“Just War and other lies we tell ourselves”: A Riff


My friend @_MikeDenny was riffing this morning on possible titles for inconvenient (read controversial and potentially unpopular) think pieces related to foreign policy and military matters and the one quoted in the title naturally struck a nerve and caught my attention. Mike kindly gave me permission to riff, and so riff I shall. (And I hope he will do the same at some point!)

First, lets talk about Just War. I think for many people, hearing the phrase ‘Just War’ means that war is moral. But, of course, what exactly does that mean? When I say that War X is Just, I am using Just in the sense of Just War Thinking which includes thinkers from St. Augustine to Michael Walzer and Jean Bethke Elshtain. In this way of thinking, ‘Just’ means morally permissible or allowed (not immoral) under certain limited circumstances, usually in pursuit of Justice (hence the term) or avoiding some serious moral wrong. This does NOT mean that we think war is a moral good, intrinsically morally or that is something that ought to be universalized as an unconditional good (to paraphrase Immanuel Kant.)  Most scholars who advocate for a Just War view argue that there is a presumption against violence and war, therefore the case for permissions, or exceptions (which is the language Michael Walzer, the dean of 20th century Just War Thinking uses) must be publicly made and debated – with a healthy amount of skepticism.

So, is Just War a lie that we tell ourselves? Since I reject Realism (read Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars Chapter 1 for a start on why,) I do not think so – assuming that we are talking about Just in the sense that I have outlined above. I share the assumption of Just War Thinking that there is and ought to be a heavy presumption against war, but that we might make exceptions to the that presumption on the grounds of Justice or the Common Good.  Making such exceptions is very dangerous business, ethically speaking, and so should be done with skepticism, resistance and angst.  Too many moral harms come from war not to take this process seriously; war is not, in my view, a moral good in itself.

Second, and what in my view is the more interesting part of the riff: is the idea of ethics in war (whether in the resort to force, the conduct of war or justice after the war) a self-delusion, a lie that we tell ourselves? As an ethicist, I take this question seriously and think that very often the answer is yes. It breaks my heart to say that, but I am a pragmatist as well an ethicist. Human beings are prone to epistemological optimism and conservatism.  We believe what we want to/prefer to believe and tend to believe things that fit into the web of things we already believe; having to reassess everything you think is true is a real pain – just ask Rene Descartes. So we believe what makes life easier, what makes us feel better about ourselves and others, and what allows us to go on as we have before and not be uncomfortable.

We would prefer to think we are good people. We prefer to think that we would not inflict needless harm on others or even members of our own society. We prefer to think that there is a moral order and that war is an effective and necessary way to enforce that order and also to show others our moral commitment to Justice. We prefer to think we can fight in ways that would only kill and harm the ‘guilty/baddies’ and would spare and never harm the ‘innocent/good people.’ We prefer to think that war will be easy and that recovery after war will be easy; that the other side will surrender and see the moral errors of their ways with due contribution and be willing to rebuild and behave.  We prefer to that if we have a Just Cause and fight a war Justly that our soldiers will come home alive, whole and as heroes/heroines. We prefer to believe that war is an interruption in civil life, after which we can all go back to Normal.

I trust you see the point of the riff. These things have the potential to be lies we tell ourselves about war, using ethics and morality as a cover for other motives and to insulate ourselves from the harm and reality that is war. As an ethicist, I cannot overemphasize the danger in this. I do believe that there is a moral order, that things are objectively right or wrong. But that does not mean that humans are good at judging those things, discovering those things or more importantly, acting in accordance with that order. Add to this the problems of relativism and moral disagreement, and combine with a human tendency to self-delusion (or at least epistemological optimism) and you have a dangerous cocktail.

So these may be lies we tell ourselves. Or they may not be. But we should at least ask ourselves whether they are, and take that process of reflection and examination seriously. Its too easy to invoke ethical categories to do all kinds of horrid things, and then not feel guilty about them. Rationalization is a powerful drug. Just say no.


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