War can be an Experience of both Heaven and Hell

Many combat veterans have a love/hate relationship with their wartime experiences. They love the profound sense of purpose that their liv...

Conceptual overview of required philosphy course I taught at West Point

Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to attempt to provide a conceptual overview of PY201, Philosophy. [I wrote this for my students, but it may interest others now, including my many former students who are leading Soldiers today in the war; course key terms are in bold.] Some of this is material that we have not covered this semester. I include it nevertheless because it will probably (hopefully?) make sense to you.

This addresses the three section of the course:

  • critical thinking
  • overview of moral theories
  • morality and war

PY201 addresses three areas of philosophy—critical thinking, moral philosophy, and morality in war. Your goal here at West Point should be to become a leader who will make the right decisions in war. To do so, you must be able to think critically in order to evaluate the various and competing theories of moral philosophy. Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what it means and entails to live morally. Once we better understand what morality is, we are able to apply personal moral decision making to the challenging arena of war.

Critical Thinking

Leadership is the art of persuasion. In order to be able to consistently persuade diverse people, we must appeal to their reason. All healthy human beings share in reason, whereas their emotions are unique to themselves. In order to be effective leaders, then, we must be able to make good arguments that appeal to reason.

An argument is a collection of claims, one of which is the conclusion whose truth the argument attempts to establish; the other claims are called the premises, which are supposed to lead to, or support, or convince that the conclusion is true.

A claim is any declarative sentence that we can view as either true or false. An objective claim is one whose truth value is independent of what anyone thinks or feels (e.g., Virginia Tech is ranked #2 in the BCS poll). On the other hand, a subjective claim is a claim whose truth value does depend on thoughts or feelings (e.g., I love Virginia Tech football). Because the truth value of objective claims can be shared and verified, they are more convincing than subjective claims.

A claim in an argument should not be too vague or ambiguous. A claim is too vague when it is unclear what the speaker intended (e.g., “Cadets are more conservative than other people). A claim is ambiguous if there are at least two clear ways to understand it (e.g., Dogs smell better than horses).

Good arguments, ones which should convince a rational person to accept the conclusion, are comprised of claims that are plausible (true or likely to be true) that lead to conclusions. If plausible claims lead to a conclusion that must be true, then the argument is sound (valid form + plausible premises). If plausible claims lead to a conclusion that is likely true, then the argument is nondeductively successful.

Complex arguments are comprised of sub-arguments, whose conclusions (intermediate conclusions) serve as the premises to the main argument. In a typical argumentative essay, particular points of evidence (premises) support ideas that are expressed in topic sentences (intermediate conclusions/main premises) which, in turn, support the essay’s thesis statement. A good thesis statement is usually comprised of the arguer’s position on an issue and her reasons for that position (final conclusion + main premises).

For example, the thesis statement, “Officers are morally obligated to serve in wars that they believe are unjust, because they are not responsible for the decision to go to war, they lack the information to make informed judgments, and the best way to realistically achieve objective justice is to follow the procedures of formal justice,” is really an argument that in standard form appears as:

P1. Officers are not responsible for the decision to go to war.

P2. Officers lack the information to make informed judgments on the justice of a wars.

P3. The best way for officers to realistically achieve objective justice is to follow the procedures of formal justice.________________________________________________________

C. Officers are morally obligated to serve in wars that they believe are unjust.

Moral Philosophy

Everyone has a sense of right and wrong, and it is usually very easy to distinguish right from wrong in most everyday situations. We may not always do what we know to be right, but at least we know that what we are doing is wrong. What is wrong is usually frowned upon by society, illegal, disrespectful to others, and harmful to everyone overall. Take, for example, stealing. No one likes a thief, police arrest thieves, victims of theft feel “wronged,” and, in general, stealing creates a net unhappiness in the short and long-term. Because most everyday moral decisions are no-brainers, we do not have to think often about what morality is, about what it really means to say that something is immoral, about what it is that makes right “right” and wrong “wrong.”

Professional soldiers do not have the luxury of being morally unreflective. Officers fight and lead others into wars, and in wars the everyday moral rules are turned upside down. Outside of war, killing another person is the ultimate evil. In war, killing other people is the moral norm. This can be terribly morally troubling unless the officer understands what morality is.

In this course, we expose you to different theories of morality, explaining and critiquing them so that you can use your critical thinking skills to gain a deeper understanding of what you think morality is. Each of the moral theories that we study has some claim on truth, yet all of them have some apparent problems, and many of them contradict each other. You must discern your own sense of right and using, using your argumentative skills and theoretical understanding of the moral theories to arrive at some coherent explanation of why the activities of war are morally permissible.

Here is a brief overview of the moral theories that we studied:

Ethical relativism claims that there are no universal moral truths (except, of course, the universal claim that there are no universal claims). Ethical conventionalism is the relativistic position that morality is whatever a culture decides that it is. If the culture changes its opinion, then what is moral changes. Ethical subjectivism is the viewpoint that each person determines his or her own morality, so no one can judge anyone else. Everyone has his or her own standard of morality. An appeal of ethical relativism is that it limits moral judgment against us. A problem with ethical relativism is that it negates our authority to make moral judgments on others. For example, the conventionalist cannot logically contend that the holocaust was wrong or that slavery was wrong; whatever society held was right was, by definition, right. Likewise, the ethical subjectivist cannot logically make any moral claims against anyone else. If someone were to brutally kill the little sister of a subjectivist, all the subjectivist could fairly say was, “I wouldn’t have done that. That would be wrong for me to do, because I think that brutally killing children is wrong. Still, I respect that your morality may say that such killing is right.”

The next four moral theories that we cover are objectivist—they recognize that at least some moral principles are objectively valid, which means that they are binding on all people.

The Divine Command Theory of morality holds that it is the will of God, expressed through revelation, that makes right things right and wrong things wrong. We must do what God commands. An appeal of this theory is that it integrates our spiritual and moral selves. A problem with this theory is that it, unless we are prepared to accept that God’s will is arbitrary (i.e., rape would be moral if God declared it so), it seems that God would have to refer to a pre-existing standard in order to do what is right. Therefore, we could make use of that standard independent of God’s decrees.

Ethical egoism and utilitarianism are consequentialist theories. The moral worth of an action lies in its consequences; intentions are morally irrelevant.

Ethical egoism holds that what is morally right is whatever serves our own interests. What makes something right is the fact that it furthers our interest; what makes a decision wrong is that it harms our serf-interest. An appeal of ethical egoism is that it recognizes our selfishness. Many of us have, to various extents and at different times, the desire to take care of ourselves, even at the expense of others. A problem with ethical egoism is that it contradicts many of our moral intuitions. For example, most of us would not kill someone even if we knew we could get away with it and doing so would benefit us (say, insurance money).

Utilitarianism holds that what is good is happiness, so morality consists of maximizing net happiness in the world (the greatest happiness principle). Act utilitarians contend that we are morally bound to always choose the option among available alternatives that will produce the most net (short- and long-term, direct and indirect) happiness. An appeal of act utilitarianism (AU) is that it maximizes happiness. Some problems with act utilitarianism are that it rejects rules of behavior (which we tend to support, such as don’t steal) , that predicting consequences in very difficult to do, and that it can demand choices that violate our conceptions of rights and justice. Rule utilitarians attempt to solve the problems of AU by arguing that, rather than making decisions for each situation, we should simply follow those rules of behavior that tend to maximize happiness, even if they don’t do so in every case. Problems with this theory include its basic justification—if increasing happiness is what grounds morality, then by what criteria does RU follow rules even when doing so will not maximize happiness?

Kantian ethics (KE) holds the viewpoint that morality is unrelated to capricious, nebulous factors such as “happiness.” Instead, what is morally right is a function of reason, so it is the same for all persons, and it is morally binding no matter how one feels. Kant calls this dictate of reason, this Moral Law, the Categorical Imperative. Kant contends that all persons share in reason, which is the capacity to transcend the physical laws of this world and to choose freely. He holds that reason chooses unreasonably—wrongly—when it contradicts its very nature, which is when it violates the freedom (the “reason”) of other rational beings. Therefore, the categorical imperative demands that we respect reason by respecting other persons. In practical terms, we fail to respect other persons as persons when we use them merely as means or when we violate their autonomy. An appeal of Kantianism is that it promotes the dignity and rights of every person. A problem of Kantianism is that it is unyielding; feelings and outcomes are irrelevant. All that matters is that persons always base their choices upon maxims (self-given principles for action: what they are doing and why they are doing it) that do not violate the categorical imperative.

Whereas AU, RU, and KE are very systematic theories which provide “answers” almost by formula, Virtue Ethics and the Ethics of Care are more particular.

Virtue ethics does not focus, as the systematic theories do, on making the right decision. Instead, it focuses on developing the kind of person who will make the right decision, whatever that may be. Virtue ethics emphasizes the development of the nonrational part of ourselves by developing right habits. VE champions the development of personal traits—such as courage, justice, temperance, generosity, honesty-- which lead to a well-lived life for the individual within society. To the VE, right training creates right habits, and right education promotes right thoughts, so that people who have been raised well will make the right choices and achieve a good life. An appeal of VE is that it recognizes that no one has yet found a principle that seems to apply well in every circumstance; that is why it focuses on developing good virtuous people who have good habits and judgment who can make the right decision in each circumstance. A problem with VE is that it is circular. How do we know that a person is good? He does good things. What are good things? Whatever a good person does.

The Ethics of Care assumes that women view moral issues differently than men do. Whereas men tend to act according to abstract principles, the EC holds that women act according to relationships. Women develop morally from a state of selfishness, to a state of selflessness, and finally to a mature understanding that morality is a complex web of obligations and rights borne of relationships in which they must care for both themselves and the other. The ethics of care emphasizes the particularity of morality. The appeal of EC is that it recognizes the unique moral voice of women, who (studies claim) reject abstract principles when they conflict with real persons and real relationships. A problem of EC is that its adherents must still make use of moral principles in order to decide how to act within relationships. It is not a stand-alone theory of morality.

Now that we have some theoretical basis from which to make and understand our moral judgment, let us apply them to war.

Morality and War.

War happens. If it’s true—as it has been said--that the only inevitable events in life are death and taxes, then war can take a lot of credit for bringing about both of them. Anyway, that wars are fought is an undisputed, descriptive fact. On the other hand, whether or not we can make moral judgments about both those wars and the actions that occur in them is open to some discussion.

Those who deny that actions of war (by politicians and/or soldiers) are subject to moral judgment are military realists. There are two “schools” of realist thought. One school holds that morality does not apply at all to the realm of international relations. They argue that states act in their self-interest, which is defined in practical terms as power and security. Thucydides’ description of the Athenian generals’ argument at Melos is considered an example of this type of realist attitude. The other school of realist thought concedes that morality applies to international relations, but it contends that moral judgment applies (jus ad bellum) only to the state that starts a war. The aggressor state is immoral; the defender state is moral. Therefore, any action taken by the state that has a moral end (the defender state) is free from moral judgment. The ends justify the means for the state that is “in the right.” General Sherman’s “March to the Sea,” which he justified by arguing that the Confederates’ were morally responsible for the hell that he was unleashing, is an example of this type of thinking.

As we have seen, the morality of war is judged at two levels. Every state that is at war has an end, a goal that it hopes to achieve. It also employs means to achieve that end. The moral judgment of a states end is termed jus ad bellum; literally, this means “the justice of a war.” Jus ad bellum is examined by examining the reasons why a nation goes to war and continues to fight a war. The traditional criteria used to judged jus ad bellum are: (with my editorial comment, of course)

1. Just Cause. The state must be fighting for a morally justified end.

2. Right intention. The state must not only have a must cause, but also it must actually be fighting for it. For example, the US had a just cause for liberating Kuwait; the Iraqi invasion was a violation of Kuwaiti territorial integrity and political sovereignty. Consequently, it was a violation of the right of all those who valued the Kuwaiti political community. However, if the actual intention of the US was to keep the price of oil down, then the US would not have actually been fighting (and dying and killing) for a just cause.

3. Legitimate authority. Only the leaders of a political community have the moral authority to commit its people to war.

4. Formal declaration. You can’t sucker-punch another nation. See FM 27-10, para.20.

5. Chance of Success. Don’t waste human lives in a hopeless cause. This is always a judgment call for the political leaders. In the history of war, some underdogs have won. Appeasement is a tough pill for a nation to swallow; it’s the forfeiture of those rights which bound that people of that nation together in the first place.

6. Last resort. War should not be the first option for resolving disputes. If it’s possible to accomplish an end without resort to war, then it’s morally obligatory for political leaders to do so. Walzer, however, rejects this condition as impractical. There is, he argues, always something else you can try. Instead, Walzer argues that aggression always justifies a forceful defense of rights.

7. Proportional. When political leaders commit their nation to war, what they expect to gain must be proportional to what they expect to lose. This ties in closely with criterion #5. It might, for example, be immoral to fight to defend Easter Island if the expected loss of life is two million soldiers. However, it is hard to put a price on concepts such as human rights and national sovereignty.

In Walzer’s discussion of jus ad bellum, he focuses on the first criterion, just cause. He uses the Legalist Paradigm to clarify his discussion of what is a just cause. See notes, chapter 4.

The fundamental form of Walzer’s theory of aggression is the Legalist Paradigm, which has six basic points.

1. There exists an international society of independent states. The dominant value of this society is the survival and independence of its separate political communities.

2. This international society has a law that establishes the rights of its members—above all, the rights of territorial integrity and political sovereignty. States rights depend on the common life of their members; since societies are often in-flux, so are these rights.

3. Any use of force or imminent threat of force by one state against the political sovereignty of another constitutes aggression and is a criminal act.

4. Aggression justifies two kinds of violent response: a war of self-defense by the victim and a war of law enforcement by the victim and by any other member of international society. This is analogous to a person’s right to defend herself and a third-party’s right to intervene on her behalf.

5. Nothing but aggression can justify war. Principle of non-intervention. Just as we must respect a person’s autonomy, we must respect a state’s sovereignty.

6. Once the aggressor state has been militarily repulsed, it can also be punished.

The legalist paradigm allows that the only moral ends in war are the 3 R’s:

1. Resist the aggression

2. Restore the ante-bellum status quo.

3. Reasonably prevent a recurrence of the aggression.

The other level of moral judgment in war considers the means that the soldiers of a nation employ to achieve the desired national end. Traditionally, this is referred to as jus in bello; literally, this means “justice in war.” It addressed whom soldiers can kill, and how they can kill them.

1. The “whom” soldiers can kill is the addressed by the principle of non-combatant immunity. Non-combatants are those who are not combatants (that helps!). Who are combatants? Morally, combatants are those who—through some choice of their own—have forfeited their rights to not be killed by choosing to engage in an activity that is threatening to their enemy. As such, all soldiers are combatants. “Soldiers as a class are set apart from the world of peaceful activity; they are trained to fight, provided with weapons, required to fight on command…[It] is the enterprise of their class, and this fact radically distinguishes the individual soldier from the civilians he leaves behind” (JUW, 144). Munitions factory workers are combatants, too, but “they can be attacked only in their factory (not in their homes), when they are actually engaged in activities threatening and harmful to their enemies. Non-combatants, then are those who have done nothing, and are doing nothing, that entails the loss of their rights.

All of this talk of rights brings us to the Moral Equality of Soldiers (see notes, chapter 3). All soldiers are moral equals. They all possess war rights: they have forfeited their right to life vis-à-vis enemy soldiers, and they have gained the right to kill enemy soldiers. Since non-combatants have not forfeited their rights, then soldiers may not (morally and legally) kill them. Neither can non-combatants kill soldiers. If they do, then they are (legally and morally) murderers.

The moral difficulties of war arise because not all of the fighting is done by fighter aircraft and naval ships at sea. If is were, then non-combatants would not get harmed. As it is, the fact remains that wars are fought over territory, and that is almost always land. And non-combatants live on land. Therefore, soldiers must keep in mind the principle of discrimination. They must be discriminatory in their choice of targets. They must never target non-combatants, and they must take actions to limit collateral damage that affects non-combatants.

When soldiers face the tough decisions that involve attacking legitimate military targets that foreseeably could cause collateral damage, they must resort to the doctrine of double effect for guidance.

When a proposed action has an intended good effect and an unintended but foreseeable bad effect (i.e., collateral damage), then it is morally permissible to take that action if and only if:

1. The action itself is morally permissible.

2. The direct effect is morally permissible.

3. The actor’s intent is good; he/she aims only at the good effect; the bad effect is not the means to the good effect.

-Double intention; the actor must accept some risks to himself to minimize the foreseeable bad effects.

4. The good effect is expected to be proportional to the bad. (It’s worth it.)

Now let’s discuss the Law of War. The purposes of the law of war are to limit unnecessary suffering, safeguard certain fundamental human rights, and facilitate the restoration of peace (FM 27-20, para.2). Since wars should only be fought over very important issues, it is presumably important to the belligerents that they win. The principle of military necessity “justifies those measure not forbidden by international law which are indispensable for securing the complete submission of the enemy as soon as possible” (FM 27-10, para.3). Military necessity does not override the law of war.

Any violation of the law of war, by either a combatant or non-combatant, is a war crime (FM 27-20, para.3b).

The only legal way to violate the law of war is a reprisal. Reprisals are acts of retaliation in the form of conduct which would otherwise be unlawful, resorted to by one belligerent against enemy personnel or property for acts of warfare committed by the other belligerent in violation of the law of war, for the purpose of enforcing future compliance with the recognized rules of civilized warfare” (FM 27-10, para.497). Reprisals can be conducted only against combatants. Walzer argues that reprisals are moral only if they are limited, proportional, directed against combatants, and truly in response to a transgression (JUW, 221).

Walzer argues that a nation is morally permitted to violate the law of war and the principle of non-combatant immunity if and when it faces a “supreme emergency,” which is when it faces an imminent, grave threat to its very existence and it has no other means available to it to preserve its existence. He justifies this concept by referring to the near-absolute right of a political community to not be “blotted out.” He employs this concept to defend Great Britain’s bombing of German population centers in 1941.

A commander’s responsibility in war encompasses everything that his or her unit does or fails to do. Commanders are responsible for issuing only moral orders and for ensuring the moral action of their subordinates by training them in the law of war, conducting inspections, and by punishing violators. Read FM 27-10, paras. 501and 509.

Christopher argues in Ethics of War & Peace that military officers have a moral obligation to serve in wars, even those that they believe to be unjust. He gives three arguments to support his position. First, he argues that the decision to go to war is a political decision, so the soldier has no business even worrying about it. Secondly, he argues that the principle of civilian control of the military demands officers service in even unjust wars. Just as military personnel would be wrong to go to war without orders from the political authority, they would be just as wrong to not go to war when ordered to do so by the political authority. Finally, Christopher argues that military personnel should not be so arrogant as to assume that they have sufficient information to make a better moral judgment than those who are better informed.

Finally, Pacifism. Pacifists reject violence as a means to ends. Absolute pacifists reject violence in all its forms, in all aspects of life. Ghandi was an absolute pacifist. War-Pacifists are people who accept the legitimate use of violence in defense of rights under certain conditions (such as self- or other-defense against a rapist), but they do not think that soldiers in wars actually face the conditions that justify violent means of self-defense. Their main reasons are that the enemy soldiers did not freely chose their threatening actions and that the moral agents “put themselves into the situation of danger” by becoming soldiers. Selective-pacifists are those who accept the possibility of justified killing in some wars (such as WWII), yet reject the morality of killing in other (“unjustified”) wars (such as Vietnam).


Anonymous said...

That's a pretty succinct tour d'horizon of military ethics, Pete! Just, where you say: all soldiers are combatants, be aware that when soldiers are wounded, are surrendering, or have surrendered they are to judged hors de combat and therefore noncombatants. That's the justification for the use of the specialized terms "combatants" and "Noncombatants", rather than just "soldiers" and "civilians".

Also, though Walzer's book on Just and Unjust War is a good introduction, remember it's by no means as definitive as you present it as. On several occasions he was reshaping his argument so that by an amazing coincidence nearly all of Israel's military actions turned out to be justifiable.

Also, people should be clear that the whole Augustinian theory of "just war" was introduced into Catholic doctrine in a particular historical epoch. (It contradicts the Gospels, for example, in several respects.) It provides an interesting and sometimes useful set of "screens" by which those who believe in the possible justifiability of warfare can judge the justifiability of any particular action. It is not universally accepted as "the" theory of the justifiability of war even within the Christian churches. (I, for example, am a member of one of the numerous historic peace churches.) It is also not accepted as foundational by the great mass of people around the world who are not Christians. I think you'd do your students a service if you also explored some of the many non-Christian theories on the justifications for (and limitations on the justifiability of) warfare.

Pete Kilner said...

Thanks for your comments! I'll try to reply to each of them.

First, yes, it's true that not "all soldiers are combatants", which is a distinction that I make throughout my writings where appropriate, but to keep an overview an overview, I couldn't include every caveat every time. Still, your point is true, and it's one well worth highlighting.

Second, I agree that Walzer's JUW is not the only good source of thinking on JWT, but it is the only one used in the course that this post addresses. Thus, my course notes focused solely on the course text. Helena, what other texts do you recommend? I have also used Paul Christopher's book Ethics of War and Peace in other semesters.

As for the third point--to investigate and teach non-Christian approaches to war--well, I'm open to the idea, but I'm also aware that JWT corresponds well to the Laws of Warfare, giving a moral basis to the legal rules that we soldiers must know and abide. And, personally, being devoutly and thoughtfully Christian, I'm not sure why I (personally) would search for truth away from Truth. That said, given unlimited resources, I would be interested in learning about other approaches.

I appreciate the thoughtful challenges. Reasoned discussion makes us all better educated.

Pete Kilner said...

This year I taught philosophy at West Point using Brian Orend's The Morality of War. I think that it provides the most coherent discussion of the morality of war that has ever been written.

Unlike Walzer, Orend offers an extended argument.