Interesting social view on war

Title: Just war thinking as a social practice

Author(s): John Kelsay
Source: Ethics & International Affairs. 27.1 (Spring 2013): p67.
Document Type: Report
Ethics and International Affairs
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2013 Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs

Full Text: 

The abstract for the International Studies Association panel that gave rise to this special section of Ethics & International Affairs referred to the “triumph” of just war theory. However, I think we ought rather to speak of just war discourse as occupying a particular niche. This is especially so with respect to discussions about policy: when and where governments should make use of military force, what type, and so on. In that context, appeals to the criteria of jus ad bellum and jus in bello complement (or sometimes compete with) thinking that draws on international law, various strategic doctrines (for example, counterinsurgency warfare, or COIN), notions of reciprocity between states, and a host of other considerations. The notion of “triumph” claims too much. At the same time, for advocates of the just war framework, the kind of recognition indicated by presidential and other official mentions of the idea is worthy of note. Some of these are due to constituency politics–that is, to the idea that “institutional” advocates of just war (say, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops) may influence blocs of voters. Other invocations are better interpreted as a recognition that the vocabulary of just war can serve (along with other ways of speaking) in the attempt to craft wise policy. (1)

Given the niche occupied by just war thinking in contemporary policy discourse, it is worth asking (or perhaps, re-asking) several basic questions about the just war vocabulary. What purposes does it (or can it) serve? What is the nature of its authority? How does or ought just war thinking proceed? Or, to put it another way, how does one recognize “good” just war thinking? In this article I present a view of just war thinking as a social practice, arguing that (1) of the several purposes just war thinking serves, political wisdom has pride of place; (2) the authority of the just war framework rests in its ability to illumine policy; and (3) good just war thinking involves continuous and complete deliberation, in the sense that one attends to all the standard criteria at war’s inception, at its end, and throughout the course of conflict. By way of illustration I review some of the contributions (and failures) of just war argument with respect to NATO’s post-9/11 effort in Afghanistan.


In referring to just war thinking as a social practice, I am making use of some ideas developed more fully by Robert Brandom and Jeffrey Stout. In particular, Stout’s analysis of ethics as a social practice provides a model for my reflections. (2) One might put it this way: the criteria of jus ad bellum and jus in bello provide a framework for structured participation in a public conversation about the use of military force. In the context of a constitutional democracy, citizens who choose to speak in just war terms express commitments. They invite others to respond to their assertions by joining in just war argument (for example, by questioning the way particular criteria are interpreted or the way that an argument comports with the facts of a case) or by proposing alternative vocabularies (for example, those of international law or strategic doctrines). In the process of giving and asking for reasons for going to war, those who argue in just war terms seek to influence policy by persuading others that their analysis provides a way to express and fulfill the desire that military action be both wise and just.

As a social practice, the authority of just war argument rests, in some sense, on the habits of citizens–that is, on the readiness of at least some people to employ its vocabulary. They may do so for a variety of reasons, but the most important ones seem to involve the desire for justice. The purchase of the vocabulary does not, in the first place, require an account of one or a set of principles as a kind of foundation for this particular way of speaking. Nor does it require a theory of justice, beyond the simple notion that justice involves rendering to others that which is due to them. Of course, in particular instances some advocates of the just war framework may place it in the service of such principles or theories. All that is needed at the start, however, is the interest of citizens in employing this particular vocabulary with respect to the question: Does a particular action comport with notions of that which is right? (3)

Indeed, there is a sense in which the locution “just war theory” seems not to fit the way much just war argument proceeds. Michael Walzer’s account in Just and Unjust Wars provides a nice illustration:

   I did not begin by thinking about war in general, but about
   particular wars, above all the American intervention in Vietnam.
   Nor did I begin as a philosopher, but as a political activist and a
   partisan. ... It was, for example, a matter of great importance to
   all of us in the American anti-war movement of the late 1960s and
   early 1970s that we found a moral doctrine ready at hand. ... Our
   anger and indignation were shaped by the words available to express
   them, and the words were at the tips of our tongues even though we
   had never before explored their meanings and connections. (4)

As a social practice, just war argument is frequently, if not mostly, an exemplification of the type of rationality Brandom characterizes as “historical.” (5) In this, its advocates (like Walzer) find a vocabulary “at hand.” As they explore its terms, they find themselves participating in “a certain kind of reconstruction of a tradition.” (6) As an example, consider the in bello criterion of discrimination or noncombatant immunity. The terminology is in the first sense an inheritance, part of the legacy of prior generations, developed as a way of indicating that some on the enemy side ought not to be the target of direct military attack. (7) Specifications or lists that fill out the notion vary according to context, as does the reasoning of those who develop them. Those adopting this notion in a contemporary setting will argue in part about the import of such lists and types of reasoning. One could say they serve as precedents, in the sense of providing references for contemporary arguments. In response to the facts of a particular case, one issue will have to do with identifying and describing such precedents. Another will be what to make of them–to ask whether the precedents fit with a new context. In fashioning an argument about action that is illegitimate (because it is indiscriminate), citizens may find that the old lists do not quite cover the range of their concerns. They may also be aware that the lists and reasoning they develop will have import for the future, as others look back to the fighting in, say, post-9/11 Afghanistan and cite particular examples as precedents. As a type of historical rationality, just war argument proceeds with reference to the past, in an attempt to fashion judgments about the present, with import for the future.

With respect to those judgments, or more generally to the argument, who decides what is right? In one sense, no one; or, to put it another way, everyone–or at least all who participate. As Stout is fond of saying, the social practice model of discourse does not require an umpire. (8) Citizens listen to one another, hold each other accountable, ask questions, and advance counter-arguments. This is the nature of democratic exchange, where such institutionalized norms as freedom of speech and of assembly set a context for argument without dictating outcomes. Some participants may earn a certain deference, for example, in recognition of their knowledge of history, the acuity of their arguments, or their reputation for morally exemplary behavior or insight. But no participant claims infallibility, or if one does, there is no requirement for others to accept the claim.

In this connection, presidential invocation of just war discourse is of interest. In the United States, constitutional norms vest authority with respect to war to the president, in consultation with the Congress. In that sense, one might be tempted to take the view that these officials function as umpires, at least in certain respects. And yet, citizens may join a president and other officials in debate. They exercise a power of review and of judgment, particularly by means of elections. Just war argument, in other words, does not cease once constitutionally designated officials make a decision to commit (or not to commit) to the use of military force. The just war criteria may be invoked at the outset of such a commitment, but also in the context of an ongoing policy, and after war is ended. The argument is not settled so long as some citizens remain interested in the question: Is (or was) this war wise and just? (9)

Having characterized just war argument as a social practice, let me provide a brief account of its main features. When citizens take up the just war vocabulary, what are their intentions? What commitments do they undertake?

First, I take it that the just war vocabulary expresses a desire to tie the use of military force to policies that are both wise and just. In this sense, I find suggestive the kind of argument associated with such historic interpreters as Thomas Aquinas, by which an account of political and military matters is tied to the virtues of prudence (or practical wisdom), justice, temperance, and fortitude. In particular, prudence and justice are associated with political leadership. As Thomas has it, a just ruler is one whose habit of action involves taking counsel, making judgments, and issuing commands concerning the means of obtaining a due (that is, a just) end, in consideration of the public good. The virtue of prudence combines intellectual and moral characteristics. Taking counsel, Thomas’s ruler listens to others, so as to develop a true or accurate account of the facts relevant to making policy. The verdict or judgment, as the command associated with prudence, has to do with means–in the case before us, of whether war is or can be an instrument of statecraft. Prudence does not determine the due or just end –that is a matter for the virtue of justice, in the sense that it involves a habit of acting in ways that render that which is due by taking account of the public good. (10)

As a social practice, just war argument ultimately touches on some of the broadest questions associated with political life. What constitutes the public good? Speaking in general terms, Paul Ramsey argued that wise statecraft involves consideration of the common good of a particular state as well as of the international common good, and seeks to increase the area of overlap between the two. Focusing on U.S. foreign policy in particular, Ramsey supposed that its “overriding goal” should be “to create and sustain a system of free and independent nations.” (11) Walter Russell Mead takes a somewhat different tack. For Mead, the responsibilities of the United States involve sustaining an international order in which trade is relatively free and open. The United States picked up this mantle (which was previously carried by the British, and before them by the Dutch) following the Second World War. To that end, postwar institutions–such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and NATO and other regional organizations–represent an attempt to provide definition to, and a structure that helps to sustain, international exchange. Debates about the use of military force take place in connection with this postwar order, not least in the sense that they involve estimates of the current strengths and weaknesses of international institutions and of the likely impact of war on their ability to play their assigned roles

Posted by Hali Sorensen


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