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Must justice result in war and violence?


To: John P.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Must Justice result in War and Violence?
Date: 18 November 2001 12:01

Dear Wilfredo,

Thank you for your e-mail of 7 November, with your essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, 'Must Justice result in War and Violence?'.

As I write this, an orgy of reprisals is under way in Afghanistan. From the beginning, however, I have supported the effort of the Western allies. In my mind, the issue was never about justice, but about sheer necessity. The appeal to justice is legitimate, as a means of winning political support and keeping the fragile coalition together. It is a sad fact that people and nations are all too often incapable of combining together to take action in their own self interest. The fiasco over global warming is just one example.

You have written an 'aporetic' essay, which ends with the question, 'Must justice always result in war and violence?' unanswered.

The first point I would make is that Justice administered in a court of law is not violence (although we can question the merits of certain forms of physical punishment, such as beating or hand removal). Capturing the criminal and bringing them to court may require violence. The pain suffered by the criminal in being chased, or bound up or shot is not their 'punishment', or should not be seen as such. However, different crimes justify different degrees of force in pursuit and capture. You would not pursue a shoplifter with the same force as a murderer. In measuring police response, questions of justice do arise, but this is not, to repeat, because the force required to capture the criminal is regarded as part of their punishment. It would be interesting to see how philosophers would approach this delicate question in practical ethics. I do not know of any philosopher who has written about it.

Obviously, this has important bearing on the events in Afghanistan. However, as I said above, I do not think that the coalition effort is primarily about seeking to bring culprits to justice.

For me, the central context of the question of justice, or ethics and violence arises with the question of how clashes between incompatible ethical beliefs and value systems are to be resolved. One of the major themes of current events is the clash between the 'liberal' Western democracies, and fundamentalism. However, 'liberalism' is beset by contradictions. Underlying traditional liberalism is a totalitarian philosophy of 'reason', deriving from the utilitarianism of Mill and Bentham. In the moral philosophy program, Reason, Values and Conduct, I argue for an 'ethics of dialogue' as the only acceptable alternative to (a) a preference utilitarianism which brands every form of moral belief other than the belief in the maximization of preference satisfaction as 'fanatical' (the Oxford moral philosopher R.M. Hare uses this term) or (b) going to war to fight for one's own moral views. Illustrative cases in question are animal rights and abortion, where, in both cases, activists have resorted to bombings and murders for the same of their 'cause'.

In moral dialogue, we engage with the other, knowing in advance that there is no possibility that they will be 'persuaded' to accept our view. The aim is to find some kind of accommodation between our conflicting beliefs and ideals, a way of living together which does not involve giving up the things we hold dear. It is a difficult balancing act, fraught with dangers.

Note, here, that we are not dealing with the idea of righting a wrong done in the past, i.e. seeking an eye for an eye, but rather with parties who see one another as holding a view which is erroneous, or even ethically repugnant. A different idea of justice is operating here, which still connects with the root notion of balancing which you talk about in your essay, but is all about the present and the future, rather than the past. It is the search, not for harmony of beliefs - something which can never be achieved - but rather a sense of how far it may be acceptable to press our different claims, taking into account the overall imperative of living together and keeping the peace.

In my view, the imperative to seek moral dialogue is the fundamental law of ethics.

All the best,