On the decision to go to wars of choice

Over a long period of time, shared experiences and cooperative activity of many different kinds shape a common life. "Contract" is a metaphor for a process of association and mutuality, the ongoing character of which the state claims to protect against external encroachment. The protection extends not only to the lives and liberties of individuals but also to their shared life and liberty, the independent community they have made, for which individuals are sometimes sacrificed. The moral standing of any particular state depends upon the reality of common life it protects and the extent to which the sacrifices required by that protection are willingly accepted and thought worthwhile. If no common life exists, or if the state doesn't defend the common life that does exist, its own defense may have no moral justification.
"Just and Unjust Wars", Michael Walzer, 1977, p. 54

This quote is interesting in two ways; one, it shines an entirely different light on the idea of "failed states", (though the author didn't seem to think of them). "Failed states" are probably rather countries in which society lacks cooperative activity to sustain a functional "state". This in turn would mean that outside intervention to establish a functional state top-down would fail as long as the spirit of cooperation doesn't grow in the country.

The other way this quote is most interesting is the final part: Whether the defence of a country has moral justification. This isn't exactly mirrored by the (lack of) moral justification of invasion, but it's close.

Philosophy isn't simple, but still largely unrestrained and this is an example where conclusions from philosophy may be wrong in real life.

Who determines whether a state lacks moral justification of itself or for its defence? Who determines whether that state is so bad, so evil, that invasion (intervention) is fine? Or more directly; the pro-intervention crowd and media may paint a picture of a country persecuting a minority, even committing genocide.
Should we trust them?

All too often, such and lesser assertions were wrong, if not outright lies by warmongers. The horror stories about Kosovo in 1999 were mostly lies as well - very little was proved ex post, very much was disproved.

Mr. Walzer used the analogy to the case of an individual very often in the quoted book. An individual has a right to self-defence, a country (presumably) has also a right to self-defence.
Now looking at the individual level, said same individual usually has the right to be judged innocent until found guilty, and more importantly it is usually only to be found guilty if there's no doubt about the guilt any more. In dubio pro reo.
Most if not all countries have this rule codified because it's quite universally believed to be worse to risk harming an innocent than to risk to let a guilty one go.

This, too, could be applied to the level of countries. The result would be a very, very high bar for invasions even if and when very extreme accusations were made. Very extreme accusations are being made to launch just about every war, after all. They would become less frequent if we denied them power by not being swayed to go to war by very extreme accusations, but also demanded de facto certainty about what's happening.


  1. Nice theory, but practise differs. Going to war always involved manipulation, because it needs cold blooded longterm preparation.
    Currently, we have a media preparation for future wars in East Asia and in the Russian borderlands such as Ukraine and the Caucausus that will ripen in a few decades down the road.

  2. The question if we should trust a particular source of information is not related to the question of the morality of war, just pointing that out.

  3. I think generally the argument you quote here is unsuited for the question you wish to decide, if an invasion is morally justified.

    I get rather the impression that Waltzer is making an argument for the sake of those enlisted in the defence of a country who are struggling to decide if their actions are morally just. Noting that this argument is attributed to an american writing few years after the end of the Vietnam war further strengthens this reading for me.

    I don't find the the rights of man to be obviously applicable to an entire country, for many reasons. First of all, what is a country? Roughly when does a country come into being? How does a country interact with the physical world*? These are all quite fundamental questions, where any answer will most likely be radically different from those provided if asked about a human. And if the basis are so much apart putting them in the same framework of rights will in short order lead to absurdities.

    It is probably more worthwhile to completely ignore the countries, and ask instead of how just the actions of the individuals involved are. The soldier crossing the border is then not a morally ambiguous situation: we are ignoring the border, and also most of the meanings of the person being a soldier (only the weapons and relations to the rest of the group retain significance).

    When the soldier is imposing his will on those he meets we do need to stop and ponder if the actions are just. If the soldier shoots a man for being angry at the soldier, I would not say the soldier was just. If the soldier tells the damn kids to turn off that hideous music, I would judge him differently depending on if I was trying to sleep at the time or not.

    *Standard model of particle physics et al.

    1. The concept of a state and its borders is legitimised by the pople's loyalty to it. It's a mistake to ignore it.
      The application of the criminal law procedure on the state level isn't so much about rights as it is about 'getting it right'.

    2. My point is that going from the individual within the border to the collective population that forms "the country" is very complicated.

      A country is fundamentally different from an individual, and applying the concepts developed for the individual upon the entire collective is completely unjustified.

      We humans are very good at seeing outselves in anything (Anthropomorphizing), so the idea of treating a country as a person seems natural. However, as any study of nature will tell you, a system of many parts will have behaviours truly unlike any the individual parts could produce.

    3. This doesn't matter.

      The prule was developed based on the conviction that harming innocents is worse than giving guilty ones a pass. This is applicable to countries as well.

    4. The trouble is that what it means to be guilty and innocent is completely undefined for countries.

      Untill you define what "guilt" and "innocence" mean in the context of countries, all your further arguments should not be trusted at all.

    5. That's no trouble at all.
      Either a country did commit atrocities / violated another country's sovereignty by aggression or it didn't.

      Seriously; you sound like you try to make up counterpoints in what's fairly straightforward. There's no need to define stuff anew only because it's being looked at from a different perspective.