Chris Bertram’s recent post on responsibility got me started on what I plan to be the final instalment of my attempts to analyse the ethical justification for war. Comments much appreciated.
In thinking about justifications for war, I haven’t found just war theory to be of much use. The checklist it requires seems to leave too much room for interpretation to really settle anything.
Instead, I’m going to start, but not finish, with consequentialism. On a strictly consequentialist view, actions (including decisions to go to, or persist with, war) are morally neutral; it’s consequences that matter.
As I’ve argued previously, a serious consequentialist analysis suggests that war usually has more bad consequences than good. In particular, anyone who takes consequentialism seriously must reckon with the fact that war is a negative sum game. This means either that at least one side in a war has miscalculated or that the costs of war are being borne by people who don’t have a say in the matter. In addition, it’s necessary to take account of rule-based concerns about the effect of decisions to go to war in particular cases weakening generally desirable rules to the contrary.
My main concern though, is to look at positions that diverge from consequentialism, either by justifying war even when its net consequences are (reasonably expected to be) bad or by opposing war even when its net consequences are (reasonably expected to be) good. I think the first position can reasonably be called “pro-war” and the second “anti-war”.
The pro-war arguments typically amount to claiming that some of the bad consequences of war “don’t count”. An extreme version is the position of Norm Geras that those who initiate a just war aren’t responsible for the consequences of the (by hypothesis) unjust resistance of the other side. Chris has responded to this, and I said much the same here.
Not many supporters of war push things this far, but a large proportion seek some sort of let-out clause, allowing them to ignore at least some bad consequences of war, while claiming most or all if the good ones . The most common let-out is to ignore the casualties suffered by the opposing side, even though most of those killed or wounded would not, as individuals, deserve this fate. This is a common feature of pro-war analyses but it is morally indefensible.
In the case of the Iraq war, the Coalition and its militia allies have fought at least four different (overlapping) groups of opponents: the Iraqi army during the invasion; Sunni nationalist and ex-Baathist insurgents in the subsequent continuing resistance; jihadists led or symbolised by Zarqawi; and Sadrist militia in the two outbreaks of fighting last years. Of these, the Sadrists and what’s left of the army are now part of the Iraqi government, and presumably some sort of settlement will be reached with the Sunni nationalists in due course. Those who survived the war are (or will be) regarded as being citizens with human rights. But those who were killed will still be dead. Using war as a means of pursuing policy goals entails moral responsibility for all the deaths that result, not merely those of civilians or innocent bystanders.
A second common feature of pro-war analysis is a failure to take account of the opportunity cost of the resources used in war. The $300 billion used in the Iraq war would have been enough to finance several years of the Millennium Development project aimed at ending extreme poverty in the world, and could have saved millions of lives. But even assuming this is politically unrealistic, the money could surely have been spent on improved health care, road safety and so on in the US itself. At a typical marginal cost of $5 million per live saved, 60 000 American lives could have been saved. This is morally relevant, but is commonly ignored.
In summary, a lot of pro-war argument may be characterised as consequentialism+special pleading.
Turning to the anti-war side of the argument, the standard criticisms of consequentialism are nowhere stronger than in relation to war. Any decision to go to war, or to persist with war when peace is available, involves a collective decisions to kill and injure innocent people, to destroy their homes and livelihoods and to require our soldiers to obey orders to do such things or face military punishment. On any account of morality that takes individual rights and moral responsibility seriously, such a decision should require more than a mere expectation, based on balance of probabilities, that the net consequences of the decision will be good.
These rights-based considerations are less of a problem in the case of a purely defensive war, since we are morally entitled to defend our own rights. In addition, since willingness to fight defensive wars discourages aggression, it gains support from a rule-consequentialist viewpoint. But this only strengthens the case against wars of choice, where the other side can plausibly present their fight (at least to the soldiers and civilians who are expected to bear the costs) as one of self-defence against an outside aggressor.
Based on all this, I conclude that a war of choice aimed at overthrowing a dictatorial government or taking control of another country. should face a very high burden of justification. Examples include imminent threat of attack, intervention to stop current large-scale killings or or (and this is the case that ought to be treated most stringently) interventions where it is beyond reasonable doubt that the dictatorship can be overthrown, and a democratic alternative put in place, with minimal loss of life.
Once the decision is undertaken, it is morally obligatory to commit sufficient military and financial resources to make success as certain as anything can be in an inherently uncertain world, and to ensure an approach in which civilian deaths and injuries are minimised in the same way as they would be if the people involved were citizens of the country doing the attacking.
There are some wars that would meet these criteria and instances where decisions not to intervene were morally wrong (for example, Rwanda) but they are far outweighed, in the historical record, by morally unjustified wars.