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Morality and Political Violence

Mises Daily: Tuesday, April 15, 2008 by


[Morality and Political Violence. By C.A.J. Coady. Cambridge University Press, 2007. Xi + 317 pages.]

Professor Coady is best known for a book on the epistemology of testimony, Testimony: A Philosophical Study (Oxford University Press, 1992); but he has also established a well-deserved reputation as an authority on the just-war tradition. In Morality and Political Violence, he has produced a major work, characterized by an abundance of good sense and acute argument.

Critics of the Iraq war often claim that President Bush lacked a just cause for initiating war. Even if one accepted as true the mendacious claims that Saddam Hussein had WMD in his possession, by no means did his regime constitute an imminent threat to the United States. A poor country, subjected to years of bombing and sanctions, was hardly in a position to imperil the only superpower.

Against this, defenders of the war, such as George Weigel, James Turner Johnson, and Edward Feser,[1] have claimed that the criticism just presented misrepresents the just-war tradition. True enough, they say, a dominant modern day position limits just wars to wars of self-defense. By no means, though, did St. Augustine and his medieval successors, St. Thomas foremost among them, confine legitimate war in this fashion. Quite the contrary, wars to redress injustice were fully legitimate. If so, was there not a case to be made for liberating the Iraqi people from Saddam's tyranny?[2]

Coady subjects this position to sharp criticism. He acknowledges that the medieval writers countenanced some nondefensive wars as just. "The medieval theory is restrictive — the prince cannot wage war as he pleases nor conduct it as he likes — but the medievals envisaged legitimate causes for military intervention other than self-defence, which is what the modern idea of outlawing 'aggression' amounts to" (p. 58).

But it does not follow from this that modern "humanitarian" intervention would be allowed by the older doctrine. Jonathan Barnes, a well-known historian of philosophy,

replies that the letter of the theory appears to countenance this [type of intervention] but that the spirit is against it; and he quotes Suarez approvingly as saying, "what some assert that sovereign kings have power to punish over the whole world is altogether false, and confounds all order and distinction of jurisdictions." (p. 59)

Coady is not satisfied: perhaps Suarez made the medieval requirements more stringent.

It is possible to argue, however, that by the time of the Spanish theologians Suarez and Vitoria, the spirit of the theory had begun to change quite a bit, in part under their influence … Indeed, it is a plausible hypothesis that … [with some exceptions] the evolution of just war theory has been towards a more and more prohibitive attitude toward war. The current ban on "aggressive war" can be seen, I think, for all its obscurity, to be the outcome of such a development. (pp. 59–60)

The question then arises, is this evolution to a restrictive view desirable, or ought we, as Weigel, Johnson, and Feser wish, to return to the laxer view held in the early Middle Ages? Coady has little doubt on how we should respond. The entire just-war tradition presupposes that given the death, suffering, and injury necessarily involved in war, not to mention the near certainty that grave moral sins will be committed during the fighting, the occasions for war must be drastically limited. To allow "humanitarian" interventions, except perhaps in the clearest and most severe cases, would open the door to continual wars. The danger would be all the more serious, given the propensity of governments to mask aggressive wars in moralistic rhetoric. If, by contrast, one allows only wars in self-defense to be legitimate (again, with perhaps a few exceptions), then there is a much better chance to limit war.

Remember the starting point of just war theory: there is a presumption against the moral validity of resort to war given what we know of the history of warfare, of the vast devastation it causes (nowadays even more so) and the dubious motives that have so often fuelled it … the evils of war are so great that restricting it to cases where the justification for lethal violence is obvious and overwhelming is likely to have much better consequences than allowing a wider range of justifications that can easily be open to misinterpretation and abuse. (pp. 73–4)

Coady deals effectively with an objection to his position. He here supports a rule in part because adopting it, he judges, will have better consequences than adopting any alternative rule. Is this not to adopt a rule-utilitarian perspective? But what if one is not a utilitarian? Further, is not the just-war tradition usually classed as nonutilitarian? Coady, in the guise of strengthening the just-war position, appears to have introduced an alien system, rule utilitarianism, within it.

Not at all, he replies. An opponent of consequentialism is not one who denies that consequences ever matter; to do this would be very foolish. Rather, a nonconsequentialist claims that sometimes things other than consequences matter. Coady's argument for limiting wars to defense, then, does not signal his adoption of rule utilitarianism.

A defender of the Iraq war might be tempted to try to turn one of Coady's points against him. Just because of the vast devastation that modern weapons cause, are we not justified in endeavoring to prevent our enemies from gaining access to them? If Saddam Hussein had gained possession of WMD, then, did not even the slight chance he might have given them to terrorists, or otherwise used them against us, gives us reason to oust him from power?

In response, Coady is appropriately severe:

Once we get beyond immediate threat of attack by an enemy, we are pretty much in the realm of untrammeled speculation. Another nation's development of weapons, including weapons of mass destruction, may create various worries and uncertainties, but there is so much that can come between that development and its hostile use that we should not risk the hazards of war on behalf of the alarming prediction. (p. 102)

Even many supporters of the Cold War consensus have repudiated Bush's war of aggression against Iraq, but Coady intends a far more radical criticism of American policy. A standard part of just-war reasoning requires that one cannot directly intend the death of noncombatants; and, if noncombatants die as the result of foreseen but unintended consequence of licit military operations, their deaths must be proportional to the value of the objective. It is wrong, e.g., to blow up an entire neighborhood because one has good reason to think a suicide bomber is hiding there.

Given the enormous potential for destruction of atomic weapons, no use of them can meet the proportionality requirement.

I have argued that a primary reason for concern about WMD is their propensity to kill the wrong people rather than their tendency to kill large numbers. But it remains true that weapons whose purpose, or most likely use, is to kill large numbers of people immediately raise an issue of proportionality, even if the people killed are otherwise legitimate targets. (p. 252)

Even in a defensive war, it would never be right to use these weapons. But to threaten to do something that is wrong is also wrong. The basis of United States defense policy, which lies in the use of these weapons as a deterrent, is undermined.

Two of the foremost philosophers of the twentieth century, David Lewis and Bernard Williams, disputed this argument. Lewis denied that possession of nuclear weapons need involve any wrong intention. The mere fact that our enemies know that we have these weapons will be sufficient to deter them: they cannot know that we will not use the weapons against them. If so, we need have no evil intention to use the weapons: the mere uncertainty in the minds of our opponents suffices to accomplish our goal of deterring them from attacks on us.

Coady answers that

even if nuclear or WMD deterrence did not embody the explicit intention to do evil, it would involve states of mind that are equally to be condemned, such as the readiness to form such an intention in certain eventualities, or an attitude of compliance with or supervision of a situation in which nuclear or biological devastation is one of the options available. (p. 254)

But need this be true? Suppose that we have the firm intention never to use the weapons. What evil intention do we then entertain? Further, suppose we do have an intention to use the weapons, if deterrence fails, but we are certain that our threat to use them will ensure that deterrence does not fail. Our conditional intention, then, involves a circumstance that will not occur. As Bernard Williams puts the point, "If it were certain that threatening some dreadful thing would prevent some crime or suffering, would that really leave the threat morally no better than the dreadful deed I wouldn't need to perform?" (p. 255, quoting Williams).

Coady uncovers a difficulty with this argument:

[T]here is a conceptual mystery about how someone could have an intention to do X if and only if Y where she is certain that Y will never occur…. There is no barrier to an announcement, but announcing an intention is not having it. (p. 256)

Coady's point may be granted, but the argument can be reformulated to avoid it. If Coady is right, one cannot have such a conditional intention. Then it follows that if one announces such an intention, one is bluffing. Why could this be not enough to deter? In any case, Lewis's point has not really been met. It isn't, as Coady thinks, that one must entertain an intention to at least consider using the weapons; in theory, one need not have any intention at all to use them.

In theory — there is the sticking point. If Coady has not succeeded in finding a contradiction in the arguments of Lewis and Williams, it is nevertheless clear that in practice he is right. No government in possession of such weapons could be trusted never to intend to use them. Quite the contrary, as repeated statements by American policymakers have made clear, these weapons are intended for use; and as Coady does not fail to remind us, they have been used by America on two occasions.

Coady has argued effectively that only in very special circumstances is war justified; but what happens if a war does break out? Our author calls attention to a neglected topic: even in case of a justified war, one must avoid demands for unconditional surrender.

Because so many modern wars have been passionately ideological … the very idea of negotiating with enemies prior to crushing them can seem preposterous or even immoral. Something like this seems to have been behind the appeal to "unconditional surrender" in World War II. (p. 272)

Coady thinks that had reasonable terms of surrender been offered, this might have made it easier for the German opposition to overthrow Hitler. Of course one cannot be sure that this happy outcome would have occurred, but it was at least worth making an effort to attain it. Insistence on unconditional surrender led to "the devastation wrought by the Soviet army in its push through eastern Germany to Berlin … rape, pillage, and casual murder by Soviet troops were commonplace" (p. 271).

"As repeated statements by American policymakers have made clear, these weapons are intended for use."

Coady does not mention one argument used at the time in favor of unconditional surrender. The Germans complained that the Treaty of Versailles betrayed the terms on which they had surrendered. Unconditional surrender, it was contended, would avoid similar complaints. Here the response is obvious: the Allies ought to have kept to the surrender terms, i.e., Wilson's Fourteen Points, on which the Germans surrendered in November 1918.

Coady discusses with insight a large number of topics, of which I have been able to cover only a small sample. His suggestions to limit war seem to me entirely along the right lines, and on only one of his recommendations do I find myself in disagreement. He calls for the strengthening of international institutions such as the United Nations and looks with favor on the International Criminal Court. Against this, there seems little reason to place more confidence in international bureaucrats than their national counterparts; and steps to centralized power have historically been inimical to liberty.[3] Despite this difference in opinion, though, I have no hesitation in recommending Morality and Political Violence. It deserves to replace the hitherto standard work, Michael Walzer's Just and Unjust Wars, as the first book to consult about the morality of warfare.


[1] See my review of George Weigel, Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism: A Call to Action in The Mises Review and my "Feser, War, and Libertarianism" and "Unfazed by Feser: Phase 2".

[2] I do not mean to suggest that these writers think that the Iraq war can be justified only on humanitarian grounds. The Saddam Hussein regime meets their criteria for a threat to the United States as well.

[3] Jeremy Rabkin has argued strongly against the dangers of international institutions in Law Without Nations (Princeton University Press, 2005), though I regret to say that his laudable arguments are in part motivated by his wish to remove an obstacle to a bellicose American foreign policy. By the way, his remarks about Jean Bodin's influence on Jefferson are well worth attention.