The Moral Status of a War


As the last of the United States’ armed forces withdraw from their prolonged engagement in Iraq, an observer can pause to reflect and consider the moral status of this conflict. Two recent experiences – incredibly trivial though they may be – inform my analysis. Firstly, I happened to chance upon In the Valley of Elah (a 2007 film whose story aims to highlight some of the terrible psychological effects that can result from throwing young individuals into such a conflict) the other day, and I found it quite compelling. Secondly, in a recent philosophy seminar that I was overseeing, a student attempted to raise the war in Iraq as an example that might offer support for a more general point about the validity of a consequentialist justification in moral reasoning; at the time I didn’t have any knowledge of the numbers involved, so I couldn’t say much about the nature of the example as regards a strictly consequentialist calculation. Due to my role, I felt compelled to stay silent at the time, and it left me frustrated.


I shall elaborate upon this second instance first. The war in Iraq was mentioned because – so the student asserted – America’s action was a reaction to 9/11, the war being started in order to prevent future attacks; therefore given that fewer Americans had died in the war in Iraq than in the 9/11 attacks (or so it was believed in the, as it turns out, rather ignorant context of the seminar) then if the war had successfully prevented another attack on the scale of 9/11, it ought to be considered, overall, a good thing. Now, as I have recently discovered, the death toll for American soldiers in Iraq stands at “nearly 4,500”, and therefore the example appears to fail on the most basic terms of its calculation. But placing this point to one side for a moment, can we instead ask how legitimate it may be to even ask such a question, or to put such a question in such terms? Would such a consequentialist calculation sufficiently justify a war? Could it? As ever, there is always a game to be played – especially in philosophy seminars – whereby one can repeatedly alter the variables in the calculation in order to find the point at which the consequentialist calculation breaks down. Let’s say Saddam had WMDs, and he was definitely going to deploy them…would the war have been obviously justified? Perhaps so. What if he had them, but wasn’t planning on deploying them…still ok? What about if he didn’t have them? (I won’t wade into that debate…) Intellectually stimulating as this silly little game may be, it doesn’t really hit to the heart of matter does it? And why not, we may ask…


The lens of the international news presents two images of a war: It presents, firstly, the big picture, the numerical information, which largely amounts to the statistics concerning the numbers of casualties, the financial cost of the conflict, and so on. Secondly, it presents the little picture, the human face of the conflict; it shows us the stories of the individuals ‘on the ground’. The news tells us these things because it is the news, and that’s what the news does…it’s the news’ job to tell us about the stuff that we’re interested in, and when it comes to war, we are interested in these things. If it only told us about the stats, we would feel a strong inclination to know more about what it was actually like, ‘on the ground’. If we were only shown the stories on the ground, we would want to know more about how this fits into the big picture. Now though ‘level of interest’ is hardly a philosophically robust measure to base any kind of theory on, it is undoubtedly the case that we are interested in these two things, the big picture and the little picture. That much is obvious.


Returning to our consequentialist calculation, we see that part of the problem of engaging with an issue such as war on such strictly consequentialist terms is that the calculation seems too stuck in the ‘big picture’ perspective. From this point of view, many things can appear to be utterly justified. But from the ‘little picture’ perspective, precisely the same things can appear utterly unjustifiable. Posing a question about the moral status of this war, or any war, in strictly consequentialist terms therefore misses some important elements, and it does this by presupposing that only the big picture counts. Only the big picture can ultimately count, in consequentialist terms; and the truth of that is far from obvious.


How else can I conclude this but with a glib and pathetic point about the likely necessity of involving a profound sense of both perspectives in any moral judgement…? Well, why not.




Related Articles:


Recent Work on the Ethics of Self-Defense


Tyler Doggett




Douglas W. Portmore


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