Might makes right

March 30, 2010 § 33 Comments

One of the more difficult elements of the just war doctrine is the requirement that the country defending itself must actually have the power to defend itself in order for the decision to wage war to be just.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church:

2309 The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

– the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

– all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

there must be serious prospects of success;

– the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine.

The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.

(Emphasis mine).

Of course this means “might makes right” only as a necessary condition for a just war, not a sufficient condition. All of the other conditions must also be satisfied. But it is perhaps important to make it explicit that, contrary to modern egalitarian and democratic sensibilities, one of the requirements for justified remote material cooperation with evil is that the person doing it must be powerful enough to actually achieve the intended good end.

Put differently, we can’t justify our acts of remote material cooperation with evil by appealing to outcomes we are powerless to bring about.

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§ 33 Responses to Might makes right

  • August says:

    I wish they had enumerated a plan on how to get from no prospects of success, to serious prospects of success.

  • I understand the concern August considering there seems to be enough room in “serious prospect” to sail an aircraft carrier through, but it is an example of the Church teaching us the rules but not, contrary to what her enemies repeatedly say, doing our thinking for us.

    Scott W.

  • M.Z. says:

    one of the requirements for justified remote material cooperation with evil is that the person doing it must be powerful enough to actually achieve the intended good end.

    If our act doesn't bring about a claimed result, we cannot said to have cooperated in bringing that result about. Our claim to have brought the result is simply fallacious.

  • zippy says:

    If our act doesn't bring about a claimed result, we cannot said to have cooperated in bringing that result about. Our claim to have brought the result is simply fallacious.

    It seems to me that self-deception is also a 'disorder in relation to the truth about the good', to use JPII's phrase. What precise category it falls into might be of interest to moral taxonomists, but for the rest of us chickens it remains something to be avoided.

  • brandon field says:

    I wish they had enumerated a plan on how to get from no prospects of success, to serious prospects of success.

    Prayer and fasting?

  • Anonymous says:

    RE: Serious Prospects of success

    The prospects for success can be very hard to measure.

    In 1939 tiny Finland astounded the world when it took on the mighty Soviet Union and fought the Red Army to a standstill thus being one of a handful of European nations to preserve its independence during that era.

    The Pushtun tribes of eastern and southern Afghanistan also successfully took on the mighty Red Army and saw it withdraw from their country and then witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union. These same Pushtuns (who we used to call “Freedom Fighters”) have now held off the vastly superior American led ISAF for nine years. Hopefully they will not also witness the collapse of the USA.

    Ho Chi Minh, initially leading an army of coolies commanded by a high school history teacher (Giap),successfully took on the French Empire, then the Japanese Empire, then the French again, then the USA, then the Chinese in his bid for independence (and dependence on Marxism.)

    Ultimately the Church leaves the decision to go to war in the hands of our secular leaders. War is a crap shoot. No ones knows what will happen. The ancient Spartans, the most pious and soldierly of the Greeks, tried to avoid war for this reason.

    A wise foreign policy.

    God bless

    Richard W Comerford

  • Martin says:

    Lepanto lept to mind.

  • Tommy says:

    Or Gideon's army?

    Or Samson against the Philistines.

    Or David v Goliath.

    Or the 300 at Thermopylae.

    Or the 112 British soldiers who stood up to 4000 Zulus.

    Or Custer at Little Big Horn – oh, wait, that's an anti-example, isn't it?

  • William Luse says:

    we can't justify our acts of remote material cooperation with evil by appealing to outcomes we are powerless to bring about.

    Then what's the point in voting? Ever?

  • Zippy says:

    Examples of successful military campaigns are helpful in determining the scope of “reasonable chance of success”, I suppose.

    Then what's the point in voting?

    Good question.

    In a mass-scale modern election, influence over the particular outcome can't be the point.

    I've become inclined toward the view that voting is a form of speech. It is a peculiar form of speech, since the only phrases it is capable of saying are the propositions on the ballot: “I personally endorse Bob for the office”, “I personally endorse Sally for the office”, or “I refrain from endorsing any of those people for the office”, without the capacity to further qualify the statement. So if there is a reason or justification for doing so, it would be similar to the reason for stating such a thing – including its lack of qualification – one time while standing in an enormous crowd, most of whom cannot hear you. Even that isn't a great analogy, since vote-speech is deliberately anonymized — that is, we do it in a curtained booth where nobody who happens to be around us can “hear” it. It is only “heard” as part of a massive process of aggregation.

    The things concomitant to such an act – what you say to your family and friends about it, etc – are vastly more important than the act itself.

  • Anonymous says:

    Zippy:

    “Examples of successful military campaigns are helpful in determining the scope of “reasonable chance of success”, I suppose.”

    The examples I gave were not ones of “successful military campaigns”; but, rather, examples of secular rulers committing their peoples to life and death struggles against seemingly overwhelming odds; and winning.

    What is more the underdogs in each of these scenarios faced professional, well equipped and modern, standing armies. The underdogs' forces, at least initially, either armed political cadres (Ho Chi Minh); militia (Finland) or local guerrilla bands (Afghan)which made it all the more improbable that the underdogs would succeed.

    In each case there were subjective factors, such as national independence, defense of a beloved homeland, hearth and culture; that outweighed the material factors. (The Soviets for instance outnumbered the Finns in tanks alone 100 to 1; but Stalin had purged his officer corps while the Finns had the best combat leaders in Europe)

    Our country, which at least on paper, has overwhelming military superiority, is currently engaged in fighting highly motivated underdogs all over the world. Our secular rulers have to make decisions on whether to continue to fight these underdogs. Prudently our rulers should base their decisions, at least in part, on whether there are “serious prospects of success”.

    Since the Civil War our secular rulers have evaluated their “serious prospects of success” based largely on objective, material factors such as how many tanks, divisions and aircraft carriers they can muster? This decision making process has to change if we are to prevail in these struggles.

    Around 620 AD the Byzantine Generals based their “serious prospects of success” on objective, material factors; and now Constantinople is called Istanbul just as Saigon is now called Ho Chi Minh City.

    We should keep these name changes in mind when we vote for our secular rulers.

    God bless

    Richard W Comerford

  • Zippy says:

    Richard:

    And again, examples of underdogs achieving victory are pertinent to the question of what objectively does or does not constitute a serious chance of success. Said differently, the fact that one is an underdog does not imply that one has no serious chance of success.

    But I don't know of anyone in the discussion who has suggested that being an underdog implies that one has no serious chance of success.

  • Zippy says:

    I should say though that I very much agree with this:

    Since the Civil War our secular rulers have evaluated their “serious prospects of success” based largely on objective, material factors such as how many tanks, divisions and aircraft carriers they can muster? This decision making process has to change if we are to prevail in these struggles.

    While those elements are important in making the evaluation, they are a long way from being the only important elements in making the evaluation.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    Don't we need to make a very important distinction between resisting an aggressor and deciding to go to war where one has a choice?

    I would think that several of the underdog examples would fall into the former category, where the only options are resist or surrender, where _whether_ there is a war is not up to you. In that case, I would think the whole just war question would really be quite different.

  • zippy says:

    Great point, Lydia.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    Glad you like it, Zippy, because every once in a while I count up the people who may one day die on a hill with me and my sort of folks, and you're on the list.

  • Anonymous says:

    RE: “deciding to go to war where one has a choice?”

    The examples given above all had a choice. The Viet Minh, Finns and Afghans could have accepted colonization, vassal state status or foreign occupation. Instead they choose to fight against overwhelming odds. Indeed given the immense casualties suffered by the Vietnamese over 60-years of continuous warfare an argument could be made that the moral act would have been not to go to war; and to pursue independence through nonviolent methods.

    The country that today has the luxury to make choices whether to wage war or not is our own. So far we have invaded and occupied two countries who had nothing to do with 9/11/01. How long our occupations will last and which other countries we will invade is known only to our secular rulers in Washington – and they might be confused.

    War should not be used as an instrument of foreign policy. It is not a continuation of politics by other means. War is such a serious matter that it stands alone separate from politics and foreign policy. The Church teaches that there are no real winners in war.

    The Church, like the ancient Spartans, knows what it is talking about.

    God bless

    Richard W Comerford

  • zippy says:

    So far we have invaded and occupied two countries who had nothing to do with 9/11/01.

    Iraq had nothing to do with the attacks of 9-11.

    Afghanistan and its Taliban government had everything to do with them.

    That says nothing about what we ought to do now. I still plead too much ignorance to have a strong conviction on that, though I am sure there is a right answer: my ignorance of the truth doesn't in any way undermine the truth.

    But it is ridiculous to claim that the Taliban's Afghanistan had nothing to do with 9-11. As I understand it they were brought into power in part with bin Laden's resources and repaid him with a base of operations for al Qaeda, from which those attacks and others were planned and carried out.

    Furthermore, I think if it weren't for the distraction of the Iraq invasion, and if our understanding of success had been reasonable – say “kill as many al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists as possible, destroy their bases of operations, and leave” – it would have had a much better chance of success than the current situation might suggest.

  • Anonymous says:

    “Afghanistan and its Taliban government had everything to do with them.”

    Kindly cite a single action by a single member of the Taliban government that intentionally had anything to do with 9/11/01?

    “But it is ridiculous to claim that the Taliban's Afghanistan had nothing to do with 9-11”

    President Bush agrees with you.

    “As I understand it they were brought into power in part with bin Laden's resources”

    There is no record of UBL funding the Taliban. The Taliban were created by the Pak ISI and funded by the USA to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghan.

    “and repaid him with a base of operations for al Qaeda”

    No. Al Qaeda, during the Soviet occupation, seized control of a portion of eastern Afghan. The Taliban never exercised political control over the Al Qaeda sanctuary. Indeed no Kabul government ever has exercised control. On 9/11/01 there was not a single Taliban government official in the AL Qaeda sanctuary.

    “I think if it weren't for the distraction of the Iraq invasion, and if our understanding of success had been reasonable – say “kill as many al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists as possible, destroy their bases of operations, and leave”

    Terrorists do not have “bases”. They live with and among the people. Attacking “bases” means attacking the indigenous population which creates more terrorists. Killing terrorists usually; but not always, means killing local boys which creates more terrorists.

    BTW can you cite a single terrorist act by a single Taliban member against the population of the USA? (These are the same guys we used to call “freedom fighters”.)

    “it would have had a much better chance of success than the current situation might suggest.”

    No. Invading and occupying Afghan merely made UBL a hero to the Muslim world and swelled the Taliban ranks. Nine years later UBL is still at large and the Taliban are still fighting and control half the country. WE have fought UBL and the Taliban for more than twice as long as we fought Hitler and no end is in sight. Worse there was no reason to fight the Taliban. They were our staunch allies before we invaded and occupied their country.

    God bless

    Richard W Comerford

  • zippy says:

    Terrorists do not have “bases”.

    That tells me everything I need to know about how productive continued discussion of the matter would not be.

  • Tony says:

    Don't we need to make a very important distinction between resisting an aggressor and deciding to go to war where one has a choice?

    I would think that several of the underdog examples would fall into the former category, where the only options are resist or surrender, where _whether_ there is a war is not up to you. In that case, I would think the whole just war question would really be quite different.

    Lydia, I agree with you. That there is still a matter of justifying the war is true, but the justification is much easier. Because the proportionality of the goods and evils involved are easier to set out in a way that says yes, the goods expected from fighting easily outbalance the evils expected from fighting, in comparison with the option of not fighting. For example if the enemy wants to annihilate you as a people to make room for their own people, then fighting with expected losses of 10%, or 20%, or 50% of your people in battle can be a lesser evil than giving in and being annihilated. What the enemy's objective is helps to determine how much of a “chance of success” is appropriate to justifying resistance.

  • zippy says:

    I think Lydia's own explanation is far better than attempting to disregard the “serious prospects of success” criteria. We've seen the whole “when the gravity gets large enough we can disregard the other criteria” maneuver before, and the kindest thing I can say about it is that it amounts to special pleading.

  • Anonymous says:

    “That tells me everything I need to know about how productive continued discussion of the matter would not be.”

    So I guess this means you are not going to name an AL Qaeda “terrorist Base”? Or describe how an Al Qaeda “terrorist base” is organized, administered, staffed or equipped? Or identify a single AL Qaeda “terrorist base” that in 9-years of war has been located, overrun and documented either by ISAF on the Afghan side of the boarder or the Paks on their side of the boarder?

    If AL Qaeda had actually built maintained and occupied “terrorist bases” then this war would not have lasted 9-months never mind 9-years. Think about it. Is there a single terrorist organization in the world that maintains a “terrorist base”?

    There is a reason for this. The face of war has changed yet again. The enemy (unlike the Viet Minh, Viet Cong and NVA) can no longer maintain bases separate and distinct from the population. US Air Power is simply too powerful, all seeing and timely.

    You know I spent a couple or three decades doing this stuff for a living. I still get asked from time to time, when they cannot find somebody competent, to do this stuff in the civilian sector. If you want to comment on Just War in the 21st Century, and do not want to discuss it with a fellow Catholic who is also old soldier, then consult Mr. Google.

    I shall withdraw from your blog.

    God bless

    Richard W Comerford

  • zippy says:

    Al Farouq. Tora Bora.

  • Tony says:

    Zippy, saying that “serious” in the phrase “serious chance of success” is capable of variation in degree is not saying we can disregard the criterion. Please don't put words in my mouth. And if you believe my comment was wrong, it would be nice to say where. I thought I was fleshing out Lydia's comment with further details.

  • Zippy says:

    Tony:

    I'm having a hard time distinguishing between your position, laid out in this and the other comment thread, and the notion that as we turn the volume up to 11 on the other criteria we can disregard the requirement for serious prospects of success. Perhaps that is a failing in my own interpretive abilities.

    Lydia's position is fundamentally different. Jus ad bellum lays out the criteria for deciding whether or not there will be war right here and right now. In certain kinds of cases that decision has already been made by others: the decision is not one of whether there will or will not be war right now, but whether we will or will not lay down and die right now.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    Apropos of Tony's comments, though I'm temperamentally disinclined to surrender to an evil aggressor, I suppose there might be circumstances where I could be convinced that it was better to live a slave than to die a hero. Maybe.

  • Tony says:

    Lydia's position is fundamentally different. Jus ad bellum lays out the criteria for deciding whether or not there will be war right here and right now. In certain kinds of cases that decision has already been made by others: the decision is not one of whether there will or will not be war right now, but whether we will or will not lay down and die right now.

    The moral question is not “will there be a war”. That one is easy to answer: just as Christ said “the poor you will always have with you”, so also we will always have war with us.

    Jus ad bellum lays out the criteria for deciding whether WE WILL fight a war right here and right now. The moral question is “ARE WE to fight this war.” If a state says “we will not fight”, then they don't fight a war. They may die by the thousands, millions, tens of millions, but dying to an aggressor is not fighting a war . (cf: Christ, and the martyrs, for examples of allowing an unjust aggressor to kill you.) And choosing to allow an aggressor to murder you is not the moral equivalent of fighting but losing.

    The moral question the defenders have to ask is whether THEY will fight a war, not whether the enemy will fight – they don't make the enemy's moral choices. In ALL cases where a state decides to fight a war, the Church says that if you are going to fight a war, you have to meet certain just war criteria. So now who is it who says you don't have to abide by those criteria in certain cases?

    Apropos of Tony's comments, though I'm temperamentally disinclined to surrender to an evil aggressor, I suppose there might be circumstances where I could be convinced that it was better to live a slave than to die a hero. Maybe.

    Lydia, I am temperamentally inclined the same way. But there could be other circumstances besides slavery where the question of whether to fight a defensive war is appropriate. For instance, in a civil war where you know the other side is not out to annihilate you, you may come to the realization that the additional amount of damage you would have to inflict to win is not worth the amount of benefit winning would grant the winner.

    But more directly to my point: not all invading armies are going to make the defenders into slaves. Urban legend has it that some Italian soldiers welcomed the prospect of surrendering to the US army – they were quite confident that (a) they would be treated well, and (b) that the Americans were not bent on destroying their homeland. Even if the US was not justified in waging that particular war, Italians could have creditably come to the conclusion that though there was a real prospect (but modest) of beating the Americans, the prospects were not serious enough to justify the attempt and its damages given the likely outcome of surrendering.

    Zippy, would it help your interpretative abilities to cast it this way? “Serious prospect of success” is not a simple yes/no, on/off switch. “Serious” is taken in the context of the seriousness of the goods to be lost by waging a war, and the goods to be lost by refusing to go to war.

  • Anonymous says:

    I'm torn between Richard and Zippy. Obviously there are terrorist bases throughout the world (including Afghanistan) though I think one really has to do some creative stretching to claim that any such base in Afghanistan facilitated the planning, training and execution of the 9/11 attacks, and it would be a near miracle to broaden that claim to successfully include the Taliban.

  • Zippy says:

    That one is easy to answer: just as Christ said “the poor you will always have with you”, so also we will always have war with us.

    The answer must seem easy because it is ridiculous. Lydia raises the question of whether jus ad bellum is sometimes mooted by the actions of others; I think it is an interesting question. This response would moot it always, in a fatalistic appeal to an entirely incommensurate fact about the poor.

    “Serious prospect of success” is not a simple yes/no, on/off switch.

    I agree. On the other hand, it is either true or it isn't true for whatever particular case we are considering.

    “Serious” is taken in the context of the seriousness of the goods to be lost by waging a war, and the goods to be lost by refusing to go to war.

    And again, serious losses do not imply serious prospects of success. Just as a ton of gravity doesn't add up to an ounce of certainty, a ton of gravity also doesn't add up to an ounce of prospect of success.

    Throwing the word “serious” at different criteria in the JWD doesn't do anything to help in meeting this criteria.

  • Tony says:

    Lydia raises the question of whether jus ad bellum is sometimes mooted by the actions of others; I think it is an interesting question.

    On the previous thread, I raised the idea that perhaps the “serious prospect” criterion is sometimes mooted by the actions of others – the exact same kinds of actions Lydia brings to the issue. For that I was accused of constructing a formula for ignoring the part of the criteria that we don't like. I modified my suggestion by proposing that the criterion is still applied, but its application is nuanced: the whole application of all of the criteria is ordered to determine whether proportionate reason exists to begin the evils of fighting a war, so each and every criterion is qualified by this overall objective.

    Lydia comes along and suggests that that Ius ad bellum rules don't even apply in defensive war, and her suggestion is taken as serious while mine is taken as an affront to Catholic just war. ?? Her suggestion amounts to saying that some wars don't get any of the 4 criteria applied because of special conditions, while mine limits or modifies the application of 1 of the 4 in the very same special conditions. How is it that her comment is an interesting and worthwhile advance of understanding the limits of just war theory and mine is not?

    Throwing the word “serious” at different criteria in the JWD doesn't do anything to help in meeting this criteria.

    It's already there in synonym form in the first criterion: the evil must be “lasting, GRAVE, and certain.”

    In actuality, Lydia didn't say that she thought the ius ad bellum rules don't apply in defensive war, she said the just war question would be different:
    In that case, I would think the whole just war question would really be quite different.
    “Quite different” could, conceivably, include modifying one or more of the 4 criteria to take into account the differences that defensive war implies in respect to the general standard that the 4 criteria exist for: whether you have proportionate reason to fight a war. “Quite different” could, also, conceivably, include saying that the 4 criteria don't apply at all, that an entirely different set of rules apply. Interestingly, the Church has never set forth a separate set of rules for defensive just war versus those for an “aggressive war”. The terms she uses appear to be set so as to apply for all wars.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    I suppose Zippy's Hatfield & McCoy example raises the further question of what it means for there to “be a war.” If one side lives far away and is simply going to send weapons of annihilation to wipe out the entire other side, one might say that this is going to be a single act of destruction rather than a war in the sense that it might be resisted. It's irresistable and total.

    I assume that that is why Zippy seems somewhat open to my suggestion that you don't need serious prospects of success to fight back when the armies of an evil aggressor are over-running your town but also thinks that the McCoys shouldn't simply try to kill some of the Hatfields.

    But I'm not sure. It does seem to me–making this very concrete–that if someone is trying to come into your house and kill your wife and children, you _ought_ to resist him and defend them even if you have no serious prospect of success. That situation reminds me a bit of what Zippy says elsewhere about how a pilot's job is always to keep flying the plane. The pilot may have no serious prospect of success in saving the plane in a crash, but as the pilot, he has to try. I realize that flying a plane doesn't involve the use of violent force, but that doesn't bother _me_, since we're talking about using it to try (however hopelessly) to stop people who are trying to come into your home and kill your wife and children.

  • zippy says:

    Lydia:
    I suppose Zippy's Hatfield & McCoy example raises the further question of what it means for there to “be a war.

    Precisely, and I think this is worth unpacking some more. I don't have any idea, at this point, where I'll come out on it with further unpacking.

    Tony:
    [The term 'serious' is] already there in synonym form in the first criterion: the evil must be “lasting, GRAVE, and certain.”

    What is the point? The fact that the damage caused by the aggressor nation is serious doesn't mean that the prospects for success are serious just because we can use the term “serious” in both propositions.

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