Taking Just Wars Logically

16 Nov

John Horgan sparked a series of speculations with a post on just war, particularly this paragraph.

I believe people have the right to defend themselves against violent attacks. We also have the right, and sometimes the duty, to help others being threatened by bullies. But given war’s terrible unpredictability, and its tendency to exacerbate rather than solving problems, we should do all we can to solve damned-if-you-do-or-don’t dilemmas nonviolently—or, if that fails, with minimal force. I don’t have any special formula for determining exactly when and how to use force. I just have a few simple—simplistic, some might say—rule.

Now, I’m not interested for the moment in the empirical examples that come to mind, and which Jeff McMahan also raises in the two-part essay (here and here) that sparked Horgan’s essay. The notion of considering the rights and duties of the individual in war distinct from the moral authority of the state to conduct war is provocative.

Both just war theory and the law distinguished between the justification for the resort to war (jus ad bellum) and justified conduct in war (jus in bello). In most presentations of the theory of the just war there are six principles of jus ad bellum, each with its own label: just cause, legitimate authority, right intention, necessity or last resort, proportionality and reasonable hope of success. Jus in bello comprises three principles: discrimination, necessity or minimal force, and, again, proportionality. These principles articulate in a compressed form an understanding of the morality of war that is, in its fundamental structure, much the same as it was 300 years ago. Mainly as a result of its evolution in tandem with a body of law that has states rather than individual persons as its subjects, the theory in its present form is quite different from the classical theory from which it is descended. To distinguish it from its classical predecessor, some just war theorists refer to it as the traditional theory of the just war, though for brevity I will generally refer to it simply as “the Theory.”


As I mentioned, the consensus on the Theory has recently begun to break down…There are two reasons for this.

One is the changing character of war. Most recent wars have not been of the sort to which the Theory most readily applies — namely, wars between regular armies deployed by states. Many have instead been between the regular army of a state and “rogue” forces not under the control of any state. This description fits the major segments of the United States’ wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, as well as the recent smaller-scale civil conflicts in Libya and Syria. And there is also, of course, the continuing conflict between states and decentralized terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda. . These types of conflict, especially those with terrorists, are resistant to moral evaluation within the state-centric framework of the traditional theory.

The second reason for the decline in allegiance to the Theory is largely independent of changes in the practice of war. It does, however, derive from the fact that the wars in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Yugoslavia, and the Middle East provoked a resurgence of work in just war theory by philosophers trained in the analytic tradition. When these philosophers consulted the traditional theory to evaluate these wars, they discovered problems that had somehow eluded earlier thinkers. They have subsequently sought to develop a more plausible theory of the just war. As it turns out, this “revisionist” account, though not as yet fully worked out, is in certain respects a reversion to the classical theory that was superseded by the traditional theory several centuries ago. It returns, for example, to the idea that it is individual persons, not states, who kill and are killed in war, and that they, rather than their state, bear primary responsibility for their participation and action in war.

McMahan goes on describe an apparent dilemma.

A defender of the Theory might respond that all combatants pose a threat in a state of war and that a state of war exists when the first act of war occurs. To test the plausibility of this claim, consider the position of an American sailor at Pearl Harbor immediately prior to the Japanese surprise attack. He has done nothing to lose his right not to be attacked by the Japanese. There is no state of war between the United States and Japan, so this sailor poses no threat to any Japanese. He is of course likely to try to defend himself if he is attacked, but that does not mean that he poses a threat to anyone now. If it did, that would mean that most people pose a threat to others most of the time, since most people would defend themselves if attacked. So the sailor seems not to pose a threat and thus to retain his right against attack. Yet when the Japanese crews conduct their surprise attack, they act permissibly according to the Theory, even though their attack violates the principles of jus ad bellum. For those principles apply only to their government, not to the crews.

But how can it be that the crews act permissibly if they attack this American sailor, along with many others like him, who pose no threat to them? The answer I suggested on behalf of the Theory is that the Japanese attack itself creates a state of war in which the morality of jus in bello comes into effect. A surprise attack that initiates a war thus activates the morality by which it is governed. Prior to the attack, there was no state of war so the American sailor had a right not to be attacked. But when the attack occurs, a state of war exists and he has lost his right not to be attacked by enemy combatants. How did he lose it? The only answer the Theory can give is: by being attacked.

My humble offering to this empirical situation is paraconsistent logic. Horgan opened this avenue when he used the term, “dilemma” in his title, and McMahan’s example clothes the dilemma in historical relevance. But I would like to consider the dilemma as a logical paradox, and deploy paraconsistent logic to its solution, which I hope would contribute to its moral resolution. Beyond that, right now I have not solved the apparent contradictions McMahan raise. But, it’s going to annoy me all the rest of the day figuring it out.

I don’t usually speculate about logic. If it weren’t for a podcast discussion of paradoxes with Graham Priest. I need to revisit that podcast and explore paraconsistent logic before continuing.


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