Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The "presumption against war": Eberle critiques Weigel

[At my invitation, MOJ friend Chris Eberle (Philosophy, U.S. Naval Academy) weighs in.  (You may remember that in an earlier post, I referred to Chris's brilliant book, Religious Conviction in Liberal Politics (Cambridge, 2002).)  Here is what Chris has to say:]

According to George Weigel, the just war tradition does not incorporate a so-called “presumption against war,” which he construes as the toxic assumption that the tradition “begins with a prima facie moral duty to do no harm to others.”  Rather, just war thinking begins with “a passion for justice” – duly authorized political authorities have a duty to secure a peace “composed of justice, security and freedom” … by employing military violence in some circumstances.  As I see it, Rob Vischer rightly expresses skepticism about this overall view.  A couple of points seem worth making here.

First, it might be the case that most reputable just war thinkers did not affirm anything like a presumption against war; perhaps they repudiated any such presumption.  So the just war tradition might not include a presumption against war.  But this claim has only the slightest normative weight.  After all, it might be the case that there is a presumption against war and the tradition should come to reflect that moral fact.

Second, why believe that the just war tradition should incorporate a presumption against war?  I don't think we need much heavy lifting here.  Waging war inevitably involves the destruction, maiming, 'dehousing,' of human beings – soldiers slit throats, bombs obliterate bodies, armies dislodge and disorient populations.  Given what waging war on human beings inevitably involves, and given that each human being possesses great worth, we always and everywhere have powerful moral reason not to wage war.  That is, we have a prima facie duty to refrain from waging war.  This is no less true of modern industrialized war than it is over ancient siege warfare or contemporary counter-insurgency.  I can't imagine why anyone committed to human dignity would want to deny this.

Third, the claim that there is a presumption against war is consistent with the claim that there is also a presumption in favor of justice.  Weigel seems to think that there is some tension here.  I can't see that there is.  There can be many moral 'presumptions' (read: prima facie duties) that bear on the moral propriety of a given act and, when there are, then one should take them all into consideration.  So, for example, the political authorities have a moral duty to prosecute citizens who have violated the law, but they should also presume that each and every citizen is innocent.  Presuming innocence isn't at all in tension with a duty to protect the innocent from the rapacious.  Again, the political authorities have a prima facie duty to secure a just peace and they also have a prima facie duty to refrain from employing military violence as a means to achieve that end.  No tension here either.

Fourth, the claim that there is a presumption against war is consistent with the claim that that presumption can be overridden by sufficiently weighty considerations.  This is standard fare: we have a prima facie duty not to kill our fellow human beings, but certain normative considerations might count decisively in favor of our killing some particular human being in some particular case – when he is bearing down on my children with the clear intent to kill.  Again, we have a prima facie duty not to wage war, but compelling normative considerations might override that prima facie duty – when the Japanese launched their unjust attack on Pearl Harbor, for example.  Indeed, the countervailing considerations that count in favor of war can be sufficiently weighty that waging a given war can be, not only permissible, but obligatory.  I take it that the United States was not only permitted but required to wage war against Japan after Dec 7, 1941 – despite the presumption against doing so.

One final point.  Although I think that it's pretty obvious that there is a presumption against war, and so the just war tradition should incorporate such a presumption, I find it very difficult to get all wee wee'd up about  it.  Weigel thinks it important to deny such a toxic claim, but I really don't see the harm in it.  Do others have a better sense than I for what's at stake?


| Permalink

TrackBack URL for this entry:


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference The "presumption against war": Eberle critiques Weigel :