A Conversation on War and Ethical Theory

© by Dr. Jan Garrett

Last Revised: May 5, 2010

Dramatis Personae

Mohandas

Pacifism: the view that there are no conditions under which fighting in a war would be just. Pacifists are opposed in principle to participating in a war. Mohandas is named after Mohandas Gandhi, the well-known Indian advocate of nonviolent civil disobedience and leader of the Indian movement for independence from Great Britain.

Colleen

Political realism. This is actually two views, both related to the idea of collective (in this case, national) self-interest.
Descriptive political realism (DPR): nation-states in fact act only in their own perceived self-interests. We can distinguish two versions of DPR.
Unqualified DPR: states always act in their own perceived interests in everything they do.

Qualified DPR: states normally act in their own perceived interests but occasionally respond to moral considerations that do not obviously contribute to optimizing their own self-interest.

Prescriptive political realism (PPR): nation-states should only act in their own self-interests.
PPR entails that it would be wrong to advocate an approach to international relations that appeals to moral values (apart from one's own nation's interests).

Colleen is named after the "collective egoist" form of consequentialism, of which PPR is an expression.

Hugo
Just War Theory (JWT). An approach to war is considered a just war approach if it holds that entrance into a war, combatant conduct during a war, and/or action by a war-fighting state at the end of a war (1) is subject to evaluation by moral criteria and (2) systematically tries to provide such criteria. The parts of JWT include jus ad bellum (several parts), jus in bello (two main parts), and (a recent development) jus post bellum.

Just war theories are incompatible with PPR, unqualified versions of DPR, and pacifism.

Hugo is named after Hugo Grotius, an important theorist of international law, whose book On the Law of War and Peace (early 17th century), was an important milestone in the evolution of just war theory.

Marcos
Critical Theory of War (Version I).

States conduct wars to serve the perceived interests of their elites. Most theories of war fail to address this issue. They promote the illusion that wars serve collective national interests or the interests of the common people. The real reasons for war vary, but often include geopolitical domination and control of relatively scarce resources. States are designed by elites to serve their interests. Occasionally, as an afterthought or in order more cleverly to serve those interests, the elites make minor concessions to members of non-elite classes. (This mostly descriptive theory tries to get people to see how the prominent normative theories of war usually serve an unjust status quo.)

Marcos is named after Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista National Liberation Army based in Chiapas Mexico.

Samir
Critical Theory of War (Version II).

Marcos is right about the current geopolitical situation. But another arrangement is possible. There can be no social justice as long as the current arrangement is in place. There can be no lasting peace without social justice, only peace of the grave.

The solution requires a multipolar world to replace the unipolar world dominated by the Triad* and the remaining Superpower. Regions of the world—in the Global South especially—must establish relations based on partnership, equal exchange, and negotiation with each other. At the same time, the peoples of the South must develop their own democratic institutions, which they control.

The new world will be radically democratic or it will not exist at all. States in this new world must respect human rights or it will not be democratic.

Samir is named after Samir Amin, a political economist and geopolitical theorist born in Egypt but based, for a long time, in Senegal.

The Dialogue

Moderator

Our panel today consists of Mohandas, who takes the pacifist position, Colleen who defends political realism, Hugo, who is a just war theorist, and Marcos and Samir, who take a two critical theory perspectives.

Mohandas

My view is that there are no conditions under which fighting in a war would be right. Violence is the manifestation of evil in the world. I am opposed in principle to participating in a war.

Colleen

I am a political realist. I start from the fact that people are organized into nation-states in order to pursue their own interests. In fact, the nation-state is a sort of quasi-individual made up of individual human beings. At the national level, we should make intelligent choices in ways that best serve our national interests. I think that, as a matter of fact, states normally act in their own perceived interests. My position is that they should always do so, and do so as intelligently as possible.

Hugo

I belong to the just war tradition. My view is that some wars are just wars, that is, wars that meet conditions that it is reasonable to demand for the moral conduct of states. An approach to war is considered a just war approach if it holds that entrance into a war, combatant conduct during a war, and/or action by a war-fighting state at the end of a war (1) is subject to evaluation by moral criteria and (2) systematically tries to provide such criteria.

Marcos

In my view, which takes the perspective of oppressed people everywhere, states conduct wars to serve the perceived interests of their elites. Most theories of war fail to address this issue. They promote the illusion that wars serve collective national interests or the interests of the common people. The real reasons for war vary, but often include geopolitical domination and control of relatively scarce resources. States are designed by elites to serve their interests. Occasionally, as an afterthought or in order more cleverly to serve those interests, the elites make minor concessions to members of non-elite classes.

Mod

Mohandas, how do you justify your pacifist stand?

Mohandas

People who engage in violence fail to respect other persons. They fail to recognize the duty to love our neighbors as ourselves. I must add that nonviolence is not passive-it is an acquired skill or ability to act compassionately and treat other people justly. I don't see any basic distinction between morality in daily life and morality across national lines.

Marcos

I admire the way in which Mohandas organized the people of India to engage in large-scale nonviolent demonstrations to disrupt the operation of British oppression and to expose the injustice of British rule over India. But I suspect that in other contexts, pacifism would serve only to ensure that oppressors remain in power because it denies to the oppressed the option to use defensive force even in cases when a measured use of force is no more likely to encourage counter-violence than nonviolent disobedience.

Hugo

It is the just war view that nations may defend themselves against aggressors. If one nation attacks another to get control of its resources, that has no justification.

Marcos

What is not clear, Hugo, is whether on your view an oppressed population that lacks a state of its own, has any right to resist its oppressors.

Mod

Colleen, how do you respond to the charge that your political realism is amoral?

Colleen

Moral considerations may be relevant for individuals who are interacting within national boundaries. We political realists think that it's na´ve to expect a people to make decisions based on moral considerations for persons outside their own nation-states. People's ability to put themselves in the shoes of others is radically limited.

We political realists don't necessarily advocate aggression toward, or exploitation of, other national groups, by the way. Our so-called collective egoism does not advocate a stupid pursuit of illusory self-interest. There is much to be said for peaceful relationships and cooperation between states, so long as it can be achieved.

For the most part, we see the expediency of adhering to the norms of so-called international law. But let's not mistake international law for the mind of God. These are just rules that have come into existence by informal agreement among nations who interact with one another economically and militarily on the international stage.

Hugo

It seems to me that, however enlightened political realists start out, their very manner of reasoning is manipulative. They tend to regard those outside their own group, in this case, citizens and leaders of other countries, as beings to be manipulated and used. This makes adherence to treaties and other international agreements extremely unstable. Although Colleen may favor enlightened, intelligent political realism, once the so-called realist habit of thought catches on, its tendency to regard other peoples as means only may be promoted outside the ranks of the political realists themselves. Less cautious pseudo-realists may attain power and decide to violate international law for the sake of a short-sighted notion of the nation's gain. They mistakenly judge that they can get away with it. If they are not mistaken in thinking they can get away with it in the short run, their conduct encourages similar conduct of others.

Marcos

Political realism is basically misleading because it fails to differentiate between the elite groups within a state and those with little or no power. Nations rarely act in their collective self-interests, that is, in the interests of the majority of the population including the least advantaged members of society. They typically act in the interests of an already dominant group and try to convince the rest of the population that they are acting in the national interest.

Moderator

Hugo, please explain to us the basic ideas of just war theory.

Hugo

The just war theory asserts that there are two major sets of moral criteria that must be followed if a military action is to be considered just. Some JW theorists think there is a third set, which I'll mention briefly soon.

First, there are the criteria of jus ad bellum, right conduct related to going to war. This includes just cause (about which more later), legitimate authority, right intention, last resort, and proportionality. If you like, we'll discuss the second set first.

Moderator

Yes, do so. I imagine one can do that more quickly.

Hugo

Perhaps. The second set of criteria are those governing jus in bello, right conduct during war. This includes a second rule of proportionality and respecting the difference between combatants and noncombatants. Jus in bello rules out deliberate targeting of noncombatants-harm to noncombatants may not be used as a means to achieve the ends of the war-and demands that combatants take all reasonable steps to minimize unintended harm to noncombatants.

Moderator

Does jus in bello rule out terrorism?

Hugo

It does, insofar as terrorism is defined by its aim of causing harm to noncombatants for the purpose of achieving political aims.

Marcos

Then you recognize that states themselves can engage in terrorism, either apart from or alongside a more conventional war?

Hugo

It is possible.

Marcos

So terrorism is not only a tool used by non-state groups.

Hugo

By definition, it seems to be something that states can use.

Marcos

But only in violation of just war theory.

Hugo

Targeting noncombatants is wrong no matter who does it.

Colleen

From the political realist perspective, targeting noncombatants may be a bad idea, because of its negative long-term consequences for the national interest, but it is not in violation of any natural moral law we are morally bound to respect.

Moderator

Hugo, explain the third set of criteria and then let's discuss the first more carefully.

Hugo

The third set of criteria has been recently proposed. I think it is a good addition. These relate to justice at the end of a war. According to this set, jus post bellum, there are moral limits to what a victor can impose upon a loser. Even if the loser began the war unjustly, the victor cannot impose a dictatorship upon the loser. The victor cannot strip the loser of its industrial assets or natural resources or impose an obligation of reparations upon the loser so great as to make the loser a permanent subordinate to the victor.

Moderator

Ok, let's talk now about jus ad bellum

Hugo

The war must be declared by a legitimate authority. Not a private individual, not a branch of the government that is constitutionally excluded from declaring war.

Marcos

Note how convenient this rule is for the elites who happen to control the established government.

Hugo

The war must be for a just cause. The most commonly recognized just cause is defense against aggression.

Colleen

Is offensive war ever justified?

Hugo

There are borderline cases in which preemptive strikes are justified, for instance, if an aggressor nation is on the verge of striking and doing immense damage to one's country, then one may defend by attacking the aggressor's military installations even if one has not been directly attacked oneself.

Marcos

Note how convenient this rule is for aggressors: they can simply say that the victim country was preparing to attack them even if it is not true.

Moderator

OK, legitimate authority, just cause. What other criteria must be met before a nation has a right to go to war?

Hugo

Just intention and last resort. In just intention, the aim must be to restore the international balance of the rights of states which has been upset by aggression. Intentions are unjust when the aim of the war-making power is to establish itself as the global superpower or gain access to resources to which it would not otherwise have a right. In last resort, the nation declaring war must have tried all reasonable means to avoid relying military force in service of its just aims.

Moderator

Proportionality.

Hugo

This is the utilitarian or consequentialist aspect of JWT. The war-making power must carefully determine that the net benefits of waging the war will outweigh the net benefits of other options available to it. And in considering the benefits and costs, decision-makers must weigh not only the benefits and costs to the country waging war, but also the benefits and costs to the citizens of the enemy power and to the other members of the international community.

Moderator

Just at the beginning of the war.

Hugo

No, periodically, during the conduct of the war. If it appears that the original calculation was incorrect, one must rethink one's choices in light of new information.

Marcos

So it may have been just to declare war in January but in May, because new information shows that the war will likely produce far more harm than anticipated, it becomes unjust to continue it?

Hugo

That could happen.

Marcos

This sounds reasonable but it rarely happens in practice when one of the belligerents is much more powerful than the other. Countries at war are rarely very sensitive to the suffering of citizens outside their own boundaries.

Hugo

JWT is prescriptive. It makes no predictions about how belligerents will actually behave.

Moderator

Marcos, I can tell that you are critical of JWT. Please explain to us why.

Marcos

Just War Theory is a theory devised by international lawyers, or philosophers trying to act like experts in international law. They are trying to adapt notions of international law to establish a theory of morality applicable to warfare. The effort is doomed in advance because international law is essentially law designed to deal with relationships between states. It assumes that most existing states are organized according to rationally defensible principles of justice. But this is doubtful.

States are established by elites to serve the interests of elites. In some cases, they do so by maintaining the pretense of democratic control and participation by the masses of ordinary citizens. But that's just what it is, pretense. The elites control the political options and in most cases they control the media that determine which ideas receive an audience and which ideas do not. Just War theory, like international law generally, is no more in line with genuine human interests and needs than are the states that make up the so-called international community.

JWT creates an illusion as to what is happening when states go to war. States do sometimes try to justify what they are doing by citing JWT. But it is almost never the case that the factors considered good reasons in JWT are the real reasons that the parties are going to war.

Besides, the principles of JWT are general enough that one can always find lawyers for any side of the dispute to provide a JW rationale for whatever a major power wants to do. To make a case for aggression, all one has to do is exaggerate the threat posed by the country one wants to invade.

Hugo

Even if what you say is true, Marcos, you have not offered an alternative to pacifism, political realism, or just war theory.

Marcos

Until humanity can devise a political system that is more responsive to concerns for justice and environmental sustainability than the present system of nation-states, I am content to expose the illusions and pretenses that other theories encourage. Your theories will perhaps do less damage if they are not accompanied by self-deception by the elites and deception of the masses.

Samir

Marcos is right about the current geopolitical situation. But another arrangement is possible.

The real problem is that the current world is characterized by economic arrangements in which the major concentrations of wealth and power, large corporations in the countries of the Triad—the United States, Western Europe, and Japan—are motivated overwhelmingly by a drive to maximize their economic growth, which is generally incompatible with a rising standard of living for the vast majority of humanity, most of whom live in the Global South—Asia, Africa, Latin America.

The Triad countries and the large corporations, including the large banks, based in them have effective monopoly control over global assets in the following areas: the global financial system, communications, technology, natural resources, and military force. The most powerful politicians and government officials in the Triad countries are, for all practical purposes, employees of the large corporations.

There can be no social justice as long as the current arrangement is in place. There can be no lasting peace without social justice, only peace of the grave.

The only reasonable middle-term possibility is a multipolar world, which requires that regions of the world currently under the direct or indirect control of the Triad detach themselves from the domination of the Triad. As they do this, they must begin to construct a more equal world order through negotiation and equal exchange among themselves.

At the same time, the peoples of the south must develop their own democratic institutions, which they control. The new world will be radically democratic or it will not exist at all. The world must respect human rights or it will not be democratic. These human rights include social and economic rights as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, although that document may need to be updated, for instance, to include a more explicit statement of the rights of women and the right of small farmers to land, a right to food and water and, in general, a right to a livable environment.

The United Nations has recently been sidelined as the Triad carries out its own global projects through NATO. A renovated United Nations is required as a forum to negotiate a multipolar world order and to develop instruments to police it. The UN Security Council must especially be reformed. Currently dominated by its "permanent members," most of which were colonial powers in the World War II period, it is a relic of an undemocratic past.


* The Triad is the United States, the economically powerful countries of Western Europe, and Japan. The United States plays a special role in the Triad, controlling its military arm.