Sunday, June 06, 2004

a brief introduction to Walzer's jus ad bellum

The hardest part of understanding Michael Walzer's theory of jus ad bellum is trying to figure out why so many people use such an obscure Latin term to describe it. The dictionary will tell you that jus ad bellum is "a set of criteria that are consulted before engaging in war in order to determine whether entering into war is justifiable." But this dressed-up Latin vocabulary is more confusing than it is helpful, and often it comes pre-packaged with centuries-old laws of war that add little to Walzer’s own position. Walzer’s argument is much more clear and straightforward: it gives us grounds to say which wars are right and which ones wrong.

The first step to Walzer’s theory is to make a fundamental assumption: that the fair and efficient way to establish limits on the policies of each country is to introduce international rules of law. Countries that violate these rules can then fairly be labeled as “in the wrong” in any military conflict; they can be viewed as the authors of an unjust war and punished accordingly. It would be foolish to expect each government to independently and permanently renounce military action; international legal rules have in fact proven themselves a beneficial method of “smoothing out” the relations between countries and preventing, or limiting, the many costs of war. In the absence of rules, war becomes more frequent and more vicious; rules become the acknowledged boundary between decent relations and brutality. They do not have the same degree of legal clarity as domestic laws, but these rules of war have the same purpose, which is to announce the ultimate limits on each country’s freedom in its foreign policies and help us to distinguish decent foreign policies from brutal.

In the next step, Walzer builds his theory by laying down two of its central concepts. The principle of nonintervention is the rule that actually tells us when a given country has violated the laws of war. The principle is widely accepted in international law and politics, and its content is quite obvious. In effect the principle draws moral boundaries between political communities: to violate nonintervention is to engage in aggressive war, which is always wrong, always blameworthy and punishable. The notion of self-determination that supports this principle and makes it convincing is not as clear and obvious, and therefore needs to be utilized more carefully. The notion is often interpreted in two conflicting ways: as referring to the full expression of a country’s national will, such as when we say about democratic country that it’s government is “by the people”; or as a term for a society “not-interfered with” by colonizing foreigners or aggressive neighbors.

For Walzer, the second interpretation of self-determination is clearly the appropriate one. To advance the first would be to suggest the principle of nonintervention should prohibit attacks on all democratic societies while leaving non-democratic countries exposed. Such a rule would not just be unpopular among non-democratic countries, it would be wrong, for it is patently unjust to design or “rig” the system to protect one kind of society against the ravages of military attack. It would be self-defeating to interpret self-determination in this “exclusive” way, since we know that each democratic society developed its own political traditions independently, through a continuing process of internal conflict and balancing of interests. It would be a mistake to imagine that societies possessing strong and true liberties have always been so fortunate; it is precisely the process of internal self-development that enables democratic countries to establish free and representative institutions. Therefore all countries—including both democratic and developing ones—deserve the protection supplied by the principle of nonintervention.

Furthermore, since it would become permissible based on the exclusive interpretation for a democratic country to use force in a non-democratic country solely for purposes of political reform, to think about self-determination and nonintervention exclusively it would be not only be self-defeating but coercive. There is obviously an element of “self-help” in this idea of nonintervention, and this element has thrown off several critics of Walzer whose aim it is to provide moral reinforcement for the rules of going to war. Critics have argued that Walzer’s principle of nonintervention potentially ignores the voices of those who live under non-democratic and oppressive regimes. These persons might prefer foreign intervention to prolonged domestic oppression; they might not find Walzer’s arguments about the self-defeating and coercive nature of “exclusive nonintervention” so convincing.

All the same, this is the argument Walzer makes about the justice of war, or jus ad bellum. To qualify for nonintervention a country is only required to comply with a minimal sense of the notion of self-determination. Thus the final step in the argument is to give us reasons why a country wouldn’t qualify for nonintervention. Only when a country violates the principle of nonintervention (by waging an aggressive war or by interfering in another country’s civil war) or adopts policies toward its own people that make the original rationale for nonintervention impossible to believe (by engaging in genocide, or ethnic cleansing), is Walzer prepared to say that a war is fought on the side of right and justice. The limitations seem to take away from Walzer’s main premise that the making of war should be forbidden in all circumstances expect self-defense. But in the end they are more accurately viewed as exceptions that prove Walzer’s original rule; they are situations where Walzer’s assumptions cannot be maintained, and where we must therefore set aside, if only provisionally, the commitment to a rule-governed community of states on which we lay our hopes for continued peace.

Monday, May 31, 2004

Hockey Vilence and the Warrior Code

There is a warrior’s honour within the game of hockey that is not well understood outside hockey circles. It’s all the rage to criticize the warrior code these days, and to condemn its famous advocates. The code seems to split the hockey-fanatic element in Canadian community in two halves: those who stand for hockey fights and those who think violence in a sport like hockey is intolerable thuggery. From this split we can also see a widely accepted, but altogether inaccurate, pair of generalizations: there are the nonviolent cerebral types who decry the ethic of the hockey goon, and then there are the slack-jawed, barbaric knuckle draggers who prefer the fight to the game.

In this day and age, it is, of course, a fair criticism to say that organized violence should be viewed as intolerable and either curtailed or eliminated. Violence is everywhere in the media, the schoolyard, in people’s homes, and on the street, and most sensible people should agree that it is imperative to take a public stand about this problem and thereby work toward its eradication. Simply put, violence is something we don’t need any more of. To tolerate violence is to consent to it; to celebrate violence even in the sporting contest is to encourage it everywhere in society. Particularly when we take into account the influence of the game on young children, it seems clear that violence in hockey (indeed, in other sports and other parts of society) faces some genuine arguments against.

This, of course, is the line of thinking that gives the cerebral type so much ammunition. It is also the reason that those types find it easy to characterize their opponents as hooligans. But there is a line of reasoning equally powerful within the camp of the hooligans. There is a set of arguments that would make the hooligans proud, if they had the wherewithal to articulate them in a coherent way.

The reasoning goes something like this. There exists in professional hockey a particular set of rules and standards, and this set is more or less respected by players in the game (although, it is often said, it is respected less and less every year) and has its source in tradition and historic practices in the game. The standards say (roughly) that violence is an acceptable way of resolving disputes in the game but only a) when it is used by players who voluntarily take on the role of physical players, or b) when it is used against a not-so-physical player who oversteps proper role. If you are a goal scorer and you hack and jab another player, you are subject to the discipline that might be metted out by an opposing thug. If you are yourself a thug, you are subject to the warrior code; you must defend yourself or risk be overpowered. All instances of “cheap shots” and intentional injuries make a perpetrator fair game for “disciplining”. All violence, in other words, brings the chance of retribution on the part of opponents, where retribution is like a kind of enforcement of the code.

This is a long way from the ordinary “consent” argument made in connection with occasional flare-ups in this debate. When McSorely whacked Brashear in the head, some folks said that Brashear was open to that sort of treatment because, after all, he was on the ice playing pro hockey! But that can’t be right. After all, we wouldn’t condone that sort of behavior if it went on every night, or star players started to mutilate each other.

The basic consent argument doesn’t convince anyone. But the argument I’ve been making has greater potential. The underlying idea here is that pro hockey players are in the game to earn their living, and so each of them has the right not to be attacked in the course of their night-to-night performance. But for all players, and particularly for the most physical ones, there needs to be a special code of conduct to regulate the difficult cases where this rough and naturally fierce and sometimes brutal game goes a little bit over the edge. That code doesn’t (or shouldn’t) allow players to loose their heads and attack with unrestrained viciousness or with intent to debilitate opponents. But it can reasonably leave the door open for the restrained use of violence where the purpose is to reinforce the code, to enforce the laws (or law-like rules) that hold the game together. Think about the all-too-common cases where a goalie is “run” by an opposing player. One way to penalize the player and his team is to give him time in the penalty box. But this is not much of a penalty at all; the goalie might be jarred by the surprise attack, he might be injured, or he might have lost his cool. It is appropriate to allow in the rules sufficient latitude that the wronged team might literally take justice into their own hands, and punish the offending player for breaking the code, not simply for breaking the rule that says the player should not “interfere” with the opposing goalie.

There are, of course, several other reasons that could be marshaled against the argument I’ve made, for instance that hockey (sports in general) simply isn’t an important enough institution in society to merit this kind of special attention, that there is nothing special that makes hockey the purveyor of special rules and treatment. The pacifist argument might in other words win the day. Or there is also the very real moral argument that the idea of retribution, on which my remarks have largely been based, cannot be justified on rational grounds outside of, say, outright war between countries. But that isn’t something that can be gone into here. Perhaps it is true that the obvious arguments against violence in hockey are the ones we should find convincing. But it must be equally true that the not-so-obvious arguments that are often left unsaid by everyday hockey fans should be given equal consideration by the people who make decisions about the game.

There is much more that one could say about this issue; about the way that critics and advocates have presented their points, and about the empirical problems that plague the argument in favour of the code. But now is not the time. In any case, back to the game!

The Argument about Pesticide Use

It would be useful to set out in detail the basic argument against the use of pesticide use for purely cosmetic purposes around residential homes. Over the past two years this sort of pesticide use has been the subject of controversy and debate in many Canadian towns; everyone from the local alderman to the chemical company to the man with the sprayer in his hand have weighted in on it.

But considering that the basic argument is so straightforward, and so convincing, it is surprising that there is any debate at all. If we think about the debate over abortion and euthanasia, now there are a pair of controversial debates where the conflicts between deeply held moral sentiments and ethical principles runs so deep that a totally satisfying solution is almost impossible to imagine.

The debate over residential pesticide us (not pesticide use to combat infestations, and not use for other non-aesthetic reasons) is nowhere near as problematic. The underlying argument is almost exactly the same as the one used to resolve debates over smoking in public places, or the use of other dangerous chemicals, or dangerous guns and explosives. The arguments fit into exactly the same category.

I’m not sure which of the following strategies would be the best one to adopt in sorting this issue out: take up the counter arguments against the ban on pesticides one by one, or lay out in a precise way the basic framework that gives the arguments context and colour. One way or the other, the argument is more convincing than the second-rate property rights view we often hear from the pesticide fan or the pub owner. One way or the other, I think it would be a useful undertaking to try to sort the argument out.