Saturday, March 25, 2006

Prevention Means What, the Follow-Up

by Joe Miller

A week or so ago, I criticized Edward Feser's account of preventive war (see Feser's original posts here and here). Professor Feser was good enough to reply to several of my points via a very nice (indeed, much nicer than my own post had been) e-mail. He has graciously allowed me to reprint those points here. As this sort of interaction (that is, feedback from other philosophers, whether professional or not) is exactly what I had hoped for in starting the blog for class, I'd be really quite remiss if I failed to get this posted as soon as possible.

I hope that my students will take advantage of the opportunity to read and then comment on Prof. Feser's posts. I would suspect that you'll get some excellent feedback. From reading some of his other writing, I suspect that he and I disagree on a number of issues. Those of you who disagree with me regularly (hi Rick) may well find much to like. Keep in mind of course, that I'm the one who controls your grade. I'm kidding of course. This site is going to get me fired yet.

Anyway, here are the comments. Gotta get them posted before it gets too much later. About half of the regular readership of this blog will be over soon for some food and some conversation that shall we say it?...perhaps a bit more lubricated than our usual seminars. So here goes (Ed's comments are indented. Like I had to specify that. Sorry).

1. Please keep in mind that my arguments were directed specifically against paleoconservatives who have characterized the war as a "manifest injustice," damned the administration as moral monsters, etc. Even more specifically, they were directed against the book I was reviewing and the sorts of people who were likely to sympathize with the (largely Catholic-oriented) arguments in that book. I was not addressing left-of-center critics, or critics of any political stripe who have been more moderate in their arguments. So I did not expect what I said to be completely applicable to, or even very convincing to, other critics of the war. (For instance, I'm sure many critics of the war couldn't care less about what the pre-Vatican II manuals I cited have to say.)
That’s fair, and it’s a big part of the reason that I don’t address large portions of your review. I don’t particularly care what pre-Vatican II manuals have to say about war. Indeed, not being a Catholic (or a theist for that matter), I don’t particularly care what the Catholic Church has to say about war at all. Or rather, insofar as the Church’s position is grounded in reason rather than revelation, I’m interested. Where the ultimate reason for holding X boils down to “X is consistent with the teachings of Christ” or “X is endorsed by Paul,” well then at that point, we’re no longer doing philosophy, so I’m just not all that interested. We analytic types replaced the Scholastics for good reason. :)

2. I am aware that there is an important difference between "pre-emptive" and "preventive" wars. But unfortunately the terms have come to be used interchangeably by many who have written on the war in Iraq (either pro or con), and this sloppy usage sometimes appears in the book I was reviewing. Since it wasn't relevant to the points I was making, and the posts were long enough as it is, I didn't bother to get into the distinction. Still, you're right that I should have made the distinction anyway.
This may be the only really fair point that I made in the entire post. The rest needed at least a bit more elaboration. And tact.
3. The silly definition of "preventive war" that I was criticizing is, I think, quite common, though probably not among the serious writers on just war theory you're used to reading. I was largely addressing more journalistic arguments made by political writers. And Fr. Juan Iscara, the one contributor to the volume I was reviewing who makes an attempt to say something substantive on this matter -- he emphasizes the "preemptive/preventive" distinction, for example -- discusses "preventive war" as if it meant what I said it does not mean. He says, for example, that it involves reacting to the "mere possibility of, or potentiality for, a future attack" or to "what is, at present, only the mere possibility of a future attack by a potential adversary"; that it is intended "to prevent a threat that such a country may or may not present in the future, but which we fear it may"; that it involves "our own assessment of his possible future intentions" and "guesswork"; and so forth. It was this kind of thing that I had immediately in mind in writing what I did.

Here’s my worry. It’s that, according to a whole lot of pretty serious writers on just war theory, preventive war really does mean something pretty close to what Fr. Iscara is claiming. While prevention is often defined in more general terms, serious definitions from serious writers would, at the very least, entail that a nation could do all of the things that Fr. Iscara says prevention involves. “Guesswork” is way too loose, but the rest of the claims you quote…well, they just are what prevention involves. You can say that that’s not what you mean by prevention, but that’s pretty much what the term itself does mean. If you want to redefine the term, that’s fine. You would, of course, need to offer some argument as to why your definition is better than all the others out there (see my response to your next point). It’s simply not fair to pretend as if the usual understanding of “prevention” is just knee-jerk anti-Bush rhetoric.

4. What I describe as a reasonable understanding of preventive war was indeed, as you speculate, meant to be understood specifically as the Bush administration's understanding and the understanding of the war's defenders, rather than as a definition that past theorists have used. (I would have thought that the "freakin' date" you refer to, i.e. 9/11, would have made that obvious!)

Yes, of course it’s rather obvious what you meant. I’m still pretty puzzled, though, why this seems like a reasonable thing to do. It’s fine to object to a bad formulation of preventive war. I would think, though, that the proper response would be to offer a better formulation. That would mean appealing to definitions that past theorists have used. If you want to then go on to argue that we ought to reject those past theories in favor of something different (and the formulation that you give is different from standard accounts of prevention and/or pre-emption), then that would be interesting. But it would also really need to be done. Just jumping straight to Bush’s own idiosyncratic definition is an odd move.

5. Your paraphrase of my formulation (at the end of your post) is, I think, not fair, for two reasons. First, it seems clear that at least according to the authors I was citing, violating the terms of the 1991 cease-fire _would_ constitute a casus belli, at least all things being equal. Second, this "all things being equal" is crucial: while violating such terms would by itself be a presumptive reason to go to war, this consideration could of course be overridden if it looked like the good of enforcing the terms might be outwighed by the evils typically associated with war. (This, I suggested, is why the war's defenders have also put emphasis on liberating the Iraqis from Saddam's tyranny, since this could plausibly be said to neutralize fears that the costs of enforcing the terms would outweigh the benefits.) Surely that's not as morally objectionable as you imply my formulation is.

Okay, I concede Feser’s first point. It’s true that, according to the authors Feser cites, violating the terms of the 1991 cease-fire does indeed constitute a casus belli. What I would deny, however, is the relevance of their so considering. It is irrelevant because, quite frankly, it is just flat wrong. Let me be clear here: violating the terms of a cease-fire can be a casus belli. As I have argued elsewhere, though, the violation of an agreement between Iraq and the United Nations Security Council gives the Security Council the right to resume hostilities (or to authorize a third party to resume hostilities on its behalf).

But if the Security Council declines to reinitiate hostilities, the violation quite simply does not authorize any third party to act unilaterally to enforce the agreement. No one who defends the war would buy this sort of argument in domestic law: I simply cannot sue you for breaching a contract with my brother after my brother has quite explicitly declined to file a suit against you, and it’s hard to imagine a sane legal system that would allow such suits. My case would be dismissed for lack of standing. Similarly, if I am a minority shareholder in a corporation that is the victim of a breached contract and the corporation, after holding a shareholder vote, decides not to pursue a lawsuit, I cannot sue unilaterally and claim to be enforcing the contract on behalf of the corporation.

In other words, I would deny that the violation of its 1991 cease-fire actually constitutes a casus belli for the United States. Since Feser has formulated his account of pre-emption as being explicitly targeted at the United States’ invasion of Iraq, then I think that it is perfectly fair to point out that, in that particular invasion, the U.S. lacked anything that would count as a casus belli. Perhaps, however, I should amend my paraphrase to read: We have the right to attack a country that has done a wrong act that, in and of itself, does not amount to a casus belli for us because we think that it could potentially do something harmful to us in the future. That more accurately describes the Iraq invasion. And it’s still pretty morally objectionable.


Blogger Thomas said...


You end with this statement:

"Perhaps, however, I should amend my paraphrase to read: We have the right to attack a country that has done a wrong act that, in and of itself, does not amount to a casus belli for us because we think that it could potentially do something harmful to us in the future. That more accurately describes the Iraq invasion. And it’s still pretty morally objectionable."

Putting Iraq aside, there's a world of subtlety in your paraphrase, specifically in the word "potentially." The potentiality of a nation's acting against America's interests must be spelled out in enough specificity to enable Congress to make a judgment as to immediacy of the threat to those interests. The key word is "judgment"; there is not and cannot be a bright-line test of the degree of "potentiality." An A-bomb that has been secretly planted in downtown Manhattan is a "potential" source of harm, just as an A-bomb that is being constructed in, say, Iran is a "potential" source of harm.

I therefore find the emphasis on "potential" harm to be unhelpful in determining whether or not there may be a casus belli. A judgment of the immediacy of a potential harm is necessary, and Congress (except in the case of truly imminent danger) is empowered to make that judgment. You may quibble with Congress's judgment (as do many Americans), but I don't believe that your quibble puts you on the moral high ground relative to Congress.

I hope everyone had a well-lubricated good time at the party.


6:32 PM  
Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

I'm not certain that a moral high ground exists for those in a position of power versus persons who are educated in a particular field of thought.

That being said, in Germany, it is possible for you to proceed with a lawsuit on behalf of your brother. This idea stems from the possibility that your brother may be intimidated out of pursuing any legal action. It is also possible to do so on behalf of corporate entities (I hate that term).

1:04 PM  
Blogger Thomas said...


I'm not suggesting that Congress (or the President) is necessarily on moral high ground relative to, say, a philosopher. What I am suggesting is that a philosopher isn't necessarily on moral high ground relative to Congress where there's a judgment call to be made about a the potentiality of a future harm. A judgment call is a judgment call, and Congress (not the philosopher) bears the burden of making the judgment call.

Of course, philosophers -- acting as citizens -- can express their opinions, become anti-war activists, lobby Congress, or initiate anti-war lawsuits. In all of those pursuits they would be (and are) joined by multitudes of non-philosophers.

But the questions of whether, when, where, and how to go to war are -- at bottom -- political questions, not philosophical ones. The answers to the questions may be (and should be) informed by philosophy, but they cannot be found in philosophy.

3:08 PM  
Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

I can see your point about the burden being on those, such as Congress, who are charged with making the final call about going to war. However, I do think that political minds should be more than simply informed by philosophy. I think they should be grounded in philosophy. Politics at its base, I think, is philosophy.

How many sentences can I, consecutively, end with the word: philosophy?

6:12 PM  
Blogger Joe Miller said...


I would submit that the distinction between prevention and pre-emption really lies with the intentions of the target nation. An act of pre-emption responds to some action (or possible action) where we have good reason to believe that the action is designed deliberately as an aggressive act, or where the action in question is a prelude to an aggressive act. Prevention, on the other hand, responds to an action that could possibly be aggressive but could also be lots of other things.

So, for example, Iran acquiring nuclear weapons could be the opening act in Iranian resumption of state terrorism or regional bullying or even the eventual supplying of terrorist weapons for religious fanatics. Or that same act could be simply a way of escaping perceived American hegemony and securing for the nation much greater freedom to pursue its ends and a more prominent position in world affairs. The former set of reasons are arguably aggressive and might therefore warrant pre-emption. The latter set of reasons (though contrary to American interests) is hardly casus belli. (For the record, I'm just offering possibilities here. I tend to find the former sets of reasons more likely than the latter sets).

My argument is that while pre-emption is a perfectly legitimate activity, prevention is not. Sure, as you point out, sometimes it can be hard to tell where the line ought to be drawn between the two. Still, from the fact that gray exists, we ought not assume that black and white do not. There are certain cases of pre-emption/prevention where reasonable people might well disagree. There are other cases in which an act clearly is one or the other and those who disagree are just simply wrong. Those who persist in holding the wrong view, even in the face of clear evidence of their wrongness, are acting immorally.

It's pretty obvious at this point that Iraq did not pose any real threat to the United States. And it's becoming increasingly obvious that most of the available evidence that Iraq did not pose any real threat to the U.S. was pretty much just ignored prior to 2003. That would, I think, make those who pushed the war on the grounds of pre-emption either, (a) grossly incompetent, or (b) willfully immoral. Though I suppose that (a) and (b) are not mutually exclusive.

I'm not entirely sure that I understand what you mean by saying that I can't take the moral high ground simply because I "quibble" with Congress. Surely that's stronger than you want to say. Would you say, for instance, that you can't take the moral high ground w/ the SC because you "quibble" with their judgment on, say, Roe or Kelo or Raich? I think that you would instead argue that the SC simply decided incorrectly, and that to fail to see that incorrectness is a moral failing. That's a reasonable stance to take (and I'd agree with you on two out of the three). Why then, when Congress makes a judgment that is morally wrong, am I not entitled to the moral high ground for opposing it?

I'm just wondering here: do you feel entitled to take the moral high ground WRT France and GB and appeasement prior to WWII? If deciding not to go to war and being wrong in the judgment is something for which one can be morally criticized, then why isn't the wrong decision to go to war also? Or are you making a different point that I'm not seeing?

As for finding answers in philosophy, I agree. Deciding to go to war in this particular instance is a political question. But political questions, like any other area of human activity, are governed by morality. Decisions may or may not be informed by philosophy, but they are always subject to moral evaluation. Make the wrong decision, and you're morally responsible for it, even if your wrong decision was made for the best of reasons.

10:34 PM  
Blogger Thomas said...


You ask: "Why then, when Congress makes a judgment that is morally wrong, am I not entitled to the moral high ground for opposing it?"

Here's why: You're not laying down a moral principle when you assert that "It's pretty obvious at this point that Iraq did not pose any real threat to the United States. And it's becoming increasingly obvious that most of the available evidence that Iraq did not pose any real threat to the U.S. was pretty much just ignored prior to 2003." You're making a judgment that the decision to invade Iraq was in the "black" -- not in the "grey" or in the "white" -- at the time of its making. That's your judgment, and you're entitled to it. But it is no more than a judgment, and one that may not hold up as we learn more about Saddam's links to and support of terrorism. (And if Saddam succeeded in making it seem that he still had WMD, whose fault is that?)

I do not feel free "to take the moral high ground WRT France and GB and appeasement prior to WWII." I do feel free to say -- in light of the wages of that appeasement -- that the leaders of France and GB made a wrong judgment about the intentions of Hitler, et al. The leaders of France and GB (like many Americans who opposed the invasion of Iraq) made a judgment in support of a moral principle. The moral principle at stake was (and is) the preservation of liberty (economic as well as social). The leaders of France and GB thought (wrongly) that they could preserve liberty (at least the liberty of the countries for which they were responsible) by appeasing Hitler. They were wrong about the virtues of appeasement, but I do not believe that they were immoral.

Yes, there is "black" and "white." Those who said, in the 1930s, that Hitler was "all right" were morally culpable. Hitler was not "all right" -- not by a very long shot. He was evil incarnate. But the appeasers who thought they could avoid war and subjugation by Hitler were "merely" guilty of bad judgment. There is a moral difference (if not a practical one) between a collaborator and a dupe.

So, here's my point: What separates many persons who "quibble" about issues of great import is not their moral principles. What separates them is their judgment about how best to implement those principles. That is why I am loathe to grant (or take) the "moral high ground."

Am I making myself any clearer?


5:29 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

Moral justification for pre-emptive/preventive invasion of Iraq. Singer's(I think) example: Drowning child in the lake, you have a moral responsibility to jump in and save the child. Joe's arguments as to legal standing I agree with, however doesn't moral obligation supercede legal standing? With previous posts concerning universal human rights (which I admit I have problems with) can one make the argument that the US had/has a moral obligation to make the world a safer place (long-term) by removing or coercing those governments that are actively and openly opposed to universal liberty and human rights? I think so. Critics may argue that the US does not have the legal authority to do so, but as a certified lifeguard with Olympic-level swimming abilities, who better to save the drowning child?

3:37 PM  

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