21 March 2011

Principles of War

In which S.M. Oliva makes an observation:

 The conservative assumption is that the right to declare war is a “sovereign” power inherent in all monopoly governments. The libertarian ethic cautions that only individuals have rights; there are no legitimate “sovereign” powers that go beyond these individual rights. The group has no more right or authority than the individual. The metaphorical construct called the “United States of America” has no greater or lesser right to commit aggression against Libya then I do.

Not only is interventionism counterproductive, it’s also profoundly immoral.  Since it’s obviously wrong for one person to act in aggression towards Libya, it necessarily follows that it is wrong for a collective of people to act in aggression towards Libya.  Large numbers of people agreeing with one another do not, surprisingly, determine the morality of a behavior.  Might does not, in fact, make right.

This necessarily begs the question of what sort of military conflicts are moral.  The answer is fairly simple, and can be arrived at by considering an individual’s rights.

It is axiomatic that no person is morally compelled to endure abuse at the hands of another.  Each person owns himself and, as such, has complete autonomy insofar as exercising one’s autonomy does not interfere in another’s self-exercise of autonomy.  Within this framework, then, it is obvious that all persons are forbidden from aggressing towards another, but are allowed to defend themselves if necessary.

Within the framework of self-defense, it is necessary to point out that one’s self-defense is limited to doing so on his own property (e.g. one cannot chase a burglar off his property, and then track him down and kill him).  Further note that no one is under any moral obligation to interfere in any others’ altercations.  Also note that one cannot reasonably expect self-defense to be a viable justification for one’s actions if one instigates the conflict.  Of course, these are general rules, so the specific morality of each conflict is contingent on the specific details of the situation.

However, a general framework for justifying war can be determined.

In the first place, a policy of non-interventionism is called for.  This simply means, in the light of foreign policy, that nations should avoid instigating conflict.  There is no reason to send troops outside of this country in time of peace.  There is no reason to interfere in other nations’ affairs.

In the second place, there is no justification for a preemptive strike.  It is impossible to say with certainty in advance if a given nation will attack us.  It also immoral to assume that most will, and so we should destroy them to be safe.  Also, a policy of aggression tends to make matters worse.  In addition, a willingness to preemptively engage in war has a tendency to overestimate the probability of danger, leading to an escalation of the military-industrial complex, which starts a downward spiral of increasing hostility and aggression, which makes everyone worse off, save for the generals and the CEOs of defense contractors.

In the third place, it is generally wrong to wage a defensive war on foreign ground.  Indeed, it is definitionally impossible.

As such, the general principle for engaging in war should be that it is only in response to a specific attack, and that said war consists of killing or otherwise removing all enemies currently within the borders of one’s country.  Beyond that, there are few reasons to be engaged in conflict, particularly if said conflict is being waged outside one’s country.


  1. I put my long response here

    Short answer: the fact that there has never been a libertarian form of government on the face of the planet should provide some insight into the difference between what you call moral and what really exists.

  2. "In the third place, it is generally wrong to wage a defensive war on foreign ground. Indeed, it is definitionally impossible."

    The Israelis who fought the Six-Day War would doubtless have some comments on this, probably involving the phrase "naive fool" somewhere along the way.

    There are plenty of other examples but I won't waste space on them. I keep running into this sort of reductio ad absurdum whenever I follow the absolutist libertarian stance far enough. These principles are just fine at being consistent with each other. The problem is, they aren't consistent with experimental results from the world as it actually is. Feynman: "If it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong."

    (also, you seem to have picked the very worst and least alternate-browser-compliant comment form available, IE is the only one I can get to work with this)

  3. @rollory- remember that principles are starting points, not ending points. Also, mind the tautology.

    And what sort of OS do you use? I'm running on Win7, and have had no problem with Blogger's comments when using Opera, IE9, Firefox 3.6, or Chrome. I'm always looking to minimize design problems. Of course, there are limits to what I can do.

  4. What about the Libyan rebels request for no-fly zones and airstrikes? If someone asks for intervention and it is granted, do you still regard that as immoral?

  5. @GrellFar- Every citizen of the country would have to request the intervention (this can be accomplished by a representative process, if so desired by the population). Even then, the one who receives a request for intervention is under no obligation to acquiesce. Further, it is still immoral to use force for reasons other than self-defense.

    Thus, if American officials were invited to broker an agreement, they could bring troops with them (this is morally similar to an individual carrying a gun), and use the military force if attacked. It's important to remember that might does not make right, and thus the American government is not the final arbiter of morality.

    My specific view of the morality of intervention under the conditions you stated is that is immoral for any nation to intervene, since the rebels do not represent the whole country. I do believe there are some cases when intervention may be moral (though not necessarily prudent). US intervention is neither in this case.