vol. 58 no. 2
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Questions for George Weigel in response to his "Moral Clarity in a Time of War"
Ted Koontz is professor of ethics and peace studies at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, IN. He
holds a doctorate in international relations from Harvard University.
There is a great deal of food for thought in this essay. I find myself wanting to respond at many points and
am unable pull out a single strand (or even a few strands) that allows me to untangle my questions. The best I can do
is to pose a few questions, some of which reflect my need for further clarification on certain points, and some of
which reflect my skepticism at other points.
- In what ways, if any, are your views particularly or uniquely Christian? Perhaps the most obvious,
though certainly not the most profound ("profundity" would require an explication especially of the meaning of
cross and resurrection), way to pose this question is to ask about the meaning of love of enemy. This is something,
which seems mandated by Jesus but something which seems scandalously unreasonable. It is also something that
does not enter into your discussion. Is this absence because love of enemy in Jesus' teaching is only "personal" and
not "political"? Is God's revelation in Jesus relevant only to the personal, but not to the political (even though you
rightly argue that morality is relevant to both the personal and the political, including war)? How do revelation and
reason relate? On these matters of war and peace, will (or, at what points will) the moral wisdom of Christian saints
and the moral wisdom of secular thinkers and the moral wisdom of saints from other religious traditions converge or
diverge? Do the teaching, life, death, resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the particularity of the biblical narratives,
shape your convictions about morality in warfare in particular ways? By "particular ways" I mean ways which make
your convictions about the morality of warfare different from those which would be arrived at by people starting
from secular or other religious perspectives.
- If particular Christian claims shape your views, how do they do so? That they do is not evident to me.
And if they do, how can a view, which is shaped by a particular religious tradition, be taken as normative for a
religiously pluralistic nation, let alone for a religiously pluralistic world?
- If particular Christian claims do not shape your views, why should Christians, who believe that reality
is ultimately most clearly revealed in Jesus Christ, take your views as normative? In other words, what is the
Christian theological justification or rationale for your argument?
- How is defending the "national interest," which is a (the?) central task of political leaders, related to
defending "justice" or "peace" or the "tranquillity of order" in a broader or more universal sense? That is, how does
the particular moral responsibility of a nation's leaders to protect the interests of their nation intersect with what I
understand to be the "universal" requirements of just war thinking? By the "universal" requirements of just war
thinking I mean that, when contemplating a war, just war thinking requires theologians, ethicists, citizens, military
leaders, and political leaders to include equally (at least more or less) in their calculus of costs and benefits all of
those affected by the war, not only those within their particular countries. I have seen this "universality" of moral
perspective as one of the distinctive features of the just war tradition (JWT), and the feature which most clearly
separates the JWT from "realism." On this point, I see "realism" as a tradition which unabashedly argues that it is
our particular national interest, excluding the interests of other nations or peoples (except as fostering those nations'
interests enhances our nation's interest), that should guide policy makers in their decisions.
I have the sense from your essay that, at least in recent and projected American wars, you weigh American
lives far more heavily in the moral balance than the lives of other "innocents," and that you weigh our national
interest more heavily than the national interest of other nations. My study of the JWT, especially as interpreted by
my professor Michael Walzer (who repeatedly requires soldiers fighting a just war to take added risks upon
themselves in order to protect innocents), causes me to doubt your weighting. If "our lives" are worth more than
"their lives" is your perspective really significantly different from the amoral realism that you reject near the
beginning of the essay? Does some calculation of the well being of everyone, not just us, need to "trump" national
self-interest, unless the JWT is to become simply a moral fig leaf for that self-interest? And has that problem of
narrow national interest masquerading as just war not been a central problem throughout Christian history, with
virtually all rulers and all soldiers on all sides of all wars claiming that they are fighting just wars - hiding behind
the moral fig leaf? I worry that at points your interpretation of the JWT might fall into justifying narrow
nationalisms which is one of the sins of realism that you rightly criticize. This worry is partly based on the place you
give to the calculation of national interest in just war thinking, but it also grows out of what appears to be a disdain
in your essay for the opinions (and moral convictions?) of other nations and peoples - American perspectives seem
rooted in morality, while the perspectives of others seem rooted in selfish interests (at best). I suspect that helping to
create an authentic "tranquillity of order" will require of the United States a willingness to hear both others'
perceptions of us and others' moral commitments that I find disturbingly absent in this essay.
- A related question: can a war be morally just on both sides simultaneously? My understanding of the
tradition is that a war can be morally justified only on one side, at most (wars frequently are unjust on both
sides-witness wars between colonial powers seeking to conquer the same territories). It is true that as the JWT
developed it was recognized that both sides can plausibly believe they are fighting just wars ("simultaneous
ostensible justice"). But my understanding is that the tradition has held that even if neither side can be condemned
for fighting an unjust war when it fights in good conscience ("invincible ignorance"), at least one side is in fact
fighting an unjust war. Your making ample space for "national interest" (of at least some sorts) to be central in the
moral calculation of statesmen makes me wonder if, in your view, wars can be just on more than one side
simultaneously, since it seems evident to me that "national interests" frequently collide. If statesmen rightly defend
their country's national interests, can statesmen on opposite sides of the same war be fighting wars that are just? On
the other hand, your clear conviction that morality is currently on the side of the United States because we are
defending world order leads me to believe that service to the "tranquillity of order" is a moral commitment that
supersedes "national interest." Which do you believe? Or do you believe that there can be no genuine conflict
between serving the "tranquillity of order" and serving the "national interest"?
- What is the relationship between ends and means within the JWT? It is true that ends preoccupy early
Christian just war theorists more than means, even though one of the earliest Christian expressions of just war
thinking is St. Ambrose's admonition of the Emperor Theodosius for his slaughter of innocents at Thessalonica. It is
also obviously true that the ends of a war take priority over the means at least in the sense that questions of the ends
of war, or of going to war, must be answered positively before questions about the morality of means arise. I
wonder, however, if your stress on the priority of ends does not go too far. I find helpful Walzer's description of the
ends and means in justifiable war. Because protecting the rights of innocents is the central purpose of just war, both
winning a just war and fighting well in a just war are morally necessary. Winning a just war is morally important
because only by winning are the lives of the innocent victims of aggression protected. "Fighting well" (that is,
protecting innocents who may be harmed in the prosecution of a justifiable war) is morally important because the
lives of those "innocent" bystanders are just as important as the lives of the "innocent" victims of aggression. If
these two sets of "innocents'" rights come into conflict, as they seem often to do, it is not obvious that, or the extent
to which, the rights of the first set of "innocents" should supersede that of the second set. You say at one point,
"Good ends do not justify any means," and rightly (at least in one sense) go on to ask, following Fr. Murray, "If the
end doesn't justify the means, what does?" Yet, despite Murray's quip, are there some means that are ruled out in
the pursuit of good ends? In your attempt to correct what you view as an overemphasis on means in recent just war
thinking, do you still hold to clear rules about moral obligations to protect the second set of innocents? Must not
both ends and means be held together in order for the JWT to make moral sense?
- Just what are the proper roles of religious leaders, intellectuals, citizens, and ordinary soldiers compared
to the proper role of political officials, concerning discernment about the morality of war? You are clearly right in
contending near the end of the essay that public authorities have "responsibility" for decisions about war and peace
in a way that other persons do not. I doubt, however, that you are right in contending that "The tradition itself...
exists to serve statesmen." I believe the tradition belongs to all of us, exists to serve all of us. That is, the tradition is
meant to shape the moral judgment, and determine the moral action, of all individuals, not only statesmen.
Sometimes this will require individuals who seek to live on the basis of the JWT to disobey their political leaders,
even as it will sometimes require them to obey their political leaders. Should not citizens who find their countries
waging unjust wars oppose such wars or refuse to serve in them if/as they are able? If I am right in understanding
that the tradition holds that wars can only be just on one side (at best), it would seem that we should have seen a
great many more "just war conscientious objectors" than we have seen historically in Christian countries and
Christian communions where just war thinking is the official or semi-official view. I worry that unthinking
obedience to rulers (what John H. Yoder called the "blank check") has been the dominant operative Christian ethic of
warfare rather than the JWT. And I worry that your emphasis on the special "charism of responsibility" of political
authorities to decide on behalf of nation states will further undermine the "charism of responsibility" of each person
to make his/her own moral choices. Unless there is some such balance between respect for constituted political
authority and respect for personal moral responsibility it is hard for me to see why Christians should have opposed,
or even been justified in opposing, Hitler, for example. Yes to the particular responsibilities of public authorities,
and to the need for citizens to give the judgments of public authorities due weight. But no to any stated or implied
obligation of citizens to fall in line supporting public authorities once those authorities have made a decision or to
the moral requirement of citizens to always obey the decisions of those authorities.
More questions remain, but time and space prevent me from raising them here. Thank you for the
conversation you have initiated.
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