Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Probllems with Walzer

by Jeremy Page

Although Walzer is supposedly the foremost Just War Theorist we have been studying, it has not stopped our class from finding “issues” in his writings. I have found that sometimes I am able to agree with Walzer, but with a great deal of modifications to his writing. Walzer’s writing on War Crimes is no exception; I have found that most of the conclusions that Walzer comes up with, in this chapter, are acceptable, but some of the ideas he considers to get there are not.

Walzer, at the beginning of the chapter, advances the idea that “it is the doctrine of rights that makes the most effective limit on military activity, and it does so precisely because it rules out calculation and establishes hard and fast standards” (Walzer 304). Whoa! Wait a minute; Walzer seems to be saying that a sense of absolutist morality is more than adequate for judging the conduct of soldiers and their responsibility. This strikes me as problematic because generally Walzer is advocating some sort of consequentialist philosophy. Oh wait, Walzer tends to change his “moral formulas” based on the subject at hand. At least this time he is able to openly state that consequentialist thought is not adequate enough for this particular subject. Maybe I should ask why he seems to find it adequate only “some of the time” instead of most of the time. Walzer seems to switch up his philosophy whenever it suits his argument. Ah, so much for consistency.

Walzer seems to find that his liking of a “more absolutist philosophy” “amounts to this: that a nation fighting a just war, when it is desperate and survival itself is at risk, must use unscrupulous or morally ignorant soldiers [and tactics]; and as soon as their usefulness is past, it must disown them” (Walzer 325). Walzer find’s Machiavelli’s statement that “it is very rare for ‘a good man should be found willing to employ wicked means,’” to be less realistic than the first one. Even though Walzer is using these two statements in reference to the bomber incidents during WWII involving Winston Churchill’s orders, it seems fitting to me that this is also capable of describing a more general approach to the issue. Here, it seems that instead of being a consequentialist, Walzer is simply stating the obvious: we’re going to do all of the most vile things to ensure the best possible outcome. He is not stating that these actions are negligible because of the consequences, but he is simply saying “oh well.”

I find it quite odd that of all places for Walzer to willingly discard consequentialist thought he does so here. War seems to stretch our sense of morality to points we might otherwise not desire it to go; and in some cases people might suggest that there is no morality in total war. The ends justifying the means seem to lend themselves to situations in warfare, especially the conduct of a soldier. I suppose that it’s less about justification of certain actions than it is about outlining what is not acceptable. Fortunately, Walzer recognizes completely consequentialist arguments will not provide an acceptable outline-but it’s unclear if any real outline can be offered.

At the end of the chapter, in the conclusion, Walzer leaves us with the thoughts of Thomas Nagel and his essay entitled “War and Massacre.” Nagel goes to a place in the battle between absolutist thought and consequentialist thought: we find that “our situation at such a time in terms of a conflict between utilitarian and absolutist modes of thought: we know that there are some outcomes that must be avoided at all costs, and we know that there are some costs that can never rightly be paid. We must face the possibility, Nagel argues, ‘that these two forms of moral intuition are not capable of being brought together in a single, coherent moral system, and that the world can present us with situations in which there is not honorable or moral course for a man to take, no course free of guilt and responsibility for evil’” (Walzer 325-326).

It seems apparent to me that an absolutist paradigm is the most easily applied idea, that is because purely utilitarian thought provides no real rights and no concrete dogma to attach ones’

beliefs to. But wait a minute, maybe absolutist philosophy is too rigid to be workable in times of war (past the point of certain obvious ideas like targeting of civilians and genocide) and utilitarianism is too flexible. I don’t see why Walzer isn’t interested in attempting to introduce rule utilitarianism. Isn’t this the solution to Nagel’s issue “between utilitarian and absolutist modes of thought?”

At this point, Walzer illustrates Nagel’s statement by noting that politicians are, by the nature of their work, predisposed to following utilitarian thought (see Walzer’s account of Winston Churchill he has used as an example for Machiavelli’s statement). Surely politicians use this mode of thought, but Walzer seems to point out that they are justified in using this mode of thought (but not necessarily the actions brought on by such thought) and that soldiers are not. I would argue that enlisted men, for the most part, should use absolutist thought-but not officers. It seems that Walzer believes this distinction between officer and “ordinary soldiers” to be real: ordinary soldiers must be proven guilty while officers are guilty and must prove themselves not guilty. Walzer is willing to put the burden of proof on the officer, but not on the ordinary soldier. I find it odd that, given Walzer’s stated desire to have strict rules regarding conduct implemented, he is unable to find some sort of standard that an officer ought to be held to. The idea that the “burden of proof…lies with them” is ridiculous (Walzer 322).

Walzer notes that politicians are in their positions so that they are capable of making utilitarian decisions on dilemmas. Walzer also, in previous pages, notes that soldiers should follow absolutist thought in their conduct during wartime affairs. I find that notion adequate for the enlisted men, but pointless for officers. While I hesitate to directly compare military officers to politicians, I cannot ignore that they both find themselves in leadership positions that should enable them to make utilitarian decisions. In most cases, I would argue that they should follow rule utilitarianism, and in fact politicians should almost always do so, but not officers. It is true that officers have the responsibility to decrease the number of likely civilian deaths, and all soldiers (according to Walzer) cannot justify reckless actions with the notion of self preservation, but it seems to me that in the most dire cases, officers should be able to disregard (absolutist rules or) rule utility for mere utility. Maybe this points out that I’ve been reading too much Walzer as of late because I seem not to have any problem with switching the approach to morality whenever it suits my argument.

At this point is seems appropriate to outline what exactly I think should be a general guideline for officer’s conduct on the battlefield. I am going to take a few ideas from Walzer. Officers are directly responsible for the affairs they are charged with overseeing, and so long as an officer has control of his post-he is responsible for his soldiers’ conduct (with respect to the situation General Yamashita found himself in). If an officer has no reasonable knowledge of immoral acts committed by his men, then he cannot be held responsible-the fact that an officer does not know what is going on during his direct command indicates he does not have real control. An officer must take initiative to shield the “weak and unarmed” (Walzer 317) from possible violation by his men and their actions. Walzer goes on to list what exactly this means an officer cannot order, and for now, I am willing to agree to this list.

Walzer continues to say that “military commanders have two further and morally crucial responsibilities. First, in planning their campaigns, they must take positive steps to limit even unintended civilian deaths” as well as considering proportionality of such deaths to military advances. Walzer’s second “morally crucial responsibility” is that “military commanders…must take positive steps to enforce the war convention and the men under their command to its standards” (Walzer 317). In other words, they are responsible for policing what goes on during their commands because they are able to be held responsible for it.

I suggest, more explicitly than I did earlier, that rule utilitarianism is the desirable moral system for officers to follow, and in the past two paragraphs I have given a rough idea of the rules I think should be implemented. These rules are Walzer’s, but he does not propose that that they may be broken for utility’s sake. For me to argue that we should use rule utilitarianism and that these are a rough idea of the rules, and then for me to suggest we break them (even for soldiers’ self preservation) whenever we see fit is hardly acceptable. So I am instead suggesting that we should look more closely at the rules involving officers’ conduct and responsibility and seek to refine them a little bit. It may be accurate for some to suppose that I am advocating less restrictions of who and what an officer may have targeted, given his situation, and that this turns me more into a realist than someone thinking about rule utilitarianism.


Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

Perhaps I am misunderstanding you, but at one point you make the statement that things that go on without the officer's knowledge is permissible because he doesn't actually have control. I think this is a grave mistake. Aside from the obvious abuse that this "I didn't know what was happening" excuse has seen in the past, there remains I an officer above the one in question II a person perpetrating the offense and III someone who is being offended (don't mistake this use of offended with the vulgar use such as: "she said I looked fat, I'm offended").

Essentially, I am saying that the claim "I didn't know they were torturing those inmates that had no possible shred of information pertaining to the war" is weak, at best and a blatant lie to avoid prosecution at worst.

8:24 AM  
Blogger Wesley Gibbs said...

I enjoyed your attack on Walzer's inconsistency quite a bit. I also agree with you that it is foolish to say an officer must prove himself not guilty, and the soldier has to be proven guilty. I have a dislike for this kind of double standard. The one problem I did see was your portion on the officer's lack of knowledge, but Mitch has basically expressed my objections in a more thought out and eloquent way than I could have. Thus I'll just say ditto to what Mitch says.

10:36 AM  
Anonymous Kim Morrison said...

Until reading this paper I hadn't actually realized how flighty Walzer has been. Excellent points made about his making things fit his argument. Your points about refining the responsibilities of an officer were also good. I also do not see why an officer should be responsible for the actions of his soldiers if he does not have direct control over them (Yamashita incident). I also understand what Mitch is saying. However, I don't think acts committed by an officer's soldiers without his knowledge are deemed permissible but that the officer should not immediately be held accountable for actions he was unaware of. I think this would be better illustrated by an officer who has been completely cut off from the majority of his soldiers and has no way of knowing their actions. Obviously lacking control over his soldiers I don't see how he can be held accountable for their actions. However, I do not believe this "I swear I didn't know" defense applies at all to the officers involved in Mitch's example.

12:41 PM  
Anonymous Jeremy Page said...

Ahhh, that portion about a commanding officer not knowing=not being in control was something I think we'll wind up discussing tonight. I did note that I expected some of the ideas to be discussed. I understand where you're coming from Mitch, in fact...I agree with you to a certain extent.

3:18 PM  
Blogger Drew said...

i agree with you, and i feel strongly on the notion of combat and war, and how a person should not be charged with such things unless they are targeting non comnbatants. your essay was insightful, great job, but pay more careful to details that Walzer points out. I dont think that some of your depictions of Walzer are accurate, then again, i have a wierd way of interpreting things, over all great job

3:19 PM  
Anonymous Jeremy Page said...

I tend to enjoy writing more for politics, hence my tendancy to misuse quotes. I've tried to watch it...especially with this essay, but sometimes it happens anyways. I think I noted that I was quoting Walzer out of line, but that I felt that the quote echoed his general opinion.

3:27 PM  
Blogger Adam Johnson said...

I maintain that while the officer not knowing doesn't excuse him from responsibility (mostly for the reaons Mitch stated), but it does seem like a less severe moral violation than actively participating in it.

3:34 PM  
Anonymous Steven Grueshaber said...

If the commanding officer does in fact know nothing about what is going on with his soldiers, then I would say he's morally innocent. However, allowing that as a rule does have the drawbacks that Mitch pointed out. Also, a commanding officer unaware of what his soldiers are doing is likely incompetent and a bad officer anyway. So, as a rule, it is difficult to permit allowing some to plead ignorance in such a case, especially for something as big as torture.

3:39 PM  
Anonymous jamie mccall said...

While there may be circumstances where an officer doesnt know whats going on, isnt that their job - to make sure they do know whats happening with the people they are responsible for at all times? The "I didnt know" excuse shouldnt be a valid argument, to me...

11:03 AM  

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