Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Individual duties in unjust wars

Apparently, a predominant view is that the ordinary soldier who follows decent military orders (ones that do not transgress jus in bello) in an unjust war does not do wrong.

This view seems quite clearly mistaken, though. First of all, it is always wrong to formally cooperate with an evildoer, where to "formally cooperate" is to share an intention in virtue of which the evildoer counts as an evildoer. But in an unjust war, the leaders of one's country are evildoers (perhaps non-culpable ones, but that doesn't matter), and they are evildoers in part because they intend the deaths of enemy soldiers. Thus the ordinary soldier in intentionally killing enemy soldiers is formally cooperating with evil. Moreover, even if the cooperation were not formal but material (i.e., the cooperator did not share any of the evil intentions of the evildoers, but nonetheless materially contributed to the evil), given the fact that few evils on the face of the earth are as bad as an unjust war, the presumption against such cooperation would still be almost indefeasibly strong.

Second, the state lacks the authority to permit one to intentionally kill those who are doing nothing wrong. That is simply an invalid exercise of the state's authority. This is particularly clear when the unjust military action takes place on the territory of the victim state, since except in cases like lawful self-defense or of embassies, one is bound by the laws of the state that one is in the territory of, but it is also true when the action takes place within the territory of the unjustly warring state. To kill those who are doing nothing wrong is, simply, wrong. So it is wrong to kill in an unjust war when the other side is acting justly (there are wars that are bilaterally unjust--this argument does not apply to those), since then one is killing soldiers who are acting in a morally permissible manner, viz., by engaging in a just war.

But suppose that it is objected that while the state waging the unjust war acts impermissibly in authorizing the killing of the enemy, the authorization nonetheless "succeeds", i.e., the individual soldiers on the unjust side do become authorized. This seems mistaken, but suppose it. Then we get a third argument. If it were not wrong to engage in combat on the unjust side, there would be no such thing as a just war. For in a just war, the state permissibly authorizes the killing of enemy soldiers. But it is wrong for the state to authorize the killing of people who are doing nothing wrong. Hence if the soldiers on the unjust side are doing nothing wrong, it is wrong for a state with justice on its side to authorize killing them. And that is absurd.

Objection: One can defend oneself lethally against someone who is doing nothing wrong. Response: That seems mistaken. If I have broken legs and can't move, and a toddler with a deadly communicable disease is running towards me, I do not have the right to shoot the toddler before he gets to me.

Note that it seems that what I said is compatible with the claim that the soldiers on the unjust side are, frequently, not culpable for their wrongful actions. It seems to me--and I could very well be wrong--that lethal state-authorized self-defense is concerned with stopping evildoers, rather than with stopping culpable evildoers. Culpability requires an individual judgment that is not practicable. Alternately, one might here make the move that Cardinal Ratzinger does in an essay on conscience, which is that even those who are ignorant of the moral law are guilty of having blinded themselves to the moral law. However, in some cases, the enemy soldiers are not ignorant of the moral law, but of the relevant facts of the situation (e.g., some German soldiers may have falsely believed that Poland invaded Germany).


Heath White said...

It seems to me that ordinary soldiers are prima facie, though defeasibly, not required to form judgments about the justice of their country's wars. (Especially in situations without a free press and mass communication.) Maybe you would want to say that, in that case, they may do wrong but not culpably so. I'm not sure I get the distinction between wrongness and culpable wrongness, though. Or rather, what's the difference between doing something permissible and doing something inculpably wrong? (I can, on the other hand, see the difference between doing something *good* or at least *not bad* and something inculpably wrong.)

Alexander R Pruss said...


I do think that if one knows that the war is unjust, one must not cooperate in it.

What about situations when one is not in a position to know? This is what your remarks about a free press indicates, I think.

Well, I think one probably has the epistemic right to presume, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that wars fought primarily on one's own territory against foreign soldiers are just. It seems more likely than not that one's country has been invaded, though this judgment defeasible.

However, in a contemporary context, the absence of a free press provides a defeater for trusting one's government to make just decisions. (If they were trustworthy, why would they suppress the press?) Assuming that one knew that in a contemporary context the absence of a free press is a sign of something seriously wrong with a country (people in communist countries knew that; however, there may be countries where people are unaware of the possibility of a free press, and then this will not apply there), I think one would be in a position to judge that more likely than not any given war fought primarily on enemy territory would be unjust. This is particularly true if one knows one's country not to be led by someone concerned for justice or to have the right concept of justice. (Some people take themselves to know this in the case of the U.S. If so, then I think they should not be involved in military activity.)

In a country with a free press and civil freedoms, when the government is not clearly unconcerned for justice or has a clearly warped view of justice, and absent clear evidence to the contrary, one may be obligated to presume in the justice of a war. I don't think such presumption includes belief--all one needs is action, not belief--but it does include the absence of disbelief. For if one believes that the cause is unjust, surely one should not cooperate in it.

Whether the conditions in the previous paragraph are met by any recent conflicts involving the U.S. is something on which I am expressing no opinion.

Anonymous said...

It seems like there are "modes" of injustice which arise from the objective/subjective transition:

Mode A: I know my act is unjust and I do it anyway.

Mode B: I don't know my act is unjust, but I should know that it is unjust, and I do it.

Mode C: I don't know my act is unjust, and I am also not culpable for my lack of knowledge, but it remains an evil, 'a disorder in relation to the truth about the good'.

All three of these refer to an unjust act, which is to say an act which is would be an error to characterize as just, but under three different modalities depending on the relation between subjective understanding and objective reality.

John Paul II/Veritatis Splendour:
In the case of the correct conscience, it is a question of the objective truth received by man; in the case of the erroneous conscience, it is a question of what man, mistakenly, subjectively considers to be true. It is never acceptable to confuse a "subjective" error about moral good with the "objective" truth rationally proposed to man in virtue of his end, or to make the moral value of an act performed with a true and correct conscience equivalent to the moral value of an act performed by following the judgment of an erroneous conscience. It is possible that the evil done as the result of invincible ignorance or a non-culpable error of judgment may not be imputable to the agent; but even in this case it does not cease to be an evil, a disorder in relation to the truth about the good.

Now jus ad bellum refers to the justice of a decision to go to war, and it is distinct from jus in bello or right conduct within war. Each and every act within a war is subject to jus in bello; but the question is, does a mistaken or unjust bellum render every subsequent violent act by the soldiers of that side inherently and categorically unjust under bello? I frankly don't know, but I'm not sure it is a straightforward "yes". They seem to be distinct acts.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I actually do not want to distinguish Modes B and C with respect to the current wrongful act. (Interestingly, I think Cardinal Ratzinger in a piece on conscience might agree with this.) In both cases, I think the agent is not culpable for this action. But in Case B, she is culpable for another action, namely her neglect of truth, while in Case C, she is culpable for nothing.

In any case, it seems to me that to kill people who are doing nothing wrong is wrong (except when God commands it--God is the source of life who may take life away whenever he wishes, and he can command us to do this on his behalf). And I am not sure there is a significant difference between a case where the ordinary soldier falsely believes that a war has been declared (e.g., because his officer lies to him to that effect) and a case where a war has been declared but unjustly so. In both cases, if the soldier is genuinely ignorant, he is not culpable. But in both cases, he is doing wrong. He is objectively cooperating with evil.

Anonymous said...

That is a reasonable distinction (or collapse of distinction) between B and C. The acting subject is still morally responsible for the outcome in B though, and not so (or at least not so in the same manner) in C.

But I'm still very much unsure on the other point. All kinds of different ensembles of events get kicked off in history, and it isn't clear to me that prior events have the kind of strong analytic connection to current choices required for the theory.

Suppose that a thousand years ago a war started between the Slithy Toves and the Bandersnatches, and the requirements of jus ad bellum were not strictly met at the time by either side. The war continues to this day, and home territories have shifted dramatically in that time. Does this imply that every single act of violence on the part of any soldier in that war - no matter how defensive in nature - is necessarily immoral? That is far from clear.

Right conduct in an ongoing war seems to be a different matter from right decision to enter or start a war: connected to be sure, but sufficiently distinct that we cannot simply and categorically condemn individual acts within the war as themselves formal cooperation with an initial unjust decision to wage war. It seems to me that a soldier's intention can be something on the order of "we ought not have gotten ourselves into this in the first place, but now that we are here we have to [make things right | defend these women and children | etc], so I must do [some particular violent act]". What matters isn't what started things off as a matter of causal history, but rather current (behavioral and other) intentions.

Alexander R Pruss said...


That's an interesting case. Yes, it seems that sometimes a war might be started unjustly and yet sometimes its continuation is just. (Some folks think that the present Iraq situation is like that.)

But I think what happens in cases like this is that jus ad bellum requirements were not fulfilled, but they come to be fulfilled.

However, you do raise another interesting question. What about sub-conflicts within an otherwise unjust war? Can they be licit even though the whole war is not? I think you're right--they can. Again, I would say that jus ad bellum requirements are fulfilled in the sub-conflict.

Here is a toughie. Suppose that the authorities have the wrong intention in a war, but that a war would have been justified had they had the right intention. For instance, invaders come, murdering and enslaving civilians, and the dictator declares war. However, she does not in fact care at all about the civilians being murdered and enslaved. The one thing she cares about is that if the enemy is not opposed, her ill-gotten wealth will be seized (she knows she can escape with her life). So her intention is to protect ill-gotten goods.

Is it wrong for the soldiers to fight if they know that this is the authority's reasoning? This is tough. On Aquinas' standards for the exercise of civil authority, the declaration of war by the dictator does not count as an exercise of authority, because authority must be wielded in reference to the common good.

The above case is extreme. One might say that a dictator who does not care at all about the people being murdered and enslaved lacks the most minimal care for the common good and is not an authority at all. In such a case, perhaps, the authority belongs to whoever it is that is able to command it and who has actual care for the common good, maybe the army itself, if they care about the people not being murdered or enslaved? And maybe they declare a war. Or maybe we can say that the war is just, but the declaring of it was unjust?

Anonymous said...

Is it wrong for the soldiers to fight if they know that this is the authority's reasoning?

That is a very difficult question, though my intuition leans toward the idea that they can. War is corporate action in one sense, an ensemble of individual acts in another. Consider Iraqi collaborators who fought on the side of America in order to bring down the tyrannical Hussein regime. I think it is clearly the case that America - corporately - would not have invaded Iraq without the (false as it turns out) threat of a WMD/Al Qaeda nexus with Saddam. But I don't think that makes it wrong for Iraqis to collaborate who truly are genuinely acting to - their acts are caused by the motivation to - defend from Hussein's tyranny. In their case the war/invasion is a given and they are trying to make the best of it. My intuition is that the defenders in the case you raise face a similar situation: the war is a given, and they are making the best of it in the service of the common good.

Even the case of the dictator herself, if she repents, may have some similarity to what (say) someone who has divorced, remarried, and had children with the new 'spouse' faces. Past actions and the world-states to which they have given rise are a given. That doesn't license intrinsically immoral acts - so e.g. continence with respect to the 'new' spouse would be required, assuming a valid first marriage to a still-living spouse - but the duties to the children remain morally in play.

That is all really just an appeal to my intuitions though.