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Morality of pre-emptive attacks and preventive war


To: David Gregory
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Essay on Pre-emptive and preventive war
Date: 11 January 2007 11:06

Dear David,

Thank you for your email of 31 December, with your draft essay for the Associate award, 'Moral Justification, Pre-emptive Attacks and Preventive War.'

You have chosen a great topic. But there is still clearly a lot of work to do.

Your discussion of whether it is 'better' to be 'ruled by another country' belongs to an essay on pacifism or the ethical justification of self-defence. It does suggest however that the first thing you need to do in planning out your essay is construct a moral defence of war as such. It does not go without saying that it is either morally necessary, or morally justified to wage war in self-defence. By the same token, it does not go without saying that it is morally wrong to wage war for the self-interested purposes of 'pursuing diplomacy by other means' which is arguably the reason why most wars have been waged in human history.

So the pattern of your argument will be in two stages: first, establish that war is justifiable as a means of self-defence, while also acknowledging that it is not justifiable for any other reason. This is a defensible position, though as I have indicated not only position that it is possible to take.

Secondly, after establishing that war is justified only as a means of self-defence, the question arises whether or how this justification extends to pre-emptive and preventive attacks or wars. (I am assuming that either an attack or a war can be either pre-emptive or preventive: if you don't hold this then you need to make this clear, and give your reasons.)

I can see from your essay that this was your general idea. However, the important point is that the argument over pre-emptive or preventive war may very well depend on the arguments you have used to justify war in self-defence.

What is self-defence? There are other things that a state needs to defend itself against besides invasion by a foreign force. Concerted terrorism is one very timely example, especially given the horrific possibility of terrorists gaining control of nuclear weapons, which seems inevitable given the present state of nuclear proliferation.

Critics of Bush argue that the invasion of Iraq was really 'all about oil' as if that were a conclusive argument against invasion. But is that so, in every possible case? Consider imaginary scenarios: a country which has previously supplied the bulk of another country's energy needs cuts off the supply, knowing full well that the effects will be economically catastrophic. Is that not a case for going to war 'in self-defence'? The answer may be obvious to you, but you need to articulate the reasons.

The philosophical work will consist in clarifying just what is meant by 'self-defence', how far the notion can be reasonably extended, the idea being that 'self-interest' alone does not justify war (contra the 'diplomacy' view) without the additional 'defensive' element.

The other main philosophical element is the question of how one assesses probability. Here, it might be useful to contrast the kinds of consideration which apply to prudential calculation of probabilities to the ethical case. For example, is it prudent to build a bridge which has a probability of collapsing in a severe storm with probability P (for 'P' put in anything you like). It is not enough to observe that in the real world we often have to act on probability, which goes without saying. The question is how there can be a rational calculation of probability in a particular case, whether there is any gap between prudence and morality in this regard, and if so how that gap arises.

There is also a possible issue of how a personal prudential or moral calculation differs from one which affects a large number of people.

Your particular arguments, such as the moral requirement that one exhausts every possible alternative, look OK. But consider the possibility that in an actual case, even when we are clear about the philosophical and ethical principles involved, there may be no way to reach a decision over whether it would be moral to go to war or not. Philosophy has its limits.

All the best for 2007,