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May 23, 2006

Justice As Fairness Essays  Ethics  Musings

At the time of the first Gulf War, I called into a local left-wing radio show to voice my oppostion to the impending war, and I was taken by surprise when the host asked me if war is ever morally justified. I didn't have a satisfactory answer at the time, but it's a question that has stayed with me ever since.

The standard I've come to is the following. It is (barely) possible to imagine a war fought to advance a cause so overwhelmingly important, so critically urgent, that I would support it even knowing that one of my own daughters might be killed — indeed, that I would still support it even if I knew one of my own daughters would be killed. Then, and only then, I think, could I say the war is justified. After all, every war means the death of someone's children. If I am not willing to accept that the child might be my own, I don't see any possible moral basis for supporting a war.

That's what makes the following story so distasteful (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of last August):

Staff Sgt. Jason Rivera, 26, a Marine recruiter in Pittsburgh, went to the home of a high school student who had expressed interest in joining the Marine Reserve to talk to his parents.

It was a large home in a well-to-do suburb north of the city. Two American flags adorned the yard. The prospect's mom greeted him wearing an American flag T-shirt.

"I want you to know we support you," she gushed.

Rivera soon reached the limits of her support.

"Military service isn't for our son. It isn't for our kind of people," she told him. [Emphasis added]

We recoil instinctively at the hypocrisy of the mother in the story. It is all too clear that the mother is able to "support" the war because she knows up front that no child of hers is at risk. It is that knowledge that makes her stance an empty one. Put her son at risk and watch how quickly her "support" will evaporate.

Some time after arriving at my standard for a just war, I happened across the work of American philosopher John Rawls, who worked out a beautiful generalization of what is at bottom the same idea, except that Rawls extended it to cover issues of justice generally, not only the issue of just war.

Rawls asks the question, what constitutes a just set of relationships in society? To answer, he suggests the following thought experiment. Imagine a hypothetical situation in which no one knows where he/she fits in the overall pecking order in terms of class or social status. No one knows whether he/she is more or less intelligent, talented, attractive, or capable than anyone else. No one knows if he/she is better educated or better connected than anyone else. No one even knows his/her conceptions of what is good and fair. Everyone is, as Rawls puts it, situated behind a "veil of ignorance". Under those (hypothetical) conditions, the relationships and rules that one would accept as fair are those that are truly fair.

For if there is anything human beings are good at, it's rationalizing their own self-interest. Wealthy people support tax cuts for the rich. Poor people favor welfare. Smart, well-educated people say let's abolish the social safety net and have a straight meritocracy. Healthy people see no reason why they should have to contribute to universal health care. Well-off people have no problem supporting a war poor people are going to have to fight.

Ah, but suppose for all you knew you were one of the poor, one of the infirm, one of the untalented. Surely, then, you would insist on a conception of justice as fairness, where society cares for all its members, rich or poor, healthy or sick, talented or not, equitably balancing their interests.

Rawls' standard is a hypothetical one, but I think it's an excellent yardstick to use when mentally evaluating the morality of a social arrangement: is it an arrangement you'd agree to even if you didn't know up front whether you were one of the lucky ones. Which is another way of asking, is it fair.

Posted by Jonathan at May 23, 2006 08:41 PM  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb


I well recall my anger when this article first appeared back in August. I was, shall we say, not pleased:

"Ah yes, 'our kind of people'. The kind of people with yellow ribbons on their Hummers. The kind of people who love BushCorp™ tax cuts, but don't give a fig for cutting veterans' disability benefits. The kind of people who don't care how many poor, brown Americans go down, so long as their Halliburton stock goes up. The kind of people who support the war, as long as they don't have to pay for it, or suffer for it. The kind of people who would neither stand up against needless war, nor make the sacrafices needed to have even a chance of winning it."

Be that as it may, regarding Mr. Rawls fairness formula, I have to wonder whether sufficient Americans, indeed sufficient humans have the necessary level of imagination or empathy to use such a fairness standard in their everyday decision making.

Are there steps to be taken to increase their/our chances?

Great post regardless.

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Posted by: Will at May 24, 2006 05:20 AM

Supporting anything that puts children’s lives in grave danger has to be the most difficult thing a parent endures, which is what makes this test for justifying a war such a good one.

Jonathan has a post titled Going Nuclear (http://www.pastpeak.com/archives/2006/04/going_nuclear_1.htm), in which Ron Susskind is quoted as saying:

"[A senior administration aide told me] that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors...and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do." [Emphasis added]..."

The May 23rd, 2006 broadcast of the War and Peace Report at DemocracyNow! devoted the majority of the show to an interview with Arundhati Roy, Indian author and activist (transcript here: http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=06/05/23/1358250). Listening to Arundhati talk with Amy Goodman about political issues was most enjoyable. Arundhati has a beautiful grace when speaking. Here's a snippet of something she had to say which correlates with Ron's quote:

"...And yet these democracies have learned to just stare things down, you know? So even in America, eventually all of us who are protesting or writing or whatever, we can be commodified. You know, it can just turn into something that we're doing, and yet they carry on what they're doing. We carry on doing what we’re doing. But ultimately, people are being displaced. Countries are being occupied. People are being killed. Laws are being changed. And the status quo is on their side, not on our side. You know, so I worry about that a lot, you know?..."

Arundhati is correct when she says the status quo isn't on our side. Peaceful protests, activism and participating in the democratic process (while it's for the most part still intact) must always be the first steps in restoring power to the people. And we take these first steps and do them with all the vigor we can muster so we never have to put our children in harms way, abroad, or at home.

Posted by: Jeff at May 24, 2006 06:58 PM