Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Wendy C. Hamblet's "Emmanuel Levinas: From "innocent violences" to the ethical "just war"

Hamblet's essay (in Philosophical Perspectives on the War on Terrorism Gail M Presbey, ed.) begins by explaining that according to Levinas, existence is more or less zero sum and thus all living is murder because your life must come at the expense of someone else's. Moreover, without reference to the other we necessarily do not recognize this obvious fact. Western civilization as a whole is actually built on a bedrock of callous violence as witnessed in Homer's Iliad; where the heroes who often have an opportunity not to kill enemies, do so nonetheless. This is consistent with Hitler's Nazism and Western civilization is poised to repeat the Holocaust unless we cease to value the heroic ethos. But, Hamblet claims, Levinas does leave open a space for life not being inherently murderous if one can actively cultivate an extreme passivity, especially toward their oppressor.

In her quick Levinasian analysis of the Iliad she issues a blanket condemnation of each of the heroes for failing to make the right choice. What bad choice did they all make? In each case the hero ends up killing someone - each hero failed "to respond in a human way to his pleading victim" and thus "violence is the sole victor . . . Never does it occur to the hero that snuffing out the life from a defenseless suppliant is an inherently cowardly act." (p. 414)

Of course this assumes that there is a "human way" of responding to a pleading victim. It also assumes that Hamblet and Homer share the same concept of "victim". The picture we get of the ancient world, especially as it comes to us from Homer is that the line between victim and aggressor is unclear, even to the participants. We also get a clear picture that the role violence and death, and even life itself, played in the ancient world was not the same as the one it plays in ours. Both the victims and perpetrator of violence perceive the other in a different way today as they would have in the past. As such, a Levinasian analysis (which would presumably include the usual insistence on infinite responsibility for the other. . . ) still must be understood differently today as it would have been in Homer's time.

The objective content of the subjective nature of violence is forever shifting in ways that reflect the social circumstances. After all, people in the ancient world had a more intimate relationship with violence than did Hamblet or even Levinas. In the ancient world many more individuals were acquainted with violence as a way of life, not just as an occasional breach of the peace that takes a few years of their lives every generation or two. People in the ancient world knew violence as a way of life; they understood violence both as victims and also as perpetrators. One does not expect ancient literature to reflect any squeamishness about violence.

Levinas himself saw violence first hand under the Nazis. But Hamblet cannot even pretend to understand it. In a society like the one she lives in (Canada) freedom from violence is guaranteed (or at least well protected by) - for starters - a standing army that has 87,000 people who stand ready to do extreme violence on her behalf. This protects citizens from all knowledge of violence but then puts them in the naive position of being unable to understand even the role it plays in ancient literature. Not to mention, Canada was settled by people who essentially quashed the ability of the indigenous people to use violence against her long before she was born. Also, a police force and serious law enforcement and forensic infrastructure to make sure citizens are protected against domestic violence. Moreover now citizens have many of their material needs met by a huge bureaucracy who pretty much all make sure that they have all their material needs met thus making moot the need to use or even understand the context of most violence. Modern Canadians are able to subcontract out their violence to paid police forces who are authorized to use force and presumably have a large amount of superior firepower at their disposal. And if there were someone who were to so much as insult her race, steal her possessions, or sexually assault her, her modern nation state would seize the offender and lock them in a cage until such time as he was deemed fit to roam the streets again.

The heroes of the Illiad did not have the option to have others commit or threaten violence on their behalf. They had no one to cleanse "their lands" of undesirables. They had no way of having their material needs met by others. They had no way of ensuring their children's' safety. They did not have trillions of dollars at their disposal rearranging the world so that they were insulated from the stark realities of pre-modern society. Living was harsh. Life really was mean, nasty, brutish, and short regardless of where you lived and who you were. And to contemplate the otherness of the oppressor is to court your own nonexistence.

But let me get to Hamblet's main points. I take it that her main point is to argue - from a Levinasian standpoint - that as long as we value a "heroic ethos" we stand poised to repeat holocausts. As a corollary, the US is clearly guilty of such things and she gratuitously points out, even the German Justice Minister has compared Bush to Hitler. (p. 418) (As a German government official, undoubtedly I suppose, he should know!)

The Levinasian strategy she recommends (which she somehow finds radical (p. 416), though to me seems like a rehash of Levinas) is for the hero not merely to "lay down his weapons and show the greater courage of resisting the urge to violence" but moreover "he would need to resist the comfortable disposition toward mere life and actively cultivate the human life, even at the great risk of thinking. . ." And a thinking being would "need to assume responsibility even for the irresponsibilities of the other, more dangerous passer-by, heroes and other enraged torturers who delight in the crushing of innocents.

It does sound like she is advocating that we take responsibility for the Uday and Kusays of the world, for the genocidal Saddam Husseins of the world, and look in the face of their victims. Of course she thinks that this must only be done in a non-violent way. But this strikes me as problematic for a number of reasons. First, I do not know what it means to take responsibility for another. Does that mean I bear the moral or legal burden for what they have done? That seems like a statement in contravention of all intuitions about law and ethics. It is also just simply bizarre. There is this idyllic philosophical position taken that claims that it is our virtues of manliness and heroism that cause us to start wars. This ignores the complexities of the real world, and then the position is used to justify a condemnation of real individuals (and fictitious ones) for not meeting this impossible philosophical standard. Moreoever in the modern era, those who start wars are never the same as those who fight in them.

We have to care about the Other, Hamblit belives, even as the other is shooting at us. Failure to live up to this clearly shows that Bush is like Hitler. (This is Hamblit, not my sarcasm.) I assume she sleeps well knowing that she is morally superior to the ancients who had to fight for their very existence.

As the paper clearly illustrates, it is much easier to look at peoples of other places and other times and condemn them than to try to understand their place in history. It is easy to ignore and even condemn the military underclass in our society than to contemplate what life would be like without them. This essay exhibits both ivory tower idealism and moral imperialism of the worst kind.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Call For Papers: War and Peace (May 2010: Prague, Czech Republic)

I got this is the mail but I don't think I'll be able to make this, but it looks promising:

Call for Papers
The opening decade of the 21st century has seen war assume a number of
new forms - new at least in relation to the 20th century. So, for
instance, the West's war in Afghanistan is already longer than WW2, and
shows no sign of coming to an end; the nature of those engaged in war
has widened to include a variety of non-state agents; and war itself has
come to include as arguably justifiable tactics and strategies
previously either excluded or at least not recognised as legitimate. In
short, the distinction between war and peace is becoming increasingly

The 2010 conference is part of a continuing and explicitly multi- and
inter-disciplinary conversation that aims to bring together people from
a wide range of disciplines to focus on this centrally significant
aspect of our social lives in order better to understand the nature and
place of war and peace.

The main themes are outlined below: however, we are also pleased to
receive proposals that extend or complement these. We seek contributions
from both practitioners and academics, and from the widest possible
range of intellectual interests and commitment.

1. What Counts as War; What Counts as Peace?
~ The militarization of civil life: legislation; economics;
surveillance; "terrorism"; torture.
~ "States of exception" and their role between peace and war.
~ Possible forms of warfare: economic blockade; propaganda; drones;
virtual weapons and wars; alternatives to physical force.

2. Actors and Agents
~ The nature and evaluation of non-state combatants: private companies;
ad-hoc supranational organisations; the UN.
~ War and capitalism: state, corporation and globalization; war as an
arm of domestic policy; "low-level" wars since WW2 as forms of testing
and preparation.
~ Responsibility for and in war: social and individual agency.

3. Explaining, Understanding and Judging War - and Peace
~ Killing: why is it prima facie wrong?
~ War and utopianism: ideals as motivation for/cause of war.
~ The interplay between language and physical reality in warfare and its
~ The representation and communication of suffering.
~ War as aesthetic object.

The Steering Group particularly welcomes the submission of pre-formed
panel proposals. Papers will also be considered on any related theme.
300 word abstracts should be submitted by Friday 27th November 2009. If
an abstract is accepted for the conference, a full draft paper should be
submitted by Friday 12th March 2009.

300 word abstracts should be submitted simultaneously to both Organising
Chairs; abstracts may be in Word, WordPerfect, or RTF formats with the
following information and in this order:

a) author(s), b) affiliation, c) email address, d) title of abstract, e)
body of abstract.

Please use plain text (Times Roman 12) and abstain from using footnotes
and any special formatting, characters or emphasis (such as bold,
italics or underline). We acknowledge receipt and answer to all paper
proposals submitted. If you do not receive a reply from us in a week you
should assume we did not receive your proposal; it might be lost in
cyberspace! We suggest, then, to look for an alternative electronic
route or resend.

Joint Organising Chairs:

Bob Brecher
Centre for Applied Philosophy, Politics and Ethics
Faculty of Arts, Brighton University,
United Kingdom

Rob Fisher
Network Founder and Leader
Freeland, Oxfordshire,
United Kingdom

The conference is part of the Probing the Boundaries programme of
research projects. It aims to bring together people from different areas
and interests to share ideas and explore various discussions which are
innovative and exciting.

A number of volumes of eBooks and themed hard copy volumes are in
preparation and/or in print from the previous meetings of this project.
All papers accepted for and presented at the conference will be eligible
for publication in an ISBN eBook.  Selected papers may be developed for
publication in a themed hard copy volume(s).

For further details about the project please visit:

Review of War and Ethics

I found Nicholas Fotion's book War and Ethics: A new just war theory a bit confusing. The book itself is well written and engaging, but I had assumed - because of its title that it would present a Just War Theory (JWT) that was different from the old one. The old JWT is, on my view, very out of date and thus I was looking forward to a new theory about how to morally assess a war. In some sense it eventually does present a new theory, but I was left somewhat baffled about what the new theory was. I'll explain.
Fotions's book does not exactly critique the standard Just War Theory (JWT). A critique of a philosophical theory shows how the theory's premises are in some way mistaken or lead to counterintuitive conclusions. Fotion's tactic is to show that the theory's premises are not used by the people who should use them.

Chapter One is an introduction to the idea that we take some principles or rules of ethics as accepted by most (1-2). Chapter two is an introduction to (what I call) the main dogmas of traditional JWT. These are the familiar restrictions on war that force one to invoke a just cause, competent authority, reasonable chance of
success, proportionality, discrimination, etc when entering into or fighting a war. Chapter three is called "Objections to JWT", and this is the part I found strange. There are four objections presented: 1) Nations do not employ JWT. 2) Nations hide behind JWT to justify their actions, not to attempt to use its principles. 3) JWT is plastic enough to be used to justify almost any side of an argument about just war. 4) JWT is too idealistic to be useful (25-27). These are interesting objections, but none of them are, except perhaps the third, objections to the theory. The theory is a normative theory, it tells us how one ought to behave. The objections mostly claim, in some way, that people do not in fact behave in the way the theory says they should. I suppose that if too few people behave in
accordance with a theory about how one ought to behave, and too few people think the theory is practical, one ought to have problems with the theory. But we do not find many philosophical arguments that point to all the thieves in all the prisons as proof that the "theory" that one ought not to steal is false. After all, one can claim that a complete prohibition against stealing is not practiced, not realistic, mostly used by people to justify why others shouldn't steal from them. . .

A counterargument to a normative theory is to show that one of its principles are counterintuitive or perhaps that the theory is somehow inconsistent. To show that something is not used is not to show that it is wrong. It is merely to state an empirical fact about the nature of some humans. That tells us little about the theory itself. But let me resume the discussion of the book itself.

Chapter four superficially analyzes a few "easy cases" of just war theory. That is, Fotion tells us that Germany was in violation of some Just War principles when she invaded Poland and when she conducted operation Barbarosa; and Japan was in violation of JWT when she invaded China in 1937 or attacked Pearl Harbor during WWII. I am not sure what this tells us about just war though, except that there is some matching up between the fact that many of us judge one side of a war to be bad and the fact that they violated some of the just war principles. Moreover, on Fotion's objections, Germany didn't seriously consider JWT when attacking (a point he later takes up) and I would doubt many people in Japan would have heard of JWT at the time - it is a set of dogmas that originates in Christian ethics and Christian thought was not widely known in Japan at the time.
The other case Fotion discusses under the banner of "easy cases" is the case of the Korean War. He judges the North Koreans to be the aggressors who started the war without a just cause (50). But then four pages later he makes the case that China, entering the Korean War to help North Korea, appears to have met the principles of JWT because their cause was just since they were helping an ally (54). This is on the one hand very counterintuitive but also rather interesting. If
one agrees with both of Fotion's assessments, then there is something counterintuitive about a pair of allies on one side of a war, one who is just in fighting it and the other who is not. On the other hand, if this can be the case, it is certainly worth exploring. But Fotion is content to point out that North Korea was unjust and China probably was just. But, under the heading of "hard cases" a few pages later Fotion proceeds to claim that Serbia's allies were unjust in helping Serbia fight World War I because the commitment to help an ally does not apply when the ally is the aggressor (60).

As an aside, in many cases Fotion takes care to point out that some of the principles of JWT were satisfied by one side of the conflict. But to my mind, it is does little to give me faith in the theory to tell me that Nazi Germany was a legitimate authority, so at least the Germans met one condition of the theory whilst invading Poland. Or even worse, Fotion points out that that at least Germany had a
reasonable chance of success when they were fighting Poland. Again, how is this supposed to show that Standard JWT is worth anything? So much worse for JWT, I say.

Moreover, Fotion keeps saying that "JWT can deal with" certain kinds of cases (e.g., 64). By this he appears to mean that if you break down the cause of a war into simple categories like "country X was the aggressor" or "country Y had a reasonable chance of success" then you get an answer about who was unjust and who was just. But a theory "dealing with a case" does not mean that you get an answer for each case, but rather that you get a good answer for each case. Fotion does nothing to show for any case that his answer is better than any other alternative. His theory can produce any answer and he would still be able to claim that JWT "deals with it".

What he might mean is that most wars can be described as having a clear aggressor and a clear victim or clear authority or not. But that hardly invokes our commonsense notion of justice. Looking at the hard cases we are still not given much insight into how JWT is supposed to work. A hard case is apparently one in which the facts are simply not clear. In Kosovo in 1999 it was actually unclear
to most observers how many people were killed when the Serbs counterattacked against the Kosovars after the Kosovars initiated actions aimed at ethnically cleansing the Serbs (66). But again, the facts may be unclear, but how does that impact the theory? Would it make sense to argue that frogs are a hard case for the theory of
evolution because they are hard to catch?

Fotion is to be admired for his treatment of the Iraq war - the final hard case. As we learn at the end of chapter 6, for reasons he does not explain he believes that the current Iraq was started unjustly. But in chapter 5 he rehashes in the most short and superficial terms liberal boilerplate arguments against the war: It was a
neo-conservative plot, there were no serious humanitarian issues, and no weapons of mass destruction found. Therefore the war was unjust. QED. Alone this would make him a run of the mill liberal pundit, and not a very good one at that. But chapter 6, despite its ending on an unsupported negative judgment about the justice of the war, is dedicated to explaining how the mere few paragraphs explaining that there were no WMDs found in Iraq, is simply an inadequate way of making a reasonable judgment about a war. The war was started for a wide range of reasons and some of them have some moral merit. Alone, most of the reasons do not justify going to war, but collectively, they may even add up to a compelling case for some. Pedagogically, there is great merit in showing 1) that it is rare that a case for or against a just war can be made in a mere few paragraphs; 2) that is is not only
the big reasons that count. The fact that Saddam Hussein did not fire a nuclear weapon at the United States, does mean that there can be no case made that the US was still justified in attacking him.

Chapter 7 continues on the theme of explaining that JWT is inadequate. However, by "inadequate" Fotion usually seems to mean that a superficial analysis will not do and what is really required is a more nuanced look at the causes of a war. The more nuanced look will often show that the superficial look was just quot;inadequate". But when we take a more nuanced look we see what appears to be a counterexample to some principle or other of JWT. So Fotion claims that JWT needs some kind of exception. For example, Castro didn't look like he had a
chance of success, so we gerrymander Castro's rebellion in to the kind that does not need a good chance of success. Fotion does not tell us that it might just be the case that Castro was unjust because he didn't have a good chance of success. Then again, Fotion, like us, takes it for granted that Castro, in actuality, did succeed. So Castro's chances of success might not have actually been low enough to warrant the exception in the first place and hence our intuition that it is worth making it for this case.

Similarly for proportionality: sometimes we are told that it is "the nature of the beast" (91). If that counts as a good excuse, so does anything. After all, lots of things are the nature of war, and the goal of JWT is not to tell us the nature of war, but rather to strictly delineate what can and cannot be done in the context of entering or prosecuting a war.

Nonetheless, these sorts of exceptions form the heart of his "new just war theory". Fotion's suggestion is that there is standard just war theory (JWT-R) that be kept in place for regular conflicts, and a second just war theory (JWT-I) that be emplaced for irregular conflicts. Those are the conflicts that typically involve "rebels" or irregular fighters who fight symmetrically. JWT-I allows for different sets of rules to apply for different sides so that, for example, the just cause restrictions are relaxed in the case of smaller groups of rebels who have a legitimate grievance against the larger entity (e.g., a nation-state) and the discrimination restriction is relaxed for an entity like a nation-state who is fighting a group with no uniform that looks like any other group of civilians.

I am not completely sure what the new version of JWT actually does beyond saying that our judgments about war are sometimes different from what JWT says they should be, so we come up with a new version to JWT to accommodate this new one. So in case the some aspect of JWT does not seem to apply, you have JWT-I that does. But JWT-I is just either a set of exceptions to JWT or worse, it is the opposite, assuring us that one of them will give us the judgment that we want. While I do not like this, my bigger problem with the book still rests on the constant focus that Fotion places on the fact that JWT is worthwhile because it is so often invoked and the biggest threat to JWT is that it is not invoked often enough. I still do not understand how that is a threat to the theory. I suspect that it is not invoked as much as we would like for a number of reasons. First, it relies on categories of war that are no longer applicable. It is the same reason we do not invoke Sun Tzu often in addressing the nature of war - because his work is obsolete. He is quotable, but not very informative. Also, JWT is very Western. Moreover, as I mentioned above, it is Christian. Fotion's discussion of the conflict in Sri Lanka in terms of JWT is odd precisely because it would probably be very foreign to all participants: one side of which is Hindu and the other which is Buddhist. Foisting these odd categories of proportionality, discrimination, legitimate authority, etc on places that have no such concept is akin to buying real estate from peoples who have no concept of ownership of land - it just makes little sense to them. It is a paragon of cultural ethnocentrism to expect them adhere to it.

But nonetheless Fotion's concern to prop up JWT is admirable and his efforts heroic. I would prefer to see a good defense of the dogmas though. I find few of the "criteria" for a just war under the theory intuitive and would never invoke it unless I was attempting to convince someone who could be made to believe that those criteria are important. And at the end I am not convinced that JWT stands or falls on whether it is invoked by the public any more than legal realism or legal positivism stands or falls whether the populace, criminals, politicians, lawyers, or judges invoke it. It is a theory that has merits and problems regardless of which are invoked and that is the standard by which it should be judged.