Tuesday, December 27, 2005

michael novak, almost three years ago, on war in iraq

We need to review a few of those circumstances in a new light. But let us first note that war is not always to be evaded. Sometimes it is morally obligatory.

It would have been morally wrong, for instance, for the United States to have fallen back and defended only the continental United States during World War II. Agreed?

In any case, the Vatican itself encouraged the humanitarian intervention in Kosovo, and has expressly approved the war against the terrorists, although not the war against Iraq.

But in what way is the regime of Milosevic in Kosovo less horrific than the barbaric practices of Saddam Hussein in Iraq? (There are many personal testimonies to the unendurable tortures Saddam has inflicted on tens of thousands of families in Iraq.)

Read the whole thing here. I am really not sure what I think about the war in Iraq. What I know is that I am not a pacifist. I think true pacifism is untennable as a Christian position. In this respect, Michael Novak brings up an important point, with which I agree: that, sometimes, violence is morally obligatory. Usually morally obligatory violence involves defending the helpless. Its all fine and good to turn the other cheek when you are yourself attacked. But what about when the defenseless are attacked, and you have the power to stop it, albeit violently? What if your wife or your child were attacked? Would you really passively resist the assailant, or would you fight him tooth and nail? Would you be WRONG to resist him violently? I cannot see that you would. Maybe I am wrong. And maybe this is not the situation regarding the US invasion of Iraq, or for that matter of any particular war. But that is far from obvious to me. Saddam Hussein was, after all, a brutal tyrant. And just because there are lots of other brutal tyrants whom the US has NOT attacked does not mean that the US is necessarily unjustified in its attacking one of them. Now again: before you get all up in arms about my being "pro war" -- remember: I am not saying that the US WAS justified in attacking Iraq; but rather just that it is not clear to me that the US was NOT justified, as almost everyone around me seems to assume with a "Well, duh" degree of insouciance.

To be clear: if you are a pacifist, please explain your counterintuitive belief that, e.g., if your family were attacked by pirates intent on rape and murder, you would be morally wrong to use violence in defending your family. If you are not a pacifist but believe the US invasion of Iraq was unjustified, it might be helpful if you would say what circumstances did not obtain with regard to Iraq that otherwise would have justified an invasion. And remember: I am asking about MORAL justification. I don't care about international law and that sort of thing. And I'm also not asking isolationists to exaplain themselves. I think I understand isolationism, in a way that I do not understand pacifism. (I disagree with the isolationists on other grounds -- but that's for another day.)

And to be clear about the intuition I am trying to illuminate, it is this: that killing tens of thousands of unarmed civilians, systematically instituting and ordering that others be tortured and raped, that these are sufficient for morally justifying one's violent overthrow. Maybe not; but if not, why not?


W.M. said...


We had a discussion about this a few weeks ago in my ethics class. During the discussion a young woman raised the following point about pacifism in the contemporary context: To be able to have the opportunity to be a pacifist necessitates our nation engaging in actions contradictory to pacifism. In essence, because we adopt our present positions there is a place for pacifism to exist. If we were a pascifist nation would that be the case?

The young fogey said...

It would have been morally wrong, for instance, for the United States to have fallen back and defended only the continental United States during World War II. Agreed?

No. The Japanese and the Germans had no plans to invade. Japan was no more repugnant than Stalin's USSR, which the US sided with. The US should have sat back and let the Nazis and the Soviets destroy each other.

J-Tron said...

This is a good topic, WB. Well worth discussing. Thank you for bringing it up.

Pacifism, as far as I can tell, is the only option available to the Christian. But Christian pacifism is often misunderstood as something other than it is. It is not disengagement or blind refusal to ever defend one's self. Christian pacifism is a rejection of war as a moral good. It is a rejection of violence as either ethical or useful. In a fallen world, we all address each other with violence in ways large and small. And the world is complicated enough that it's often hard to see a straight path through, to reject the false choice of the lesser of two evils and instead choose no evil at all, to answer the cliche but incredibly relevant question what would Jesus do. I remember thinking that in the days right after 9/11, when I was hot enough that I probably would have ripped apart the person responsible with my own two hands. I wondered what Jesus would have done if he'd been on one of those planes. I wondered what I would have done.

Pacifists, of course, can make distinctions. And in the fallen world we often make choices between the lesser of two evils. I might, for instance, support the less war happy of two political candidates even though both support violence in some way. Or, to use an unrelated and much less important example, I might lie to a woman who asks me if she looks fat or ugly in a particular outfit. My intentions are noble. I may, in fact, be doing the greater good in some way. But the lie itself is still sinful, still evil. The same might be true in the example that you give, a person defending his or her family. I personally prefer methods of defense that are purely defensive (certain marshall arts, for instance) to out and out killing. Those methods, though, are not always available and sometimes we do what we have to, operating on instinct to save those whom we love. But even if I'm right in defending my family, I can't imagine I'm right in hurting another, especially in killing another.

In the case of Iraq specifically, I think there's a good case to be made for why the situation there is different than in other situations, with other dictators, in other issues of defense. For one, our mission was only secondarilly to bring an end to Sadam's tyranny (and he was a tyrant, no doubt), and first and foremost for our own perceived interests, which as it turns out were completely out of wack with reality. But I'll let someone else get into that, especially into the moral complications of picking one country to invade over another. I find the just war theory to be impossible to comprehend, although I prefer any notion of rejecting at least some war as problematic to the prevailing notion that we may do as we please without further consequence because God is on our side.

I'm curious about your attempt to reconcile Christ's turning the other cheek with the notion that we must defend the helpless with acts of agression and violence. If I understand you correctly, it seems that you're saying that defending one's self violently is morally bankrupt while someone else doing it for you is morally permissable, if not mandatory. I don't think I would agree with either.

Anyway, those are some thoughts off the top of my head. I hope you are having a merry Christmas indeed.

father wb said...

Young Fogey --

I thought of you when I read that sentence. That's why I added that bit about isolationism.

father wb said...

JT --

A couple of points.

The kind of pacifism I am talking about is the kind that affirms the claim that "Violence is never morally permissible." Or something very like it. Pacifists I've known have believed that sort of thing, and have taken such beliefs to be constitutive of their pacifism. I'm not talking about "pacifists" who believe that violence is okay under certain circumstances. That's something else. Lets call it "pacifism-prime". I'm not concerning myself herein with pacifism-prime. Only with pacifism, which regards any violence (ever) as morally impermissible.

My problem is that believing that violence is NEVER morally permissible entails believing some very funny things. For example, it entails believing that if while you were walking down the street, you saw a man get onto a school bus and start killing children, that you would be wrong to use violence to stop him.

Violence, to my mind, is like amputation. Its never a good in itself; but sometimes its a relative good -- i.e. if a limb is gangrenous. And under such circumstances it would be foolish and, perhaps, immoral NOT to amputate -- despite the fact that amputation is, in itself, a bad thing.

Likewise, even though killing people or doing violence to people is never a good in itself, nevertheless if one were walking down the street and saw a man get onto a school bus and start killing children, and if one had the means (i.e. a gun) to stop it, I think one would be doing something morally bad (a sin of omission) if one did not act violently.

I think you are right to ask the question "what would Jesus do?" or perhaps a better question "what would Jesus want me to do?" I think we can agree that Jesus NEVER wants me to sin. And that if Jesus wants me to do something, then that thing he wants me to do is not sinful. Now, imagine an Englishman manning an anti-aircraft gun at Dover during the Blitz. Here comes a German bomber. What does Jesus want that Englishman to do? Shoot or not shoot? Jesus (seeing the world from eternity) knows that if he doesn't shoot, that bomber will bomb a school in north London and kill fifty six children, along with their teachers. If he does shoot, the bomber will be hit and all six crew will be killed. The gunner has two options: shoot or not shoot. Jesus cannot desire both and cannot desire neither. Which does he desire? My intuition inclines me to think that Jesus would want the gunner to shoot, and thereby to save the lives of the school children. And if that is what Jesus would, in fact, desire, then that means that to shoot would not be sinful -- because Jesus cannot desire that we should sin.

With regard to Iraq: what I'm saying is that I am inclined to think that the crimes of the former regime against defenseless non-combatants are sufficient morally to justify the regime's violent ouster -- just as a German bomber squadron's bombing of north London is sufficient to justify shooting it down. If this is so, then nothing more need be said (for example, about WMD, etc.). Shooting non-combatants with mustard gas is enough. Again: maybe this isn't so. But if not, it is at least not obvious that it is not so.

Lastly, you said:

"If I understand you correctly, it seems that you're saying that defending one's self violently is morally bankrupt while someone else doing it for you is morally permissable, if not mandatory. I don't think I would agree with either."

I'm not saying anything about defending oneself. I tend to think its okay, particularly if you are bound to other people (i.e. you need to defend yourself from violence for the sake of your wife or your children -- i.e. because they would be harmed were you to be harmed). But I am happily agnostic on the point. But I am rather less agnostic about shooting down the German bombers, or about shooting the maniac on the school bus. When you say "I don't think I would agree with either" do you mean that if someone asked "What should the English gunner do?" you would say that he should not shoot at the German bombers? Or if someone asked you what to do about the maniac on the school bus, you would advise that he not be shot? Maybe you're right. But those kinds of claims need a lot of explaining.

Anonymous said...


You ought to read Paul Ramsey's Basic Christian Ethics. It is really great. He marshals the same argument you are espousing in compelling terms, re: the moral imperative to prevent harm to others, even to the point of violence. He taught John Hare, Oliver O'Donovan, and Gene Outka at Princeton (booo hisss).

I'll post again later with my reasons for disagreeing with the position. Just thought you might like a possible source for the general position you have adopted.


fantley. said...

I think the major difference between Kosovo and Iraq is one of geography. For some, it is perfectly okay for the US to intervene to save Europeans and allow elections. It is even okay for us to try to rebuild an entire country through the Marshall Plan. But the second we help out a non-European (read Korea, Vietnam, Iraq), the Europeans and American Democrats immediately begin to speak about the war being unjust and that we are over there for our own self interest. I guess women securing the right to vote in a place like Iraq is unimportant, because the Clinton adminstration, the Bush Administration, the French & the German intelligence all "lied" about the existence of WMD's in Iraq.

J-Tron said...


Pacifism is a multi-faceted philosophy. I can't argue the positions of others. But I think it's important to recognize that Christian pacifism is of a different character then, say, ahimsa or even the pacifism of the Tibetan Buddhists. Of course, Christian pacifists likely disagree among themselves. But when we're talking about the pacifism of the Anabaptists, for instance, or of the Quakers, or of portions of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, we're talking about a different kind of pacifism, one that is not disengaged, one that accepts the difficult and often ambiguous situations of life without giving up the central claim that killing is a moral evil, that violence against fellow human beings is always a moral evil. The nature of fallen humanity is such that sometimes we perceive that our best option is the least evil one. But that does not negate the reality of the evil.

You pose a number of hypothetical situations. I'm not sure what I would do in those situations. I think the problem with such hypotheticals is that they are built on the premise that there are only two bad choices to make, the premise of existence in a fallen world. Maybe that's true sometimes. Often, though, I think there are other options. Flood the bus with noxious gas and subdue the man. Jump in front of the gun yourself and take the bullet while the children escape. Are these options? Who knows! Depends on the reality of the situation. But if they are, they might be the most morally correct options available.

If I was a gunner in the British army? I think at the point that I'm a gunner in any army I've already accepted a task involving violence. Pacifism is not an option for a military career (although one could argue that a pacifist could make a fine police officer). One of the other problems with hypotheticals in reference to war is that we tend to reduce the complexity of mass conflict to playground metaphors that don't really bear out. We ask questions like, "Is it right to stand up to the school yard bulley?" The situations are not comprable. The school yard bulley doesn't command an army.

Is the gunner morally justified in shooting down the plane that is about to bomb a bunch of innocents? I would say that he might do so as the best moral option out of the two you present. But if I were him I'd want to make a trip to the confessional before approaching the altar rail again. And most situations in war aren't so clean cut. What if the enemy was not about to bomb a hospital or a convent but rather a weapons depot? A military target? What if he was going to bomb you, the gunner? Who's morally superior in that situation?

The 9/11 hijackers believed they were fighting a war. They struck markers of economic infrastructure because they believed they had no other option. Most of us believe they were wrong to do so, terribly wrong because they killed so many innocent people. But why? If war is permissible for the sake of a greater good, and they believed that American capitalism and American political power was serving an imminent threat to their countrymen, aren't they morally obligated by your definition to act in defense of those who cannot defend themselves? So what if some innocent folks got in the way. We've killed between 20 and 30 thousand Iraqi civilians (depending on whose estimates you go with) since the war there started. But it's ok because we're defending them from tyranny, right?

This is one massively important distinction to make between Kosovo and Iraq, although I will say that I did not support Kosovo's invasion either. But the gain there for us was merely strategic if at all. It was purely humanitarian, purely to stop the killing. It involved a carefully constructed plan and a multi-national force. It made use of existing structures, and ultimately life there is better today than it was before we went in. It's still a messy place, and NATO is probably the only thing keeping chaos from returning, but it's better off. Despite the attrocities of Sadaam, I'm not entirely convinced that Iraq is better off. There is no plan. There's no multi-national force. The structures have been ripped apart. The idea that there's a sovereign state at work in Iraq is a joke even to the people who make up the so-called Iraqi government. Women have less rights. The economy is non-existent. People are afraid to leave their homes. Christians live under constant threat. To go back to your metaphor about the guy on the school bus killing children, What if in order to stop him you threw a grenade into the bus and killed both him and all the children? That's about what I see as akin to what the U.S. has done here (although, again, it's tremendously more complicated then any analogy can make it seem).

Honestly, I wish I could take your position. Or that I could at least sign onto some idea of just war. I really do. It's emotionally gut wrenching to not return violence with violence, or to not celebrate a certain kind of violence that seems to stick up for the little guy. Before I was a Christian I found it easier to take such a stance, although I always wanted to favor peace (as I'm sure you do too when it is at all feasible to do so). But the gospel convicts me. It pushes me to seek a different moral standard. Not just because of the proof text passages like Matthew 26:51-52 and Luke 22:49-51, because really anyone can prooftext just about anything. But because of the overall message of peace in the gospel. Because of the way that Jesus, and later Paul, addresses the ruling order of the world. Because of the free march that Jesus took to his own death amidst a field of violent oppression. Christ's sword in Revelation is his tongue, the words of truth. When we stand up and speak out for Christ we fight for a moral victory even if we are physically struck down. I wish it were not so. I prefer the comfort of long life and the righteousness of the sword. But in my heart I am a servant. If I am to ever die for the Lord, I pray that I have the courage to die like Polycarp, confessing to the end, rather than with my hands around the neck of another.

father wb said...

JT --

Right. That last paragraph is pretty compelling. But there again, taking Jesus as the paradigm, he did not resist violence done to him. On the other hand, its not the case that he did not resist violence done to others. Would the good Samaritan have been as good if he had walked up while the robbery was taking place and not interfered?

You said: "the problem with such hypotheticals is that they are built on the premise that there are only two bad choices to make.... Maybe that's true sometimes. Often, though, I think there are other options."

With regard to the hypotheticals: they are strange, I grant. But there are certainly situations like that. To return to them: suppose there was no time to fill the bus with laughing gas. You saw the maniac get on and start methodically shooting children. You are a deer hunter. You are returning from the hunt. You have your 30.30. Six children have already been shot. He is walking down the rows of the school bus. There are twenty four more children. He shoots another one. What do you do? What does Jesus want you to do?

Of course this thought experiment is rigged. It is rigged such as to rule out the possibility of your acting in some non-violent way to prevent the children being killed. But there are situations in real life like that. I.e. there are situations where the only options are (1) acting violently in defense of the otherwise defenseless and (2) not acting in the defense of the otherwise defenseless. That is to say, there have been, and there will again be, situations in the world where the ONLY way to stop violence being perpetrated against the defenseless is to act violently.

THOSE are the situations I want to know about. I'm not interested in the situations where there are helpless people who need helping and we can save them either (1) violently. or (2) non-violently. Of course if you can save helpless people without yourself using violence, you should. You don't have to be a pacifist to understand that. But again: I'm not interested in situations like that. I want to know what to do in situations where your options are using violence to defend the defenseless, on the one hand, and not defending the defenseless on the other hand.

So likewise, with regard to the English anti-aircraft gunner, the thought experiment is rigged. But the rigging of it is not very far removed from reality. Sometimes during the Blitz the targets were entirely strategically unimportant and were only chosen to maximally terrify the British. (Cf. the Baedeker Raids.) Suppose you were a conscript and a new convert to Christianity and you found yourself manning an anti-aircraft gun during the Baedeker Raids. What should you do? Shoot or refrain from shooting? What would be the morally best thing to do?

To return to the rigging of the thought experiments, I am trying to rig the thought experiments such as to highlight a particular intuition: that sometimes the morally best action is violent. Sometimes the morally best thing to do is to kill someone (e.g. the maniac on the school bus, or the German Bomber crew on its way to York). A pacifist could not admit this. (Remember I am using "pacifist" here in a strict, technical way. Maybe you, JT, are not a "pacifist" in this way, but are perhaps what I earlier called a "pacifist-prime". Recall that pacifists, on the scheme I am using, believe that violence is NEVER licit.)

And about America's foreign policy and the Iraq war and all that: I'm not defending the Administration. I'm by no means certain they are correct. All that stuff is complicated, as you point out in your comment viz. the 9-11 hijackers. I am here only trying to rule out one kind of objection to the war in Iraq, for purposes of clarification. Namely, that it is wrong because violence is always and everywhere wrong. I am trying to show that sometimes violence is at least licit, and perhaps even morally obligatory. Once objection to the Iraq War is ruled out on those grounds, it might be easier to see why the Iraq War is unjustified, if in fact it is. I am certainly open to the possibility that the Iraq War is unjust. For example, maybe its unjust because the US has killed so many civilians. But this is all beyond the scope of the current discussion. I only mean here to discuss my intuition that using violence to help the defenseless is sometimes just (such as in the situations involving the school bus and the anti-aircraft gunner). I am pretty sure that using violence in such situations is justified. Maybe there are important dissimilarities between the Iraq war and my thought experiments such that while using violence in the thought experiments is justified, using violence in the Iraq war is nevertheless not. I'm open to that possibility (e.g. that we have killed too many civilians).

J-Tron said...


I think you make some fair points, especially in regards to the fact that there are sometimes these seemingly impossible choices between violence to save lives or non-violence that results in further loss of life. I say "seemingly" because I don't think those choices are so clean in reality. In the moment though there may be little time to examine multiple alternatives.

In the German bomber situation, as you describe it, with all the caveats you describe, if there was indeed only the choice between shooting and not shooting, it might be less morally illicit to shoot then to not shoot. In other words, not shooting might be worse then shooting in that moment if that's truly the only other option. However, both remain evils. Complete inaction is evil. But so is the violence.

There are always better or lesser evils in a sense. Murdering someone is morally worse then calling them a name. Rape is worse then having a consensual but adulterous affair. But in the eyes of the Lord, how far does that really go? Jesus told us that we break the commandment against killing just by having a wrathful attitude, that we commit adultery when we lust in our hearts. The standard for Christians is set extremely high, impossibly high without the aid of Christ in the broken nature of the world.

All that being said, I don't think that you can extrapolate outward from the gunner situation to the entire institution of war. You can't base the morality of war on the most ideal choice between violence and non-violence. At least not without also basing it on the worst. You have to take into consideration the other scenario, the one I mention where the target that the plane is about to hit is not some innocent target but in fact something destructive, something that is supposedly fair game. You have to consider that in a conflict like the current one, just as in Vietnam, soldiers are forced to kill a lot of innocent women and children because of the very real threat that any one of them could be carrying a bomb.

Back to the war in Iraq, if the U.S. had no other option in terms of stopping Sadaam from continuing acts of genocide but to wage war against him, is it permissible, morally sound, or even encouraged to do so? No. War is inevitably corrupt. It is at best a situation in which a lesser evil may occasionally be picked over a greater one, and at worst a situation in which all ability to discern the difference between good and evil is eliminated and people survive on excessive violence and sheer terror. So no, even in the perfect hypothetical situation, making war with Iraq would be morally wrong. Perhaps less wrong then other choices. But still wrong.

But I don't think Iraq is anywhere near such a perfect hypothetical situation. Not even getting into the multiple ways that we helped to make this monster, there were a variety of ways at our disposal for removing him. And we were not and are not equipped to replace him.

father wb said...

JT -

Regarding your last point, recall that I'm not denying that the war in Iraq is unjust. At least not here. I'm only denying that it is unjust BECAUSE all violence is unjust. I am saying: if the war in Iraq is unjust (and you say that it is; fine), then it must be for some reason other than that all violence is unjust. That's all. I'm certainly not claiming that it is a just war. I'm agnostic on that question.

Ultimately, I think your kind of pacifism is not that different from my kind of non-pacifism. That is just to say, that we agree that violence (and especially killing) is never a moral good, per se. And (I think) we agree that sometimes violence and killing is morally permissible (even while being at one and the same time bad, per se). The REALLY interesting kind of pacifism, though, is the kind that says no to violence under any circumstance. I.e. it tells the father who could kill his assailants and save his children not to do so.

And that's the point of these weird thought experiments. The claim of the kind of pacifism I am interested in is "Violence is never, under any circumstance, permissible." And that's what makes it so interesting. Because then you can say "Really? Even under the following strange circumstance? I.e. when failing to act violently will result in the death of your own children? You REALLY mean even under THAT circumstance violence is still not permissible?" And the really interesting and really radical pacifist says "Yes. Even then violence is not permissible." And what makes it so radical and so interesting is that when he says that, he means it. He's saying something about how he would behave under those circumstances, or how he hopes he would behave. He really would allow his children to be killed rather than act violently.

That's the only reason the thought experiments are so strange. Because the pacifist's claim (not yours, JT, I mean the radical pacifist's claim) is so strange. "Under NO circumstance is violence permissible." So then, in order to test that claim, you come up with weird, outlandish, but nonetheless possible, circumstances, and you ask "What about under those circumstances?" And if the pacifist says "Even under those", then he is the kind of pacifist I am interested in.

The question, in essence, is "when should you kill someone?" If the answer is "never," that's when I will say "Really? Not even when ______?" The pacifist answer I am looking for is "Really. I'm serious. Not even when ______." That's a different kind of answer. I don't think you can really say "Well, you shouldn't kill a man,even when he is dead-set on killing your children, and killing him is the only way of stopping him. You shouldn't kill him; but in those circumstances you should do the thing that you least shouldn't do, so to speak." That's the same thing as saying "You should kill him in those circumstances." And that is not the kind of pacifism I am talking about. That is just an acknowledgment of the unfortunate necessity of killing someone. And that is something almost everyone acknowledges -- i.e. that killing is never good, per se.

What makes radical pacifism so interesting is that not only does it say "killing is never good, per se," but then it goes on to say "and you ought never ever kill someone, even under WB's weird, contrived circumstances, when not killing someone entails the death of innocent third parties."

Lastly, JT, you said "All that being said, I don't think that you can extrapolate outward from the gunner situation to the entire institution of war."

I wonder what you think about Kosovo? Was NATO wrong? What about Rwanda? Was the US (or the UN or whomever) RIGHT not to intervene violently? Was that the best thing to do? I think the right course of action in real-world situations are extrapolatable from these kinds of thought experiments. Granted, they're not enough to go on, but they are a helpful start. They can establish, for example, that sometimes the best thing to do is to use violence. That's a helpful thing to know if you the US president and you are staring ethnic cleansing in the face (as Clinton was with Kosovo).

fantley. said...

The philosophical problem of dirty hands seems to be applicable for J-Tron. Michael Walzer has written on this problem for over 30 years.

J-Tron, let us assume that you have been elected to an executive position in government (most like president). You have captured some citizen who tells you that she is going to blow up New Haven. Is torturing her until she gives up the information morally justified? There are only two solutions to this problem.

1) The Beautiful City that is New Haven is blown up. People wonder why you did not do something to stop the plan.
2) She is tortured to the point of giving up the information. Thus, the city and its people are saved. Yet, the woman is hurt and her civil rights have been violated.

Now, please do not equivocate. There are many ways to frame this dilemma, but is seems that decision-makers are often forced to choose between two situations that are not terribly moral.

J-Tron said...


You're talking about an entirely different situation when you bring torture into the mix. The hypothetical posed by folks who actually favor torture (and, by the way, it brings me close to vomiting to realize that people at the highest levels of government hold such a philosophy) is a fallacy of epic proportions. Not only is the magical ticking time bomb scenario implausible, it is also flawed in that it assumes that torture can now or has ever been a useful tool of interogation. Torture has been shown repeatedly to be an ineffective tool for gathering information because a) people tend to say whatever you want them to say when they're subjected to it and b) the really hardcore people who've trained to withstand torture may very well give you false information. Conservatives would do well to follow Senator McCain and not our mad-hatter of a Vice President on this point.

J-Tron said...


And (I think) we agree that sometimes violence and killing is morally permissible (even while being at one and the same time bad, per se). The REALLY interesting kind of pacifism, though, is the kind that says no to violence under any circumstance. I.e. it tells the father who could kill his assailants and save his children not to do so.

Violence and killing is not morally permissible ever, even when it's a father defending the lives of his children. I recognize the difficulty of the situation, and that one form of action or violence is less problematic then another, but I don't think it makes it permissible. As a pacifist, I reject the notion of two choices, one being violence and the other being complete inaction. There's always a third way.

I don't think you can really say "Well, you shouldn't kill a man,even when he is dead-set on killing your children, and killing him is the only way of stopping him. You shouldn't kill him; but in those circumstances you should do the thing that you least shouldn't do, so to speak." That's the same thing as saying "You should kill him in those circumstances."

That's not what I would say. I don't think you should kill him, even in those circumstances. My point before was that I recognize the complexity of situations, and that one thing is sometimes worse than another. But that does not mean I endorse the one behavior because it's less bad. You should not kill him in those circumstances. You should not kill ever. Period.

I wonder what you think about Kosovo? Was NATO wrong?


What about Rwanda? Was the US (or the UN or whomever) RIGHT not to intervene violently? Was that the best thing to do?

To answer the first question, yes they were right not to intervene violently. As to the second, no, complete inaction to the point of ignoring the situation was not the best thing to do. I'm not sure I know what the right answer would have been. Rwanda is exactly the type of situation that's most gut wrenching because it seems that there is no good response, other than prayer, other than literally standing in the way of the knives.

But would violence on our part have been better? That I cannot see. UN blue helmets? Maybe even some of the same Belgian forces who split the hutus and the tutsis in the first place? Haven't we done enough damage?

I don't know the answers. I won't pretend that I do. I just know that as a Christian, I see no way in which I can ever be justified in making war, in killing.

father wb said...

Apropos torture:

"Gäfgen kidnapped Jakob von Metzler... on Sept. 27, 2002, as the boy was on his way home from school. The same day he suffocated Metzler, he demanded €1 million from the Metzler family for the boy's release, which they paid. The police, who had been observing Gäfgen for days, arrested him at the Frankfurt airport. While interrogating Gäfgen, Deputy Police President Wolfgang Daschner threatened to have a martial arts expert hurt the suspect if he didn't reveal where Metzler was being held. Gäfgen then told the police where he had hid the child, who was already dead at the time."

Read the whole thing here. It seems like torture sometimes DOES work. (Or at least the threat of torture -- which is itself apparently torture.)

But with regard to the original point:

"My point before was that I recognize the complexity of situations, and that one thing is sometimes worse than another."

I'm confused. If one thing is worse, then why not just recommend the least bad thing? Why get hung up on "recognizing complexities"? Its all fine and good to recognize complexities, but once their recognized, I would think it would be time to move on to recommending a course of action (the least bad one, presumably).

"As a pacifist, I reject the notion of two choices, one being violence and the other being complete inaction. There's always a third way."

As a believer in the principle of non-contradiction, I don't understand what this "third way" is supposed to be. The questions are in the form: "Do we shoot down the German Bomber headed toward St. Paul's Cathedral and the surrounding neighborhood?" Its a yes or no question. What do we say? "Sort of"? "Yes and no"? What could this via media possibly mean?

"Haven't we done enough damage?"

Maybe. But I really can't see how stopping genocide constitutes "doing damage."

fantley. said...

So, you would let the city die?

fantley. said...

If it exists, what is the third way? Cave into their demands?

I was not talking about the administration's policy J-Tron, I was talking about a philosohical issue. Please refrain from talking about the administration when answering the question. This philosophical issue has been around much longer than Dick Cheney.

I generally agree with McCain. I also agree with WB that we should be involved in humanitarian interventions.

Being an isolationist doesn't make the world more just. I know you hate to admit this point, but sometimes the US is a power for good.

J-Tron said...

If one thing is worse, then why not just recommend the least bad thing? Why get hung up on "recognizing complexities"? Its all fine and good to recognize complexities, but once their recognized, I would think it would be time to move on to recommending a course of action (the least bad one, presumably).

"You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire." (Matthew 5:21-22)

This, of course, is the beginning of an entire section in which Jesus draws similar comparisons. But taking just this one for a second, is Jesus saying here that being angry or insulting your brother or sister is equal to killing them? That's one possible reading. But I don't think that's particularly what Jesus has in mind here (or Matthew, for that matter).

The ancient law recognized different kinds of crimes, different acts that deserved penalties that were harsh or less harsh depending on the crime. I don't think that Jesus believes that murder and insults are equitable to each other any more than the writers of the Torah did, any more than you or I do. But what Jesus makes clear here is that the implications of sin are the same. If you choose to kill someone, you reject grace and pull away from God. If you choose to insult your brother or your sister, you reject grace and pull away from God. Arguably, one pulls you farther away than the other. But in the eschatological scheme of things, does that really matter? Jesus seems to think that it doesn't. Being just a few steps inside of hell or being right at the center of it, either way you are in hell. Being just barely away from God or being practically without any notion left of God, either way you are absenting yourself from the grace that sustains you. As Saint Athanasius would say, you are returning to nothingness. Or, if Saint Augustine is to be believed, you are moving into an unquenchable fire. Either way, it's a bad scene.

This is why I cannot endorse one type of violence as being morally superior to another, despite the fact that I recognize the complexity. The world is usually not a very cut and dry place. A lot of the time we're doing the best we can given conflicting information, taking shots in the dark and hoping that we're doing the right thing. I have a great deal of sympathy, and perhaps even a great deal of admiration, for the person who kills another in defense of his or her family, or even in self defense. But my sympathy and my admiration are of little consequence on Judgment Day.

I am, of course, among the wretched. I've never killed a man. But I have insulted others. I have been wrathful. I have allowed my pride to put me falsely in God's place. Moreover, I've been in strange situations before, where it seemed that there was only the lesser of two evils to choose from, and I've held my nose and made a decision. I am guilty. The marks of my hands are on the Savior's body.

Moral relativism is perhaps an inevitable facet of human life in today's world. But it is not something to be counseled or encouraged.

It is only through Christ's sacrifice, Christ's death and resurrection, that my sins are forgiven. It's only through faith and love that I can be justified. It's only in the sacramental life of the Body of Christ that I can be sanctified. And if my life in the Body of Christ is truly sanctifying, if I am truly trying to embrace the life of holiness in preperation for judgment, then my choices must start to be affected. I have to start to reject evil, even the lesser evils that animate my life.

As a believer in the principle of non-contradiction, I don't understand what this "third way" is supposed to be. The questions are in the form: "Do we shoot down the German Bomber headed toward St. Paul's Cathedral and the surrounding neighborhood?" Its a yes or no question. What do we say? "Sort of"? "Yes and no"? What could this via media possibly mean?

I don't know. Again, hypotheticals are so hard to work with precisely because they're designed to lead one into particular conclusions. In the scenarios that you've presented, as you've presented them, I do not know what the third way would be. I'm not so sure that if I was actually in the situation I would know what the third way would be. But if I am to be consistent, that is if I am to believe that God wants me neither to engage in extreme forms of evil or in lesser forms of evil, I have to believe that there is some course of action that would not be evil. Because otherwise the game is rigged. If evil is our only real choice, then how can we even begin to affirm the good and loving God of the gospel? The third way may be elusive and hard for our sinful minds to discern, but it exists. It always exists.

J-Tron said...

On the subject of torture...


koenigsfreunde said...

WB and others,
If I may insert a belatedly late comment, I would like to respond to WB's request for a justification for why the current Iraq war is wrong. I am a just war theorist, rather than a pacifist like J-Tron.

I will point out the following circumstances did not obtain.

(1) Even if Iraq had WMDs, invading Iraq would count as a preventive measure rather than a pre-emptive strike (notice the counterfactual conditional). In a pre-emptive strike, one nation attacks because it sees another nation preparing to attack it. In a preventive measure, there are no such preparations. It is simply an attack taken by one nation (i.e. the US) without any clear evidence that the other is preparing an attack (i.e Iraq). Iraq was not marshalling troops on anybody's borders prior to the US invasion. Taking a preventive measure is prohibited by just war theory because it is an offensive action. Even if one makes the argument that the Iraq war was indeed a pre-emptive measure (and hence, justified), one would need to lower the epistemological standards so low to the point that the mere possession of WMDs (or nuclear weapons) counts as a preparation for an attack. That would have have justified the US and the USSR in initiating a nuclear holocaust in the days of the Cold War.

(2) We know now it is false that Iraq had WMDs. That defeats reason (1), which was a hypothetical counterfactual anyway.

(3) Re: the brutal dictator. That begs the question. Even if Saddam Hussein is a brutal dictator, that is insufficent to justify intervention in Iraq. There needs to be additional considerations for why invade Iraq rather than any other country with a brutal dictator. Claiming that Hussein was massacring Shiites and Kurds only justifies invading Iraq in 1991 but not in 2003.

(4) National security interests, the 'war on terror', a grab for oil, economic considerations all boil down to self-interests of the US. They are irrelevant to the moral justification of an action. An action is wrong even if doing that action would be in my best interests. I'm a Kantian here.

(5) It is implausible to believe that the invasion is justified because we have promoted the cause of freedom and democracy in Iraq. This justification advanced by the Bush administration is a simulacra that looks deontological (after all, who would be against promoting freedom) but is actually consequentialist (the state of affairs in Iraq is now better). Even on consequentialist grounds, it is highly dubious. The total well-being of Iraq by any stretch of the imagination (notwithstanding administration propaganda) is now worse than it was before the US invaded. Further appeal to some point in the (vague) future when Iraq's well-being will be better than the Saddam days is, to put it bluntly, cashing a blank check with empty funds. Finally, even if the administration's delusions were right that Iraq is now a better place, 'liberating Iraq' to install a 'democracy' in its place is bascially a political crusade with no more justification than the religious crusades of the Middle Ages. It is one country presuming upon the sovereignty of another country without any independent adjudication. In the relevant case, the independent adjudication should have been the UN (as messed as they were), which did not authorize the US invasion.

My thinking on this issue, more or less, follows that of Michael Walzer. Fantley has alluded to his work, which is very very good.

For an interview regarding Walzer's thoughts on the Iraq war, see here


father wb said...

JT --

When you figure out that Middle Option, I am anxious to know what it is. I'm sure there are lots of conscripts down through the ages who would like to know too.

KF --

Now we are getting somewhere.

I should also say, by way of self-defense, that I have never studied Just War Theory - or Ethics, for that matter - and only have my intuitions to work with.

The point you address in (3) is the most pertinenet with regard to the intuition I meant initially to highlight, i.e. that defending the defenseless can be sufficient grounds for the use of force.

I will therefore confine my comments to your (3), with regard to which there are some facts you did not consider. One of the most germane is the maintenance, for ten years, of the "no fly zones" over Kurdistan in the north, and from Najaf to Basra in the south. I.e. Hussein's ceasing to massacre Kurds and Shiites coincided exactly with the establishment of the no-fly zones, enforced by the US (with the UN's blessing), at great expense -- and some danger to American lives.

Also: the systematic massacring of Shiites and Kurds was not the sole manifestation of the brutality of the old regime. E.g. recall how Iraqi athletes were tortured and killed for losing international competitions. That just isn't right. And one would be naive (and incorrect) to assume that atheltes were the only Iraqis treated thus under the old regime.

Lastly, you say: "There needs to be additional considerations for why invade Iraq rather than any other country with a brutal dictator." But there need not be additional *explanations* as far as moral justification goes -- that is, if in fact defending the defenseless is what was happening in Iraq by means of the late war, and if defending the defenseless is sufficient moral justification for using force. Also, the fact that the US seems to have become somewhat "bogged down" there does not mitigate against this impulse either, insofar as defending the defenseless ought not to be taken as sufficient grounds for WINNING an armed conflict, or for conflicting (so to speak) dexterously, but rather merely for engaging in conflict, full stop.

There do indeed need to be further considerations with regard to invading a country, once it has been established that the defenseless need defending. But these considerations include, perhaps most significantly, issues of practicality. One often hears "Well, there are LOTS of brutal dictators, like in North Korea and Zimbabwe; why invade Iraq?" But recall that we are talking about moral JUSTIFICATION, not a moral imperative. One is not necessarily required to defend the defenselss at every opportunity. But the opportunity does (I am suggesting) provide the justification, should one wish to avail oneself of it. Thus perhaps it is the case that the overthrow of the North Korean and Zimbabwean regimes IS justified, though not imperative. In the case of North Korea, at leat, justification does not entail expediency. And perhaps the invasion of Iraq was not expedient either, but while it may be easy to tell when "regime change" IS NOT expedient, it is inherently more difficult to establish when it IS -- i.e. there are always "unknown unknowns" (the current insurgency) as our illustrious Defense Secretary once put it. Another way of putting it: hindsight is always 20/20; foresight never is. But we are straying rather far afield now, as these are issues of expediency rather than moral justification.

Becca said...

A very interesting discussion ... sorry to come to it so late.

I appreciate your thoughts very much and think Michael Novak's article is excellent. I do believe that war is sometimes morally obligatory. It would be a terrible thing to look on another's suffering and not take action to illeviate that suffering and I applaud those who are willing to lay down their own lives for their friends (or even those they do not know). Evil must be withstood and Christians have a moral obligation to make that stand ... as difficult and costly as that might be ... even when the pacifist position is so attractive ... though I honor those whose consciences lead them to have an alternative opinion. Though I hate war, I can not sit (nor even sit and pray) and watch others suffer at the hands of tyrants.

koenigsfreunde said...

I think you and I are roughly agreed about (3). Perhaps I was too quick to dismiss it. I understood you to be asking for justification for the claim that invading Iraq is wrong. That's a different thing from providing justification for intervention in Iraq. Both of these are grounds for using force in Iraq, but the former is more drastic, i.e. regime change. The latter, as you point out, was carried out by enforcing no-fly zones in Kurdistan and the Shiite south. And you are absolutely right that Iraqi athletes and countless others were tortured under the Hussein regime. All these matters of fact are not under dispute by pro-war and anti-war folks. The relevant question is what sort of action is most plausibly entailed by these facts. I'm with Walzer in believing that more stringent containment of Iraq was the morally justified action, not regime change. So I'm not against the use of force against Hussein per se.

I do, however, two puzzles about your reply. First is a methodological one. You distinguish between moral justification and moral imperative. I have no problems with distinguishing between them as concepts. What I would worry about is a weak relation between the two. It seems to me the point of a moral justification is to justify a moral imperative. To put it formally:

Country C ought to φ because C has justification J to φ.

If you change φ from containment to invasion, the sorts of J which work in one case won't work in the other. Why? Invasion is clearly a more agressive action than containment. The standards for Jinvasion are higher than the standards for Jcontainment. As far as I can tell, defending the defenseless is the moral principle that sets a sufficency standard for Jcontainment, but not for Jinvasion. If you really want to maintain that defending the defenseless is sufficent for Jinvasion, you've got two options: deny that the standards go up, or tell me that the higher standards have indeed been met.

Second, I am worried that the additional standards you would add for Jinvasion would be matters of practicality. My (4) gestures at potential misuse of practicality standards. I will say more about this below when I talk more specifically about Just War Theory.

I did not think in 2003 the US had sufficent justification for effecting regime change for basically the same reasons I do now. So I am not speaking in hindsight. Appealing to 'unknown unknowns' - as Rumsfield does - does not reply to my critique of the administration. If anything, Rumsfield's appeal makes me even more worried.

The whole point of the Just War tradition is to provide a set of individually necessary and jointly sufficent conditions so that moral considerations stay in the foreground when we decide whether to go to war. The BBC notes six conditions: just cause JC, lawful authority LA, good intentions GI, last resort LR, reasonable success RS, and proportionality P. The specific conditions which I think were clearly not met by the last Iraq war were: last resort. I would add that it's highly plausible - though contested - that the conditions of lawful authority, just cause and reasonable success were also not met. I would be happy to concede - for the sake of discussion - that the administration has good intentions and that the war was carried out with proportional means given the constraints of modern warfare. Others like J-Tron may beg to differ but hold your horses until you see the conclusion. I propose we analyze this using probability. I've granted the Bush administration two premises: proportionality P and good intentions GI. Let P(W) be the probability that invading Iraq in 2003 is right. The analysis breaks down as follows

P(W) = P(JC & LA & GI & LR & RS &P)
Assume P(GI) = P(P) = 1

Let us split the difference on the premises I do not think are in the Bush admin's favor. That is,

(X) P(LA) = P(JC) = P(RS) = P(LR) = 0.5
∴ P(W) = 1*1*.5*.5*.5*.5 = 0.0625

In other words there's about a 6% chance that invading Iraq in 2003 was morally justified! The only way I can see a defender of the current Iraq War evading this conclusion is to argue that the probabilities in (X) are much higher than 0.5. As a matter of fact, if they were 90% in the administration's favor, it would only yield P(W) = 0.6561. In my opinion, that's far below the requirements of epistemic safety I would insist upon before prosecuting a war.


J-Tron said...

*Scratching head* I suck at algebra.

koenigsfreunde said...

To translate 'P(W) = P(JC & LA & GI & LR & RS & P)' into simple language, you simply take the product of each probability of each condition. '*' simply expresses multiplication.

So P(W) = P(JC) P(LA) P(GI) P(LR) P(RS) P(P)

I hope this clears up things.


father wb said...

My last comment (if anyone is still listening):

KF --

I think moral justification and moral imperatives are most certainly two different things. This is seen in the fact that often one would be morally justified in taking any of several actions, of which can can only possibly take one. I.e. suppose you are on a sinking ship and you can save one (and only one) of three identical triplets. You would be morally justified in saving any one of the three -- indeed, you would be JUSTIFIED in saving all three -- but there would be no imperative to save all three, nor indeed any particular one. I.e. I cannot see that there is ever a moral imperative to do something impossible, e.g. physically impossible.

father wb said...

Also, KF, and this obviously is not a formal objection to what you have said, the application of Bayes' Theorem to ethical situations outside of thought experiments has always struck me as a bad idea. The whole enterprise is more art than science, contrary to the appearance of numeric results like "65% certainty" or something. Things like the war in Iraq are far too complex for "65%" to represent anything tangible. I.e. it seems to me that the actual moral status of the war is a function of far too many factors to analyze with Bayes' Theorem, epistemic access to many of which we do not have (e.g. certain people's mental states -- e.g. the *intentions* of people in the Bush administration).

koenigsfreunde said...

Thanks for your last comments. I hope I've persuaded you, or, at least, given a compelling case for denying that Iraq War 2 is unjust. Pace Novak, the Vatican does not believe that just war applies to Iraq 2 (see here). The State Department did sponser Novak's visit to the Vatican in 2003 before the war. In that visit, Novak presented his case for why invading Iraq was just. For the text of his lecture, see here. See my blog for a critique.