Political Philosophers on War: Arguments Inside the "Just War" Box

By Calhoun, Laurie | Independent Review, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Political Philosophers on War: Arguments Inside the "Just War" Box


Calhoun, Laurie, Independent Review


For hundreds of years, intellectuals have been arguing about just war theory, attempting to determine how best to use it in thinking about contemporary war. But war is not what it used to be, and it is entirely unclear that scholars who wrote about the topic before the advent even of machine guns, much less airplanes, missiles, and nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons can offer us much guidance or enlightenment. Yet many scholars interested in war continue to frame their arguments in the terms of just war theory, nearly always paying what they regard as the customary deference to its early expositors, or "fathers," as many writers fondly refer to them. In recent decades, Michael Walzer has made this practice seem incumbent on "serious" scholars of war; his Just and Unjust Wars has since its publication in 1977 (New York: Basic Books) largely shaped the contours of debate about war among philosophers and political scientists.

There are no signs that this trend will abate any time soon because budding academics interested in the morality of war are essentially taught that its study is synonymous with that of just war theory. Alfred North Whitehead once remarked that all of Western philosophy has been but footnotes to Plato, and it would seem that the bulk of the writings of philosophers of war over the past thirty years has amounted to footnotes to Walzer. In the latter case, however, this tendency would seem to be largely a consequence of the modern structure of academia, where departments are filled with job-seeking graduate students and tenure-seeking professors. The progressive homogenization of many values-focused disciplines evinces the intellectual effects of this highly politicized structure nowhere more dramatically than in philosophy.

A case in point, Larry May's recent edited collection, entitled not Just War Theory, but War, (1) begins with two chapters on the thought of sixteenth-century thinkers Francisco de Vitoria, Francisco Suarez, and Hugo Grotius, among others entirely ignorant of the practices that go by the name of war today. I do not deny that the work of such figures may have historical interest, but I am amazed by the amount of ink spilled and the number of trees felled in efforts to ascertain what sixteenth-century scholars thought about sixteenth-century war, which bears no resemblance to the practices carried out under the banner of just war theory today. In fact, I know of no other discipline--aside, of course, from history--that looks to thinkers who wrote five hundred (or more!) years ago for anything even approaching what might be regarded as knowledge about their discipline in the twenty-first century. What physicist, biologist, or economist looks to the sixteenth century for answers about the most pressing questions in his field today?

My complaint is not a mere expression of gratuitous irreverence; it involves a serious question: Have contemporary philosophers of war, trapped in a paradigm of the past, paralyzed themselves to the point of being incapable of contributing in any meaningful or constructive way to the resolution of the ever more vexing problems of contemporary war? Many scholars spend their time rehearsing the standard list of just war theory requirements and debating whether, according to their understanding of the list, this or that recent war (already waged) was just or unjust. This activity may be a fine way to while away one's hours, certainly no less noble than the occupation of a chess master or a professional poker player. Meanwhile, however, people continue tragically to be massacred on a regular basis while just war theorists sit around playing what is tantamount to an intellectual game.

Having duly honored Vitoria, Suarez, and Grotius in section one, sections two and three of May's volume treat, predictably enough, the topics of "initiating war" and "waging war"--or, as those "in the know" refer to them, jus ad bellum and jus in bello. …

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