Syria and Just War Theory

On Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Fernando Teson has a post trying to see if Trump’s actions against Syria conform to Just War Theory. Given that the morality of these actions is obviously something I’m very interested in, I want to try and grapple with it any way I can. There are a handful of lines I want to pull:


According to Teson, “a military action is justified if it meets (at least) two conditions: the cause must be just, and the action must be proportionate, that is, it must not cause excessive damage.” He goes on to talk about how a just war must be in someone’s defense, but then he makes a comment that I focused on right away:

[I]n order for the United States to have a just cause, the strikes must effectively deter the Syrian regime. If Al Assad ignores the threat and persists in his criminal ways with no consequence, then the strikes would have been for naught, an unjustified use of force.

If I can put words in his mouth (or on his screen, as the case may be), this is remarkably similar to something I said a while back,  about when violence was justified. The point I made could be boiled down to “It’s justified if it works,” but here’s what I wrote at the time:

Think about the Foundational Liberties, those “socially useful illusions.” We see that things like hate speech, theft, and violence have negative consequences far more often than they have positive consequences, so for the health of the society, we want to prevent them, and if we see them occurring, we want to stop them. The problem is, if you use violence to stop violence, you have increased the net amount of violence in the world. Any act of violence, anywhere, by anyone, for any reason, erodes the foundation of our Society. Using violence for the sole purpose of removing violence is not sufficient, because you have done nothing but contribute to the destruction of societal norms. The only time violence would be acceptable is if it reinforces the Foundational Liberties of society (in other words, negative violence, or violence that only removes, is unacceptable; positive violence, which adds, is).

The difficulty here, which should be obvious to everybody, is that it is really, really hard to reinforce liberty by denying it. Punching a Nazi or protesting a white supremacist lecturer might feel satisfying, but does it help? You’ve denied someone the right to their own safety in one instance and the right to speak freely in another. Has that resulted in a safer world? Has it resulted in a world where people can speak more freely?

Consequences matter. I’ve been saying that our liberties are means, not ends, and therefore we can skirt them to achieve our goals, but when the goal is a society built on those liberties, it’s really hard to get to where we want to be when we destroy the only way to get there. It’s really hard to build a birdhouse when you start throwing tools away.

The ends absolutely justify the means. But when the end is a society based around certain Foundational Liberties, how easy do you think it’ll be to get there if we violate those freedoms?

The end absolutely justify the means. If violence or oppression results in a better society, it’s justified. But how often do you think that happens?

It brings to mind the old joke: “fighting for peace is like fucking for abstinence.”


Consequences, or ends, or outcomes, or however you want to put it, is another pet focus of mine (see above). They’re the problem for Teson as well:

Imagine that as a result of the airstrikes Russia hardens its support for Al Assad and enables him to perpetrate new atrocities. Or imagine that the airstrikes precipitate a proxy war between Syria and Iraq, each counting Russia and the United States as their respective protectors. Or image that Russia, in retaliation, invades Estonia.

So, unfortunately, judging the Syria airstrikes under JWT is not possible until these consequences are known. It is too early to tell.

Kind of a letdown for anybody hoping for a definitive answer. It’s strange to think that we are only able to justify actions in hindsight; I would rather prefer to think that principles of justice are such that we can use them as a guide, and not merely as a curiosity for historians.

Because really, we know what the consequences are going to be, don’t we? There is broad agreement on all ends of the political spectrum that as a deterrent, this strike was too limited. And even if it serves to prevent any more chemical attacks, no reasonable thinker believes that this will bring Assad to the negotiating table, or will prevent him from killing his people with conventional weapons.

Teson is concerned with the fallout, and rightly so. He is worried that things are going to be made worse. But it seems like the more likely scenario is that nothing changes at all–this strike will almost certainly not improve the situation. Even if it does not make things worse, it served no purpose beyond posturing; and violence without purpose, even in the rare case it does not create more problems, is never just.



Categories: Dispatch

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