« Jonathan Dancy |
| Keynote Address Week Two: Professor Jeff McMahan »
Posted by tnadelhoffer on May 21, 2007 at 12:08 AM | Permalink
TrackBack URL for this entry:http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d83452050c69e200e55060d7fc8833
Listed below are links to weblogs that reference McMahan Q & A:
Imagine a case like this: you are a US Marine serving in Iraq. You volunteered to serve in the USMC and were sent to Iraq by the US command structure. On patrol one day with your squad your Humvee is blown up by a roadside bomb killing three of your buddies. You are injured in the blast but are still able to function. On climbing out of the mess of body parts, and metal scraps you see what you believe are the perpetrators preparing to dance on the bodies. You grab your M16 and blast everyone of the cheering crowd.
During the court-martial for using excessive force are you allowed to bring in the "fog of war" defense?
My point in this example is to bring out the existential difference between moralizing from behind a podium and acting in an actual and shitty situation.
May 21, 2007 at 01:29 PM
I don’t think there would be a court martial if everyone the soldier blasts was involved in the destruction of the vehicle. They would all be combatants and therefore legitimate targets under the law.
But since you refer to a “cheering crowd” and assume that excessive force has been used, perhaps you have in mind that the crowd includes people other than those who destroyed the vehicle. If so, consider a variant of your example. Suppose you’re an Iraqi soldier driving in your armored vehicle in occupied Washington, DC – impossible, of course, but use your imagination to try to understand what it’s like to be under military occupation by another country from the other side of the world. An American resistance fighter – a patriot – blows up your vehicle and you’re the only survivor. You see a crowd of Americans cheering at the destruction of your Iraqi vehicle and you kill them all. Maybe you have some excuse – uncontrollable rage, vengeance – but it’s not a fog-of-war excuse. It’s not that you don’t really understand what you’re doing. But even if you have an excuse, I deny that you have a justification. What are you doing with your gun and military vehicle in my country in the first place?
Moralizing behind a podium is what philosophers and international lawyers do. Lying wounded amid dead bodies and hostile enemies isn’t the ideal condition for careful moral reflection. Combatants need principles to guide them, principles that we’ve thought about in advance. So reflection from an armchair, or from behind a podium if you can find one, is what all the great writers on the morality and law of war have specialized in: Jesus, Aquinas, Shakespeare, Hobbes, Grotius, Vitoria, Suarez, Vattel, Walzer, and others. There are a few people who have experienced combat and have written interestingly about the morality of war, but they’re not the ones whose work is most illuminating, in my view. People who have what it takes (including a lot of time) to be a great warrior and a great moral theorist are fairly rare.
Jeff McMahan |
May 21, 2007 at 08:10 PM
Thanks for your thoughtful response. I agree with your last paragraph and do understand the need for careful reflection on moral problems. I didn't mean to imply that you were unaware of the difficulties of the battlefield. And indeed there are many difficulties, especially in recent wars where combatants do not enter the battlefield appropriately dressed to announce which side they are on! It does seem to me, as a former US Marine, that the fog of war is getting thicker, and that the fundamental moral problems have to do with deciding what is the best way to protect against faith-based initiatives like the 9/11 attack while acting as a moral nation-state.
May 22, 2007 at 11:26 AM
Thanks, Bob, for engaging with my arguments here. I'm sure I DO have a poor understanding of the perspective of those in actual combat, though I've done a good bit of reading to try to remedy that deficiency. One of the problems, as I note in the paper, is that in a great many contemporary conflicts, there has ceased to be a battlefield - or, rather, the battlefield is potentially anywhere. Battlefields now tend to be places where people live: cities, villages... And I agree that the fog is made immeasurably thicker when people not only fail to identify themselves as combatants or adversaries but do all they can to obliterate distinctions between those who are responsible and those who are not, those who are threatening and those who are not, and so on. I've written a paper called "War, Terrorism, and the 'War on Terror'" that seeks to understand how best to respond to those who try to bring the violence of war into ordinary civilian life, and to undermine core moral distinctions that recognize the rights that individuals have and help to constrain the savagery of violent conflict. It argues that, in moral terms, anti-terrorist action lies somewhere between war and law enforcement, but is much closer to law enforcement in conventional terms, since it verges on incoherence to suppose that terrorists can claim combatant status and thereby bring themselves within the framework of the law of war. I argue for the need for a new set of legal norms for the governance of anti-terrorist action, since this action can't fit comfortably within the framework of norms governing war or those governing police work. This paper will be published in the next volume of Oxford Amnesty lectures but I don't know when that'll be released. I'd be happy to send you the current draft if you're interested in seeing it.
Jeff McMahan |
May 22, 2007 at 10:24 PM
There is an inconsistency in the argument where you state that soldiers are both not mindless machines, but on the other hand do not consent to being killed. Either a soldier is mindless, and therefore cannot grant consent or take responsibility for his actions, or he is mindful and by entering into combat implicitly consents to having his life terminated by enemy combatants. Even in cases of forced conscription, where the alternative is death or confinement by one’s own government, the soldier chooses between the possibility of death in combat or the certainty of death and disposition by his own government.
What is, to me, “intuitively” so objectionable about being killed as an “innocent bystander” or “civilian” is that the person had no role in their own death under circumstances where their nation was under threat. The question becomes “your country was at war with a foreign force, why are you “innocent” i.e. not a threat? The answer, I think, in the Iraqi example, is there is very little for the general populace to fight for, therefore, the stakes are not high enough to motivate the populous to action on their own behalf against fundamentalist sects who seek power over the people, rather than empower them to become self-determining free individuals. Ideally, a population, out of concern for its freedom manifest tangibly as its material private property is willing to fight to protect its power over this property, this is not the case in Iraq. As is common in such cases, violent tyrants preach about high truths, and the petty materialism of the enemy all the while plotting the enslavement of a demoralized populous already in mental and material bondage. It’s not just a political phenomenon, violent tyrants behave predictably even outside the context of civil unrest. For example, the Virginia tech shooter went off on a predictable anti-materialism tirade. Nietzsche had a quaint phrase for this phenomenon: “resentment;” but I digress.
Wars, laws and other acts of state violence are legitimate where their final end is to create a free-thinking and free-acting individual. It may indeed be the case that the Americans do not have this end in mind, but neither do those who oppose them. Frankly, I see no alternatives to fostering a functioning republican government in Iraq. In Turkey, it took nothing less than a populist military dictatorship.
As for the moral indignation expressed by those who recoil in horror at the thought of killing “innocents;” I can think of no greater insult to a human being, to say nothing of a philosopher, than to be referred to as “in-nocens.” The value of an individual human life is measured by that individual’s capacity to freely choose their own fate, their capacity to be a responsible or “dangerous” human being. When a nation is no longer willing to fight for its freedom, it faces enslavement, either internally or externally. A nation of innocents quickly becomes into a nation of slaves.
Kosta Calfas |
May 28, 2007 at 01:54 AM
I think your initial paragraph conflates consenting to be harmed with consciously assuming a risk of being harmed. If I walk through a very dangerous area of town late at night with a fat wallet bulging out of my back pocket, I’m consciously taking a risk of being mugged. But I’m not consenting to be mugged. I’m not waiving my right not to be mugged, or granting muggers permission to mug me. But only the latter could possibly make it permissible for someone to mug me. My taking a risk of being mugged doesn’t confer on muggers the right to mug me. But Hurka’s argument is that in joining the military a person doesn’t just accept a risk of being killed; he also waives his right not to be killed by enemy combatants.
There’s also a tension in your final paragraphs in which individual freedom is cited as a justification for the war in Iraq. I agree that we must respect people’s freedom and do what we can within the bounds of permissibility to foster it. But creating a war where other people live, supposedly to enhance their own freedom, without allowing them to choose whether to accept the risks of war in exchange for whatever they think will be the likely results of war, and without asking them whether they want us to “liberate” them or whether they’d rather liberate themselves at their own pace, doesn’t seem respectful of their autonomy or self-determination.
Jeff McMahan |
May 28, 2007 at 11:13 AM
Thank-you for your timely and considered response. It’s been a pleasure revisiting such an interesting subject with you. Your distinction between “consent” versus “consciously risking” strikes me as problematic. For example, a man robs a bank consciously risking the possibility of going to prison. If he is caught, he is, of course, not “explicitly” consenting to the proceedings brought against him despite his consciously choosing to rob the bank. However, I think the normative force of law comes from the presupposition that if the criminal were free from the compulsions which drove his crime he would consent to some form of just punishment. Laws anticipate free individuals, and where that freedom is not present, they presuppose it in their actions in order to encourage or facilitate it. By “consciously risking” we establish that the criminal was cognisant enough to commit the crime, to assert a personal privilege that does not rise to the level of a “right” because the criminal act of violence is directed towards infringing upon the freedoms of other persons. My account also seems to agree with how we conceive of a legal “right” as protecting a “freedom” from infringement from coercion. Similarly, a “just war” anticipates a “just man” and a just man is one who directs their actions freely over personal privilege.
Let’s apply what we’ve said about law to war and see what the implications are for your views of the conditions for a just war. If your supposition about the conditions for a just war being absent in the world-as-it-is were true, it would be tantamount to saying that every human being on earth were living under a regime and in conditions were such that its subjects could operate in a free manner.
In the case of the Iraq war, let’s be as uncharitable as possible to the United States’ motives for invasion. Assuming the invasion was merely an attempt to gain control over Iraq’s oil resources, the question is whom did the USA wrestle control from? The Hussein Regime? As many critics point out, let’s grant that the US was complicit in the rise of Sadam Hussein; at which point before US intervention did the citizenry acting in a unified way exercise control over those resources? A case for wrongful action can only be made if it can be shown that the Americans secured control of Iraq’s resources from a free citizenry. Was the citizenry at any time capable of choosing the risks of an American invasion? Was the bank robber at any time capable of “choosing the risks” of his robbery? Indeed the bank robber in our earlier example did not choose the risks, he chose the benefits. Choosing the risks would presuppose understanding the consequences of your actions, not only in terms of punishment, but, relatedly, in terms of the effects it has on infringing or limiting the freedom of other persons. Can you honestly say that the Iraqis were or are in a position to understand the effects of remaining docile while fundamentalist regimes vie for power? Do you believe they would resist, or, like our bank robber, would they choose the short-term benefits of a fascistic or theocratic social order without realizing the harm it would cause to fostering their personal and political autonomy?
I’m not justifying war as the sole method to bringing autonomy; it is, to be sure, an undesirable one. To rule out the possibility of just war in the current world, however, strikes me as wrongheaded. Usually, fostering cultures which respect individual autonomy is done not by popular consent but the forceful imposition of a few against an established regime. In the case of the Iraq invasion, it would have been desirable if internal revolt would have led to a popular uprising. That didn’t happen, and there is much lament that the US did not properly support Kurdish efforts against the Hussein regime. As we stand now, however, the question is whether Iraqi independence and autonomy is furthered by American withdrawal from the region, and I think the answer is, unfortunately, no.
In the case of the Vietnam, after the American withdrawal, the population did not “fight for its autonomy” but submitted to communist control. Before condemning American actions in Vietnam tout court, I would recommend talking to Vietnamese immigrants, like a close friend of mine whose father endured a delightful stay at a “re-education” camp under the communist regime where he, if I recall his story correctly, was not provided with literature about his “autonomy.” One must be careful that while defending “autonomy” one does not provide an apologia for tyranny.
Kosta Calfas |
June 01, 2007 at 02:15 AM
You speak about just vs. unjust actions and your assertions rest upon knowledge of which is which; and your audience appears to accept this for, at least, the sake of argument. That said, you seem confident enough to proclaim your judgment of a soldier's action is better than the judgment of the soldier himself. This is what I take interest in.
Can you explain the general idea which makes just actions to be just, and unjust actions to be unjust?
You say "there is no algorithm" - so by what might one measure by?
June 03, 2007 at 02:11 PM
Great lecture, Prof. McMahan. I have recently read the first volume of "The Ethics of Killing" and am eagerly awaiting the second.
My question takes from something I took from "The Ethics of Killing" Vol. 1 and applies it to pacifism. My question may well in fact be answered in Vol. 2 but I will continue to the question itself.
In "The Ethics of Killing" you have no problem with various spectra of increasing/declining psychological continuity, connectedness, unity, etc. You say in this lecture the morality of one on one self-defense can be safely extrapolated into a war. This may be questionable. Why can't the pacifist present a spectrum in this case. One on one self-defense is morally acceptable but killing on the scale of war is not. And the acceptability of this self-defense-style killing declines as scale increases. One might also argue for this by suggesting that as the scale increases, the quantity and quality, that is the amount used and dangerousness of weapons increases. I would love your thoughts.
Mark Povich |
June 15, 2007 at 11:41 PM
This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.
The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.
As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.
Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.
(URLs automatically linked.)
(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)
Name is required to post a comment
Please enter a valid email address