The Anthropic Prohibition on Preemptive Warfare Between States

Midshipman Kurt W. Albaugh, United States Navy

United States Naval Academy


Joint Services Conference On Professional Ethics

When considering the pre-emptive strategic approach, it is useful to reduce hypothetical scenarios to a humanly comprehensible level. War, natural disasters, and other events of this magnitude are beyond a mind’s comprehension in their totality. By using a domestic analogy, such as advocated by Christian Wolff, where “states are regarded as individual free persons living in a state of nature,” the moral and legal implications of pre-emptive actions can be seen more clearly (Jus Gentium Methodo Scientifica Pertractatum, §2, p.9). The advent of pre-emption has coincided with an explosion of non-state actors on the military stage, and it is therefore important to expand the analogy beyond states; the analogy is otherwise only applicable to nations in a macroscopic political arena, such as existed before World War I. This paper will expand Wolff’s conception of the domestic analogy to embrace and differentiate state actors and non-state actors, and use this expanded principle to produce scenarios in consideration of pre-emption. The examination of these scenarios will yield that preemption is a morally wrong military strategy between states, though state interaction with non-sovereign actors is far more ambiguous.

We can extend the domestic analogy of Wolff, to make a general anthropic principle (human-like principle), which states that any group of people, whether a state or an organization, can be made analogous to one person. Both states and organizations have governing bodies composed of people, and these bodies make individual decisions, which in turn affect larger groups of people. Though it is more difficult to reconcile many competing individuals vying for a specific decision or policy within one organization, this can be represented as competing elements of a human mind, such as emotion and reason or desire and conscience. Usually, a conflict between elements is resolved in some manner and a decisive moment occurs, whether it is an individual or an organization. This anthropic principle can continue farther in analogy and embrace more unorthodox situations as well. A state thrown into anarchy, without any discernable authority, is similar to some mental disorders, where competing elements in the mind eliminate the faculties of reason. The actions of terrorist organizations, nations, independence movements, and any other artificial construct to group people can all be compared to the actions of one individual person for ethical examination. This is an important acknowledgement, because the Al Aqsa Martyrs brigade, the Tamil Tigers, al Quaeda, and the Irish Republican Army are all significant players in the current geopolitical stage: global politics are not limited to state entities.

The domestic analogy traditionally acknowledges that there are two universally accepted cases for the use of force. Every person possesses the right to self defense. If I am attacked at this moment, I would be morally allowed to use enough force to end the attack. Where this force ranges between just one strike or the use of lethal force is dependant on the actions of my opponent. This spectrum mirrors the global conflicts that range from localized police actions, which quell a weak foe, to total war, where all means of production are used to stop the enemy’s means in a battle to the death. As the opponent continues to press the attack, I am legitimized to continue using my own force. As self-defense is legitimized by the domestic analogy, mutual defense is also condoned. I can use my own force to assist another in defending against an attack. The extreme case in the domestic analogy would be a child being attacked by an adult. The basic tenants of society provide that I am allowed to use enough force to quell the adult and stop the attacks against the child. These are the two universal cases; let us now turn to a pre-emptive scenario.

Imagine a situation of two people walking past one another on a street. Both people are carrying guns and it is legal for gun ownership as a self defense weapon. The trouble is that guns may also be used for attack, and one person feels very uneasy because he beat the other in poker at the casino the previous night. He lost so much money that it is very plausible that he would shoot our pre-emptive protagonist out of anger. In fact, our hero has been told by many people just how angry his opponent has been, there have even been rumors that the opponent expressed intent to shoot the protagonist. So, the protagonist decides to shoot first. Stopping the scenario right there…we know that our protagonist is not morally justified to use this pre-emptive attack to prevent the likely one on his own life. Though the likelihood is strong, we cannot predetermine the actions of individual people, and therefore cannot predetermine the actions of states or organizations. Once the opponent draws his gun, says that he is going to kill our protagonist, and puts his finger on the trigger, the attack is beginning, and it is morally right for our protagonist to fire his gun to prevent being shot.

Possession of a personal weapon or an armed force is not enough evidence to indicate that it will be used in an unprovoked attack. By extension, the anthropic analogy would initially indicate that any group of people should be able to possess weaponry. Individuals and sovereign nations are entitled to develop their individual or group abilities to fend off attacks and minimize the loss of life. If I have to wait until an attack is imminent before I can defend myself, it is only plausible that I be allowed to develop my martial abilities in order that my efforts have a reasonably high probability of being successful. Pre-emption gives up the certainty that we are in fact being attacked for the certainty that we will continue to exist because we can shoot first. It is deceptively comfortable to know that in shooting first, you have a higher likelihood of survival, but this action yields the moral permissibility of the use of force.

However, this previous anthropic scenario does need to be refined further to gain a clear picture of the ethics of the situation. Though the anthropic principle indicates that any group can be represented by an individual, it is important to delineate the type of individual represented in the scenario. That is, states and organizations have different status within a military context. Since Augustine and Aquinas, military force has been considered ethical only when wielded by a state (Langan). Individuals retain their own right to self-defense, and the geographical coverage of countries allows its citizens a trained military for the common defense. Other political organizations do not need their own self defense, since the individuals composing such organizations fall within the geographical citizenship of a country. Organizations are not directly accountable for their actions, either. Operating is different states with different laws, organizations do not have a responsibility to international political forums as states do, and are thus far more difficultly made to answer for their actions.

The issue is sovereignty: individuals have sovereignty of the self, and states also possess sovereignty, but a political organization is not sovereign by nature, unless it is pursuing sovereign status as in the case of independence movements and similar groups. Therefore, sovereign and non-sovereign actors coexist in many anthropic scenarios, the difference being that sovereign actors have the right to use force while non-sovereign actors do not. A group of private citizens with heavy military equipment could be assumed to have malicious intentions because the weapons are beyond the level required for simple self-defense, and there is an established opportunity to provide for the common defense. Is it permissible for a sovereign actor to preemptively use force against an actor without such status? It seems quite likely that it is, though that is beyond the scope of this paper. What remains is that sovereign actors cannot preemptively use force against one another in an anthropic scenario.

Opponents of this theory believe that weapons of mass destruction are a quantum level beyond the capabilities of any conventional armed force. Because of this, it is simply too dangerous to allow any possibility that defense could fail, and suffer the subsequent loss of life. Hence, the increased security of pre-emption is required. The first statement that creates this line of reasoning is true. It is clear that weapons of mass destruction are intimidating and powerful. We can imagine a similar anthropic situation where our actors are accustomed to melee weapons for combat, and an actor enters who possesses a firearm: there is a quantum increase in lethal capability, and only the luckiest attempt by a melee fighter would successfully defend against the firearm. When such quantum levels are crossed, it is far easier for the advanced weapon to be used for terror, and it is generally beyond the level of force required for successful self-defense.

The quantum advancement is so pronounced that it makes all other forms of force obsolete in comparison. As such, it presents a direct threat to the sovereignty of the weaker party, as they will be unable to attempt self-defense with any real chance of success. The quantum difference in weaponry does seem to indicate a right to preemptively strike, in order to preserve the right to a legitimate chance for self-defense, but that prerogative necessarily becomes the province of the weaker party only. There is no quantum difference between parties who possess the same weapons, and as in the cold war, the key to maintaining peace was the concept of mutually assured destruction; if the assurance was not mutual, war would have been far more likely. It seems that only a party with a quantum level of weakness in comparison to another actor could preemptively strike, but since their sovereignty is infringed with an automatic incapability to defend themselves, that is in fact the attack, and the action would not be preemptive at all. As a result, preemption can only exist between actors with the same relative level of military power, or with an actor that is at a level above another, and in such cases it is still not morally permissible, as our anthropic scenario has demonstrated.

The anthropic principle has illustrated the diverse cases of preemptive actions. Through its use, we have clarified a working definition of preemption: the use of lethal force for the purpose of self protection before an attack or a threat to sovereignty has occurred. We have seen that his situation exists only in certain combinations of different military power levels. Though preemption does increase the likelihood that an individual, state, or organization will not be attacked, it sets a dangerous precedent. Suddenly, anyone who has military power could be a threat, and there would be no sovereign ability for self-defense as it could be considered an act of aggression. This increases the likelihood of gratuitous warfare, and would be immoral as a result. This reasoning applies to state or sovereign actors, the status of non-sovereign political organizations is more ambiguous. The entire conceptof sovereignty, central to our framework of international politics depends on the fact that both individuals and groups have free will, and the possession of weapons does not mean that they will automatically be used for attack.


Works Cited

Langan, John. “The Elements of St. Augustine’s Just War Theory.” Journal of Religious Ethics, Spring, 1984. Found in [INTERNET]. Downloaded 1 November 2004.

Wolff, Christian. Jus Gentium Methodo Scientifica Pertractatum. Trans. Joseph Drake. Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1934, §2, p.9.