March 12, 2005

On the Moral Use of Force

This month's Heinlein Quote of the Month (mentioned here), prompted an interesting comment from new-to-me reader [the best kind!] Tommy Hall:

"...conjure up the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and of the Duke of Wellington and let them debate [the doctrine that 'violence never solves anything']. The ghost of Hitler could referee, and the jury might well be the Dodo, the Great Auk, and the Passenger Pigeon."

There seems to be some unintentional irony in the Heinlein quotation. He has Bonaparte pleading the case for pacifism while Hitler acts as impartial moderator. Logically someone like Ghandi or Martin King should argue the effectiveness of soft power, but of course Indian independence and the passage of the voting rights act undermine the point Heinlein wished to make.

Napoleon and Hitler were among the staunchest champions of naked force the world has seen during these last few blood-soaked centuries, to their everlasting regret. All their example shows is that those who rush to plead their case before the bar of violence run the risk that justice will hand down the harshest of verdicts.

First, I wouldn't agree that Bonaparte is pleading the case for pacifism, unless it's the case that his enemies should be pacifists.

Second, I don't really see any irony in Heinlein's choice of Napoleon or Hitler to illustrate his point. They were both initiators of violence who were stopped (and only stoppable) by violence. Sweet talking, negotiating, cajoling, and conceding would not have ended Napoleon's or Hitler's respective reigns over continental Europe. Only the use of overwhelming violence stopped them.

When is the use of violence in foreign affairs appropriate? One of the fundamental principles of what we call "libertarianism" has always been that one should never initiate the use of force against another. At the same time, it is morally required to use violence to respond to the initiator of force. So the Waterloo and WWII examples make pretty easy cases.

But what about the current war? Whether a pre-emptive use of force is ever justifiable is one of the issues that has split libertarians over the war in Iraq (and to a lesser extent, in Afghanistan). I think that one of the great mistakes of the anti-war libertarians is in their conflation of individual morality with international law. While states are technically "persons" (like corporations) in classical international law, they are not people. They are not endowed with the natural rights to life, liberty, and property.

Indeed, to the extent that they dishonor those natural rights, they lose legitimacy. So in my view, an illegitimate state should not benefit from some abstract non-initiation principle designed to protect an individual. There's quite a bit more to write on this, but I can't do it justice tonight. I hope I get some good comments to help guide some future refinements of this idea.

Tommy's conclusion is undoubtedly correct: if you initiate violence, you should be prepared to be dealt with violently. Or, more pithily, "live by the sword, die by the sword."

Posted by JohnL at March 12, 2005 10:33 PM

You are certainly more steeped in the theory of libertarianism than I am. That said, I would argue that the action in Iraq is not a pre-emptive strike against Saddam, but a continuation of a war on a particular brand of Islamic based terrorists.

A war that was started by them long before 9/11, by the way.

Posted by: owlish at March 13, 2005 08:28 AM

What I find so interesting about the pacifist theories of some libertarians is that they want to treat a state the same as they would an individual. I cannot imagine a Rational Anarchist (that would be me) agreeing with such a concept. In fact, Prof de la Paz, although he deeply regrets it, does indeed fight a war against another state when forced to do so. It seems to be that some libertarians are the secular inheritors of the Quakers and are basically using Objectivism and non-initiation in ways that they were never intended.

Posted by: Eric at March 15, 2005 10:56 PM

Eric, I couldn't agree more. I encountered Heinlein before Rand or "Libertarians", and so have avoided some of the wackier pacifist notions. Some "libertarians" (the Raimondo/Rockwell set, in particular) seem to think the only evil state in history is the US Central Government.

P.S. Re MuNU - I've sent an email to our domain master to ask about your invitation status. Have not heard anything back yet, but will keep you advised.

Posted by: JohnL at March 15, 2005 11:31 PM

Hey John, thanks. Hmmmm, I detect a theme here among "libertarians" (which is a term I use for myself very cautiously, at best). If you encounter Heinlein first you are highly unlikely to be a pacifist. I would venture to say that pacifist libertarians (that's a contradiction about like saying democratic socielist, isn't it?) are really pacifists who have found a convenient behavior theory (Objectivism) to use to justify their pacifism.

Posted by: Eric at March 16, 2005 01:08 AM

Just so you know, I had to misspell socielist (and did so again) because your anti-spam software is getting upset about finding ci*alis in the word.

Posted by: Eric at March 16, 2005 01:09 AM
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