NATIONS RED IN TOOTHLESS LAW: Can Mortal Conflict Be Moral Conflict?

Philosophers make imaginary laws for imaginary commonwealths, and

their discourses are as the stars which give little light because they are so high.

-Roger Bacon


At the meeting of the big three at Yalta toward the end of World War II, Roosevelt informed Churchill and Stalin what the Pope had counseled regarding a certain plan under consideration at the time. In response to this news, Stalin’s comment was, "And how many divisions did you say the Pope had available for combat duty?"1

The insinuation is that only those who wield force earn a seat at the table of counsel when the counsel is one of war. To give this notion its due, force is the defining element of warfare, distinguishing it from the other implements of statecraft. It is the tool employed when all other means of persuasion have proven ineffectual, to include appeals to humanity such as those made by politicians and Popes; what Clausewitz refers to as the "continuation of policy by other means."2 The arrival of ‘diplomacy of the fists’ signals the exit of civil deliberation, a changing of the guard wherein words necessarily give way to actions.

More subtle is the implication that force should be the only counsel, in both the consideration and conduct of war. This belief appears equally imbedded in Stalin’s remark, and unsurprisingly so, coming from the self-proclaimed "Man of Steel." The rationale for such a claim goes something like this: In considering when to go to war, if all other avenues of negotiation fail, the call to arms, the threat of force, is the ultimate recourse, and in disputes of any significance, all other avenues of negotiation will, without question, fail. Realizing this, force should be not merely the ultimate, but the initial and only pursuit we engage in. Further, in considering how to wage war, those who insist on limits to conduct, such as the just war tradition advocates, will put themselves at disadvantage when they encounter, as they surely will, those who have no such compunctions. Our conflicts with others in the international arena are un-refereed competitions, and the nice people who insist on playing by rules, in the absence of recognized rule-makers or established rule-enforcers will, as the saying goes, finish last.

These sentiments are crystallized in the doctrine of the Realist, the political commentator who sees the international realm as inherently anarchic, lacking any central, ordering authority. Given this sad state, the realist sees no compelling reason, external or otherwise, to vest any energy in considerations or principles which serve as brakes to certain of their own possible behaviors when, in the final analysis, these serve as nothing more than verbal brakes on the behavior of others.

The realist claim is that to bind ourselves (unilaterally, as the case will be) to codes of conduct and rules of engagement is to hobble ourselves in a race to high stakes’ victory. To frame the debate between the realist and their detractors more broadly, whereas the sages of old advised that living well is the only way to live (living being inclusive of all our mortal pursuits - the constructive, the sustaining, and the destructive), the realist counters that living well (expressed in the way we make war) is a sure way to die.

There is a certain pragmatic, excusing quality to this doctrine which gives it a popular appeal. You hear its nascent strains on the playground wherever the ‘put up or shut up’ principle is employed, in the smug sing-song that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.’ It resonates into the halls of power, where world leaders invoke it in strategic talks, and caretakers of countries indulge in great purges which lead millions of their masses to mass graves.3

Perhaps that last is a cheap shot, and possessing realist beliefs is purely coincidental to perpetrating such events, but if we take the ‘whole person’ concept seriously, perhaps the realist refrain really is a cause for alarm.

If so, it is because the realist flies in the face of the just war tradition’s framing principles, that war should be slow to come and minimal in its destructions (hence slow to come again). On the mall, not ten miles’ distant from this spot, a civil war monument to a regiment of Tennessee volunteers is surmounted with the inscription "THE ONLY LEGITIMATE AIM OF WAR IS A MORE PERFECT PEACE." Ironies aside, ‘perfection’ is measured in part by some virtual safety clock which tallies the days without an outbreak of fighting. Where the just war proponent strives to make war an ever-more endangered species, the exception rather than the rule of our affairs, the realist, with their exhortations to accept war as an integral part of the human condition, tends to lead us in the opposite direction.

Not that the realist is necessarily pleased with this conclusion. It’s simply that the facts are undeniable. The way we are and the way we would be are too far removed to ever become kindred. The gap between what is the case (the descriptive) and what ought to be the case (the prescriptive) cannot be bridged in this matter.

Inherent in the notion that something is preferable is the idea that it’s within the realm of the possible. To say as a practical matter that some state of human affairs should obtain requires at a minimum that state be realizable. Conversely, showing something - consistent adherence by all parties to moral prosecution of war, for instance - cannot be realized is sufficient to conclude it should not be pursued. This forms the essence of the realist’s criticism of Just War. If the means to cooperation in times of conflict were somewhere out there to be found, surely thousands of years of searching would have delivered us to a more peaceful age. Only their non-existence could account for the myriad reasons nations continue to war, the regrettable practices we continue to employ.

This is sound thinking, and sets the bar for our task. If we are to refute the realist’s assertion that moral sentiment should not color the way we make war, we’ll have to first demonstrate the falsity of their foundational claim, that we cannot realistically expect the parties in international disputes to collectively formulate and abide by moral restraints on conduct in warfare. Such a demonstration comprises the focus and full scope of this paper.

According to the realist, adherence cannot obtain for one of two reasons. As these reasons are mutually exclusive, realists are divided roughly into two camps. The first, the ‘thorough-going,’ maintains that adherence to moral principles cannot obtain because a universal moral code, mutually recognizable by all belligerents, is a fiction. The second, the ‘moderate,’ holds the same conclusion but on the belief that, while such a code is not a fiction, it is at the same time without force. Let me delineate their respective positions a little further.

For the thorough-going realist, just war fails in practice because it fails in principle. To act on a universal code of conduct we must formulate one, and different cultures lack the common conditions to make such a code possible. While individual nations possess sufficient homogeneity to formulate coherent internal by-laws, the thorough-going realist views the international realm as amoral, devoid of meaningful prescriptions and prohibitions. As a result, they offer nothing more than pragmatic, unapologetic explanation for their behavior, and ask the would-be judge, in the absence of consensus on what constitutes wrong-doing, to acquit all parties to war, to find them innocent of any offense.

For the moderate realist, just war fails in practice due simply to empirical limitations of the world we inhabit. Nations may fervently preach common morality, but are not at liberty, for a variety of reasons beyond their control, to practice it. The world of the moderate, in contrast to that of the thorough-going, possesses inherent moral character. Accordingly, they offer apologetic justification for failures to adhere to recognized standards. They ask the would-be judge, in the absence of freedom to do otherwise than as they have, to absolve the relevant parties, to suspend punishment for the wrongs they have done.

In what follows I’ll critique the arguments put forth by both realist camps, the thorough-going and the moderate, pointing out the weaknesses of each position and offering an alternative account of the forces at play in the international realm. Then, based on this more optimistic reading of what humans in conflict can aspire to, I’ll conclude with a plea that we work to actualize that potential

The (not so) Thorough-Going Stance

The thorough-going realist levels the harshest criticism against the just war tradition, namely that there can be no contracting, by all parties, to abide by universally acknowledged principles of morality, because there simply are no universal principles of morality to be acknowledged and appealed to in the first place. A just war tradition - a standardized scorecard to be referenced by all belligerents in formulating policy and evaluating practices - founded on principles of justice, is a sham.

For the thorough-going realist, just war is, at best, an oxymoron. The characteristics of the constituents, "morality" and "war", are too much at odds with each other to be properly associated. Where the "language" of war is universal and represents a communication between peoples (or reflects a lack thereof) the language of morality does not, in any substantive way. It may be that all players on the world stage speak it, but not with any shared dialect. The variations are so many, and sometimes so radically different, that any attempt at a meeting of the tribes on matters of proper social and inter-social practices would (and does) mark a return to the Tower of Babel.

The thorough-going realist goes so far as to balk at being characterized as a "moral realist" because the reality is, morality is a fiction. The just war thinker seeking to ground rules of armed conflict in common principles of fair play is doomed to failure. He who seeks justice in a world which, on the greatest scale, just is, resembles "…a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat which isn’t there," to paraphrase Lord Bowen.4

This isn’t to say that might makes right, merely that might stands in, in the absence of such ‘right’, as proxy where moral considerations would otherwise champion our behavior. The voice of morality, muted in its transmission across national boundaries, garbled through various filters of nuance and signification and distorted over objections to appearance, becomes unintelligible. War’s character as an international phenomenon means that, as the ancients might have said, in the house of war the law is non-existent.5

To evidence this claim that there are no transcendent principles of morality which might in principle be appealed to, the thorough-going realist draws upon the work of the moral relativist. I contend they are mistaken to do so, as the observations of the latter are flawed.

James Rachels and Allan Bloom deftly expose these flaws.6 Taken together, they provide a two-phase critique of the relativist’s position. Rachels focuses on the empirical evidence cited by the relativist, and shows they lack depth in their analysis. Bloom further points out that, even if their methodology were sound, the conclusions relativists subsequently draw are ultimately inconsistent.

Relativists begin with the claim that if there were universally held values, we would expect to find all cultures engaging in similar practices. Our observations, however, are that different cultures engage in (sometimes radically) different behaviors.

Evidence the practices of the Eskimos, who engage in infanticide, a custom which carries no social censure in their community, or that of ancient Mayan Indians, who routinely performed human sacrifice. Such behavior doesn’t merely challenge our ideas of acceptability, but defies them. Try as we may, our notions of ethical conduct are in no way elastic enough to encompass such acts. The relativist asks how, in light of these and myriad other anthropological asymmetries, we could ever hope to unearth a normative Rosetta Stone? The absence of such leaves us no other choice but to conclude that differences in the values of various cultures are fundamental and irreconcilable.

The relativist’s conclusions would be sound if the only causal explanation for differences in cultural practices was differences in values. However, factors other than values influence a society’s behavior. Physical setting and cosmology also shape cultural practices. Rachels points out that the relativist, failing to consider these as relevant sources of difference between cultures, fails to be thorough in their analysis of morality. Recognizing several factors in the equation of societal behavior creates the possibility that the first, values, is constant, while the latter two, environment and cosmology, are variable.

This is just what we find in the case of the Eskimos and the Mayan Indians, if we are rigorous and scratch the surface of appearance to reveal the causal reality beneath.

Latter day Eskimos did in fact engage in female infanticide, but not without compelling reason, and only as a last resort. It did serve as a solution to overpopulation, but only when there were more children than could be cared for by the clan, when they had exhausted the avenue of adoption by other couples, capable of providing where the birth parents were not.

It wasn’t that human life wasn’t valued, but that for the Eskimos, contraception was not well understood nor readily available, and as nomads in a harsh environment, nurture was limited to the number of infants which could literally be carried. Neither was it the case that female life was less precious than male. The Eskimos of old simply depended upon hunting as their sole source of food. This required a healthy male population to provide for the needs of all the clan, and in a harsh environment where the dangers of hunting created an artificially high male mortality rate, female infanticide was the optimal means of keeping the gender ratio in balance.

For the Eskimos, their behavior was not choice, but chosen for them, by the limiting factor of a harsh physical locale that made their choice a necessity. Had they been afforded the luxury of living in, say, the San Joaquin Valley, common value and (now) common condition would likely have manifested themselves in common behavior.

In the case of the Mayans, justification for sacrificial killing was felt necessity of practicing that ritual. By their understanding, the world was populated with myriad spirits which held sway over the forces of sun and rain and wind. These spirits, changeable in their moods, were likely to take offense at perceived human slights and respond by withholding healthful conditions. The belief of the Mayans was that only such sacrifices could placate the spirits and bring the return of conditions which would sustain the people.

Did the Mayans embrace this practice, extol it as admirable and exemplary of civilization in its finest figure? It’s doubtful that the Mayans valued human sacrifice in that way. Many encounters with representative, contemporary cultures, have revealed that when practices which prove harmful to some segment of one’s population are put to causal test and shown to not be causally significant, they have been spontaneously abandoned; common practice expressing common value and (now) common cosmology.

Rachels’ careful reassessment thus sustains the notion of a common moral compass, despite divergent activities, where the cursory reading of the relativist fails to delineate behavior’s several and sometimes discordant facets. The outcome of this alternate explanation is that it is not necessary to accept the relativist’s conclusions.

But merely raising the possibility the relativist is wrong falls short of our goal of showing their position to be truly untenable, and here Bloom steps in to bridge the distance remaining to that conclusion.

If the relativist’s conclusions were true, and no society’s moral code inherently superior or inferior to any other, this would require the conscientious individual to refrain from praising or criticizing the values of any cultures above those of any other. One would need to tout, as the preferred stance, the equal tolerance of all attitudes. Unfortunately, this would include tolerance for intolerance, counter to the very principle one is espousing.

At the same time, relativism’s crowning virtue (the quiet humility with which I express my beliefs and refrain from cursorily condemning yours) proves itself illusory. If my virtue as a relativist is that I don’t deem myself morally superior to you, yet you, as a non-relativist, deem yourself morally superior to anyone, then, in fact, I do think I’m superior to you, if only in that regard. To argue the preferability of no one system of belief, we must necessarily include that one among them.

In short, one is either advocating a position which, as a result of such advocacy, ceases to exist, or describing a position which, if the description be accurate, cannot be advocated. In this way relativism ultimately leads us to a pair of paradoxes, which summed, constitute a dilemma (either relativism can’t be held or it shouldn’t be) and move the relativist from the frying pan to the fire. With these observations, Bloom has dropped the other shoe, and collapses the relativist’s platform. Not only is it not necessary to draw the conclusions the relativist does, it is not even possible to do so and maintain a credible stance.

This is the one-two punch delivered against moral relativism. Rachels delivers us from the initial dilemma of either living in denial of the evidence of centuries of anthropology in order to preserve our belief in transcendent right, or abandoning that intuitive belief in order to be true to our science. In doing so, Rachels delivers us from the subsequent, paradox-born dilemma noted by Bloom; of embracing a stance which cannot be held or killing our belief by the very act of subscribing to it.

Though neither Rachels nor Bloom says as much, it seems each is advocating we respond to other cultures in the way which the stoic and the serenity prayer advise us to respond to all situations we encounter: Grant me the strength to change the things I can (to challenge mistaken cosmological beliefs which result in unnecessarily harmful behavior), the serenity to accept the things I cannot (dictates of physical environment which truly necessitate (minimally) harmful behavior), and the wisdom to know the difference (such that I neither fail to prevent that which is unnecessary, nor do more harm than the unavoidable minimum already being done).

The Immoderacy of the Moderate Stance

The idea that ‘If there are no universal moral truths then realism describes the way of the international world’ is a plank in both the thorough-going and moderate platforms. The thorough-going, confident in the truth of the claim, is satisfied to stand on this single plank. Proving it false, as Rachels and Bloom set out to do, is sufficient to topple them. Unfortunately, this is only response by half to the moderate.

The moderate maintains it is not enough that such principles be mutually acknowledged. If a just war tradition worthy of its name is to be viable, these principles must be acted upon, and this is something which will never come to pass.

Self-interest, having primacy, will always win in a conflict with propriety. Moral behavior, being other-directed, between two, in a sense requires participation by both parties. Failure of one party to act with regard for the other leaves me no choice but to do likewise. In a game against an opponent who doesn’t recognize the rules, the criteria for winning change. As Dean William Inge, of St. Paul’s Cathedral observed in the late 1930s when Germany began rearming, "It is useless for the sheep to pass resolutions in favor of vegetarianism as long as the wolf remains of a different opinion."7

The weakness of morality is summed in the sad observations of Thucydides, recounting the classic dialogue between Melos and their Athenian visitors in the midst of the Peloponnesian War. The need to appeal to another’s sense of fair play in the first place, as the Melians initially did, indicates both that another’s ‘better nature’ is absent, and that you lack the means to summon it. On the other hand, if you enjoy the physical wherewithal to be magnanimous, as the Athenians did, you have no compelling motivation to be so. If you need to be in moral circumstances, you can’t afford them, and if you can afford to be in moral circumstances, you don’t need them.

While I might feel there are standards of behavior everyone should adhere to, circumstances just don’t allow me to. Those around me, fearful of me or covetous of what I have, put me in the position of the Eskimos; constituting a harsh environment over which I have no control, and against which I act, of necessity, other than as I would.

Some will say I am never without choice, even if none of the options are very desirable. The alternative may be death, but death isn’t the worst of fates. While this usually holds, is it true in the case of death of an entire culture? If not, there are sometimes when we may be without choice. While it may, on the face of it, be better to die than to live ignobly, this seems to rest on the presumption that there are others for whom such dying will serve as good example and who will reward us with inscription of suitable epitaphs on our headstones In the worst case scenario, however, in response to the marine’s famous dictum ‘Death before dishonor,’ we have to ask what the true status and worth of honor is if everyone who embodied that principle is now dead.

War, distilled down, lays bare the irresolvable tension between my desire to live well and my desire simply to live. In a war of survival, direst circumstances drive us to a dilemma: if our principle have primacy, it will mean the end of us. But if existence is our end, it will ultimately be at the loss of our principles.

The realist maintains that in the choice between being a certain way or being at all, the latter will win out, being closer to our hearts as the hard-wired response. They admit this is regrettable, yes, but maintain it is understandable as well. As Michael Walzer notes, what we often call inhumanity is really nothing more than humanity under pressure.8

Here as with the case of the thorough-going realist, it isn’t that might makes right, as apologists for wrong behavior contend, rather that might mutes right. While the voice of universal moral behavior is intelligible, it is at the same time inaudible. I believe it was Michel de Montaigne who said words to the effect, ‘The clatter of arms drowns out the voice of the law.’

What accounts for this short-coming? How can it be, if the moderate is right, that principles of morality can transcend national boundaries, yet the practice of these be limited to our respective borders, brought up short at our shores?

The moderate, in defense of that claim, seems to be making appeal to an account of the origins of moral community, such as those given by Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes, building on Thucydides’ observations of human nature, describes a fictitious time before cooperative human endeavor and the conditions which brought about the transition to civil society.

According to Hobbes, if individuals possess any innate right, it is the right to self-preservation. As a matter of course follows the right to anything – to all things – which may be deemed necessary to ensure one’s continued existence. This creates difficulty when we factor in the existence of others, all exercising this same right to all things. The needs for survival are constant companion throughout life. As a result, the potentially unlimited striving of multiple parties for ultimately limited resources give rise to competition.

This isn’t yet a bleak scenario. As observers of struggle know, one competitor will emerge victorious, and each will then know where they stand. Following subsequent competitions, a pecking order will emerge and relative peace will ensue.

Unfortunately an additional factor, the essential equality of the combatants, arrests our progress to that point. The fact that the strongest is not so strong they cannot be overcome by the weakest, either by cunning or collusion with a few others, precludes arrival at a stable situation, a status quo. I may best you today, but you might as easily triumph over me tomorrow, such that our mutual fear of each other is perpetual, and our conflict becomes interminable. Thus we find ourselves residents of what Hobbes deems the State of Nature, in which life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."9 Thomas Huxley further underscores this initial remove from civil society in describing our condition as "nature red in tooth and claw."10

Our evenly matched strength is source of our greatest difficulty. Happily though, it also contains the germ of solution.

The state of constant war resulting from our relative weakness with regard to each other, gives everyone incentive to escape the state of nature. Doing so takes the form of agreeing to limit our claims to all things, on condition that others agree to do the same. Granted, this creates the temptation to gain advantage, by defecting on our agreement when others are complying. But our equal standing further makes it possible to collectively imbue a leviathan with sufficient power to overawe us all and thus enforce these obligations, should that temptation arise. In short, the essential equality of individuals creates both an anarchical situation and an avenue of escape - both the motivation to enter into contracts and the means to ensure our compliance with those.

Unfortunately, says the realist, while the virtues of promise-making and assumed obligation mark the beginnings of moral community, the conditions for such are not afforded to the international community. This is due to inherent differences between the individual humans who comprise a given community and the nation-states which people the world.

Steven Forde notes this discrepancy.11 Unlike their constituent citizens, the strengths of countries describe a broad spectrum. Unique location, the resources thereof, number of inhabitants, and the character of a people shaped by these factors account for considerable diversity in size and strength. As a result, all are not equally at threat.

Consequently, the strong do not possess motivation to limit their claims to all things (causing the weak’s motivation to likewise dissolve). Even if the motivation were present, inequities would not allow establishment of a leviathan – an entity with sufficient power to compel all parties to keep their covenants - to give teeth to ethical rules.

This leads the realist to conclude that, while agreement and order may be the norm in national affairs, the international realm remains anarchic. It may well be that all desire an enforcement authority and the order such would bring, but at the same time, all realize the state of the world dashes any hope of this dream becoming reality. The realist wagers with Pascal, that "justice without power is repudiated,"12 and further asserts the absence of such a force, binding among nations, legitimates all expressions of power.

Is the situation truly so bleak as the moderate realist would have us believe? Is a leviathan essential to foster workable agreements between nation-states? Richard Brandt, building on the writing of John Rawls, doesn’t think so, and offers us an alternative reading of the psychology of states, one which restores to the international realm a motivation for just behavior.13

Brandt concedes the realist’s claim that nation-states are not all "created" equal. Countries, unlike people, populate a broad spectrum of strengths. Brandt goes on to point out, however, that the realist has been selective in their description of nation-states, omitting some important, additional differences.

First, the number of nation-states is relatively small, making the world community more intimate than any of the many which comprise it. In addition, nation-states boast greater longevity than their flesh-and-blood constituents. Finally, in addition to these several differences, there is a key similarity. Both individuals and nations participate in the cycle of life, whereby they are born, grow, flourish, diminish, and ultimately die.

The upshot of these observations is two-fold. Encounters between nation-states will be both more frequent in occurrence and less certain in outcome than those between individuals. The small size of the world community and the greater life span of nations combine to make repeat encounters between states more likely than those between geographically distant and short-lived individuals. Adding to this the variability over time of states’ vitality introduces the possibility of radical shifts in balance of power between encounters, leading to foreseeable yet unpredictable upsets of the (once) stronger by the (once) weaker.

Brandt describes the phenomenon which arises from these dynamics as a "veil of ignorance." If knowledge is power, ignorance constitutes impotence, and all players on the world stage, in viewing their futures through a glass darkly, find themselves equally weak. They make their plans and conduct their affairs with others as best they can, ignorant of when they will next enter into conflict, and, as a result, whether they will be in the position of relative advantage or disadvantage when that time comes.

This circumstance, according to Brandt, constitutes real motivation to treat others with regard. As a country, I may have an impressive GNP and the ability to field a superior number of troops, but who is to say this situation will hold for 5, 10, 50 years? Even if I lack any inherent fellow-feeling, any empathy for others’ being or goals, if the self-interest which I (commonly) possess is at all enlightened, I see that it would behoove me to treat them as I would like to be treated, with regard and restraint. This increases the likelihood that, if and when they ascend to the position of greater power, they will reciprocate. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, for they are most likely to do unto you as you have done unto them.

Mortal conflict is at essence a coordination problem, the sought resolution of interests in opposition. As such, it qualifies as a citizen of game theory, albeit a very serious-minded one. Within game theory, the Prisoner’s Dilemma is an instructive model for mapping action-reaction strategies, to which the above-mentioned principle of behavior is the time-tested solution. As I am only author of every second action and the clock never stops, all my choices are half chance (made behind a veil of ignorance) and the author of the last is unknown. This is the world nations are born into and occupy their whole lives. Compliance with previously established, mutually agreed rules of conduct is counter-intuitive, because it doesn’t allow me, in any given round of play, to maximize my standing, but it is the only way, over time, to optimize such, and this is the most which can realistically be desired in matters involving two or more.

In short, closely examining the differences between countries and their citizens reveals sufficient similarity to draw a single conclusion regarding individuals and states, counter to the realist’s, about the relevance of ethical behavior both within and between nations. In the formulation of societal rules, the essential equality of individuals, at any given time, makes necessary and possible the establishment of an external constraint, a leviathan. In the formation of international policy, the essential equality of all actors over time will bestow a different brake (but a brake nonetheless) on their behavior; the appreciation of a perspective – a long term consideration - which, if they are rational, demands internal restraint.14 Where the realist shows nation-states 180 degrees removed from individuals and faced with incongruous ends, Brandt shows the two 360 degrees "removed" and facing the same prospects.

Thus for the individual and the state alike, the lack of a stable order promises to resolve the disputes it rears. Granted, the solution takes different forms, but given the differences in character between countries and their constituents, should this come as a surprise?

The criticism will be leveled that what’s been described - a solely self-interested motivation - hardly qualifies as moral in the most robust sense. Human activity, a combination of outcome and intention, is most praiseworthy when right behavior is borne of right reason. Thus far I’ve only described right behavior, behavior stemming from arguably wrong (wholly self-interested) reasons. But I’m willing to start small, as in any educational endeavor. What I’m advocating, ultimately, is a new instruction; that we don an altered view of what is practically possible hence realistically desirable. Such a shift in paradigm is a slow process, and has modest initial goals. It begins, as does any new instruction, with ‘the what’ and graduate to ‘the why;’ focussing on achieving desired response initially, and instilling proper motive for the response later on. What I’ve described so far is just first step on the transformational path from ‘self-oriented behavior which serendipitously benefit others’ to ‘other-oriented behavior which reciprocally benefits self.’

Further and more formidable criticism is that this fragile web of cooperation will only hold up to a point, and all will unravel when (inevitably) pushed past. Given the way of the world, our mere presence in it makes us prisoners to the dilemma of that name. There will surely come a time, a play of the game in which the stakes are too high, in which, if I don’t defect now, I won’t be around to play ever again.

It would be unrealistic to not concede this realist misgiving, but irresponsible to not qualify it also. Walzer is concerned about this acid test of humanity under pressure, being pushed to a point where we must move beyond the pale and put the rulebook on the shelf. He refers to it Supreme Emergency, when the particular threat we face is both imminent and horrific, like a semi-truck which, bearing down swiftly, threatens an impact we can neither sidestep nor sustain. Supreme emergencies, says Walzer, "bring us under the rule of necessity (and necessity knows no rules)."15

Sadly, the danger need not even be real, but merely perceived, for this point to be reached. The veil of ignorance leaves our true intentions unknown to others, the unknown prompts fear in these others, and fear leads to anticipating the worst. That ‘worst’ would be our pre-emptive defection, a failure to play by the rules. This felt necessity drives our opponents to preciprocate in kind. Equally cagey, we move to beat them to the punch. This ushers in a domino effect which unzips the cumulative record of our cooperation, nullifying any progress we might have had pretense to making. In short, true necessity obviates moral behavior, and felt necessity, if acted upon, creates true necessity.

Walzer admits such scenarios are real, but as a saving grace, notes they are also rare. As applied to the hyperbole of the realist, ultimate threat is not to be read as inevitable threat. Many are the conflicts we face, and the heat of conflict amplifies the felt danger. But if cooler heads prevail, and we truly are rational people who maintain perspective and assess rightly, we will honestly concede to facing, not a mountain of ‘necessities,’ but a molehill. Thus, while extreme cases exist, they exist as the infrequent exception, not the rule, and the rule of moral law need not be thought the exception in the realm of war.


A few words on the modesty of my conclusion. To recap, the realist concludes we ought not attempt to use the language of ethics to either evaluate war’s acts or author its deeds. This is based on the belief a universal moral code cannot obtain in any substantial way. I took exception with this last assumption, but even if successful, this only does so much to remove us from the path to which the realist would resign us. Providing an alternate diagnosis, even a plausible one, merely keeps just war from being banished from the realm of the possible. To show means by which countries, even in the worst of climates, can conceivably contract with others and realistically comply, still leaves many ways in which nations could fail to actualize this opportunity.

To rephrase, if I’ve succeeded in what I attempted, I haven’t settled the age-old debate of realism versus idealism and declared just war the undisputed champion in an upset victory. If successful, I’ve merely kept just war alive as more than mere theory, as a viable contender to continue the fight for "fighting well." My aim hasn’t been to reverse the arbitration made by the self-appointed realist judge, but simply show their ruling to be premature.

To move the rest of the way, to exalt just war’s status from ‘merely possible’ to ‘fully functional,’ requires additional travel – the work now not of inspiration but perspiration, to whom the torch is passed. I’d like to leave off on this, the dawn of the eve of a new millennium, by suggesting a route which might be taken, reiterating the challenge voiced by so many just war thinkers through the course of the previous two millennia.

On the prospects of workable international policy predicated on mutually acknowledged and binding moral truths, the realist has concluded, either glibly or sadly, that "not seeing is not believing" – as things have been, so shall they always be. However, given our potential as humans, capable not merely of reacting to the world as found, but standing as agents in our own right, I’d appeal to everyone to focus on the corollary –too long peripheral – that believing is seeing.

For the person of arms and conscience to do otherwise, to conclude our future can amount to nothing more than our past replayed, is to show themselves false, as a person of neither arms nor conscience. To do so is to concede defeat in the fight to "fight well". It is to indulge in the easy pursuit of the self-fulfilling prophecy, and fail to see that the "self" which is at the heart of all things, a self capable of framing and effecting the futures it envisions, makes all conclusions regarding human endeavor anything but foregone.

My plea is for we who possess the luxury of discretionary moral capital to invest it, wisely, to lead by example, even when others are slow to follow and it doesn’t appear we’re serving as example, or worse, as negative example and source of ridicule for our apparent naivete. I’d ask that we give as we have been given, that those who can afford to take the arduous and halting route of the moral high ground employ the energy and time to do so.

If it’s anyone’s imperative, it is ours, to break the paradigm, to put the cart before the horse, and, by demonstrating the preferability of that path, establish its practicability. Only by doing so, by clearing and illumining a way that others - we need to believe - will, and others - I know - can follow, may we hope to diminish, perhaps even staunch, the flow of nations (historically) red in (too often) toothless law.



1. Irving M. Copi, Introduction to Logic (New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1982), p. 99.

2. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. and ed. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), p. 87.

3. This sentiment is expressed by Nigel Blundell in A Pictorial History of Joseph Stalin (Hong Kong: JG Press, 1996), p. 4.

4. Lord Bowen, quoted in Dictionary of Quotations, ed. Bergen Evans (New York: Avenel Books, 1968), p. 522.

5. The sentiment of the ancients is actually "In time of war the law is silent," a sentiment consistent with either realist camp pending a stated rationale for the claim. Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars (United States: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992) p. 3.

6. James Rachels, "The Challenge of Cultural Relativism," Moral Dimensions of the Military Profession, ed. Department of Philosophy (New York: Forbes, 1999) pp. 49-54.

Allan D. Bloom, "Introduction: Our Virtue," Moral Dimensions of the Military Profession, ed. Department of Philosophy (New York: Forbes, 1999) pp. 59-68.

7. Dean William Inge, quoted in The Day the Sun Rose Twice by Ferenc Szasz (New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press, 1984) p. 175.

8. Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars (United States: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992) p. 4.

9. Thomas Hobbes, "Leviathan," Classics of Moral and Political Theory, ed. Michael L. Morgan (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1996) p. 633.

10. Thomas H. Huxley, Evolution & Ethics (1892: Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989).

11. Steven Forde, "Classical Realism," Moral Dimensions of the Military Profession, ed. Department of Philosophy (New York: Forbes, 1999) pp. 13-24.

12. Blaise Pascal, Pascal’s Pensees, trans. Martin Turnell (New York: Harper and Row, 1962) p. 88.

13. Richard B. Brandt, "Utilitarianism and the Rules of War," Moral Dimensions of the Military Profession, ed. Department of Philosophy (New York: Forbes, 1999) pp. 135-144.

14. I realize this small word "if" constitutes a large conjecture. Cooperation is a fragile plant, slow to root and quick to wither and perhaps my optimism is unfounded. Insofar as cooperation is possible, though, I insist on tending the notion. Returning to our talk of sheep and wolves, if the sheep have the ability to be the least bit wolf-like and there are sufficient numbers of them, this may persuade the wolf to, if not become truly vegetarian, at least wear sheep’s clothing for the duration of his stay among them. If, on the other hand, this feral dog can’t be taught a new trick, and proves himself rabid beyond the counsels of reason, perhaps this justifies treating him as those so afflicted ultimately are.

15. Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars (United States: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992) p. 254.