Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Just War and the presumption against it

Paul J. Griffiths & George Weigel debate over whether the "presumption" is "for" or "against" war in Catholic Just War Theory. While Griffiths attempts to fashion a case for a presumption against war, based on the assumption that those who go to war must pass a series of moral and ethical "tests", I find Weigel more persuasive (heck, he agrees with me).
Let’s clarify one thing that really shouldn’t need clarification, but which evidently does. If by “presumption against war” we mean that those thinking within the just war tradition ought to prefer that there not be wars, fine. Having spent nine years of my professional life working for the World Without War Council, I don’t have any problem with that. . .the very fact that that statement of the obvious has to be made suggests one of the problems with the way the so-called “presumption against war” operates today: it subtly suggests that those who do not accept the smuggled pacifist premise within the “presumption”—that the use of even proportionate and discriminate armed force is, at the outset of the moral analysis, presumptively deplorable—are somehow thought to be warmongers. How any of this constitutes an advance in moral reasoning or moral sensibility over the classic just war understanding—that the use of armed force can be noble or wicked, just or unjust, depending on who is using it, toward what ends, and how—is unclear to me.

There are several other problems with the “presumption” and its current functioning among religious leaders and religious intellectuals (not to mention political leaders throughout Western Europe). As I have argued in these pages and elsewhere, the “presumption,” by detaching the just war way of thinking from its proper political context—the right use of sovereign public authority toward the end of tranquillitas ordinis, or peace—tends to invert the structure of classic just war analysis and turn it into a thin casuistry, giving priority consideration to necessarily contingent in bello judgments (proportionality of means, discrimination or noncombatant immunity) over what were always understood to be the prior ad bellum questions (“prior” in that, inter alia, we can have a greater degree of moral clarity about them). A similar inside-out distortion of thinking happens when the “presumption” gets to work on the ius ad bellum. For here, the “presumption” tends to give higher priority to what were classically understood as important but secondary criteria, like “last resort” and “probable chance of success,” over the classic first-order criteria: competent authority, just cause, and right intention (about which, to repeat, we can have a greater degree of moral surety).

Then there is the sad and, to my mind, unmistakable fact that people who have adopted the so-called “presumption against war” tend to get things wrong, time and again: as the U.S. bishops got the dynamics of the Cold War wrong in their 1983 pastoral letter, “The Challenge of Peace”; as most religious leaders and intellectuals got it wrong in predicting a Middle East Armageddon in the first Gulf War and the recent Iraq War. When a moral lens constantly yields a distorted view of reality, then, I submit, something is wrong with its prismation.

The “presumption” has tended to give theologians and religious leaders a bloated sense of their own role in decision-making about war and peace. Judging from the way the “presumption” works out in practice, religious leaders and religious intellectuals now imagine that their function is to set a series of hurdles for public authorities to jump—then, if those hurdles are judged to have been successfully surmounted by the politicians, religious leaders and theologians will reluctantly give their blessing to the use of armed force in question. This hubris is in contradistinction to the clear teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church—for the Catechism, while assuming a serious dialogue among government officials, just war analysts, and the public, nonetheless teaches (at § 2309) that “the evaluation of these [just war] conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.” The hubris has gotten so out of hand, in fact, that one prominent “presumption against war” advocate recently proposed that the Catechism be amended, so that a consensus of bishops, the faithful, and theologians (the last presumably shaping the judgment of the first two) be required for judging a given military action morally legitimate. One knew that certain members of the theologians’ guild thought themselves a parallel magisterium, but a parallel government, too?

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