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.