A universal morality for a just war (and yet another employment of the friend-enemy distinction)

I read the transcript of Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize speech, and was going to write a wider ranging post, but the one point I would like to raise here is really the need for a universal morality in any concept of a ‘just war’.

War is a usefully vague term which in political circles tends to describe more the way that people in power want it to be seen than to describe anything happening ‘on the ground’. Not that things do not happen on the ground in war. It is one of the clearest examples of how explanatory models of the world shape strategies for engagement in the world and therefore change what the experience of living in the world is like.

Talking specifically of wars evoked in Obama’s speech, those of the US in Afghanistan and Iraq, the amount of physical and emotional suffering of each American decision is huge. A significant factor in weighing up the costs in each decision (to shoot, not to shoot, to retreat, to advance, to improve infrastructure, to hand over) is the moral cost. Freedom is often evoked, but what counts as freedom worth having is a very messy thing to consider when it is implanted into the real world. Even messier is who gets to decide what sort of freedom is worth having.

Obama’s speech uses words in a very clever way to provide an answer to this dilemma, there is a universal morality. What is right comes from the divine. I do not need to mount a theological argument for the existence of the divine (or even alienate fierce secularists) because it can also be interpreted as the core element of being human. We have evidence that this morality is universal because it can be found in all religions (or at least all religions that matter in this speech), and any religion which denies it is wrong. Ultimately, (my probably poorly informed opinion is that) the legitimacy of the ‘just war’ campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq rely on the test of whether or not the civilians in those countries SHOULD be grateful for what is being done. The obligation for them to be grateful only makes sense if the ethical claims on which the campaigns are based are universal. Those in whose name the conflicts (and the terms of the conflicts) are justified do not need to be grateful. The test does not need to be democratic when there is a universal ethical code, rather it can be logically deduced if one was to have perfect information on the motivation of decisions made.

The limitation which I find so glaring in Obama’s speech is that it provides a space for the Other (with a big-O), in that those who do not subscribe to my morality are not human. This morality has evolved over time, but rather than devolving some people deny their humanity in denying this morality. It is a beautiful speech in many ways, but it still carves out the friend-enemy distinction in Carl Schmitt’s sense. In the call to ‘do unto others as we would have them do unto us’, the others are other humans. In asserting very clearly that there are people who have gotten their own religion wrong because they fail to accept the terms of morality being put forward, Obama is (or his speech writers are) saying that these people have denied their humanness and so are no longer the other of this call, but are now the Others in the friend enemy distinction. While I can understand the motivations to abhor such actions, in reinforcing the distinction it so allows the Other of the American leadership to define America as their Other. In this way the two parties have nothing to say.

Excerpts from Obama’s speech

“War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man. At the dawn of history, its morality was not questioned; it was simply a fact, like drought or disease – the manner in which tribes and then civilizations sought power and settled their differences.”

“…We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations – acting individually or in concert – will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified. … we must try as best we can to balance isolation and engagement; pressure and incentives, so that human rights and dignity are advanced over time.”

Cynical translation: War comes with being human, and really it could be much worse. Look at the bad old days where they did not even think it was wrong. At least I feel like I need to justify war, but really the responsibility is not born by the elite, we will evoke a bit of nationalism. War is really just part of a continuum of tools that we can use to uphold that which we think is right to be right.

“For peace is not merely the absence of visible conflict. Only a just peace based upon the inherent rights and dignity of every individual can truly be lasting.”

Cynical translation: Pacifists are really supporters of oppression.

“At times, it even feels like we are moving backwards. We see it in Middle East, as the conflict between Arabs and Jews seems to harden. We see it in nations that are torn asunder by tribal lines. … Most dangerously, we see it in the way that religion is used to justify the murder of innocents by those who have distorted and defiled the great religion of Islam,… Such a warped view of religion is not just incompatible with the concept of peace, but the purpose of faith – for the one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Adhering to this law of love has always been the core struggle of human nature.”

Cynical translation: I know what religion really means, and can interpret it for all people. Anybody who disagrees is failing to engage in the imperative of humans to continually improve.

“So let us reach for the world that ought to be – that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls.”


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One Response to “A universal morality for a just war (and yet another employment of the friend-enemy distinction)”

  1. Jason Says:

    At the risk of sounding callous, I do believe there are situations where it is justified to use deadly force as sometimes non-violent methods are impractical or more immoral.

    However, it is a general feeling amongst atheists I’ve spoken to that Obama is an atheist but needs to pay lip service to religion else he would not be able to get elected. So I don’t take it seriously… But all the same you’ve made me wonder if accepting that he really does has this view on religion is just too frightening to consider. It is a viewpoint that does leave open a wide definition on whom they may justly wage war.

    I must say I find there is far more intelligent analysis in your blog than what I read in newspapers. This article is good enough to publish.

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