Thursday, March 08, 2012


I’m going to comment on this article:

For the sake of argument, I will assume in this essay the worst possible case: namely, that the Iranian government is intent on pursuing the creation of nuclear weapons, and that there is a significant likelihood that Iran would either use these weapons directly against the United States or Israel, or give them to hostile terrorist groups such as Hamas or Hezbollah. Since a good end, no matter how important, cannot justify evil means, we must look to the just war theory for guidance in discerning what means for self-defense are permissible.

That begs the question of whether just-war theory should furnish the frame of reference. Just-war theory is a human construct, devised by fallible, shortsighted mortals like you and me. Just-war theorists were born ignorant, like you and me. They had to learn by experience, during their brief, provincial lives. They had to make things up on the fly.

Just-war theorists aren’t prophets. Just-war theory is entitled to a respectful hearing, but it’s not a given.

If the justification for the attack were simply Iran’s imminent possession of nuclear weapons, then clearly neither the United States nor Israel would be in a position of comparative justice, since both have nuclear weapons as well. Even if the cause for war were the likely use of Iranian nuclear weapons against innocent civilians, this situation is a murky one, since the United States is the one nation that has actually used nuclear weapons against an enemy and, in at least one case (Nagasaki), against a civilian population center with no significant military installations. In addition, the United States has never officially apologized for the nuclear attack on Japan nor disavowed the future use of its nuclear weapons in such an indiscriminate fashion. Until both the United States and Israel renounce such unjust use of nuclear weapons and make such institutional reforms as are needed to prevent it, we cannot claim that the comparative justice condition has been met.

i) That begs the question of whether nuking Japan was unjust.

ii) Moreover, the “United States” is just an abstraction. Even if we grant, for the sake of argument, that what the Truman administration did was morally wrong, Truman and his advisors are long gone. You can’t facilely assume collective guilt, as if what one generation did automatically implicates a later generation. That requires far more argument.

The application of the last resort and the competent authority conditions are connected. War, even when there is a just cause, must always be the last resort, used only when all just and peaceful attempts to prevent aggression with an appropriate chance of success have failed.

Is the last-resort condition reasonable? In risk assessment you need to draw an elementary distinction between a lesser probability of greater harm and a greater probability of lesser harm.

For instance, even if there’s a high probability of a trivial harm, we might not bother to take any precautions inasmuch as the potential harm is trivial.

Conversely, if there’s a low probability of catastrophic harm, we might take elaborate precautionary measures, even though the worst-case scenario is highly unlikely, because we can’t afford to be wrong. If the cost of being mistaken is too costly, then we must observe extraordinary safeguards even though that’s quite unlikely.

High-risk isn’t equivalent to high-probability. High-risk also includes the potential for serious harm. The potential of a potential risk involves both the potential likelihood as well as the potential harm. Does a lower risk of a greater harm outweigh a higher risk of a lesser harm? The threat-level considers the level of harm as well as the level of likelihood.

Just war theory resolutely opposes any surprise attack, such as that of the Japanese on Pearl Harbor, precisely because such an unanticipated action can never be a last resort. Sneak attacks do not provide the prospective enemy with an ultimatum that it can meet and thereby avert the catastrophe of war.

i) Yet the element of surprise can be crucial to the success or failure of the operation. If you tip off the enemy, then enemy can forearm itself against the attack. Ruling out a “sneak attack” may entail much greater loss of life. A successful first strike can win the war at the outset, thereby preventing a long drawn-out conflict.

The condition of last resort does not rule out the permissibility of a preemptive strike against a potential enemy, so long as the enemy is committed in a practically irrevocable way to launching an unjust attack—that is, so long as the unjust attack is “imminent” in this narrow sense. However, it is hard to believe that an attack involving the use of nuclear weapons could truly be imminent before a single one of those weapons has actually been built.

i) Imminence is hard to assess. Iran is a closed society. Moreover, most countries try to shroud their WMD programs in secrecy. That’s generally classified.

iii) Furthermore, if you wait until the threat is imminent, it may be too late. You blew your best options by allowing the enemy to stall for time. Now you're stuck with whatever options are left over. Whatever options the enemy left at your disposal. 

iii) This goes back to the question of risk assessment. What’s your margin for error? What are the consequences if you underestimate the threat? What are the consequences if you’re caught off-guard?

iv) Koons acts as if the rules are ends in themselves rather than means to an end. As if we should follow the rules for the sake of rule-keeping, even if the rules endanger us. We trap ourselves in a set of manmade rules–like a man who’s superstitious about stepping on cracks in the sidewalk. We see danger approaching, danger encroaching, but we’re frozen in place because it would go against the rules to escape.

Just-war theory isn’t the Decalogue. It wasn’t handed down from heaven. It’s just a human construct.

Rules ought to serve a purpose. But rules can outlive their usefulness. Or rules can be useful under ordinary circumstances, but counterproductive under emergency conditions. A general set of rules doesn’t anticipate every conceivable contingency.

Once a set of rules is put in place, folks tend to forget what the rules were for. They blindly follow the rules whether or not the rules make sense. They become gridlocked by a set of arbitrary rules. They can’t adapt to a crisis. They are overtaken by foreseeable disaster because they can’t bring themselves to break the rules–even though these were laws of utility rather than laws or morality.

Why is the condition of last resort so important, given that following this principle brings with it a significant risk of great harm? Last resort matters because when we go to war prematurely, we cannot act with the right intention. If war is something other than our last resort, we reveal our unjust disregard of the humanity of our enemies. The only justification for killing a human being (outside of capital punishment) is to prevent that person’s participation in some unjust killing of another, and to do so only after they have formed the firm intention to kill.

Many participants never form a personal intention to kill. They simply follow orders. Do what they’re told. It’s their superiors, the policymakers, who form the intention to kill.

I cannot legitimately shoot someone now in self-defense, simply because, given his wicked disposition, he will almost certainly intend to kill me at some time in the future.

Given the hypothetical that he just proposed, why can’t you legitimately shoot someone in self-defense under those circumstances? It would be illegal, but we’re discussing morality rather than legality. If he stipulates that you can know the assailant’s criminal intent in advance of the crime, then why not take preemptive measures?

One might also argue that the just war criteria are irrelevant, since we are intending merely to destroy Iran’s facilities (reactors and centrifuges), with the deaths of Iranian workers merely a foreseen but unintended consequence (appealing to the doctrine of “double effect”). However, the doctrine does not apply in this case: the presence of workers and scientists is a normal facet of the operations of these facilities, and so killing them is an integral part of the centers’ destruction, making the killings “intentional” in the relevant sense.

Koons has a habit of assuming what he needs to prove. Isn’t this a case where the distinction between combatant and noncombatant is artificial? Why is the man who drops the bomb fair game while the man who builds the bomb is off-limits?

Any response to this aggression, however, must be proportional to the actual harm suffered and the harm truly imminent (in the strict sense).

Why? What if the objective isn’t simply just reprisal, but eliminating the enemy’s military capacity to fall back, regroup, and fight you another day? 

In this post I’m not making a case for (or against) attacking Iran. We have to take into account the potential consequences of attacking Iran as well as the potential consequences of not attacking Iran.

No comments:

Post a Comment