questions. Furthermore, given the subjective nature of cultures, morals based on the opinion of a given culture are equally insufficient. This would lead to all kinds of self-contradicting ideas that would essentially reduce morals to a question of geography.

Given that not all people believe in God and are not all from the same culture, a reasonable ethical system of thought is the only viable authority of ethics that could be universally accepted. I will briefly highlight two of these ethical system, Utilitarianism and Kantian ethics, which I believe to be incomplete in themselves; and present wisdom, or Objectivism, as a necessary part the ethical puzzle. I will attempt to show that it is only with wisdom that ethical questions, such as the ones posed in Just War Theory can be answered without leading to moral contradiction or complete subjectivism.

The first ethical system, Utilitarianism, focuses on the outcome of actions and holds that one must act according to that which will produce the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people (Palmer, 2008). This methodology seems very sound because it requires that you take into account others happiness equally with your own. It would be hard to defend an ethical system that was completely self-focused as it could lead to a very subjective morality. (What ever brings me the most happiness.) The problem with Utilitarianism, however, lies in its open ended and sometimes counter intuitive nature.

Take for example the hypothetical situation of a wealthy terminally ill woman, whose estate will be left to her ten estranged children. Strictly adhering to utilitarian ethics, it would be moral to take her life even against her will, because her unhappiness would be far outweighed by the happiness of her children. No one would consider the killing of an innocent person as moral, but with the utilitarian system, if the taking of an innocent life would cause more happiness for more people, then it would be considered moral.

Now apply these principles to Just War Theory. Consider for instance the size and population of Israel, about 6.4 million, (Central Intelligence Agency, 2007) compared to its many larger neighboring countries that want it wiped off the map (MSNBC, 2005). How much “happiness” could be produced with the destruction of Israel? How much peace would be produced in that region, and in turn produce more happiness? With Utilitarianism, the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people is the moral measuring rod. This could lead to very cold and brutal war, because if great good could be accomplished, great evil could be justified. Now I am by no means suggesting that to ascribe to Utilitarianism is to be cold, after all even the strictest utilitarian is still human. I simply use these as examples of where Utilitarianism, under certain circumstances is insufficient in answering the complex issues raised in Just War Theory.

The Second ethical system I would like to explore is Kantian ethics. This system argues that it is not the outcome of your actions, but rather the intention behind them that are to be considered moral or immoral. To consider something as moral, based on the outcome of a situation is to lower ethics to simple subjective opinion. This nonconsequentialistic view of ethics is based on the idea that if something is truly moral, it must be universally moral (Palmer, 2008). As Immanuel Kant (1785) stated:
"There is, therefore, only one categorical imperative. It is: Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."

This certainly solves the drastic conclusions of Utilitarianism, because no one would universally allow the killing of the infirm or the destruction of so called, “problem” countries based on a majority benefit analysis. Where Kantian ethics falls short however, is under many circumstances its idealistic intentions can lead to a complete divorced from reality.

Let us apply this intention based categorical imperative to the, “give peace a chance” ideal. Many people who are completely opposed to war argue that there cannot be morality in war, because war by definition is immoral. In general, this argument against war holds that war is the violent taking or defending of ones land or resources, and violence is simply immoral. Therefore, if every country destroyed there weapons and swore off war as an option for resolving conflict, the world would be a more peaceful place. This seems to fit the categorical imperative and indeed would even satisfy a utilitarian objective; however, history and reality do not allow such naiveté to be considered very seriously. Violence has been around since the beginning of man and seems to be here to stay. To ignore violence or to not oppose it, (even violently) is to invite the worst of society to rule. As Cesare Beccaria (1764) the 18th century Italian criminal justice reformer stated: "False is the idea of utility that sacrifices a thousand real advantages for one imaginary or trifling inconvenience; that would take fire from men because it burns, and water because one may drown in it; that has no remedy for evils except destruction. The laws that forbid the carrying of arms are laws of such a nature. They disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crime." Because of the existence of evil, what can sometimes be used for evil must also be allowed. No matter how unpleasant, war is a necessary evil.

Neither a Utilitarian, nor a Kantian conception of ethics are adequate in answering the questions raised in Just War Theory because they lack the recognition of wisdom as a necessity to answer these questions. These systems attempt to break morals down into a mathematical equation, and assert that if you simply “solve for x” you can come to a moral conclusion. While “the greatest amount of good for the greatest number” creates a solid starting point for ethical thought, it is not sufficient for dealing with the complex issues of war. Without the wisdom of experience, and the consideration of history and human nature, we are left with a problem that simply has too many variables. As modern philosopher and founder of the philosophy of Objectivism, Ayn Rand (1982) stated: "Without abstract ideas, you would not be able to deal with concrete, particular, real-life problems. You would be in the position of a newborn infant, to whom every object is a unique, unprecedented phenomenon. The difference between his mental state and yours lies in the number of conceptual integrations your mind has performed. You have no choice about the necessity to integrate your observations, your experiences, your knowledge into abstract ideas, i.e., into principles. Your only choice is whether your principles are true or false, rational or irrational, consistent or contradictory." Rand argued that these rational integrations of our experiences do not provide an answer in themselves, but rather that they serve to guide us to an answer. Contrast this with the aforesaid equation style ethical systems that strive to find moral absolutism, but lead to moral contradiction.

To cast additional light on this concept, consider some of the possible scenarios in a wartime situation. In Iraq for instance, the enemy is often disguised and hiding among civilians. With the question raised in Just War Theory, “who are legitimate targets in war?”, this becomes a very complicated issue. How does one distinguish between friend and foe in these situations? War is often ugly and the battlefield is sometimes unclear. This creates a problem not only for the soldier staring down the sight of a gun, but also for the generals that have to make the decision as to where to strike the enemy. To attack the enemy while they are among civilians will most certainly lead to civilian casualties, but to take no action could ultimately lead to casualties of greater proportions.

The questions raised in Just War Theory cannot be answered with equation style ethics because the variables can never be fully known. We are therefore left with making the best decision we can with the information that we have, utilizing the wisdom of our experiences and guided by the principals defined in these ethical systems.

Some would argue that this wisdom directed ethical system is moral subjectivism; however, I am not arguing that this is the answer to finding moral absolutes. Given that all the facts in a situation can never be known, I do not believe moral absolutism can ever be reached. Much like a mathematical problem, the ability to solve an equation is contingent on all of the variables being present. However, in war there are an infinite number of variables that are simply unknowable. This is not a surrender to moral subjectivism, but rather recognition that some level of subjectivism is inescapable. Only through careful examination of the available facts, and consideration of the principles put forth in Just War Theory can we come to a defensible moral conclusion.

Sunday, April 20, 2008


Okay, since I am having trouble finding time to write, I have decided to start posting some of my work from my ethics class. Ethics is ultimately at the heart of my preoccupation with life, so it only seems fitting, (not to mention convenient.) and should provide some good topics for discussion. Let me know what you think.

Egoism is generally divided into two basic concepts: Descriptive, or psychological egoism, and normative, or ethical egoism. Psychological egoism is a theory about the human condition, and holds that people are by nature selfish and driven only by personal gain. Though people at times help each other and act unselfishly, according to psychological egoism it is only out of a selfish hope for a future payoff. This theory also excludes even the possibility of altruism, suggesting that acts of altruism are motivated only by the desire for the feeling of self-gratification, and are therefore ultimately selfish acts. This theory is unfortunately impossible to prove or disprove however, since a persons true motives cannot be known. Even if we think we know our own motives, there is always the possibility of some level of self-delusion possibly driven by guilt over our own selfishness. While selfishness is often an obvious driving force, and as much a part of the human condition as suffering, I believe it is a rather bleak perception of humanity, and that there is insufficient evidence to assert that we are 100% driven by selfishness.

The other form of egoism, ethical egoism, holds that we are not necessarily selfish by nature, (though it does not exclude this as a possible fact.) but rather that we ought to be selfish. Ethical egoism postulates that it is not only moral to act in ones own self interest, but that it would be immoral to expect someone to act contrary to their own interests. There are many arguments for this ethical theory, however many are built on the perceived notion that our nature is selfish. This falls short of a convincing argument that we ought to be selfish however, since as David Hume wrote in his, Treatise on Human Nature, “You cannot derive an ought from an is." Ultimately, ethical egoism seems to be more of an attempt to justify human nature, rather then an attempt to answer what is moral.