Three Philosophical Difficulties with ‘Premptive Wars’
I would like to start out by thanking Dr. Ficarrotta
This paper addresses the following three philosophical difficulties with the notion of ‘Premptive Wars’:
1) The Problem of Definition: “The New Face of War.”
2) The Problem of Cause: Necessary Conditions For Going to War.
3) The Problem of Resolution: What is the End Goal Here?
history is no longer written by just the conquerors. In “The Problem of Definition,” I argue that
definitions of (eg.) “preemptive” vs. “aggressive” are only partly of our
making. Let us not allow partisan or
local issues to distract us from putting the proper “face” on war. We need to come up with a set of reasonably
acceptable definitions and stick with them and all that they imply. Moreover, we need not only reasonable
definitions, but also reasonable criteria.
In the “Problem of Cause,” I agree with Crawford (2003) that current
The Problem of Definition: “The New Face of War.”
The problem of definition is the problem of getting a set of reasonable definitions accepted in general or in particular cases and of sticking to them and their implications. I find these definitions plausible for general purposes.
1) Nations that use large-scale organized military force to secure objectives are said to be at war.
2) A war is preventive if it attempts to use large-scale organized military force to prohibit or prevent some action or course of actions on the part of a sufficient number of individuals.
3) A war is preemptive if it attempts to use large-scale organized military force to prohibit or prevent some action or course of actions on the part of a sufficient number of individuals, when the actions have not yet been taken, but are judged sufficiently likely.
Now for the
implications of these definitions. As
for 1) “war”, it follows that individuals or small non-authoritative groups may
start wars, but they cannot maintain or declare them. This brings up the case of terrorism. In the case of terrorism, war is maintained
or declared by the proportionate (or disproportionate) response of a
nation such as the
If war, in the case of terrorism, is manufactured by the nation that responds, we must whenever possible seek another answer to increased militarization and escalation: “We must, as stressful as this is psychologically, accept some vulnerability and uncertainty. We must also avoid the tendency to exaggerate the threat and inadvertently to heighten our own fear” (Crawford, 3). The practical question is how to defuse the fear when nearly every response from the Republican administration has served so far only to heighten it: the answer in too many cases is better diplomacy, not arms:
You must surely realize that the present American policy
What does Al Qaeda want?
The specifics may not be the important thing even if they could be
specified (to redress troop “violation” of
Terroristic power lies in technology, surely. But, the primary source of terroristic
power lies in the definitions accepted by the international community
and the actions taken in defense of those definitions (or ideals). As has often been said: “It is not guns that kill people; it is
people that kill people.” Hawks seem
reluctant to acknowledge the battle for words and for minds. On this front, military might and show often
prove detrimental. Prior to 9/11 it
could be reasonably argued that little of the (perceived or actual) misery of
whole scale Arab populations was directly caused by American action or
inaction. Of course, even then this “excuse” did not
necessarily matter: merely to be a
“have” amongst a world of “have-nots” is to incur derision and envy. Today, the actions of a preventive and a
preemptive war have considerably exacerbated an already bad situation. And we have to ask: for what?
We have forcefully changed the government of two countries and in the
process closed down some terrorist training camps in exchange for in many cases
some genuine humanitarian assistance.
That, unfortunately, is the best of it.
The worst of it is that the actions of the last few years simply may not
matter in the long run except further to paint
As for definition
2), a war is “preventive” if it attempts to use large-scale organized military
force to prohibit or prevent some action or course of actions on the part of a
sufficient number of individuals. The
A war is 3) preemptive if it attempts to use large-scale organized military force to prohibit or prevent some action or course of actions on the part of a sufficient number of individuals, when the actions have not yet been taken, but are judged sufficiently likely. But,
We are moving into a world in which ordinarily disadvantaged. Otherwise weak, poor, impoverished, helpless populations may have found a way to transform themselves into forces that might conceivably topple or severely wound even a superpower—though by normally outlawed means. So the need to define a “war on terrorism”—and correspondingly, certain forms of “state terrorism”—cannot be postponed (Margolis, 403).
So, then the problem of preemptive war comes down to asking what conditions could possibly justify taking action against a future threat. This question “bears upon . . . perhaps the most vital question facing those concerned with ethics in international relations: whether a country is defending itself or committing aggression” (Lang, 2003).
The problem of definition is the problem of having any definitions universally accepted. Nietzsche said, “Be careful when you wrestle with monsters, lest you thereby become one. For, if you stare long into the abyss, the abyss also stares into you.” At the same time as we define the terrorists; the terrorists define us. Al Quaeda defines us, not preposterously, as state terrorists. Let us not allow it. Let us not evoke fear even in the hearts of the deluded, unless it is absolutely necessary. Christ said, in another context: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” There is a power beyond force that consists of argument, community, and care. Let us take care to win the battle of words, minds and hearts. Let us not take the cheap and ferocious way out.
The Problem of Cause: Necessary Conditions.
“Under what conditions does the existence of risk and uncertainty about possible threats license the use of military force?” (Lang, 2003). 9/11 has
been made to yield a justification for further possible strikes against—by penetrating at will the territory of—sovereign states that, in the light of the admitted facts, were not implicated in any specific terrorist acts that issued from their space (Yemen, for instance, in an incident involving a direct attack on an American warship in port) (Margolis 2004, 403).
Though it may not be possible always to justify preemptive or any other kinds of war “in principle,” Crawford (2003) offers the following “necessary conditions.”
1. The party contemplating preemption would have a narrow conception of the “self” to be defended in the case of self defense.
2. There would have to be strong evidence that war was inevitable and likely in the immediate future.
3. Preemption should be likely to succeed in reducing the threat.
These are quite similar to the set of criteria put forth by DeGeorge and others concerning permissible and obligatory whistleblowing cases (DeGeorge 1991, 179-180). For example, when DeGeorge discusses the famous Ford Pinto case where Ford was charged with reckless homicide, he asks: 1) Is there a clear and present danger to public interest? 2) Have we exhausted all internal channels? 3) Do we have evidence sufficient to convince an impartial observer? 4) Is it clear that whistleblowing will, or may be the only thing that will make a difference? The first two criteria, says DeGeorge, gives us the moral “permissibility” to whistleblow; the second two, the “obligation.”
So, we mean something similar when we talk about conditions for permissibility and obligation in preemptive war. Again, 1) what public or private interest of what “self” is at stake, and is it sufficiently important? 2) Have we exhausted other means and found the case for war sufficient to convince an impartial observer? 3) Will a safer or less threatening end result be achieved?
As for the narrow
conception of self, Crawford notes that the
In terms of war
being inevitable or immediate, Crawford asks a) “Have potential aggressors said
they want to harm us in the near future or have they harmed us in the recent
past?” b) “Are potential adversaries moving their forces into a position to do
significant harm?” Crawford implies that
neither is the case with the
Secondly, have we
exhausted other means and found the case for war sufficient to convince an
impartial observer? Moving troops to
one’s borders cannot necessarily be viewed as preparation for assault. All countries do this. Some countries, such as our own, even send
troops to other countries borders to show force and not as preparation for
attack. In such cases, precedent and
reputation are the only reliable indicators of a country’s true intention. In this case, the
Thirdly, Will a safer or less threatening end result be achieved? This rather leads me to my last topic: the problem of resolution.
The Problem of Resolution: What is the End Goal Here?
Two issues principally concern me when I think of the problem of what preemptive wars are supposed to solve. First the line from the Bible that says not to complain about the splinter in your brother’s eye, while failing to see the log in your own. That’s a sentiment with which philosophy can fully agree: don’t be so arrogant as to assume you have all the answers and your way is the only right way. Knowledge, says Plato, begins in ignorance, because those who think they have all the answers won’t bother to ask themselves any questions. Second, let’s not act as though these issues are easy. A certain bewilderment in these trying times is common and we should be more willing to forgive perhaps some of the mistakes of the Bush administration even as we seek not to repeat them.
Here is what I
mean in a more specific sense. Domenico
Losurdo an Italian commentator reminds us of our faults in a way that perhaps
only a foreign commentator can see. He
remarks, for example, that “The March 2003 invasion of
strongest states will be inclined (. . . for instance in the matter of linking
To a large extent,
our media responds with a circus. Rush
Limbaugh advises: “Why in the world
would we want people like . . . de Villepin or Chirac, to come in and start
sharing command decisions about what happens now? Silly! We can handle it.
The second point is that in the end, there may be only one very complex answer: we do need people like Villepin and Chirac; indeed perhaps the majority of the world to be united in a common effort. Margolis argues “Peace in our time requires commitments that, in the past, were never deemed essential to resolving a war—as they now must be. . . . We can no longer live in peace if most of the world does not live nearly as well as its most privileged part” (407, emphasis his). He suggests the following:
We cannot hope to ensure peace in this desperate world . . . without attempting to narrow as much as possible the extremes of poverty, drought, starvation, peonage, political autonomy, disease pollution, capital development, access to resources and markets, helplessness, . . . –consistent with an acceptable quality of life for all peoples” (409).
Surely, Margolis is right, but his suggestion sounds a bit simple and platitudinous. Simple because he gives no concrete analysis of how governments or peoples are supposed to “bring it about that most of the world . . . live nearly as well as its most privileged part.” Perhaps the most concrete suggestion is the system of distributive justice offered by John Rawls in his famous Theory of Justice. Rawls proposes that everyone under “Justice as fairness” have equal access to all the goods, offices, and services and that inequalities are only allowable to the extent that they favor the least advantaged. Robert Nozick in his response book Anarchy, State and Utopia has shown that any patterned distributional system D1 will stifle the very liberties and freedoms that Rawl’s theory of justice is meant to protect. In Rawl’s system, if someone like Wilt Chamberlin were to earn more than the accepted allotment through his superior basketball talents, then that money would have to be returned in order to get back to the perfect distribution. So, in other words, if you always have to return any “extra” money you make so as to make it so “most of the world . . . live[s] nearly as well as its most privileged part” (407). This encourages mediocrity, because no one will want to work extra hard to make extra money that they know must go to someone else.
Secondly, Margolis’ suggestion, though correct, is also platitudinous. Aren’t a lot of people already trying to bring it about that “most of the world . . . live[s] nearly as well as its most privileged part”? Take capital investment for example. We cannot just assume that our investments in developing nations are simply for the purposes of exploiting cheap labor. Arguably, so called “sweatshops” provide employment and industrial opportunities that are not otherwise available to developing countries (Maitland, )
In the end, we are left with “making sure most of the world . . . live[s] nearly as well as its most privileged part” as an ideal. But Margolis is right, it is an important ideal, nonetheless, like the problems of ending poverty or racism. Achieving that ideal, or some measure of it, seems to be the only lasting end to the “terrorism,” and refocusing our administrations priorities to this ideal is a very worthy cause even though we do not have all the answers. I will leave you with that, and I thank you for your time.
Betts, Richard K.: 2003. “Striking First: A History of Thankfully Lost Opportunities”
Ethics and International Affairs 17.1.
Crawford, Neta C.: 2003. “The Slippery Slope to Preventive War” Ethics and
International Affairs 17.1.
DeGeorge, Richard.: 1991. “Ethical Responsibilities of Engineers in Large
Organizations; The Ford Pinto Case,” in Deborah G. Johnson ed., Ethical Issues
Galston, William A.: 2002. “The Perils of Preemptive War” Philosophy and Public
Policy Quarterly 22.4.
Lang, Anthony F.: 2003. “Evaluating the Preemptive Use of Force” Ethics and
International Affairs 17.1.
Losurdo, Domenico.: 2004. “Preemptive War, Americanism, and Anti-Americanism,”
Jon and Marella Moris trans., Metaphilosophy 35.3.
Maitland, Ian.: “The Great Non-debate Over International Sweatshops” in Beauchamp
Prentice Hall, 579-590.
Margolis, Joseph.: 2004. “Terrorism and the New Forms of War,” Metaphilosophy 35.3,
Nichols, Thomas M.: 2003. “Just War, Not Prevention” Ethics and International Affairs
1974. Anarchy, State, and
Rawls, John.: 1999. A Theory of Justice; Revised Edition. Belknap Press.
Rorty, Richard.: 2002.
“Fighting Terrorism With Democracy” The Nation.
Available at <http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20021021&s=rorty>.
 I am not absolving the United States from perceived or actual misery felt by Arab populations in the past; however, 9/11 and our country’s subsequent ‘reaction’s have thrown us into a proverbial hornet’s nest of liabilities and sometimes outright lies.
 Beyond Good and Evil, aphorism 146.
 Luke 23:34.
 In Matthew 7:3: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?”
Quoted from the critical site http://www.rushlimbaughonline.com/articles/iraq1.htm,
also on http://www.rushlimbaugh.com/home/eibessential1/iraq_answer_not_more_troops.LogIn.html,
unfortunately only available to members.
Dominique Villepin is