The Basket Case for War

June 15, 2006 § 10 Comments

I’ve been critical of the laundry list approach to justifying the war in Iraq before, and perhaps that has confused a particular point. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with a basket of reasons – taken together as the lasting, grave, and certain threat required by the Just War doctrine – as just cause. In order to be just cause, though, that basket of reasons has to be both sufficiently justifying, taken in itself as a basket, and it has to be the actual sufficient cause, taken in itself as a basket.

That is why the objection that there were reasons other than WMD’s falls flat.

It isn’t that it is impossible in principle for a different basket of reasons (one not containing the “disarm Hussein of WMD’s” reason) to do the work of justifying a hypothetical war against the Hussein regime. It is that the war we actually fought was caused by the WMD case, and that if the topic of WMD’s had never come up we would not have launched that war at that time.

You can’t have a just cause without both the “just” part and the “cause” part. Arguing that war would have been justified under a hypothetical basket, different from the basket which actually caused this war, is invalid after-the-fact rationalization. The hypothetical basket didn’t cause this war.

The moral of the story is that, if you are the sort who thinks that a basket of threats justifying war is better than a single clearly sufficient lasting, grave, and certain threat, you’d better be certain about all of the reasons you are putting in the basket. If you can’t cause the particular war to actually happen at that particular time without including a particular reason, your “just cause” can’t do without that reason.

So at the end of the day, if you need to do the work of justifying the launch of a particular war, it is better not to use the basket case approach. Having lots of different reasons doesn’t make your war more likely to be just; it makes it less likely to be just, particularly if any of those reasons aren’t really certain.

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§ 10 Responses to The Basket Case for War

  • decker2003 says:

    Imagine that Iraq War Advocate A (we’ll call him George A) lobbies for a war to overthrow the Hussein regime based on rationale A, and argues that it satifies the just war criteria. Iraq War Advocate B (George B) also lobbies for the war based on rationale B, and argues that this rational satisfies the just war criteria. In fact, rationale A is sound, but rationale B is not. But, B is the more politically attractive rationale, and so it is the one that actually creates the necessary political support for the war. Are you saying that the war is objectively unjust because, although there was a sound rationale for the war, it is not the one that motivated the decision? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that the war in itself was just, but those who waged it acted unjustly because their rationale for waging war was not sound?If I take something thinking that it belongs to another, when it in fact does not, my intention is certainly evil and I have acted immorally, but was my act objectively unjust? I would think not, because the injustice depends on my subjective (and mistaken) belief that the property belonged to another.

  • zippy says:

    <>Are you saying that the war is objectively unjust because, although there [might be] a sound rationale for [a] war [in the abstract], it is not the one that [caused this actual war]?<>Basically yes** with my modifications (apologies but I am trying to be clear), though I emphasize that I wouldn’t stipulate the existence of a sound rationale for <>the<> war, but rather for <>a<> war. Just because a just cause exists in principle for a war in the abstract that doesn’t imply that every actual war declared under those conditions is automatically just no matter what its actual cause. If “we gotta go kill us some wogs” was manifestly the actual cause for some war against Saddam Hussein, nobody who was morally sane would argue that that particular war was just even though in the abstract a just cause for war might exist. An actual unjust cause isn’t made just by the mere existence of a potential (but not actual) just cause.Furthermore, if some politician had a politically untenable rationale for war in the back of his mind but he had to go out and stump for the “we gotta kill us some wogs” rationale to whip up enough support to actually make the war happen, that would be an unjust war.A war initiated by unjust cause cannot be retroactively rendered just simply by the existence of a might-have-been, any more than executing a man for a crime he didn’t commit can be retroactively rendered just through a might-have-been. “He had it coming anyway” doesn’t change an unjust act into a just act.<>If I take something thinking that it belongs to another, when it in fact does not, my intention is certainly evil and I have acted immorally, but was my act objectively unjust?<>I would say that since the act has both objective and subjective components, in that particular case the act was subjectively unjust but objectively just. It is the reverse of doing something unjust on accident: in this case you would be doing something just on accident, since your intent was to do something unjust.** In the case of the Iraq war the only one that seems plausible to me is where we go in to rescue his people from him. That obviously wasn’t a sufficient cause of <>this<> war in itself, though.

  • zippy says:

    Or, more concretely, Iran’s war against Iraq was not automatically just simply because of the potential existence of a just cause for war with Iraq. If the justice of a war could be disconnected from the actual cause of a war the way the postmodern Right seems to want to disconnect it, then all manner of pretty obviously unjust aggressions become automatically justified.

  • c matt says:

    It is not unlike a prosecutor who charges a particular defendant with, let’s say rape and mail fraud. He chooses to focus more on the rape charge, because he thinks the jury more likely to give a conviction, even though the mail fraud may be the technically stronger charge. The jury convicts for rape, but not for mail fraud. Later DNA evidence exonerates the defendant for rape, but other evidence comes up showing he had committed mail fraud. The prosecutor would not be able to argue that the man justly deserved the jail time because he had committed mail fraud. Even if he had committed mail fraud, mail fraud was not why the jury convicted him.

  • JohnMcG says:

    To take another example, suppose the US were to pass a ban on abortion based on faulty scientific data — say that many women getting abortions were dying, but it turned out it was a specific piece of surgical equipment that was faulty, or there was a link to breast cancer that turned out to be false. Would such a law be just?

  • Step2 says:

    Although I agree completely with the original post, I would add that objective justice does not stop at the initial reasons, but includes the way the war is conducted in an expanded sense as a part of the Global War on Terror. I am in a debate over at another blog with someone trying to claim the ‘flypaper strategy’ fits within just war doctrine. It is hard to imagine the parsing of words it would take to create any sort of truth value for that statement.

  • zippy says:

    <>…but includes the way the war is conducted…<>Certainly, <>bello<> and <>bellum<>, though I have focused almost entirely on latter other than when I have discussed torture.<>I am in a debate over at another blog with someone trying to claim the ‘flypaper strategy’ fits within just war doctrine. It is hard to imagine the parsing of words it would take to create any sort of truth value for that statement.<>Hard to imagine. Yep. (Zippy shakes his head).

  • William Luse says:

    Referring again to decker’s hypothetical case of theft, you answer: <>I would say that since the act has both objective and subjective components, in that particular case the act was subjectively unjust but objectively just.<>I’m inclined to think it unjust in both regards. Though I did not know that the property stolen did not belong to him from whom I took it, neither did I know to whom it actually belonged, nor had I any intention of finding out who that might be, nor of returning it to him. That the property has been liberated from the original thief satisfies no demand of objective justice. (That I can see.)

  • zippy says:

    <>I’m inclined to think it unjust in both regards.<>I agree under that interpretation, but I understood the man in the scenario to be mistaken about the fact that the property was not already his. If the property in fact already belonged to him (hypotheticals can be as strange as we like) then he hasn’t in fact failed to give another his due, even though he thought he was failing to give another his due (to borrow the language that Disputations is using to critique my last barrage of posts).

  • c matt says:

    The problem with the abortion analogy is that banning abortion is not a conditional evil (that is, it is not sometimes evil to ban it, and sometimes not evil, depending on the circumstances). War, on the other hand, is a conditional evil. Whether or not it is evil depends on the circumstances.The basket-case problem occurs quite frequently in law, and the usual course is that it undoes the basis for the action. For another example, a plaintiff submits a single question to the jury – shall we invade Iraq? Several reasons are presented for doing so (reason A, B, and C), but only one question is asked – shall we invade, rather than separate questions, shall we invade for A, shall we invade for B, etc.If it turns out that reason B is not valid, but reasons A and C are (and assuming proper error preservation in the trial court) the reviewing court cannot determine whether the jury’s answer to invade was based upon the proper reasons or the improper reason. In this situation, the court has no choice but to reverse the decision. Inclusion of the improper reason poisons the rest.

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