Monday, January 18, 2010

Hilary Putnam's "The Epistemology of Unjust War"

     Here is Hilary Putnam's 2005 essay on which my last post here commented.  It is especially appropriate for me to publish it on the public celebration of Martin Luther King's birthday.  King, of course, gave his famous speech against the Vietnam War on April 4, 1967 (audio and text here), a year to the day before he was assassinated. This was the price of speaking out against war (President Johnson treated him with fierce hostility, removed what frail "protection" if any the government provided for this great leader even as the threats and incidents grew).  Many years before, Vincent Harding had moved to Atlanta at King's request.  They lived five doors from each other, and knew each other's minds and hearts as few, in this life, get to. Harding wrote the draft of the speech (King was traveling building the movement better than 300 days a year).

      When I was researching Niebuhr's criticism of the war for Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?, ch, 2, I found two 1965 pieces by Harding, the most insightful and radical in Christianity and Crisis (1965).   The echoes, for instance, about "Western arrogance," are clear enough.  It was the speech Thich Nat Hanh had asked for. Four months before King was shot, he would celebrate it: "you are, for us, a Boddhisattva," Nat Hanh said from the audience, after a speech by King.

      As I have reported here, King's words are just as apt today - for instance in the 2003 movement from below in Denver at the King march of 30,000, to substitute the words Vietnam for Iraq.  Just as Johnson's failing war on poverty, the "demonic destructive suction pump of war" is heading off Obama's initiatives to create a revived, green jobs, American economy, and to do something positive about global warming (Barack's failure to lead internationally at Copenhagen was a grave setback).  Medea Benjamin of Code Pink has an article today here on Common Dreams underlining the 2006 identification of Obama with King (and Lincoln) and his moving away. 

      Though a 30 year Denver resident who taught at the Iliff School of Theology, Vincent Harding is not asked to address the State Farm Martin Luther King March in Denver, though he did speak at anti-Iraq War rallies in 1991 and 2003 (we both spoke at the February 16th rally of 3,000 in Colorado Springs; alone among the international demonstrations of that day (2 million in Madrid, 1 million in Barcelona and Rome, etc.), the Springs police attacked that nonviolent anti-War march with tear gas.  King's is one of the great American essays/speeches (say, with Thoreau's "On Civil Disobedience"). Yet it takes a fight to make insightful words live, even in a celebration of King's life.

      On this day, Hilary's words are worth taking in.  If you imagine that philosophers cannot play a role in defeating imperial war or racism, think again.  These words are part of the enduring, ever-renewed, democratic and international struggle from below against devastating and self-destructive wars.

                             The Epistemology of Unjust War

My friend Steven Wagner, a philosopher I very much admire, recently wrote me that he finds "Just War Theory" in its present form wholly untenable. With his permission, I shall quote part of what he wrote:

Here’s what I meant about just war theory (JWT) and ontology. The formulations of JWT effectively identify  three distinct objects: a population, a nation, and the high-level decision-makers in the government. Therefore, even if JWT is invoked in the cause of peace, it surrenders the larger battle by buying into an authoritarian political ontology. So it’s an irremediably spoiled tool for justice.

A philosopher can easily work out epistemological costs of this ontological sin. Here, though, is a cost that is related to but does not immediately come out of the pernicious ontology:

JWT imposes requirements of justified belief: regarding the outcomes of alternative courses of military in/action. Applying elementary considerations about evidence, we argue that the relevant beliefs can be justified only if their source is a professional agency  strictly independent of the decision-making sector and disinterested relative to the outcomes.

These clauses need more careful formulation. E.g., ‘professional’ will imply membership standards no less rigorous (and applicable to the subject matter) than those governing, say, physicians and philosophy professors. ‘Disinterested’ must mean at least “no more interested than is the population in general”. E.g., if the professionals stand to gain from a war, then no more so than the run of the people. So, e.g., the agency must be strongly separate from the military, the war industries, etc. …

But in no nation, ever, has such an agency existed. Not even at distant approximation. Therefore, by the standards of JWT no nation has ever made war with good reason.. Q.e.d.

Now I am not prepared to go as far as Wagner, as will soon appear. For one thing, as a student of American Pragmatism, I am not prepared to say that only judgments made by a body that is “disinterested relative to the outcomes” are justified. (Even the judgment that I have been aggressed against when I have just been hit on the nose is not normally made by such a body, but it is clearly justified.)[i].

With respect to Wagner's more political (as opposed to epistemological) reasons, I would agree that decisions in our imperfect approximations to democratic polities are frequently, indeed normally, made by bodies influenced by all sorts of special interests, but I still think that we live in what are approximations to democracies. (I suspect that it is because Wagner would find this idea naive that he would require a body “strictly independent of  the decision-making sector”  to review a government decision to go to war before he would be willing to call it justified; indeed, I suspect it is not only decisions to go to war that he would regard as epistemologically suspect when made by a "hierarchical" government.) Nevertheless, I would not quote Wagner's letter if I did not think it contained an important idea.

The idea that I take from Wagner's reflections is that instead of thinking about a positive list of conditions for "just war" we might instead think of epistemic conditions for justified belief that resort to war is called for. This idea appeals to me because it generalizes an argument against certain wars that I first heard from my colleague at Harvard (whose life was tragically cut short by a stroke  back in 1987), Roderick Firth. To be precise, I heard Firth’s argument during the Vietnam War, and I have reflected on it and have had, sadly, occasion to use it, very often since he died. Firth's argument does not depend on suspicion of the representative character of what we call democratically elected governments, as (or so it seems to me) Wagner's does, nor does it follow from Firth's argument that “no nation has ever made war with good reason.”

But like Wagner's more radical argument, it avoids appealing to either a grand metaphysical story or a grand ethical theory. In essence both Wagner and Firth suggest that the fruitful question is the epistemological question about justified war rather than the metaphysical question about the "nature" of "just war".[ii] And even a partial answer to the epistemological question is important if  it identifies a class of cases in which we are definitely not epistemically justified in going to war (or, to put it less abstractly, in killing and maiming people as an instrument of state policy). Rather than seek an ontology of just war, these philosophers are saying, let us seek an epistemology of unjust war. But it is time for me to say what Firth's argument was.

Firth’s argument

Firth’s argument was that, even if we assume (as he himself, as a Quaker, did not) that war is justified under certain circumstances, those circumstances must be very special to override the clear moral presumption against inflicting suffering on such a large scale. What Firth claimedthis is the content of what I shall call Firth’s Principleswas that mere probabilities (e.g., game-theoretic reasoning) are not enough.[iii] One must know, not just have some opinions by members of a particular administration, that

(1)  The Bad Thing that the war one is thinking of waging is supposed to prevent really will happen if one doesn’t wage it; and

(2)  The Bad Thing will actually be prevented (and not simply replaced by a different equally Bad Thing) if one does wage war.

I want to explain and discuss Firth’s argument in a concrete context. That context is not today’s, but it is immediately relevant to today’s situation because it brought it about: I am speaking of the context of the decision on the part of the American government (one supported by the British government, as you all know) to wage a “preemptive war” against the then government  of Iraq, headed by the dictator Saddam Hussein.

I want us to think ourselves back to the time when the decision to destroy the Iraqi army and institute “regime change” was arrived at. And although President Bush and Prime Minister Blair said at the time that the one overriding reason that justified “preemptive war” was the “weapons of mass destruction” that Saddam Hussein’s allegedly possessed, and we all know now that this “reason” was a mistake based on a mixture of faulty intelligence and wishful thinking, that—the mistake about “WMDs”—is not going to be the only matter that I focus on. I am equally interested in the question as to whether the decision to employ all the means of modern war, including, as we now know, napalm bombs[iv] would have been justified even if the intelligence had been correct (including, however,  the intelligence, which was also available from UN inspectors, that Saddam’s regime was far from ready for war, not because it lacked aggressive desires, but because it was successfully kept off balance by the whole series of UN actions after the Gulf War of 1990).[v]

As I am sure you all  remember, at the time I am talking about there were serious moral disagreements about the decision to invade Iraq (in addition, of course, to the empirical disagreements about the likely results of the invasion). What could a philosopher, of all people, possibly say as a philosopher about this sort of deep moral disagreement? At the time, I believed—and still believe—that Firth’s argument was the most useful one for a philosopher to make.

Firth made his argument during the Vietnam War. Since some of you were not born during the Vietnam War, and many of you may have been children at that time let me briefly recall the situation. I am describing it, because that was the situation in which Firth made his argument—I am not analogizing the present situation to America’s or the United Kingdom’s at that time, since obviously the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese were no direct threat to America, which was, indeed, over 10, 000 miles away, while terrorism is certainly a direct threat to any government and any people the terrorists choose to single out for attack. Or rather, I am analogizing  it only in the respect that Firth’s Principles are ones that I believe apply to both situations. America employed very harsh measures in an attempt to defeat the Vietcong and their North Vietnamese allies. (The most horrific was the dropping of napalm bombs – a weapon our nations have also used in Iraq—but the action which originally turned me into a protester against the war, when I learned about it from the writings of the journalist David Halberstam, was the destruction of the rice crop of the South Vietnamese peasants to keep it out of the hands of the Viet Cong. These harsh measures, which – everyone admitted – caused immense suffering to millions of Vietnames people, were supposed to be necessary to prevent a Bad Thing.  The Bad Thing was described using the metaphor of a “row of dominos”. It was claimed that if South Vietnam fell to the communists, so would Laos and Cambodia (which did fall) and then the Philippines and Indonesia would fall (which didn’t happen) and finally Japan would fall to the communists.

Firth argued that in the case of the Vietnam War, we did not actually know either that The Bad Thing (the fall of the dominos) that the war was supposed to prevent really would happen if we didn’t wage it or that The Bad Thing would actually be prevented if we did wage war; and, of course, he was right. What I want to claim is that this is the test that American citizens and British subjects should have applied in considering whether the invasion of Iraq was morally permissible. Taking the “Bad Thing” to be increased terrorism, the growth of extremist Islamism, and the consequent weakening of the security of our nations and the “free world”, what Firth’s Principles tell us is that what we (and morally concerned human beings everywhere, for that matter) should have asked are exactly the sorts of questions that Firth posed:

(1)                           Did we actually know that the Bad Things that preemptive war and “regime change[vi] were supposed to prevent really would have happened if we desisted from them and tried other means, especially ones which are approved by the international community as a whole, or at least by the industrial democracies?

(2)                           Did we actually know that the terrorist acts and the growth of extremist Islamism that we wished to prevent—the Bad Things in the present case—wouldn’t continue and even increase if we invaded Iraq and used military force to bring about “regime change”?

Did we, for example, know that (as President Bush alleged) that Iraq is a sponsor of El Qaeda?[vii] Or that invasion will not bring it about that it becomes a seedbed of international terrorism on a huge scale?

I don’t deny for one moment that one can offer arguments on both sides for the necessity of the problematic measures. But that is the problem that Firth’s Principles highlight. “One can offer arguments on both sides”. To me it seemed clear even at the time that there is an enormous difference between saying we know that invasion is necessary and effective and “arguments on both sides”.  I am a “Firthian” here: if we don’t know, then what we are doing is immoral. That is the philosophical question I invite us to think about, and what I shall say from here on is, I am all tooou well aware, only the beginning of such a discussion.

But first, to ward off a misunderstanding

Quite a few months ago, a Republican friend of mine (yes, I do have some Republican friends) said to me in a tone of awe, “You were the only person I  knew who opposed the war because you thought it wouldn’t work.” While I am not one to turn down complements, even undeserved ones, this particular complement involved a misunderstanding which I must ward off if the whole philosophical point of this lecture is not to be missed. My friend heard me as making a empirical estimateone, which to his surprise, had turned out to be correct—as to the future course of events in Iraq. In effect, he was complementing me for political savvy that I don’t pretend to possess. My point, like Firth’s, and like Wagner’s hermaneutic of suspicion, was an epistemic one. I did not deny (at the time the war started, anyway) that the rosy estimates of the Bush and Blair administrations might turn out to be right; my estimate was that they were not epistimically justified.  And killing and maiming people on grounds that are not epistimically sound is morally wrong, not just practically unwise. To me this seems self-evident, as it did to Firth, but I have discussed Firth’s argument with enough people to know that it is far from being generally accepted. In the rest of the present lecture I shall, accordingly, discuss objections to Firth’s argument—both ones I have heard from others, and one which have simply occurred to me.

The skeptical objection  to “one must know”

Both of Firth’s Principles employ the notion of knowledge. According to the principles, justification of war requires that we know that the Bad Things won’t happen if we resort to war (resort to maiming and killing) and that we know that the Bad Things won’t continue (or be replaced by even worse Bad Things[viii]) if we do resort to war. One of the most common objections that I have encountered to Firth’s Principles is simply that in matters like war and the Bad Things that a war is supposed to prevent, knowledge properly so-called is simply impossible.[ix] The conclusion that is drawn is that ordinary probable reasoning, faulty as it is, is what we must rely on.

            As is well known[x], I am a “fallibilist” in epistemology, but this argument seems to me a misuse of fallibilism. One lesson that, I have long insisted, we should all have learned from the so-called “classical Pragmatists”, that is Peirce, James and Dewey, is that fallibilism does not entail skepticism. Skeptics have always pointed to (or more often simply imagined) cases in which some judgement turns out to be false—Descartes famously imagined that he was not sitting in a chair in front of a fireplace, but only dreaming that he was—and gone on to conclude (or, in Descartes’ case, to worry) that we possess no empirical knowledge at all. But, as Peirce insisted, real doubt, as opposed to paper doubt, requires a context-specific reason for doubting – a reason with practical bearing – and the general fact that we are not infallible is, in any normal context, not such a reason. I know that I am in the United Kingdom, and I know that human beings are sometimes mistaken about which country they are in, and there is no contradiction between these two claims.[xi]

Coming to the case at hand, that there was no evidence of a connection between El Qaeda (an extreme Islamist group if there ever was one) and the secular Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein, is something we knew or should have known. That there was no good evidence that Saddam Hussein’s regime was in a position to make aggressive war in the near future, or would be in such a position if the UN continued its inspections, fly-overs, etc., is also something we knew or should have known. There is such a thing as empirical knowledge in such matters.

            However, lest this become a lecture on Pragmatist epistemology, let me give the word “knowledge” to the skeptics. It is still possible to  make Firth’s essential point without using it. The essential point is that when it comes to the decision to use killing and maiming as instruments of state policy, the persons who make that decision must, if they are morally alive at all, accept the onus of an especially high burden of proof.  There needs to be a “fire break” between ordinary policies of building roads, raising or lowering taxes (within normal limits, anyway), etc., and policies which involve killing and maiming—at least if all talk about the value of human life is not to be exposed as sheer hypocrisy.

(Steven Wagner will remind me that it often is sheer hypocrisy, in the mouths of the rich and powerful. But it is one thing to acknowledge this painful fact, and another to accept it as the way the world must be, and I urge that we resist such acceptance, even when it is presented as “worldly wisdom”. Indeed there is much more worldly wisdom in Firth’s Principles than in the Realpolitik of any of the world’s present leaders.)

At this point, some of you may be reminded of a famous notion of Ronald Dworkin’s, the notion of “rights as trumps”[xii] By this he meant that considerations of utility (in particular, considerations of wealth  maximization) must not be allowed to “trump”, i.e., override, the moral rights of individuals. For example, the benefits that a majority might gain from discriminatory behavior against a minority cannot justify the violation of the inherent moral right of the members of the minority to be treated as free and equal citizens.  Moral rights may have to be overriden in real emergencies , Dworkin recognizes, but such overriding requires strong moral justification, not just cost-benefits analysis.

There is good reason for you to be so reminded. For the right not to be maimed, killed, not to have one’s children and other relatives maimed or killed, not to have one’s house destroyed over one’s head and the like are prima facie moral rights in Dworkin’s sense—indeed, if they are not recognized as such, I repeat, talk of “human rights” is meaningless hypocrisy. Thus Firth’s argument can be regarded as an epistemological refinement of the idea of “rights as trumps”. No general skepticism about the possibility of political “knowledge” should be allowed to efface or conceal the fact that what is being appealed to by both Dworkin and Firth are fundamental ideas of what our ideals of human equality and dignity require of us.

Am I forgetting, then, that the very human rights I am appealing to were violated repeatedly and on a large scale by Saddam Hussein and his regime?  Not at all. That was, in the sense of Firth’s Principles, indeed a Bad Thing, and bringing that Bad Thing to an end was one of the goals that the war was intended to achieve (although not even the Bush—or the Blair—administration claims that it is  right for our countries to invade any and all countries which have dictatorial regimes, regardless of whether they pose any threat to ourselves or our allies). But remember, according to Firth’s Principle (2), to justify the decision to invade, it is not enough that we knew that the violation of human rights in Iraq would continue if Saddam were left in power; we needed to know that the result of the invasion would not, in the end, be an equally bad regime. And can we honestly claim to know that even today? Indeed, even if Iraq ends up with an elected government accepted by at least the Shi’ite majority of the country, do we know (or even have any basis for a reliable estimate of probability, for that matter) that that government won’t, once the coalition forces leave, turn Iraq into an Iranian-style theocracy? Even to raise the questions that Firth’s Principles require us to address reveals the weakness of the justifications that were accepted by our regimes as justifying the invasion of another nation.

Exceptions to Firth’s Principles

Firth’s Principles do have exceptions however. When I talked to students about my reasons for opposing the Vietnam War, I often explained Firth’s Principles, and applied them to the case of that war. Sooner or later an ingenious student would think of a conceivable situation in which Firth’s Principles gave the wrong result. The fact that these conceivable situations frequently had no relevant similarity to the Vietnam War was itself irrelevant in the eyes of the ingenious student: only an appeal to an exceptionless moral principle was felt to have any weight. And if there is no such thing as an exceptionless moral principle (or an exceptionless moral principle which applies to cases more complicated than murdering someone who has not injured you or anyone else simply for monetary gain)?……In that case, perhaps these students thought that there is no such thing as an objective moral judgment, relativism and/or subjectivism are right.

But that is not the way good moral thinking works. Good moral thinking, as Kant said, requires “mother wit” (or “healthy human understanding”), and there is no algorithm for healthy human understanding.[xiii] There are rules of judgement which can help us: Kant famously listed three:[xiv] (1) Think for yourself; (2) Think from the standpoint of humanity in general; and (3) Be sure your thinking is consistent. (The last, he said, is the hardest!) But who is to decide how to apply these rules in any specific case?

The answer, as the great moralists have always said, is Each one of us is.   Total skepticism about the normative is self-refuting, and half-skepticism is a “cop-out”. Each responsible human being has to decide the hard moral questions in the light of  their own best judgment.

Still, even if the fact that Firth’s Principles have exceptions means that they cannot be followed blindly—moral judgment has to be complex because the world is complex and life is complex—those Principles are still a valuable guide. But to see their limits, let me now turn to some of the most common exceptions.

The most common exception, I believe, is to Firth’s Principle (2), the principle that requires one to know that waging war will prevent the Bad Thing (and not cause a Worse Thing to happen) in order to justify waging a war. The exception I am thinking of is simply that when one’s country is directly attacked by an aggressor, one may be justified in fighting back even if the resistance has no certainty of succeeding. In 1939, Poland’s decision to use its army to resist the German Wehrmacht was, I believe, the right and honorable course even though Poland knew that the assistance it hoped for from France and Britain might not come in time. I will not argue this here, because I expect that this is something all of  us who are not absolute pacifists agree on.[xv] But Ex hypothesi this exception does not apply to “preemptive war”—that’s what makes such a war “preemptive” and not simply “defensive”.

A related (and much more often cited) exception or possible exception to Principle (2)  is the subject of the often appealed to 1939 analogy. After all, I have heard people say, when Britain declared on war on Germany in 1939, Firth’s Principle (2) was violated; Britain did not know that the Bad Thing would be prevented if it waged war. Indeed, as the recent best-selling biography of the unhappy Lord Londonderry reminds us, there were voices raised in Britain who opposed the war on that ground, or partly on that ground (though not, by 1939, Londonderry himself).

I believe, nonetheless (and I hope you believe), that Britain’s decision to declare war in 1939 was an admirable one, even more so in view of the fact that the odds appeared to be against success. A full discussion of why it was a justifiable decision would, I believe, require—or at least deserve—a whole book. Here I can only touch on a few of the principal considerations.

First, the “defensive war” exception to Firth’s Principle (2) must not be confined to defense of one’s own territory if one has entered into binding treaties of mutual defense with other states. Indeed, to limit the idea of just war to defense of one’s own territory narrowly construed would be to reject the whole idea of mutual defense and collective defense, an idea which it is vital to strengthen, as the European Community has recognized, and as Kant long ago urged in Perpetual Peace. In the case of 1939, Britain was bound by such a treaty to come to the aid of Poland (and, earlier, of Czechoslovakia, although it regrettably failed to stand by that obligation). But beyond the narrow legal fact of the treaties, there is the fact that a Geman victory would, as Churchill saw in 1939, mean that the civilization of Europe would become a fascist and racist one. After the invasion of Russia and the attack on the United States at Pearl Harbor, what, indeed, turned out to be at stake was whether not just Europe but Europe and Asia, at the very least, would suffer the fate in  question.

But the Bush doctrine of “preemptive war” is not justifiable on similar grounds. Saddam’s regime, bad as it was, was not a real threat to the free world, and, provided one had continued to inspect and monitor and take other such measures as the United Nations was already doing, it was hardly likely to become one in the coming decade at least.[xvi] A rush to war was hardly called for on defensive grounds, which is why the international community (with the exception of the Blair government) refused to support it.  Today Bush’s supporters defend the war as part of a “war on terror”. But “war on terror” is a confused concept.

It is confused because, unlike a state, "terror" has no fixed boundaries, no fixed population, no fixed army, and there is no such thing as a "surrender" (or, for that matter, a " peace agreement"). Like "The War on Drugs", the "War on terror" is a metaphor to provide an open-ended licence to the government to do whatever it wants in a particular area.

In practice, the Bush administration has identified the "war on terror" with a war on "state sponsored terror". But this too is problematic. Any degree of tolerance of or assistance to terrorist organizations might count as "sponsorship"; and since all the radical Islamic states (and some non-Islamic states, e.g., North Korea) do tolerate and or assist terrorist organizations, in principle, the idea of a war on "state sponsored terror" could be used to justify war (simultaneously or seriatum) with a large number of states (including some of our "allies", such as Saudi Arabia). Some Neo-Conservatives indeed welcome this, saying that the "war on terrror" should have been called a “war on radical islamism”. But in the light of Firth's Principles one must ask: do we actually know that, say, EL Qaeda, was either created by or depends for its continued existence upon particular states? Do we know that a crusade against such a significant number of Islamic states would not inflame the whole Islamic world, even the part which is now living under moderate regimes?

I do not deny that some regimes may, even in the near future, really begin to develop weapons of mass destruction, and that at some point military action might have to be taken, although occupying more Islamic states hardly seems wise or likely to be effective. And in any case, the volatile character of the Islamic world is clearly related to poverty and underdevelopment which the current policies of the G7 nations and the world bank may be aggravating rather than


Another function of “war on” talk is, of course, to make it seem that anything other than a military response is Munich-style “appeasement”. But talk of avoiding "appeasment" is a way of ignoring  the fact that we are not fighting a power-mad dictator but a hydra-headed movement with complex roots. To say, as I am sure Firth would have,  that we, together with the United Nations and together  with other democratic nations, should try to pressure “extremist” nations not to develop nuclear weapons or provide material support to terrorism and, at the same time, begin to  address some of the root causes of violence in the Third World,  and not simply send in the armed forces to “smash the “terrorists”, is not “appeasement” but elementary morality and commonsense.

Exceptions to Principle (1)

But, it may be objected, “You have only considered objections to Principle (2). What about Principle (1)?”

Yes, there are cases when Principle (1) should be overridden. If the Bad Thing is terrible enough, in some cases just knowing that there is a significant probability that the Bad Thing will happen if one does not act militarily may justify war. But at this point I think I should reconsider my criticism of Steve Wagner’s position.

Recall that, as I quoted him saying at the outset, Wagner holds that “the relevant beliefs can be justified only if their source is a professional agency  strictly independent of the decision-making sector and disinterested relative to the outcomes.” And I said initially that I do not think that we need to require that the relevant beliefs be vetted by an agency  independent of the decision-making sector. But when the beliefs on the basis of which we are asked to maim and kill other human beings are beliefs about probabilities, then I would ask that those beliefs be ones that reasonable and well-informed judges in other democratic countries also regard as sound. Where Wagner wants an impartial “agency” to survey beliefs on which warfare is based because he is afraid those beliefs will be disguised justifications for imperialism, I want the “agency” of well-informed people everywhere to support such morally momentous decisions because I am afraid they will be ideologically based, that is, based on what is ultimately fantasywhether that fantasy does or does  not serve this or that economic interest. If Wagner will accept this as a friendly amendment to his view, we may not be so far apart!


The present situation is one of occupation rather than war, and I do not – no more than anyone else, apparently – have any clear  principle to suggest as to how to bring that occupation to an acceptable end.  That we can’t simply “pack up and leave” is I think clear. I myself am inclined to think that the best outcome (one suggested some months ago by Peter Galbraith[xvii]) would be one that led to a federation (even if it wasn’t called that) of three largely autonomous communities – the Shi’ite, the Sunni, and the Kurdish – in Iraq. But that is only an opinion.

So why do I ask us to reexamine the justification of the decision to wage war now?

My reason is not just the abstract importance of Firth’s Principles, although I think they do have enormous importance (as does Dworkin’s idea of “rights as trumps”).  That we stop treating killing and maiming one another as just “policies” subject to a cost-benefit analysis is vital if respect for human rights and international law is ever to have so much as a chance to take hold and grow. (In Perpetual Peace, Kant estimated in would take 400 years!) But speaking as an American, I am also concerned because “Neo-Conservative” voices in the Administration are reported to have urged and still be urging further “preemptive wars”. If that is right, then no “philosophical problem” is more urgent than the problem of  thinking wisely and morally about the justification of war. I urge that Firth’s Principles are the place at which we should start that thinking.





[i]  Steve Wagner will remind me, I know, that he only requires that the agency which is the “source of the beliefs” concerning the justice of war (the Epistemic Bureau?) be “no more interested than is the population in general”. While I would agree that an agency which decides on war shouldn’t do so because it stands to gain from a war “more so than theˆrun of the people”, I do not think that apart from the case of material gain, there is any general rule as how “interested” deciders are allowed to be.  Moreover, I do not agree that that epistemic justification requires an agency  separate from the government – unless that “agency” be simply civil society as a whole.

[ii]  In contrast to this epistemological approach, traditional Just War Theory begins by requiring that the war be declared by a rightful authority. To interpret this, would require the whole of political philosophy! And even then, wars which are not declared by an “authority” (e.g., wars which start with spontaneous popular resistance) are not even envisaged, as Wagner pointed out in his letter to me.

[iii] This kind of argument is called an “anti-Utilitarian argument” by moral philosophers.

[iv] Authentic footage taken by “embedded reporters” of the “coalition forces” using napalm bombs is included in Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 911”.

[v] This was Secretary of State Colin Powell’s estimate on February 4, 2001, when in the course of press remarks with Foreign Secretary of Egypt Amre Moussa he reported that "We had a good discussion, the Foreign Minister and I and the President and I, had a good discussion about the nature of the sanctions -- the fact that the sanctions exist—not for the purpose of hurting the Iraqi people, but for the purpose of keeping in check Saddam Hussein's ambitions toward developing weapons of mass destruction. We should constantly be reviewing our policies, constantly be looking at those sanctions to make sure that they are directed toward that purpose. That purpose is every bit as important now as it was ten years ago when we began it. And frankly they have worked." Three years later, on March 22, 2004, CNN carried the following story:  “WASHINGTON (CNN) The United Nations' top two weapons experts said Sunday that the invasion of Iraq a year ago was not justified by the evidence in hand at the time.  "I think it's clear that in March, when the invasion took place, the evidence that had been brought forward was rapidly falling apart," Hans Blix, who oversaw the agency's investigation into whether Iraq had chemical and biological weapons, said on CNN's "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer."  Blix described the evidence Secretary of State Colin Powell presented to the U.N. Security Council in February 2003 as "shaky," and said he related his opinion to U.S. officials, including national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.

"I think they chose to ignore us," Blix said. In the same story,  Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, is quoted as speaking to CNN from IAEA headquarters in Vienna, Austria, saying “Well, Wolf [Blitzer], I think I'd like to, for a moment, say that, to me, what's important from Iraq is what we learn from Iraq. We learned from Iraq that an inspection takes time, that we should be patient, that an inspection can, in fact, work.”

[vi] Of course, Firth spoke of war in general, since this was the time of the Vietnam war, but I have substituted “preemptive war and regime change” since that is the application I am making of his (more general) principle.

[vii] [The Miami Herald, March 3, 2004]: “WASHINGTON - The Bush administration's assertion that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had ties to al Qaeda—one of the administration's central arguments for a preemptive war—appears to have been based on even less solid intelligence than the administration's claims that Iraq had hidden stocks of chemical and biological weapons.

Nearly a year after U.S. and British troops invaded Iraq, no evidence has turned up to verify allegations of Hussein's links with al Qaeda, and several key parts of the administration's case have either proved false or seem increasingly doubtful.

Senior U.S. officials now say there never was any evidence that Hussein's secular police state and Osama bin Laden's Islamic terrorism network were in league. At most, there were occasional meetings.”

[viii] This is the version I heard from Firth, rather than the more specific version I gave above. (Cf. the previous note.)

[ix] However, I often hear this skeptical objection from people who, in other contexts, claim to have an amazing amount of political “knowledge”!

[x] For an overview of the role of  fallibilism in my philosophy, see Yemima Ben-Menahem’s Hilary Putnam (Cambridge, 2005) here, especially the chapter by Yemima Ben-Benahem herself (“Putnam on Skepticism”) and the chapter by Alex Mueller and Arthur Fine (“Realism, Beyond Miracles”).

[xi] However, Barry Stroud has defended Cartesian skepticism (or at least held out the possibility that it is correct) in The Significance of Philosophical Skepticism (Oxford, 1984). I criticize Stroud’s defense in “Skepticism, Stroud and the Contextuality of Knowledge” in Philosophical Explorations, vol. 4(1) (2001). pp. 2-16.

[xii] Taking Rights Seriously (Duckworth and Harvard, 1977), p. 153.

[xiii] See Juliet Floyd’s Heautonomy and the Critique of Sound Judgment: Kant on Reflective Judgment and Systematicity” in Kant’s Aesthetics, ed. Herman Parret (Walter de Gruyter, 1998, for an excellent discussion of this aspect of Kant’s thinking.

[xiv] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, ##39-40.

[xv] In his Lectures on History, Hegel argued—plausibly, I think—that the willingness of citizens to give their lives for the defense of the nation’s territory is one of the preconditions for the existence of the modern nation state.

[xvi] See the statements by Colin Powell, Hans Blix, and Mohamed Edlbaradei cited in note 4.

[xvii] Peter W. Galbraith, “How to Get Out of Iraq,” The New York Review of Books, vol. 51, Number 8 · May 13, 2004.

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