Three Philosophical Difficulties with ‘Premptive Wars’

James Stieb


I would like to start out by thanking Dr. Ficarrotta and JSCOPE for the opportunity to speak before so many esteemed scholars and men and women of the military profession.  I, of course, am a philosopher, much less versed in the details of the matters under discussion today and tomorrow.  However, we are all gathered here because we recognize that the military profession, like a fine sword, needs guidance and forethought to be wielded properly.   My form of guidance consists as my philosophical ancestor, Socrates, would have it, with raising difficulties and having you come up with the answers.  I submit to you that these difficulties are in part, perhaps a large part, philosophical because solving them concerns logic, ethics, and conceptual analysis:  getting straight on what we mean by key terms and their logical implications for what we should or shouldn’t do. 

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?


Increasingly, 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 U.S. policy fails a reasonable set of “necessary conditions” or criteria for the morality of preemptive war.  These conditions include a narrow enough conception of self, sufficient evidence of inevitability and immediacy, and a likely reduction of threat.  Consistent with the foregoing, in “The Problem of Resolution” I offer that only the right kind of economic, humanitarian and educational aid can truly ameliorate the root causes of terrorism.  The question becomes how to help others help themselves without dispensing pity or charity.


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 United States.  Terrorism remains and forever shall be merely a casus belli (cause of war).  War, in the case of terrorism, is manufactured by the nation that responds, and it is increasingly a dangerous response.  Escalation of force is dangerous because few suppose that a country as large as the United States can minimally protect itself from the dangers posed for example by “shipboard freight containers” (Rorty 2002).  Even fewer suppose that we could implement that “minimal” protection without severe restrictions on ordinary civil rights and liberties rivaling that found in Orwell’s 1984 (Rorty 2002).

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 toward Iraq and the Muslim world is being brilliantly staged in such a way as to be utterly counterproductive.  America is fulfilling Al Qaeda’s wildest dreams faster than Al Qaeda could have ever done on its own (Margolis, 405).



What does Al Qaeda want?  The specifics may not be the important thing even if they could be specified (to redress troop “violation” of Mecca at the invitation of the Saudi’s?  to turn over all oil or military interests overseas to which(?) cronies?).  The important thing is the source of terroristic power.   Ever since the time Plato tried to reform Dionysius II in Sicily and probably before, demagogues have risen with the felt (or perceived) misery of mass populations, and philosophers have attempted to appeal to their “better” natures.  “Had the Depression not hit Germany as hard as it subsequently did, National Socialism might today be dismissed as the [Ku Klux] Klan sometimes is:  a historical curiosity whose doom was fordained [sic]” (Losurdo 2004, quoting MacLean 1994, 184).  It is specifically the claim to represent a large mass of people, and indeed the subterranean political organization of their groups that distinguish the terrorist from the “criminal” or the temporary “crazy” (such as Ted Kazynksi or Timothy MacVeigh).  The terrorist seeks to rectify injustices done to “their” people; the criminal is either deluded or out for his narrow advantage.

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.[1]  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 United States citizens as unilateralist cowboys and fools, ever ready to wage war so as to suck up (literally) the world’s resources.

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 war in Afghanistan was a preventative war with a fairly clear casus belli (9/11). Unfortunately, a clear casus belli seems to be usable only once.  Absent any clear connection between Iraq and Al Quaeda, the war in Iraq can only be described as preemptive. 

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.”[2]  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.”[3]  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 U.S. definition of self has become impossibly broad.  The “Quadrennial Defense Review, defines ‘enduring national interests’ as including ‘contributing to economic well-being,’ which entails maintaining [the] ‘vitality and productivity of the global economy’ and ‘access to key markets and strategic resources.’” (2).  We should abjure such talk and the ideas behind them.  The issue concerns what has commonly been called “respecting boundaries.”  There is no “right” of access to markets anymore than there is a “right” of access to another person’s body.  Surely, negotiations are in order for what is wanted.  But, at the end of the day, “No, means no.”  Fend for yourself.  We do not run the global economy; it runs us.  Or, again, we may wish the prosperity of our neighbors, but we can’t insure it.  All we can do is offer advice and trade.  But, if someone doesn’t want to sell something (be it oil or whatever), they don’t have to.  The world’s resources aren’t our resources.  I don’t suppose these simple truths of fairness can be stressed often enough.

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 Iraq war.  Sadaam Hussein made no specific threats against the United States, despite threats to what might be called U.S. “interests.”  Surely, radicals within Iraq and other countries publicly threaten us and our citizens, but the words and deeds of a few cannot justify war against an entire country.  Indeed there are groups in every country that use threatening words including our own.  Any serious threat of force must issue from a body with such authority.  The authority seems to have been in place with Afghanistan but not Iraq.

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 Iraq war has done perhaps irreparable damage to our reputations for those who would still consider them.  “Actions speak louder than words,” and we have recently acted in such a way that many might construe a build up of troops along their border as preparation for attack rather than a mere defense. All countries must throw their weight around with extreme caution, lest they be less trusted the next time.

      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.[4]  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 Iraq was accompanied by a curious ideological phenomenon:  the attempt to silence the large and unprecedented protest movement by accusing it of anti-Americanism” (Losurdo, 365).   I know exactly what he means by wanting to silence the “protest movement” when I read him calling our efforts in Iraq an “invasion.”  I wouldn’t call it an “invasion” no matter how ill-advised I think those efforts are.  However, he is exactly right in one sense:  nothing is actually more anti-American than the attempt to silence dissident views.  As famous dissident Patrick Henry remarked:  “Give me liberty or give me death.”

Nonetheless, “The strongest states will be inclined (. . . for instance in the matter of linking Iraq and terrorism) to impose domestic restrictions on personal rights and liberties . . . in an effort to minimize terrorist dangers at home” (Margolis, 407).  Our very means for producing security tend to heighten our actual insecurity:  “Even a legitimate war on terrorism tends, like state terrorism, to produce a siege mentality in which the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction will require their increased proliferation (Margolis, 407).

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. We're the United States of America.”[5]  The first point as it applies to preemptive war is that the decision to go to war cannot be divorced from the conditions of information on which to go to war.  This point brings up questions of journalistic and media ethics.  I would consider a good resolution of this war that:  it helped us reform our own internal information procedures both public and private.  This war might also help us reevaluate the attitudes that we take to logical debate and dissent.  It may help us cultivate the virtues common to a “philosophical” mind-set.  Unfortunately, I don’t see any such reforms happening any more than I see increased stability in the middle-east as a long term result.

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

In Engineering.  New Jersey:  Prentice Hall, 175-186.

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

and Bowie eds., Ethical Issues in Business; Seventh Edition.  New Jersey: 

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


Nozick, Robert.:  1974.  Anarchy, State, and Utopia.  New York:  Basic Books.

Rawls, John.:  1999.  A Theory of Justice; Revised Edition.  Belknap Press.

Rorty, Richard.: 2002.  “Fighting Terrorism With Democracy” The Nation.  Oct 3, 2002. 

Available at <>.



[1] 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.

[2] Beyond Good and Evil, aphorism 146.

[3] Luke 23:34.

[4] 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?”

[5] Quoted from the critical site, also on, unfortunately only available to members.  Dominique Villepin is France’s interior minister; Jacques Chirac, its President.