War is one of the most harmful activities that humans can undertake. It is widely recognised that the bar for the normative justification of war is correspondingly high. It is less often argued that we have a special epistemological burden to do our due diligence before undertaking war, to do our best to ascertain reliable information about the relevant facts. This was the crux of the paper that Tim Hayward presented to Edinburgh’s political theory group last week, ‘Humanitarian intervention and intellectual due diligence’. Tim was especially interested in the kind of epistemological work necessary to the justification of humanitarian interventions, and to the case of the Syrian Civil War in particular, which he claims has been widely misinterpreted in the West.
Last week we had the pleasure of hosting Cian O’Driscoll from the University of Glasgow, presenting a draft of his latest intervention in just war theory. Below, I recollect the basic moves of his paper.
Cian O’Driscoll sets out to redress one of the dangers of locating oneself within the tradition of just war theory: of lapsing into a kind of traditionalism that contrives a fixed canon around which all debate must orbit. This is not only an artificial self-limitation, but one which can lead to a kind of intellectual conservatism. How do we preserve the wisdom congealed within the recognised tradition of just war theory, but avoid the pitfalls of traditionalism? O’Driscoll offers a simple solution: we must extend its ambit to include previously neglected thinkers. In this paper, he looks to the figure of Xenophon, with two key provisos. First, Xenophon did not write in the first-person. His writings offer a rich collection of observations of ancient Greek thought and practice. Second, clearly Xenophon antedates the actual ‘just war tradition’ – however fragile a historical basis that tradition has – and cannot be directly read through its categories. O’Driscoll reveals that Xenophon’s observations do, however, have a startling affinity with just war thinking. The one complements the other. We find in Xenophon a highly agonal conception of war that, in contrast to modern incarnations of just war theory, places especial weight on the restraint of force – not simply the enactment of justice.
Written by Louis Fletcher.
This is a write-up of the weekly meeting of the Political Theory Research Group, 19th October
Christina presented a draft of the final chapter of her PhD, ‘Need and the Demands of Justice’. What is need, and what kind of moral obligations does it place on us? Christina argues that agents with the ability to meliorate the existentially urgent needs of humans have a duty to help, up to the threshold of sacrificing things of significant cost to themselves. Even agents without that ability, however, have a duty to respond to the existentially urgent needs of others, such that they acknowledge the gravity of their plight. This chapter focuses upon the concrete nature and extent of those duties. In order for agents to effectively discharge their duties in the face of an immensely complicated picture of global suffering, Christina argues that agents have a duty of coordination. This permits the organisation of a division of labour according to a strategic plan that identifies high priority areas. In many ways, this is a vision with an affinity to the research and organisation of ‘effective altruism’, scaled-up to the level of global institutional coordination. Christina emphasises that responsive actions should be attentive to context, focus on net impact, and undergo iterative learning. She also defends a pro tanto duty of enforceability in which states are licensed to enforce a system of coordinated, global harm-reduction.
This is a write-up of the meeting of the Political Theory Research Group, 5th October 2016
For many, the modern predicament is defined by our epistemological inability to formulate absolutist ethical criteria, and our practical inability to bring about a political consensus in their absence. In this paper, Vogler contends that a suitably reflexive form of judgement, augmented in the social world that all humans share with one another, provides one compelling escape route. In making this argument, he calls for the improbable meeting of two disparate figures: Hannah Arendt and Margaret Archer. For Arendt, the traditions which once anchored judgement have fragmented, leaving a gaping lacuna into which the dehumanising tendencies of the first half of the twentieth century stepped. In this situation, our ‘common sense’ – the way in which judgement transcends individuals to find intersubjective validity, forming a shared universe through which politics can be negotiated – has to be resuscitated without succumbing to either thoughtlessness (Eichmann) or absolutism (Plato). The solution, Arendt argues, is to cultivate a reflexive way of thinking. First, through a disinterested perspective which enables us to consider issues independent of our immediate needs. Second, through enlarging our mentality, so that we are able to ‘go visiting’ and imagine the perspectives of others.