PPPS: Why a Defensive War against Mitigated Aggression can be Proportionate

Hi Everyone,

This paper defends the view that a nation is justified in undertaking a defensive war — conceived of in terms of collective personal self-defense — against mitigated aggression. A nation committing mitigated aggression conditionally threatens — rather than imminently threatens — the lives of the citizens and soldiers of the victim nation in that it will employ lethal military force if and only if the victim nation does not submit to the invasion, the purpose of which is only to conquer and rule. What mitigated aggression threatens is a nation’s political sovereignty and cultural integrity, in short, a nation’s common way of life.

I was led to write this paper after reading David Rodin’s award winning book War and Self-Defense (Oxford 2002), where he argues that while mitigated aggression is immoral and against international law, a nation is not justified in responding to this kind of aggression with lethal force, for such force is disproportionate. The right of lethal self-defense doesn’t extend to everything that’s valuable. If a robber threatens to kill you if you don’t hand over your car, or if you don’t allow him to take what he wants from your house (he will let you live if you give him what he wants), it’s not clear that you are permitted to kill him. Killing the robber would be disproportionate.

In this paper I give an account of why a nation’s common way of life, by itself, is sufficiently valuable to defend via lethal force [incidentally, Jeff McMahan (cf. “War as Self-Defense”, Ethics and International Affairs 18, 2004) and Thomas Hurka (cf. “Proportionality in the Morality of War”, Philosophy and Public Affairs 33, 2005) argue that a nation’s common way of life by itself is insufficiently valuable to lethally defend but that a defensive war against mitigated aggression is nonetheless permissible. McMahan’s article can be accessed here. Hurka’s article can be accessed here]. I start by asking, what exactly, other than our own lives, is sufficiently valuable such that we can lethally defend it? I argue that our “primary” interests, because they are indispensably necessary for our well-being, are worth lethally defending. Following David Archard and Joel Feinberg, I discuss two kinds of primary interests: our central and our welfare interests. Our central interests (e.g. being autonomous) define who and what we are fundamentally and are central to our self-concept. Our welfare interests (e.g. minimal level of income) are necessary for the realization of our more ulterior goals in life, the realization of which is constitutive of our well-being. I then show that our interest in participating in our national community (or common way of life), an interest that mitigated aggression seriously sets back, can be characterized as both a central and welfare interest.

A copy of the paper can be found here.

Colleen Murphy’s comments on the paper can be accessed here.

An audio version of the paper can be found below.

I look forward to receiving any comments you may have!

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One Response to PPPS: Why a Defensive War against Mitigated Aggression can be Proportionate

  1. Jake Blair says:

    I want to thank Colleen Murphy for her comments on the paper. The first of her concerns is addressed in the paper’s original abstract as well as the general introduction to the paper that is posted on the PPPS website. In both the abstract and general introduction, I state that a nation committing mitigated aggression conditionally threatens — rather than imminently threatens — the lives of the citizens and soldiers of the victim nation in that it will employ lethal military force if and only if the victim nation does not submit to the invasion, the purpose of which is only to conquer and rule. What mitigated aggression threatens is a nation’s political sovereignty and cultural integrity, in short, a nation’s common way of life.
    David Rodin, in his book War and Self-Defense, claims that if we assume that national-defense just is the people of a nation exercising their right of personal self-defense, then the citizens and soldiers of a nation are not justified in lethally defending themselves against mitigated aggression. This is because the right of lethal self-defense doesn’t extend to everything that’s valuable. If a robber threatens to kill you if you don’t hand over your car, or if you don’t allow him to take what he wants from your house (he will let you live if you give him what he wants), it’s not clear that you are permitted to kill him. Killing the robber would be disproportionate. I see Rodin as putting the burden of proof on those who think that a defensive war against mitigated aggression can be proportionate. I, of course, try and shoulder this burden in the paper.
    Though in a footnote I briefly interact with one argument in the literature that claims to shoulder Rodin’s burden of proof, Murphy is correct to claim that there are other arguments in the literature that claim to have an answer to Rodin that I don’t interact with. As far as I can see, there are three such additional arguments that specifically confront Rodin. These arguments come from Jeff McMahan and Thomas Hurka (see the general introduction to the paper posted on the PPPS website). For what it’s worth, I have elsewhere argued that the views of McMahan and Hurka are unsuccessful. But I suppose that I should at least allude to my arguments in the paper. Concerning Murphy’s claim about Richard Norman, I’m not clear what her point is. My primary goal in interacting with Norman was not to show the inadequacy of his argument for why a defensive war against mitigated aggression is permissible. Far from it, Norman agrees with Rodin that a defensive war against mitigated aggression is impermissible. My interaction with Norman just involves me critiquing his account of what the right of personal self-defense extends to. As far as my critique of his account being too quick and dismissive, I guess I would want to hear why exactly that is the case.
    Perhaps it is an oversight of mine that I didn’t interact with the views of David Miller, Joseph Raz, or Avishai Margalit on the ethics of war. It will be interesting to see if my paper just is a summary of their views, as Murphy wonders whether it is. I will be looking to see if they argue for why the common way of life is sufficiently valuable so that the right of personal self-defense extends to it, and if their arguments are consistent with a more general account of what the right of self-defense extends to and why.
    I will now address Murphy’s final concern. In the paper, I basically suggest that if a group of people have their national community (common way of life) significantly destroyed by an incoming aggressive nation, then it’s likely that the people of the victim nation will either (1) experience profound degradation, or (2) find it difficult if not impossible to realize a great many of their ultimate life aspirations, or both. Because of this, the people of the victim nation are permitted to lethally defend the integrity of their national community. Murphy’s worry, I think, is something like the following: what if the values and practices that constitute a national community are evil and oppressive, e.g. a nation oppresses a segment of the national community (see Murphy’s comments on the paper). By disintegrating this national community, the people that share in it will be harmed in at least one of the two ways described above. But seemingly we don’t want to say that the members of this national community are permitted to lethally defend its integrity (i.e. that the national community is worth lethally defending). If this is the worry, I have a few rough and initial responses. First, given the nature of national communities discussed in the paper, I wonder how plausible it is to suppose that there really could be the kind of national community that is envisioned; one where a great deal of what it is to be a member consists in doing evil and oppressive things. Secondly, if there could be such a national community, perhaps I should incorporate some sort of doctrine of forfeiture into the paper. People have a right to lethally defend their national community for the reasons outlined above. But this right can be forfeited if participating in their national community primarily consists in morally abhorrent practices. Actually, given what I’ve suggested in the paper, if a group of people is violating the welfare and/or central interests of another group of people (say because they are oppressing them), then each member of the aggressive group has forfeited his very right to life. Given this, there’s seemingly not a problem with saying that each member has forfeited his right to not have his own welfare and central interests violated, whether they be his central and welfare interest in his national community, or other central and welfare interests he may have. Thus he is no longer permitted to lethally protect his welfare and central interests.

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