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Last Updated: 10/25/2010
Validity and Justice: Discrediting the Theory of Just War
Alex Powell

Alex Powell tackles the logical problem of Just War theory, putting time-honoured arguments for war under much needed critical scrutiny. The centerpiece of Powell's argument is relativity, as the absense of a central moral authority, an objective truth, and an unbiased distinction between innocence and guilt undercut the assumptions of classical just war theory to devastating effect.

Unless we have dismissed the possibility of war as a valid proposition, advocates of peace will have no answer to those advocates of war who suggest constant readiness, aggressive interrogation, pre-emptive strikes, justify collateral damage, mass casualties, an arms race, nuclear weapons and the like as valid propositions also.

But our evolution has structured our responses to perceived threats in specific ways. At the level of neurones we are pre-programmed to a flight or fight response, in this sense war is considered a natural or normal collective response; resort to war is “logical” as it arises out of the primal instinct.

If we go no further in our analysis of war and we accept this logic, it is nonsense to place humans developmentally above our evolutionary ancestors, animals. And we must even accept that humans are morally lower than animals as 99% of animals do not engage in war. Since this cannot be the case, human beings enjoy status as architects of morality (no animal has articulated its actions as good), resort to war cannot be considered logical for a morally and evolutionary developed being such as a human and a much closer examination of the concept of “Just War” is required.

Advocates of war have no other way to validate the act than to place war within a moral dichotomy – Just and Unjust - and then make the double mistake of conflating this dichotomy as logical. So if you had the temerity to look for a basis of war and peace outside the dichotomy of Just and Unjust, one would not only have to deal with this as a moral issue, but one would have to frame one’s arguments within a highly logical framework because war is already assumed to be logical in Just circumstances. But the more you’d think about this the more you would recognize the circular reasoning behind it.

We enjoy the highest moral status of all beings, so it is not logical for humans, as the basis of moral concepts, to engage in war. Dogs do not engage in war yet do not enjoy any moral status whatsoever apart from in the extremely limited and precarious way of being another living non-human being and that has no moral significance unless a human being confers it. For example, is it morally more reprehensible to kill a wolf than it would be to kill a household pet?

Time and again thinkers like Kant, Dewey, Russell have come close to the conclusion that war is not a valid option under any circumstances, but failed in their logic when the emotive advocates of war bleat – but isn’t it logical to resort to mass organised violence when faced with mass organised violence? Even when one isn’t immediately threatened with mass organised violence, logically, shouldn’t we be prepared in argument as well as in materials to deal with this mass organised violence?

Because of this conflation of the logicality of war and its justice, advocates of peace must inevitably get caught up in the issues – the logical continuance of violence and the logical preparation toward the continuance of violence that supports it. So without questioning the logic of this continuity, advocates of peace will be unable to present a viable logic of peace themselves because they choose to accept the terms of their opponents by meeting them on those terms – by arguing against the morality of mass organised violence and its preparation, they are too easily denounced as unrealistic, as it must be accepted that in some instances mass violence is necessary and therefore just and logical.

But how can it be logical (let alone moral) for any developed being to passively accept these terms, least of all proponents of peace when even the wisdom of supposedly less developed Golden Retrievers and the like contradict it?

The alternative lies in having confidence in logic and validity, human attributes that advocates of peace should feel inspired to defend. It is inevitable that logical argument will engage and successfully refute proponents of mass organised war and violence, as the inefficiency and inhumanity of these social products are an affront to logic and decency.

Unless we willingly create the non-possibility of a valid war (a war that achieves the result of its aim, security) its advocates will always argue that “anything can happen, we must be ready” and therefore be ever-ready to justify war. Rather than allowing this, we must dispose of the notion of war via destroying the notion of Just War as all variations of war fall between the two, Just War and Unjust War; if we rid ourselves of these two false ideals, every variation in between that relies on them is removed also.

My argument is simple: successful human analysis lies in our ability to validate concepts and invalidate others. The principle of validity concerns the assertion of true premises when it is impossible for the conclusion to be false, or less technically, that true conclusions follow from true premises.

There are only two different configurations to engage in a Just War - against another Just War or against an Unjust war. Just War –VS- a Just War is not a valid proposition because if the aim is justice on both sides, there can be no justification therefore no validity to fight against justice and be just. There can be no validity to fight a war against the just (agents of justice), as without them justification and therefore justice (the object of the just) could not be designated just and therefore not sustainable as a qualification of war on either side. In this way we invalidate the ability of Just War to conflate logicality and morality by meeting it with the consequences of its own argument.

Proponents of Just War rely just as much on their opponents to provide them with PARTICULAR premises and conclusions according to the PARTICULAR just war they happen to be prosecuting. These particular premises rely on UNIVERSALLY held concepts to support their particular action. Hence Just War theorists will commonly rally around ideas such as the immorality of terrorism, prescriptions around pre-emptive actions, sovereignty, self-defence and sacrosanct non-combatants as the basis of universals that are generally prescribed.

Relying on universals and making broad and prescriptive statements about the various redlines of the justness and unjustness of action in war isn’t a problem in itself. In fact I would say that it is very useful to work through the specific actions of war. The problem comes when a final position of authority, Just War, is held to be the focus of these universals via inference. This absolute universal Just War is then held as a concept to relationally feed back into a particular instance when a Just War can be prosecuted at the same time specifically ignoring the relational designation of Just and Unjust in the process.

Just War theorists rely on relational phenomena – the relation of a people to the state, to the nation, the relation of a politic to a people, the relation of an ideology to the state, to the people etc– to define the parameters of Just and Unjust War but they fail to appreciate how these terms are relationally dependent themselves.

So in the formulation Just War –VS- Unjust War, how can one side be considered Just when it requires their opponent to be Unjust but have no way to justify it other than believing they are Just? This would mean they are confused, and not necessarily morally wrong in the absence of direction from god. Even the Just have no other way of justifying themselves other than by believing themselves Just. So how can it be considered Just to fight against the confused? How can security be achieved (the aim of war) in a just way (Just War) by destroying the confused?

Proponents of the Unjust War designated dependently on the other side must, by definition of the proponents of the Just War, be bona fide residents of the category “CONFUSED”. Relative to the just, the unjust are “contaminated” in some sense by being confused in relation to the proponents of the Just War and their views. So what general reasoning for Just War considers it just to destroy the confused? What general reasoning for Just War considers security served when the confused are destroyed? Doesn’t this line of reasoning create more confusion and undermine security, the aim of war?

In this way, the idea or universal of a Just War is clearly shown to be invalid. And, if the notion of a Just War is shown to be invalid, this only has to be done once, because whenever the notion of a Just War is raised it will be rid of its validity and thus the dialectics of political intrigue, religious factionalism, ideological posturing, mission shifts etc., associated with the rightness of war cannot be considered relevant through lacking validity, even though others may present very emotive, very convincing or very convoluted arguments to support the dialectic on both sides. This way we get closer to the truly Just Act and away from Just War. Conversely if you accept the validity of a Just War, reasons must be put forward for why such is valid every time the notion of a Just War is raised and you are compelled to become involved in these arguments.

If you do not accept the validity of a Just War, the reasons put forward for it via political intrigue and the like cannot be issues for you. True, it is simplistic to consider War as one act, as it must be considered critically from many angles. This is especially true if a conclusively Just Act is what you are trying to establish. This proves to be the Achilles heel of the Just War idea, as it tries to distil War into one act, a Just one. On the other hand, if we do not accept the validity of Just War, then we are forced to consider War and its particular instances from many angles as a default position in the dialectics of war is not an option for us. In that case, intention not compulsion “may” support Just Acts and we may choose to become involved in such actions.

If we use the Jus in Bello argument and counter that Just War is the inevitable consequence of just conduct in war, we find ourselves reliant upon the relative idea of “Just” discredited above. At what point is Just War inevitable anyway? Isn’t “Just War” conduct truly inevitable retrospectively as who knows what’s going on in a war? War can be declared but no shots fired. So war cannot be considered inevitable until it reaches a certain momentum. Certain momentum implies that actors are compelled to take part in the act, but a JUST or UNJUST ACT requires that an actor not be compelled to take part in the act, only doing so out of intention.

Therefore, it is shown that compulsion cannot support a Just Act because compulsion by definition cannot intend to do something and only by intending to do something can one be considered Just or Unjust. As agents of War are compelled to engage in the act, the idea of a Just War and therefore any War is not valid through not achieving the result of its aim, security, as one is only secure when one is not compelled to act. If we are compelled to act AND inevitably subject to relative ideas of Justice, how can we be secure?

Outside of the idea of Just War I will admit it is difficult to make a case for not defending the innocent. But it is not my argument not to defend the innocent – I’m merely attacking the idea of a valid Just War. The fact remains - security cannot be achieved in a Just way by destroying the confused. Although there maybe a scenario where destroying the confused is just in a theatre of war, there are always exceptions to rules (that is why they are rules) so I defy the idea that only one example (or even a hundred) needs to be found to demonstrate that a valid universal, Just War, exists for reasons previously outlined.

As to the problem of defending the innocent, even proponents of “Just War” must admit that it is only an idea until it is acted upon, so where does the idea of obligation to the innocent begin? Where exactly (and it must be pretty exact or you cannot claim moral authority) do the innocent end and the guilty begin?

Even if the issue of the innocent could be cleared up by some proxy final authority like the UN, where does the obligation to them take effect and why?

If it could be imagined that there is an obligation (as yet undetermined) to the innocent and that this had a moral basis then why does this obligation only take effect when we have one arm twisted behind our back in times of conflict, when we feel threatened in some way? Why not a Just Education, a Just Society etc? Surely, true obligation to the innocent means making sure that they are never put in harms way from the beginning? And this means getting our view straight from the beginning.

If we fail in that then we are in no position to protect the innocent who are IN SOME WAY only designated concurrently with the guilty. If we don’t accept this fact then our eye isn’t always on the ball and – the innocent die - just a numbers game of tipping scales to the proponents of Just War because they MUST reduce complex issues to a single universal. But this is the heart of the issue for proponents of peace who consider the death of even one innocent in war a personal failure and are, therefore, shown to deal with each case on its individual merits.

Without absolute absolutes (literally the hand of god moving everything around) it is impossible to ignore the influence of relativity. So innocent and guilty must be designated relatively in some way and this is okay as long as we are clear who the innocent are and try to the best of our ability to protect them night and day. Anything else is an after thought. But even if you fulfil these requirements you still could be wrong about who is guilty and who is innocent in the absence of a final arbiter. And even if we could get one, justice and security, as a general rule, cannot be served by destroying the confused. Just War is therefore an invalid proposition.