Sunday, December 23, 2007

Part IV - Summary, 2 Anecdotes, 2 Thought Experiments

To be followed by "Part IV - The Long Boring Part"

Summary statement, for those who wish to avoid the evidence and reasoning and want to just take my word for things: Nearly every pre-2004 accusation, including religious, that the War in Iraq was immoral had the authority of the United Nations as its foundation. Yet no one has made the Christian case that the UN should have that status, and there is ample reason that it emphatically should not have that moral authority. Take the UN out of the equation and most complaints fall to the ground. Looking at Just War doctrine with those new eyes reveals that the US acted on very justifiable moral authority. When one frames the moral question accurately, the US answer doesn’t look in the least iffy. (Some caveats apply.)

I have a favorite Johnny Hart comic strip, of B.C with golf club in hand, explaining the game to Wiley. “The object is to go around the course in as few strokes as possible.” Wiley asks “Then why play at all?” The last panel shows B.C. rooted to the same spot, though now it is night, with a moon in the background. “Then…why play…at all?”

Some things become so automatic in a culture that it is difficult for people to even ask themselves to question it. This is why it is good to read primary source material from other eras – one can be brought up short by the assumptions other ages don’t have, giving fresh perspective on our own thought. We also get some idea how quickly limiting an assumption can be on our opinions.

Incident from 2002 or 2003: A student at St. Anselm’s was telling me how fascinating her ethics course was in terms of the lead-up to the war. The Benedictine brother teaching the course was showing them how George Bush was setting it up to make it look like he was going according to Just War theory in preparing to invade Iraq, but it was all a pretence. I love getting into discussions like that, so I smiled “Let me guess – your professor is saying that the UN is the “legitimate authority” for jus ad bellum.” She looked at me in surprise. “Well, yeah.” “Okay, ask him when the Magisterium changed to that view.” I went on to note that belief in the UN is just “one of those things” that have grown up in churches without anyone sitting down and making the case for it.

Try these two related thought experiments: What if we were reading up on the quieter philosophers and theologians of the 1920’s discussing the morality of war and kept running across references to the League of Nations as an important consideration in arbitrating war for as far into the future as the eye could see? Wouldn’t we rather chuckle and think “Whoa, they got that wrong. The League of Nations ended up being a useless nothing.” Trying to apply that understanding of Just War philosophy today would be simply silly. We would lightly abandon reading any further what they had to say. Similarly, if we touched down anywhere in the last 200 years of Europe and North America and read the secular and religious prophets discussing what justified war, there would be references to the Rights of Man, to liberalism and the Spring of Revolutions, or to the Communist International. These fevers overtake mankind all the time. The UN is simply the current article of Western Intellectuals. The second half of the thought experiment is to drop in on Catholic theologians a hundred years hence, listening to them puzzling over us and our fixation on the United Nations in our discussing Just War Doctrine. They will wonder “What was up with that? How did Catholics forget centuries of theological foundation and get caught up in this United Nations thing?”


@nooil4pacifists said...

Excellent post!

terri said...


I've been folllowing the series and still am trying to piece together where exactly you're going with it. Perhaps all my questions will be answered in Part IV--The Long Boring Part.

Will that part contain a brief definition of Just War and how that came into play in Iraq, regardless of the UN's existence or non-existence?

Also, if the UN didn't exist, what would our relationship have been like in the Middle East? Isn't it hard to sort out how things would have played out in an alternate universe? (this is purely from a devil's advocate position)

Is it your belief that the majority of people who are against the war are against it because of a trust in the UN?

Anonymous said...

To all readers of the Assistant Village Idiot: There are a huge number of political pundits on the internet. There are damn few thinkers. AVI is a world class thinker.

Great post AVI, great series too.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

terri, I suspect the long version will answer those questions but raise others.