Is there a philosophical justification for war in the contest of Syria
Several hundreds of articles have been written in a persuasive manner over the past week and beyond regarding whether or not the UK (or indeed any country) should intervene in the conflict within Syria – but I’d like to analyse it a little differently to other articles.
I’ve read some phenomenal pieces recently (most of which are on this very site) regarding political positions taken on intervention within Syria which have covered very valid arguments both for and against military intervention – but what I’d like to really discuss is the philosophical debate of whether any war or intervention can ever be truly justified?
Thomas St Aquinas truly formalised the debate by coming up with a criteria of when a war is and is not justified and he did so underneath two particular concepts:
1 – JUS AD BELLUM – the conditions under which military force is justified.
2 – JUS IN BELLO – how to conduct a war in an ethical manner.
Aquinas argued that, in order for a war to be ‘just’, both these conditions must be met, as if they weren’t, war would just be a brutish alternative to the harder route of negotiations/diplomacy. Furthermore, Aquinas himself was an extremely dedicated Christian and argued the following:
‘The sovereign is God’s representative on earth and has the moral authority to punish any wrong-doers and resist invasion whether it be defensive (in order to protect thy-self) or offensive (in order to protect and uphold God’s law).’
So what are these conditions that have to be met?
– War must be waged by the legitimate, moral sovereign and only if redress (treaties) cannot be gained by more peaceful means.
– There must be sufficient cause – rescuing the weak and needy from the wicked.
– There must be the intention to promote good and secure peace and not exercise excessive cruelty.
These three conditions on first glance appear to be rather rational and self-evident, but on further analysis we can see serious cracks begin to form. Firstly, how do you judge intentions, actions and ‘excessive cruelty’? This is surely down to the discretion of the invader/defender to decide what is and is not excessive cruelty, and, with regard to the former, what are the criteria on what intentions and actions are just? It all appears to be extremely vague, which, for me, is simply unacceptable on such a crucially important subject. War isn’t a game; it’s a matter of life or death.
However my key issue comes with Aquinas’ use of “God’s Law” – forgive me if I’m wrong, but isn’t God’s law made up commandments such as “Thou Shalt Not Kill”? Or is it fine to make an exception for a war here and there? In addition, isn’t it extremely arguable that wars are often waged due to religious imperialism/disputes (eg Egypt and arguably Syria)?
This leads me onto Immanuel Kant’s infamous doctrine of what ‘The Categorical Imperative’ – which, in blunt terms, means to simply act as if your behaviour were to become moral law. An example of this is killing – if I kill a person, would that then be OK for other men to kill others? The answer is no – thus all killing is wrong and it thus logically follows that all war is wrong. Although I vehemently disagree with Kant due to the naïveté of his argument, it still remains a valid argument with regards to whether or not a war can ever be just – if killing one person is wrong in an every-day situation then why is killing several right in a contextual war situation?
To put this all into perspective for everyone, then the philosophical doctrine of a ‘just war’ seems rather vastly outdated and just a spectrum of internal vagueness and ridiculously open to manipulation. With this in mind then, what would the average philosopher say regarding military intervention in Syria?
There remains no question that the claims against Syria are remarkably severe – using chemical weapons against your own civilians for 99% is utterly abhorrent and cannot be justified (unless of course you’re a Machiavellian) – but does this mean we have a ‘moral duty’ to intervene and, in David Cameron’s words, bring peace and democracy to a troubled land?
From my earlier work you’ll realise that I don’t believe Democracy is all it’s cracked up to be, but, more importantly, it’s my belief that intervention is nothing more than an imperialistic and overly-masculine way of the state throwing its muscle around saying ‘stop being like this and be like us’ – but I once again fail to see why more families should be thrown into the chaos and have their lives potentially ended when, in total honesty, all the evidence hasn’t even been verified yet!
Politicians sit in their comfy chairs and throw out motions as it’s a part of their day job – what they need to realise is that a vote on intervention isn’t just ‘Ayes’ vs ‘Noes’ – but more importantly, the potential sacrificing of our citizens’ blood. I entirely concur that peace is worth fighting for – but that doesn’t mean brute force is the only option here at all. Diplomacy and evidence are needed before rushing family men and women into a battlefield and, if all else fails, perhaps the case for intervention has to be revaluated.
As Heywood once said – “Wars are waged when an unpopular power looks weak or when the Government does not fulfil citizen’s expectations – but in neither scenario is war inevitable”.