Friday, August 22, 2008

'War,' What is it Good for?

Quick post: Are there any necessary and sufficient conditions that will allow a definitive answer to the questions, are such and such states at war?

Of course, there is a simple answer to the question, which recognizes that ‘war’ is a performative concept, like marriage, such that it is both a necessary and sufficient conditions for two states to be at war iff the relevant sovereign powers have declared war on the other state. But this is not very philosophically interesting, and not very useful. There are times when we would still like to pose meaningfully the question, even if these conditions are not met, and vice versa (see the Vietnam ‘Conflict,’ on the one hand, and the phoney ‘war,’ on the other).

This is not just an interesting matter in historiography, but has important moral implications. Many people argue that war is such a morally dangerous state for nations to enter that it requires its own moral status and theory (‘just war’ theory—books are written on this, unlike, say, ‘just trade theory’). Many of those who make these sorts of argument go on to say that it is worth suffering some severe economic, political, physical and moral hardship just for the sake of not entering that state. For instance, we might recognize that state X poses real dangers to state Y, that state X is dictatorial, oppressive, violent, that its citizens suffer extraordinary hardship under the current regime, and we might believe that a war would be effective at deposing this leader and relieving the suffering of these people—but because war is an extreme moral evil, it is not worth taking this moral risk.

Now, if you agree with Clausewitz that ‘war is just politics by other means,’ this sort of position will seem either silly or itself quite evil. Take a moral principle of Singer’s: if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral worth, then we ought, morally, to do it.” Following this principle, war might be the only morally correct response to situations such as posed above. Anti-war proponents of the sort mentioned would have to make an argument to the effect that war, is, in fact, a sacrifice of comparable (indeed, more so) moral worth, if war is to be avoided in the situtation described.

What is that argument? One might point to the fact that war is necessarily violent, but so is starvation and execution and ethnic cleansing. If it comes to comparing the plausible violent outcomes of the two courses of action, then we’ve already ceded our ground on war as having a particularly heinous moral property—violence is the morally heinous property, and whatever lessens that is the right course of action. Anyway, I actually starte this post with another thought in mind, but I’ll get to that in a later post, cuz I gotta run. It concerns whether there is in fact any useful definition of war besides the obvious performative.

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