Post No.: 0407
Perhaps due to a lack of better technologies or alternative ideas and solutions, there are situations when aggression is legitimate. Law and violence have an incestuous relationship – you cannot really have one without the other i.e. what’s the point in laws if there’s no enforcement, and effective enforcement will likely entail the threat and potential use of legitimate forms of violence.
Hence, from this perspective, a ‘war on terror’ or a ‘fight for peace’ can make sense – a legitimate use of force can be used to retaliate against an illegitimate use of force, because it wouldn’t be right to just keel over and give in to others who commit violence onto us or other innocent people, and we shouldn’t expect others not to fight back against their aggressors either. Fighting is terrible, but not fighting back could be worse. So it’s not always as stupid as it may sound, even if it may still seem hypocritical. We live in a real world, not an ideal world, unfortunately.
Si vis pacem, para bellum essentially means ‘if you want peace, prepare for war’. In order to be left in peace, you must prepare for war as a deterrent. And if that deterrence were unsuccessful then wouldn’t you think it’d fail to discourage the initial aggressor or anyone else from committing aggression again if they got off lightly? We need to show that aggression doesn’t pay hence we cannot kowtow quietly against those who are aggressive towards us or others first. It’s never right to hurt someone first, but it can be right or acceptable to hurt someone back tit-for-tat. There are thus certain situations when a war can be just.
Just war theory proposes a set of criteria that must be met in order for a war to be considered morally just. Jus ad bellum concerns the ‘right to go to war’ or the morality of going to war in the first place. For example, preventing an atrocity, such as genocide, may justify a war. And jus in bello concerns the ‘right conduct in war’ or how belligerents should morally behave during a war. For example, non-combatants caught in the middle of a situation they did not create must not be targeted. Also proposed is jus post bellum, which concerns ‘justice after war’ or how post-war settlements and reconstruction should be morally handled. For example, preventing draconian or vengeful peace terms or ‘to the victor go/belong the spoils’. Additionally, jus ex bello would concern whether it’s just to continue an existing war. For example, if a war is no longer effective for achieving the objectives.
Governments have a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence within their own jurisdictions or sovereign states (e.g. the police and their powers, the courts and wielding the threat of imprisonment), hence civilian citizens should not really take ‘righting violent wrongs’ into their own hands – leave that to law enforcement. Internationally however, there is no ‘world government’ so there are agreements for states to look after each other. The United Nations ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) is a global political commitment designed to allow swift but due diligent intervention to prevent war crimes, genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
So world peace isn’t easy – we want peace but to enforce peace we often need to paradoxically threaten the use of, and actually employ, physical force. The world is full of groups who regard each other as competition. Many of us would love it if everyone in the world saw each other as part of one common group rather than a set of competing groups. Most of us would also love it if everyone, even if someone else started a fight, tried to resort only to peaceful resolutions and means rather than seeking revenge, retorsions and escalating the violence. But sometimes words are insufficient and ineffective. Thus in order to maintain the peace and protect the vulnerable, we sometimes must use force – but it must be absolutely necessary and proportional, and that’s the big question. Are there other solutions that would stop the violence? If time is not critical and if it could work then restrictive measures (e.g. financial sanctions, economic sanctions) or countermeasures (reprisals not involving the use of force) are usually the next step after trying to verbally negotiate a solution.
Okay, can pre-emptive strikes that claim to prevent an imminent and grave threat onto us ever be considered moral? How can one prove that a deadly strike against oneself would’ve happened if one hadn’t pre-emptively struck the other party first? ‘Pre-emptive strikes’ are thus always argued by at least one side or the other as being inflammatory acts conducted in the guise of ‘self-defence’. (Post No.: 0361 looked at the biased language belligerents use to make themselves believe they’re always the ‘good guys’ and their opponents are always the ‘bad guys’, whatever happens.) In proper self-defence, you must be struck (or attempted to have been struck) by another party first before you can retaliate, but a pre-emptive attack means that one could strike first and justify that as being an act of ‘self-defence’ when it actually served a political motive or was an assassination. However, if an imminent and grave threat is genuinely sensed then it could be a case of ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’ strike first. As with before, the ‘Caroline test’ in customary international law states a necessity of self-defence that’s ‘instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation’, as well as a provision for proportionality. These remain vague terms though.
How we retaliate is important to consider too – using immoral methods to fight immorality doesn’t stack up morally. ‘They do it so I do it’ is a poor argument if you’re saying that what they’re doing is wrong. And is it ultimately peace we are fighting for or some other (hidden) objective? Prevention is better than attempted cure, so we should always work for peaceful relations between parties before any violent situation potentially flares up. Woof!
Wars and conflicts are quite risky and expensive death-and-injury-risk-wise and resource-wise so groups don’t fight without feeling a great motivation or great pressing (perceived) desperation (e.g. liberation) or desire (e.g. imperialism or religious homeland reasons) to. I’d say that most people in the world instinctively want peace most of the time because peace is generally more productive and less risky for one’s survival. In war, we could gain something, but lose everything. Even if a war seems like the right course of action, most want them to end as quickly as possible. So peace should really be easy to achieve – except the problem is that it just takes a relatively small subgroup or pair of subgroups, or just their leaders, to selfishly and inconsiderately stoke up a war that negatively affects everyone else involved.
Some conflicts are fuelled (or self-justified) by a belief that the enemy’s leaders are evil but their people, through control and manipulation, are actually pro or supportive of our side – when actually their people don’t prefer us and won’t appreciate being ‘liberated’. Due to biases, there’s a fuzzy mistaken belief that there’s an underground network that would rise in support of a liberation, but this never materialises or this support is too small. Although a ‘war on terror’ can sometimes make sense, it evidently doesn’t always work out as planned and can serve to inflame and radicalise those sympathetic to opposition ideologies, which in turn makes it easier for them to recruit new members and strengthen alliances amongst terrorist organisations. And if those organisations consist mainly of angry young men then feeding this anger with counter-violence just makes things worse.
Some wars start due to a group, led by a charismatic leader, arrogantly believing that they can swiftly crush an opponent for an easy win i.e. groups tend to suffer from the illusory superiority bias and frequently underestimate their opponents. Then such wars cost far more and last far longer than they initially expected or wanted.
Where power vacuums have been created after the fall of a dictator, foreign countries will try to wield their influence in such places to gain some control of its resources. But in general, with the growth in strength of international treaties that focus on cooperation and security, such as the UN, which has led to imperialism being generally frowned upon nowadays within the international community (although some will argue that it’s wholly unfair that ‘the game arbitrarily stopped when some countries were in the lead and others weren’t and now the result supposedly stands and cannot be changed’) – state-versus-state wars are now largely non-zero sum where all belligerents will lose to varying degrees rather than ever capture a net gain i.e. it’s lose-lose. Wars cost a lot of public money, and although some will think that this creates jobs and stimulates the economy – there are enormous opportunity costs (the ‘broken window fallacy’). They’d have been better off not going to war at all, whether it concerns the lives and resources lost compared to the land and resources captured, hence in war nowadays there are seldom any winners; just losers. ‘Winning’ becomes about who loses the least.
So war is often worse than zero-sum (win-lose) – it’s negative non-zero-sum (lose-lose). In a classic ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ game, the Nash equilibrium is the defect-defect outcome (both parties defecting rather than cooperating). This shows that lose-lose outcomes can result when parties are acting rationally in their own individual self-interests (e.g. everyone has firearms and shoots at each other rather than no one has firearms to shoot at all). A ‘social trap’ is any situation where the competing or conflicting parties, by each pursuing their own short-term, individual interests, become caught up in mutually destructive behaviours. Rational individuals seeking to maximise their own short-term self-interests can, in the bigger picture and long-term, receive a lower total utility, with reduced payoffs for the group collectively as well as for each individual, compared to what they could’ve gotten had they been less selfish and more cooperative. Examples include arms races, the ‘tragedy of the commons’ and pollution. Every country saying, “My country first” sums up the problem of the tragedy of the commons. The payoffs of the parties need not necessarily collectively add up to zero – all can win if they cooperate with peace, or all can lose if they compete with violence.
But what if a country is so militaristically powerful, perhaps because it spends more on defence than the next ten countries combined, that it can get away with whatever it wants because it applies the doctrine ‘might makes right’? What about non-state actors with nothing to lose in the first place? And when one side starts acting selfishly, it’s hard for other sides to not want to reciprocate by acting selfishly too. Why foolishly cooperate with defectors? Being overly trusting does leave us vulnerable in any context, whether in an intimate relationship or international agreement. Yet we need trust to work together and become greater than the mere sum of our parts. We need trust for peace and productivity.
Being kind doesn’t mean being a pushover. Win the war more than any single battle, or look after the long-term victory more than any short-term gains – sometimes this means not going to war in the first place.
Woof. With some blue-sky thinking, can you imagine a future technology or idea that could effectively prevent or pacify aggression of all types and in all situations without the use of threats or violence in return? Perhaps it’s about making people more obedient and cooperative? But will it come with side-effects such as losing some autonomy, or mass surveillance and the risk of its overuse? Also, can parents ever legitimately use physical force to discipline their children or is this context incomparable? Please reply to the tweet linked to the Twitter comment button below to share your thoughts.