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The Syrian Bombings and Just War Theory, Part II

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Current Events, Academic Philosophy Our previous posts disclosed the central disagreement that Bas and I have regarding humanitarian intervention.  Bas thinks that the com...

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Current Events, Academic Philosophy

Our previous posts disclosed the central disagreement that Bas and I have regarding humanitarian intervention.  Bas thinks that the commander’s ex ante decision to intervene can almost never be justified because the prospects of success are too low. I believe, in contrast, that such decisions can sometimes be justified. Here’s my position:

I distinguish between three ideas: the objective wrongness of an event, the permissibility of the decision to bring about the event, and the blameworthiness of the agent in bringing about the event.  An act is wrong, not only when the agent negligently disregards evidence, but also when he is duly diligent about the evidence, believes that evidence, but those beliefs are mistaken. In the latter case, however, he will be absolved from blame. Impermissibility is determined by the following test: an action is impermissible either (1) if the agent was negligent about the evidence, or, (2) if he was diligent about the evidence but the decision was objectively wrong, or (3) if both.  This standard yields the following combinations:

1. Diligence+ success Objectively right Permissible Not blameworthy
2. Diligence+ failure Objectively wrong Impermissible Not blameworthy
3. Negligence + success Objectively right Impermissible Blameworthy
4. Negligence + failure Objectively wrong Impermissible Blameworthy

A humanitarian intervention will be permissible only in the first case.  Thus, the Syria bombings will be justified if (1) they had a just cause; (2) the commander, Trump, weighed consequences responsibly, and (3) the bombings satisfied proportionality, that is, they turned out well. In my estimation, (1) is satisfied; there are serious doubts about (2), and there are some doubts about (3). If (2) is not satisfied, then I will agree with Bas that the bombings were impermissible even if they turn out all right. But, for the moment, as I wrote in the initial post, I reluctantly believe that the action satisfied the test (I am somewhat comforted by the fact that Trump is surrounded by competent commanders.) Notice that it is possible to say, on my account, that the intervention was objectively right (it turned out well; say it deterred future crimes), even if it was impermissible.

In the book I respond in detail to Bas’ quite compelling ex ante objection. Here is my third and final reason to reject his approach:

My third and final reply appeals to reflective equilibrium. If Van der Vossen is right, he should be a pacifist. The uncertainties that worry him are present in all wars and revolutions; it is not possible to invoke them only to question humanitarian wars. The Allied decision to fight Germany in 1939 was impermissible, as was the United States declaration of war against Japan in 1941. Abraham Lincoln should not have fought the Civil War, and rebel groups facing tyrants are similarly misguided. On this view, just cause is virtually irrelevant, as it is precisely in those cases when the objection here discussed operates. Because I do not believe that all wars are unjust (I am not a pacifist), I cannot accept that position. In other words: one of my prior fixed points is that some wars are just. The position we are discussing, if valid, indicts all wars, past, present, and future, and is implausible for that reason.

In concluding, I should point out that, although I’m unable to accept Bas’ argument, it is the best I have encountered against humanitarian intervention.

Fernando Teson
Fernando Tesón is an Argentine-American legal academic who is known for his contributions to the law of humanitarian intervention and to the philosophy of law. He is the Tobias Simon Eminent Scholar at Florida State University College of Law. His publications include Humanitarian Intervention: An Inquiry into Law and Morality (3rd ed fully revised and updated, Transnational Publishers 2005); Rational Choice and Democratic Deliberation (Cambridge University Press 2006) [with Guido Pincione]; A Philosophy of International Law (Westview Press 1998); and many articles in law, philosophy, and international relations journals and collections of essays.

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