Tag Archives: just war theory


While reading Aquinas on War for a history of medieval philosophy class, I stopped over this gem:

Secondly, a man may be deceived by what we say or do, because we do not declare our purpose or meaning to him. Now we are not always bound to do this, since even in the Sacred Doctrine many things have to be concealed, especially from unbelievers, lest they deride it, according to Matthew 7:6: “Give not that which is holy, to dogs.” Wherefore much more ought the plan of campaign to be hidden from the enemy. For this reason among other things that a soldier has to learn is the art of concealing his purpose lest it come to the enemy’s knowledge, as stated in the Book on Strategy [Stratagematum i, 1 by Frontinus. Such like concealment is what is meant by an ambush which may be lawfully employed in a just war.

I suppose the idea of an ambush is not particularly inapt in argument–one might argue for a more palatable proposition only to reveal that the argument applies to something the listener finds less palatable.  So you thought I was arguing for vegetarianism but I was really arguing against abortion!

I’m not sure, however, whether this is the same thing.  One the one hand, the context of the ambush would suggest as much–an ambush is no good unless you attack.  On the other, hiding your view from scrutiny is the very opposite of engagement, that is, the very opposite of argument.

jus post argumentum

There exist times when arguments have winners and losers–well, winners in a practical or legal sense.  This distinction is important, because the vanquished will continue, at least some of them, to resent the victors, to continue to believe in the righteousness of their cause, and so on.  Take, for instance, the more recent of the Arizona Civil Rights issues: the attempt to forge a religious freedom law allowing businesses not to have to serve unclean women (isn’t that what they meant?). Speaking of the foolishness of such laws, George Will (half credit where due here), said the following on Fox News Sunday:

Chris Wallace: George, I think it’s fair to say that there are deeply felt positions on both sides of this debate. Religious freedom versus gay rights. We asked all of you for questions and we got this on Facebook from Dan Pletcher:

Dan Pletcher: With as many taxes as businesses have to pay, how does this government think they have any justification to tell a business who they will and won’t serve?

How, George, do you answer Dan? And more generally, how do you come down on this issue of religious freedom versus gay rights? George Will: Free exercise of religion against…a clash of rights and here is how I answer Dan. Fifty years ago this year, in one of surely the great legislative achievements in American history, we passed the Public Accommodations section of the Civil Rights Act saying, “if you open your doors to business in the United States, you open it to everybody.” That’s a settled issue and the prestige of that law, the just prestige of that law obtains and I think that’s where the American people come down. That said, this too must be said: It’s a funny kind of sore winner in the gay rights movement that would say, “A photographer doesn’t want to photograph my wedding and I’ve got lots of other photographers I could go to, but I’m going to use the hammer of government to force them to do this.” It’s not neighborly and it’s not nice. The gay rights movement is winning. They should be, as I say, not sore winners. Chris Wallace: But having said that, and I understand your point, but you do say that if a gay couple wants to go into a bakery and have a wedding cake, the bakery should have to make the cake. Will: Bake the cake Wallace: Bake the cake.

The appeal to the victors is interesting and a little troubling.  It’s also somewhat of a theme among conservative pundits (is there some kind of memo), for here’s Ross Douthat in the New York Times:

But it’s still important for the winning side to recognize its power. We are not really having an argument about same-sex marriage anymore, and on the evidence of Arizona, we’re not having a negotiation. Instead, all that’s left is the timing of the final victory — and for the defeated to find out what settlement the victors will impose.

I’m unaware of any discussions of this topic in argumentation literature; in any case, as my Google search demonstrates, no one has used the phrase “jus post argumentum” before.  So I wonder, I think there are rules for entering into arguments (just as there are rules for going to war), there obviously are rules for conduct in argument, hell, that’s what most of this stuff is about, so it seems, to pursue the just war argument a little further, there ought to be rules for when the argument is over. What would those be?  Well, aside from treating non-combatants with compassion, which Douthat and Will justly appeal to,  you’d think the victors have a right to demand certain conditions from the vanquished; they’ve earned that much by their victory.  Beyond this, victories entail a certain settling of accounts, including the punishing of the aggressors, reparations, and so on.  Not all arguments are just, after all, either in their declaration or in their prosecution.  It only makes sense that the losers suffer the consequences.

Masters of war

This morning, I caught the tail end of an NPR interview with David Kilcullen who has written Out of the Mountains, a book about war.  One point he made struck me: some people make conflict their business.  These people are conflict entrepreneurs.  I know this is kind of obvious–the masters of war and all–but you do not hear much about it in descriptions of conflicts.  You will hear about the reasons group x has gone to war with group y, but you will not hear about, as parties to the conflict, people whose interests lies in the conflict itself.  These people are war trolls.  He says:

And to me that’s a great example. Right now we have what I would call a lot of conflict entrepreneurs. They’re prolonging conflicts not because they want to win some political goal or because they want to change the form of government of a particular area, but just because they make a lot of money, they get a lot of power from conflict and they want to preserve that conflict to keep going. So I think part of it is about shifting people away from being conflict entrepreneurs to being stakeholders in a peaceful environment.

This is another under-theorized (in my mind at least) connection between just war theory and argumentation.  Argumentation tends to take as its central focus the study of reasons–good ones, bad ones, etc, as they are oriented towards the objectives of argumentation (being correct, convincing, etc.).   So we watch Bill O’Reilly and we shake our heads at the poverty of good reasoning, thinking him and his ilk to be ignorant or dishonest.

Maybe, however, their objectives are not the objectives of anyone else: they’re not trying to be correct, to show someone else to be incorrect, maybe they’re not even trying to win an argument at all.  They’re just making sure that unresolvable argumentation continues indefinitely.  This is their job.

**UPDATE: links, other info added above.

Jus ad argumentum

Classical just war theory’s jus ad bellum requirement of proportionality means that not every offense requires war.  There is an analogy to argument here, however imperfect: not every disagreement, moral or factual, requires that we argue.  I may be right about x, but I don’t have to argue with you about it.  This is especially the case when I will never convince you.

I think this capture’s the spirit of the Summus Pontifex’s recent remarks on the value of pushing the Catholic positions on abortion, contraception, and gay marriage.  Perhaps the Holy Father has noticed that, though the Universal Church’s view on gay marriage contains no admixture of error, the likelihood of its success with this argumentation is very low and the costs are very great:

We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.

The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent.The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.

This is not terribly unreasonable.  This is made somewhat easier by the fact that I don’t share any of his views.  Nonetheless, I have a lot of opinions that just do not deserve arguments–not the least because (1) I can only expect so much time, attention, and effort from people who disagree with me; (2) I only have so much time and energy to devote to convincing other people.  We expend resources when we argue; we ought to use them judiciously.

So it’s surprising to me to see behavior like this:

Providence College, a Roman Catholic school in Rhode Island, has canceled a lecture in support of same-sex marriage on Thursday by a gay philosophy professor, citing a church document that says that “Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.”

You get the idea from the Pope that they’re not that fundamental.  But in any case, the College has reversed itself, thankfully.

via Leiter.

Cast across the Rubicon

Juan Cole, a guy who knows a lot about the Arab world, makes a case for military intervention in Libya.  This is not particularly surprising, as he also supported the invasion of Iraq.  I don't mean to question his authority by mentioning this, I just want to point out that the issue here is not hypocrisy.  (Had I more energy, I'd do a post on the inevitable tu quoques of the you-didn't/did-support-Iraq-variety–maybe someone else can do that one.).

I do, however, want to express a little annoyance with the way his case gets made.  He writes:

The arguments against international intervention are not trivial, but they all did have the implication that it was all right with the world community if Qaddafi deployed tanks against innocent civilian crowds just exercising their right to peaceful assembly and to petition their government. (It simply is not true that very many of the protesters took up arms early on, though some were later forced into it by Qaddafi’s aggressive military campaign against them. There still are no trained troops to speak of on the rebel side).

To be clear, those might be arguments against international military intervention.  Perhaps more effort could have been made at an international intervention of the non-military variety.  I don't remember anyone claiming that this route had been thoroughly exhausted.  I do remember, in fact, the almost immediate insistence on threats of military force.  Once those threats are made–I think–the die is cast across the Rubicon, especially with dictators such as Qaddafi.  Now if someone has convincing evidence that all diplomatic avenues had been exhausted, I'll withdraw my claim.

My more serious annoyance with Cole's argument is in the way he handles objections to military intervention.  He writes:

Among reasons given by critics for rejecting the intervention are:

1. Absolute pacifism (the use of force is always wrong)

2. Absolute anti-imperialism (all interventions in world affairs by outsiders are wrong).

3. Anti-military pragmatism: a belief that no social problems can ever usefully be resolved by use of military force.

Absolute pacifists are rare, and I will just acknowledge them and move on. I personally favor an option for peace in world policy-making, where it should be the default initial position. But the peace option is trumped in my mind by the opportunity to stop a major war crime.

Leftists are not always isolationists. In the US, progressive people actually went to fight in the Spanish Civil War, forming the Lincoln Brigade. That was a foreign intervention. Leftists were happy about Churchill’s and then Roosevelt’s intervention against the Axis. To make ‘anti-imperialism’ trump all other values in a mindless way leads to frankly absurd positions. I can’t tell you how annoyed I am by the fringe left adulation for Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on the grounds that he is ‘anti-imperialist,’ and with an assumption that he is somehow on the Left. As the pillar of a repressive Theocratic order that puts down workers, he is a man of the far Right, and that he doesn’t like the US and Western Europe doesn’t ennoble him.

The proposition that social problems can never be resolved by military force alone may be true. But there are some problems that can’t be solved unless there is a military intervention first, since its absence would allow the destruction of the progressive forces. Those arguing that “Libyans” should settle the issue themselves are willfully ignoring the overwhelming repressive advantage given Qaddafi by his jets, helicopter gunships, and tanks; the ‘Libyans’ were being crushed inexorably. Such crushing can be effective for decades thereafter. 

These, I would suggest, border on weak men (though there are dirty f***ing hippies who argue for them).  Notice that they're addressed at the very general principle of employing military force.  If Cole is serious about considering objections to military force, he might consider something along these lines:

Humanitarian military intervention is sometimes justified, sometimes not.  It's justified when (1) there is a clear, achievable objective; (2) this objective cannot be achieved but by military force; (3) the chances of success are great.  An argument could be made that none of these conditions have been satisfied.

I don't know if this argument could ultimately prevail, but it's disappointing that Cole doesn't seem to think anyone capable of making it.  This is how he closes:

I would like to urge the Left to learn to chew gum and walk at the same time. It is possible to reason our way through, on a case-by-case basis, to an ethical progressive position that supports the ordinary folk in their travails in places like Libya. If we just don’t care if the people of Benghazi are subjected to murder and repression on a vast scale, we aren’t people of the Left. We should avoid making ‘foreign intervention’ an absolute taboo the way the Right makes abortion an absolute taboo if doing so makes us heartless (inflexible a priori positions often lead to heartlessness).

Thus my "weak man" allegation–the "left" is too mentally incompetent, unsophisticated, or ideologically rigid to participate in this discussion.  Contra Cole,  I think people can do this, they can see the limits of principle, they just might not, in this case, see that the basic just war conditions have been satisfied.  Whatever the case may ultimately be, knocking down unserious positions or suggesting that it's either intervene militarily or endorse the slaughter (where have I heard that before) don't make good arguments.