Sunday, March 25, 2012

Iran and Just War Theory Critique Part III - Right Intention

This is the third post in a series critically examining the article "Just War and the Iran Crisis" by Robert C. Koons. In this article Koons argues that the moral criteria required to wage just war are not met by the United States and Israel in the current Iranian nuclear conflict. I have argued and will continue to argue that Koons' analysis contains significant flaws, both in his analytical treatment of Just War Theory and its application to this specific conflict. It is my opinion that these flaws undermine his overall argument substantially.

Early in the article Koons defines the third criterion for just war, right intention, and declares that it is dependent on the last four criteria, three of which I have already discussed.
The third condition, right intention, simply requires that the just cause be the real reason for the action, and not merely an excuse for hostile action motivated by malice. At first glance, this would also seem to be met in this case; however, closer examination reveals that right intention cannot be met unless the final four conditions are also satisfied.
The final four are comparative justicelast resortcompetent authority, and probability of success.

Later in the article, Koons does try to show that comparative justice, last resort, and probability of success are required for right intention.’s intention cannot be properly focused on rectifying an injustice on the part of another nation while harboring a similarly unjust intention on one’s own part. Thus, right intention requires comparative justice.
Here Koons claims that the intention to stop a wrong being committed against oneself (or one's ally) cannot coincide with committing a similar or identical wrong. But of course it can. While reality doesn't tolerate logical inconsistency, nothing at all prevents a person (or a nation) from holding beliefs and intentions that may in some sense be inconsistent with their actions. Koons probably wouldn't try to convince us that a murderer would be incapable of defending his own life against mortal attack. He probably also wouldn't try to convince us that the murderer's intention wasn't "properly focused" on self preservation, a just cause when considered in isolation of his other deeds. If we want to account for his other deeds, and we feel the need to tie comparative justice to another criterion, just cause seems a much better candidate1.

Koons also tries this trick with last resort, the loose end I referred to in the conclusion of Part II.
Why is the condition of last resort so important, given that following this principle brings with it a significant risk of great harm? Last resort matters because when we go to war prematurely, we cannot act with the right intention. If war is something other than our last resort, we reveal our unjust disregard of the humanity of our enemies... When we kill prematurely, we allow other considerations to weigh against the value of their lives, and we deny the inherent dignity of our enemies when we anticipate evil intentions that they have not yet formed.
Koons admits that abiding by last resort can result in "a significant risk of great harm", but declares that right intention depends on a regard for the humanity of one's enemies high enough to outweigh this risk. But why should it? It seems entirely plausible that war can be undertaken with "just cause be[ing] the real reason for the action" even if the actor isn't willing to trade risk of great harm to itself for the humanity of its enemies.

In both cases of trying to convolute right intention with other criteria, Koons extends the concept unnaturally and unnecessarily. Koons' own definition of right intention doesn't imply moral consistency or a sufficient regard for our enemies or any other thing we might consider morally relevant to just war. As defined, the sole moral requirement for right intention is just cause. Since Koons' concerns are addressed by the other criteria without appeal to right intention, it would seem we have nothing to gain from Koons' approach except confusion.

Competent authority, addressed in Part II, is treated briefly as a requirement of last resort, and so presumably could count as an indirect requirement for right intention in Koons' analysis. He doesn't attempt to connect them directly. I don't think there is any dependence between competent authority and right intention.

Part IV will contain a belated discussion of probability of success, both its relation to right intention (Koons gets it right) and its application to the Iran conflict.

1. Koons may be thinking of the case where an unjust aggressor tries to justify continued or elevated warfare on the basis of counterattacks by the original victim. This is indeed a violation of right intention, but not because of comparative justice. The absence of a just cause, explicitly required by the definition of right intention, governs the morality of such a situation.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Iran and Just War Theory Critique Part II - Competent Authority and Last Resort

In Part I, I discussed Robert Koons’ application of (his interpretation of) the Just War Theory criterion comparative justice to the possibility that the United States or Israel might preemptively strike Iran’s nuclear facilities (original article). I concluded that such a strike wouldn’t really violate Koons’ comparative justice.

In this post I’ll deal with two more criteria, last resort and competent authority. I will attempt to show that Koons’ use of these criteria is flawed from an analytical standpoint. Though mostly a technical issue, I think this is interesting and worth addressing. I will also provide commentary on the application of these principles to the Iran conflict.

The application of the last resort and the competent authority conditions are connected. War, even when there is a just cause, must always be the last resort, used only when all just and peaceful attempts to prevent aggression with an appropriate chance of success have failed. The necessity of competent authority follows necessarily, since only a sovereign state can engage in discussions and negotiations with the required credibility, and only a sovereign state can declare, prior to its attack, that a state of war exists.

Koons’ description of last resort is uncontroversial. The problem is his attempt to generate competent authority as a consequence. Like comparative justice, Koons’ conception of competent authority diverges from other sources quite a bit (Wikipedia page, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, IEP). He implies that a competent authority, apparently always a sovereign state, is uniquely able to fulfill the requirements of last resort, and that this arrangement makes competent authority a necessary criterion. But Koons doesn’t explain why he thinks sovereign states, and therefore competent authorities, are required to perform these functions, and history would suggest they aren’t. The Palestinian Liberation Organization may be the most obvious example of a notional authority representing a pre-state nation in credible international negotiations. As for declarations of war, such can be accomplished with little more than a video camera and a cooperative producer at Al Jazeera. Terrorist groups and other non-state military organizations don’t seem to have a problem declaring war. If there is a principled reason to reject these under the last resort criterion, Koons has omitted it.

A stronger formulation of Just War Theory generates competent authority independently, rejecting non-state actors on principle. The concept is that just war, as with the just prosecution of criminals, can only be accomplished by an impartial authority imbued with the responsibility of protecting the rights of the political body it represents. This representation, if established in a legitimate way (dictatorships are typically excluded), constitutes the authority to provide for defense, up to and including the prosecution of war.

Sneak attacks do not provide the prospective enemy with an ultimatum that it can meet and thereby avert the catastrophe of war. A just war against Iran, therefore, would have to be a declared war..... The president lacks the constitutional authority to issue such an ultimatum or declaration.... Consequently, no action (either by American or allied forces) authorized solely by the president can be just.

This reasoning is marred by equivocation. If last resort requires a declaration of the intent to make war for the purpose of giving the enemy one last chance to correct the reason for war (just cause, the first criterion), this is wholly unrelated to the domestic politics underlying such a declaration. Many acts of war in the last century matching or exceeding the scope of targeted strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities have been performed without an explicit Congressional declaration of war. It would be unreasonable for Iran to ignore a presidential declaration of intent to perform such strikes, even if such a declaration were unconstitutional. It is actually competent authority (by conventional definition), not last resort, that requires strict adherence to the Constitution while waging war, for government that is arbitrary, or in direct violation of its founding tenets, cannot be a competent authority, by definition.

This is probably the biggest legitimate hurdle Just War Theory presents to desirable military action for the US. With no real agreement about what the Constitution allows or requires from the president or Congress when determining how to employ our military forces in many instances of real conflict, it is hard to say anything short of an explicit Congressional declaration would ever definitely satisfy the competent authority criterion.

Last resort is somewhat less problematic for the proposed strike. The US, Israel, and a number of other countries have made it clear for quite some time that they consider a nuclear Iran to be an unacceptable threat. The US and Israel in particular have unabashedly taken the position that the prevention of Iran’s possession of a nuclear weapon is worthy of military action. Peaceful means, such as United Nations resolutions and economic sanctions, have been tried without success. It is becoming less and less likely that anything other than military action will work.

Part III in this series will tie up some loose ends associated with last resort and address the speculative nature of Koons’ assessment of probability of success.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Iran and Just War Theory Critique Part I - Comparative Justice

As a stringent supporter of stopping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I was intrigued when Tom Woods posted a link on his blog to an article by “respected Christian conservative” Robert C. Koons about how a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities would be unjust. It should go without saying that knowing and evaluating the arguments of people you disagree with is necessary in the pursuit of determining what is true and good.

The article evaluates the morality of a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities using Just War Theory: “seven criteria that must be met in order to justify the initiation of war.” Koons acknowledges, at least at first glance, that the first three criteria can be met, so in this post I will address the fourth criterion, comparative justice. It is worth mentioning that comparative justice is a controversial requirement that some people don’t list at all (like these). Furthermore, Koons’ definition of comparative justice is remarkably different than that on the Wikipedia page. Nonetheless, I will address the principles and arguments as stated by Koons.

To be sincerely intending to act for a just cause against a possible enemy, the enemy must not have an equally just cause of the same kind against one’s own nation, since one’s intention cannot be properly focused on rectifying an injustice on the part of another nation while harboring a similarly unjust intention on one’s own part.
Koons adopts a generous premise at the beginning of the article, assuming “there is a significant likelihood that Iran would either use these weapons directly against the United States or Israel, or give them to hostile terrorist groups such as Hamas or Hezbollah” (not a big stretch). It should be clear that the situation with Iran does not violate the quoted condition. We know Iran doesn’t have an equally just cause against the US or Israel, because the US and Israel already have nuclear weapons. If the US or Israel were harboring intentions similar to those we are assuming Iran has, Iran wouldn’t exist any more.
Comparative justice means that the nation initiating the war must be significantly less guilty in the relevant respects than is the prospective enemy....

Koons begins with this general characterization of comparative justice, but I quote it second because it is the more problematic. As we will see, Koons is willing to stretch this concept to the point of absurdity.

...this situation is a murky one, since the United States is the one nation that has actually used nuclear weapons against an enemy and, in at least one case (Nagasaki), against a civilian population center with no significant military installations.

Here is where I think Koons’ conception of comparative justice falls apart.  No longer does the “comparative” aspect of the concept rely on actual contradiction, policies and actions conflicting in real time. Two thirds of a century, ten presidential administrations, and zero nuclear attacks later, we are supposed to view the United States’ nuclear policies and (lack of) actions as if they don’t make us “significantly less guilty” than a regime that repeatedly pledges mass murder.

Until both the United States and Israel renounce such unjust use of nuclear weapons and make such institutional reforms as are needed to prevent it, we cannot claim that the comparative justice condition has been met.

This is clearly fallacious. The lack of a conspicuous preventive action for wrongdoing is not the moral equivalent of wrongdoing. Since obtaining nuclear weapons, consider all the wars the US and Israel have fought without using them. This should be a sufficiently strong implication that both countries have fairly rigorous standards for the use of nuclear weapons.

…comparative justice concerns the rectitude of our intentions, as demonstrated by our holding ourselves to the same standard on the issue in question to which we hold the enemy.

The standard we are holding Iran to is not committing mass murder in the name of religious and racial bigotry. I don’t think we will have a problem continuing to hold ourselves to that standard.

In Part II I will address the fifth and sixth criteria for Just War: competent authority and last resort.