Category Archives: Philosophy-Outlines

Finally! Just War Theory in Two Pages

Just War Theory has a long history in the western intellectual tradition. St. Augustine commented on the morality of war from a Christian perspective, as did several Arabic commentators from the 9th to the 12th centuries. But St. Thomas Aquinas provided the most celebrated and still discussed the main outlines of just war theory.

Just War Theory traditionally has two sets of criteria. The first establishing jus ad bellum, the right to go to war; the second establishing jus in bello, right conduct within war.[10] In addition, some scholars have recently considered a third criteria, jus post bellum, right conduct after war.

While I am aware that in the real world might makes right and considerations of justice often appear irrelevant, that doesn’t mean that considerations of what, if anything, constitute a just war are irrelevant. In fact, looking at the history of slaughter that defines our species, we might all do better to think clearly about when, if ever, violence is justified.

Jus ad bellum

1) Just cause – The reason for going to war need to be just, and can’t be solely for recapturing things taken or punishing people who have done wrong. In addition, innocent life must be in imminent danger and intervention must be to protect life. A contemporary view of just cause was expressed in 1993 by the US Catholic Conference: “Force may be used only to correct a grave, public evil, i.e., aggression or massive violation of the basic human rights of whole populations.”

2) Comparative justice –  While there may be rights and wrongs on all sides of a conflict, to override the presumption against the use of force, the injustice suffered by one party must significantly outweigh that suffered by the other. Some theorists such as Brian Orend omit this term, seeing it as fertile ground for exploitation by bellicose regimes.

3) Legitimate authority – Only duly constituted public authorities may wage war.

4) Right intention –  Force may be used only in a truly just cause and solely for that purpose—correcting a suffered wrong is considered a right intention, while material gain or maintaining economies is not.

5) Probability of success – Arms may not be used in a futile cause or in a case where disproportionate measures are required to achieve success;

6) Last resort – Force may be used only after all peaceful and viable alternatives have been seriously tried and exhausted or are clearly not practical. It may be clear that the other side is using negotiations as a delaying tactic and will not make meaningful concessions.

7) Proportionality – The anticipated benefits of waging a war must be proportionate to its expected evils or harms. This principle is also known as the principle of macro-proportionality, so as to distinguish it from the jus in bello principle of proportionality.

Once war has begun, just war theory also directs how combatants are to act:

Jus in bello

1) Distinction – Just war conduct should be governed by the principle of distinction. The acts of war should be directed towards enemy combatants, and not towards non-combatants caught in circumstances they did not create. The prohibited acts include bombing civilian residential areas that include no military target and committing acts of terrorism or reprisal against civilians.

2) Proportionality – Just war conduct should be governed by the principle of proportionality. An attack cannot be launched on a military objective in the knowledge that the incidental civilian injuries would be clearly excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage (principle of proportionality).

3) Military necessity – Just war conduct should be governed by the principle of minimum force. An attack or action must be intended to help in the military defeat of the enemy, it must be an attack on a military objective, and the harm caused to civilians or civilian property must be proportional and not excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated. This principle is meant to limit excessive and unnecessary death and destruction.

Jus post bellum

In recent years, some theorists, such as Gary Bass, Louis Iasiello and Brian Orend, have proposed a third category within Just War theory. Jus post bellum concerns justice after a war, including peace treaties, reconstruction, war crimes trials, and war reparations. Orend, for instance, proposes the following principles:

1) Just cause for termination – A state may terminate a war if there has been a reasonable vindication of the rights that were violated in the first place, and if the aggressor is willing to negotiate the terms of surrender. These terms of surrender include a formal apology, compensations, war crimes trials and perhaps rehabilitation. Alternatively, a state may end a war if it becomes clear that any just goals of the war cannot be reached at all or cannot be reached without using excessive force.

2) Right intention – A state must only terminate a war under the conditions agreed upon in the above criteria. Revenge is not permitted. The victor state must also be willing to apply the same level of objectivity and investigation into any war crimes its armed forces may have committed.

3) Public declaration and authority – The terms of peace must be made by a legitimate authority, and the terms must be accepted by a legitimate authority.

4) Discrimination – The victor state is to differentiate between political and military leaders, and combatants and civilians. Punitive measures are to be limited to those directly responsible for the conflict. Truth and reconciliation may sometimes be more important than punishing war crimes.

5) Proportionality – Any terms of surrender must be proportional to the rights that were initially violated. Draconian measures, absolutionist crusades and any attempt at denying the surrendered country the right to participate in the world community are not permitted. Just wars always lead to lots of conflict.

Finally! The Essence of Critical Thinking in Two Pages

Critical thinking is “careful, deliberate determination of whether one should accept, reject, or suspend judgment about a claim and the degree of confidence with which one accepts or rejects it.” (Parker & Moore, Critical Thinking.)

The problem is that much of our thinking is biased, distorted, partial, uniformed or prejudiced. Yet the quality of our lives depends on the quality of our thoughts. Bad thinking costs us time, money, and possibly our lives. Good thinking may be profitable and save our time and lives. But good thinking is hard and takes practice.

Cogent (good) reasoning consists of: 1) believable premises; 2) consideration of relevant information, and 3) valid conclusions drawn from those premises.

Believable premises – This assumes we have some well-informed background beliefs about the world so as to determine whether a premise is believable. No relevant info passed over – We need to avoid the temptation to disregard contrary evidence. Valid reasoning – When the premises support the conclusion, or, to put it another way, the conclusion follows from the premises, the reasoning is valid. When the premises are also true, then we have a sound argument.

Some wrong ideas about cogent reasoning – Good reasoning is not relative to people, cultures, religions, etc. When you violate deductive reasoning you contradict yourself; and when you violate inductive reasoning you deny evidence and experience. The way the world works in not relative to people, cultures, religions, etc. Still, self-interest, prejudice, or narrow-mindedness leads people to reason poorly.

Background Beliefs – Background beliefs are crucial to determining whether premises are believable and whether no relevant info has been omitted. “That is why bringing one’s background beliefs to bear often is the most important task in evaluating an argument for cogency… ignorance is not bliss. It just renders us incapable of intelligently evaluating claims, premises, arguments, and other sorts of rhetoric we all are subject to every day.”

Kinds of Background Beliefs – We have beliefs about both facts [whether the St. Louis Cardinals won the 1964 baseball World Series] and values [whether it is a good thing that people play baseball.] Beliefs can also be true or false. We need to constantly examine our background beliefs to weed out false ones. Education [as opposed to indoctrination] helps us acquire true beliefs and rid us of false ones. Beliefs also differ in how firmly they should be believed. “The trick is to believe firmly what should be believed, given the evidence, and believe less firmly, or not at all, what is less well supported by the evidence.”

Worldviews or Philosophies – Children tend to believe what they are told, thus most of us believe, even as adults, what we were told as children. [For example, an almost perfect predictor of a person’s religious beliefs are the beliefs of their parents.] These basic beliefs we might call our worldviews or philosophies. “They tend to be the most deeply ingrained and most resistant to amendment of all our background beliefs.” We work very hard to keep them [so as not to create cognitive dissonance.] It is crucial that our worldviews, if they are to consist of true background beliefs, “contain at least a few modestly well-founded beliefs about important scientific theories.”

Insufficiently Grounded Beliefs – Most people have strongly held beliefs about things about which they know almost nothing. In order to think well then, we must weed out poorly grounded [false] beliefs. It is crucial—if we are to think well—that we have well-founded [true] beliefs to support our worldview since “…worldviews are like lenses that cause us to see the world in a particular way or filters through which we process all new ideas and information. Reasoning based on a grossly inaccurate or shallow worldview tends to yield grossly inaccurate, inappropriate, or self-defeating conclusions…”

Two Vital Kinds of Background Beliefs – Beliefs about human nature, and beliefs about the reliability of information sources.

Science to the rescue

the most accurate information comes from the well-established sciences of physics, chemistry, biology, … the scientific enterprise is an organized, ongoing, worldwide activity that builds and corrects from generation to generation…Absolutely no one, starting from scratch, could hope to obtain in one lifetime anything remotely resembling the sophisticated and accurate conclusions of any of the sciences …

Summary of critical thinking – Critical thinking is higher order of thinking as opposed to lower order thinking. Lower order thinking is 1) unreflective, 2) relies on gut intuition, and 3) is largely self-serving. Higher order thinking is 1) reflective, 2) uses logic and reason to analyze and assess ideas, and 3) is consistently fair.

More specifically critical thinking overcomes the most common tendencies of poor thinking: egocentric and sociocentric thinking.

Egocentric thinking is characterized by ideas like it’s true because: a) I believe it; b) I want to believe it, c) I’ve always believed it, d) it is in my interest to believe it, etc.

Sociocentric thinking refers to the extent persons internalize the prejudices of their society/culture. Such persons: a) uncritically accept that their culture is best; b) internalize group norms without questioning; c) blindly conform to group restrictions; d) ignore the insights of other cultures; e) fail to realize that mass media shapes the news from the point of view of their culture; f) ignore their culture’s history, etc.

In contrast to unreflective thinking, critical thinking is fair-minded and open-minded—to think critically is to reason well. It is the kind of reasoning that is the essential ingredient in solving life’s problems. I have written elsewhere in this blog about good thinking, especially in my recent column “We Fear Thought.” But I would summarize my thoughts on the topic, as I did for generations of university students, by saying—good thinking is an essential ingredient in living well.

[All quotes are from the first chapter of Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric: The Use of Reason in Everyday Life)

Game Theory and the Prisoner’s Dilemma in One Page

 Game Theory

For our purposes, a game is an interactive situation in which individuals, called players, choose strategies to deal with each other in attempting to maximize their individual utility. There are several ways of distinguishing games including: 1) in respect to the number of players involved; 2) in respect to the number of repetitions of play; 3) in respect of the order of the various player’s preferences over the same outcomes. On the one extreme are games of pure conflict, so-called zero-sum games, in which players have completely opposing interests over possible outcomes. On the other extreme are games of pure harmony, so-called games of coordination. In the middle are games involving both conflict and harmony in respect of others. It is one particular game that interests us most, since it describes the situation in Hobbes’ state of nature, and is the central problem in contractarian moral theory.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

The prisoner’s dilemma is one of the most widely debated situations in game theory. The story has implications for a variety of human interactive situations. A prisoner’s dilemma is an interactive situation in which it is better for all to cooperate rather than for no one to do so, yet it is best for each not to cooperate, regardless of what the others do.

In the classic story, two prisoners have committed a serious crime but all of the evidence necessary to convict them is not admissible in court. Both prisoners are held separately and are unable to communicate. The prisoners are called separately by the authorities and each offered the same pro-position. Confess and if your partner does not, you will be convicted of a lesser crime and serve one year in jail while the unrepentant prisoner will be convicted of a more serious crime and serve ten years. If you do not confess and your partner does, then it is you who will be convicted of the more serious crime and your partner of the lesser crime. Should neither of you confess the penalty will be two years for each of you, but should both of you confess the penalty will be five years. In the following matrix, you are the row chooser and your partner the column chooser. The first number in each parenthesis represents the “payoff” for you in years in prison, the second number your partner’s years. Let us assume each player prefers the least number of years in prison possible. In matrix form, the situation looks like this:

Prisoner 2

    Confess  Don’t Confess
 Prisoner 1 Confess (5, 5) (1, 10)
Don’t Confess (10, 1) (2, 2)

So you reason as follows: If your partner confesses, you had better confess because if you don’t you will get 10 years rather than 5. If your partner doesn’t confess, again you should confess because you will only get 1 year rather than 2 for not confessing. So no matter what your partner does, you ought to confess. The reasoning is the same for your partner. The problem is that when both confess the outcome is worse for both than if neither confessed. You both could have done better, and neither of you worse, if you had not confessed! You might have made an agreement not to confess but this would not solve the problem. The reason is this: although agreeing not to confess is rational, compliance is surely not rational!

The prisoner’s dilemma describes the situation that humans found themselves in in Hobbes’ state of nature. If the prisoners cooperate, they both do better; if they do not cooperate, they both do worse. But both have a good reason not to cooperate; they are not sure the other will! We can only escape this dilemma, Hobbes maintained, by installing a coercive power that makes us comply with our agreements (contracts). Others, like the contemporary philosopher David Gauthier, argue for the rationality of voluntary non-coerced cooperation and compliance with agreements given the costs to each of us of enforcement agencies. Gauthier advocates that we accept “morals by agreement.”

Hobbes’ Political and Ethical Theories in Two Pages

Hobbes and the Social Contract

Moving in western culture from the ancient and medieval periods into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, we approach modernity. The discovery of the new world, developments in commerce and industry, the Reformation, the scientific revolution, and the rise of the secular alongside the decline of Christianity transformed western civilization. Inevitably, natural law theory would be scrutinized. The major figures of the period—Rene Descartes (1596-1650), Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677), John Locke (1632-1704) and Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716)—all tried, in one way or another, to reconcile the new secular ideas with traditional Christian morality. But the most revolutionary of all the new theorists was Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who believed that ethical norms were not to be found in God’s cosmic plan but in our social and political agreements.

Hobbes detested violence. He had read Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War and had personally witnessed the decades of English civil war which culminated with the beheading of Charles II. The desire to avoid war motivated both his moral and political thought. Hobbes’ philosophy began by considering what the world would be like without morality. He believed that it would be a state of nature; a terrible place without art, literature, commerce, industry, or culture. Most terrifying of all, it would be a place of “continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of [humans] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” But why would it be so bad?

In the first place, Hobbes believed that human beings endeavor desperately to fulfill their desires for food, clothing, shelter, power, honor, glory, comfort, pleasure, self-aggrandizement, and a life of ease. Unfortunately, such things do not exist in abundance; they are scarce. In addition, he believed that persons were relatively equal in their power. Given desires, scarcity, relative power equality, and the predominant sense of self-interest all human beings exhibit, Hobbes concluded that human beings, in a state of nature, would be engaged in a fierce struggle over scarce resources. Individuals would attack, steal, destroy and invade to protect themselves and prove their status. Thus, Hobbes’ first thesis: the state of nature is a state of war.

Hobbes’ second thesis was that individuals in a state of nature have no a priori (natural, before experience) moral law that obligates them to constrain their behavior. For Hobbes, self-preservation justified the use of force and fraud to defend ourselves in a state of nature. In this state, only the power of others limited what we can do. Hobbes called this the right of nature. But this state is antithetical to our survival and so the desire for self-preservation expressed itself in another way which was Hobbes’ third thesis: fear of death and the desire for a good life incline us toward peace. Hobbes called this the law of nature. Morality was defined by articles of peace, essentially, the rules to which any rational self-interested person would agree. The state of nature demands that we follow one of the two formulations of the self-preservation principle. In the state of nature, we should exercise our right of nature; in the state of peace, we should follow the law of nature. These laws of nature bear no resemblance to the medieval concept of natural law; they simple demand self-preservation. In other words, morality is the set of rules that make peaceful living possible.

This led to Hobbes’ fourth thesis: though it is in our own interest to agree to the articles of peace; it is not rational to comply with our agreements unless some coercive power forces us. Otherwise, we might feign agreement and, when the other complies, violate the accord. To prevent this, a coercive power must ensure that we comply with our agreements. This agreement between individuals to establish the laws that make communal living possible and an agency to enforce those laws is called the social contract.

A Theory of Morality

While issues surrounding the nature of the coercive agency which guarantees compliance with the social contract lead to political theory, the agreed-upon rules constitute morality. Morality is the agreed-upon, mutually advantageous conventions which, assuming others’ compliance, make society possible. Thus, self-interest ultimately justifies morality. We can easily see that killing, lying, cheating, and stealing are prohibited since they threaten society and are not in anyone’s self-interest. Whether the moral prohibitions against homosexuality, prostitution, abortion, or euthanasia are justified in terms of individual and societal interest is more debatable.

But whatever the agreed-upon rules, according to the theory they do not exist prior to human contracts. We create morality by our agreements within the constraints demanded by self-preservation and self-interest; we do not discover antecedent moral truths. Prior to the contract, actions are neither moral nor immoral. But after the contract is signed, society forbids some actions, allows others, remains undecided on a few, and continually renegotiates the contract to satisfy rival parties. Therefore, the moral sphere is one of continual bargaining and power-struggling where conflict is resolved through moral discourse, a political mechanism, or violence. Hobbes’ detested the latter option.

Why the Social Contract Theory is Attractive

First, it takes the mystery out of ethics, ethics has to do with all of us being able to live well. Second it says that morality is objective, there are objective reasons we shouldn’t kill or lie, but there are no mysterious moral facts from on high. Third, moral rules aren’t meant to interfere in people’s lives. Fourth, it doesn’t assume we are altruistic, it assumes we are self-interested, probably a more realistic assumption. And finally, it gives us a reason to be moral—morality is in our self-interest.

The Problem of the Free Rider

Contract theory answers the question of why “we” should be moral, but not why “I” should be moral? Instead, why not be a free rider? That is, why shouldn’t I be immoral if I can get away with it? Yes, it is good collectively for us all to be moral, but individually it seems I always do best by being immoral if I can get away with it. [The prisoner’s dilemma.] This is the toughest question for a contract theory of morality. Hobbes’ believed that we should penalize the non-cooperative move in order to deter individuals from choosing it. But this raises the problem of corruption and injustice among the coercive agencies—governments and their law enforcement departments. Perhaps then this problem is intractable, and there will be no solution until we change the hard-wiring of our brains.

Does Morality Depend on Religion? Answered in Two Pages

Why should I be moral? One answer is that if we are moral, the gods will reward us; and if not, the gods will punish us. This is called “the divine-command theory.” (DCT) According to DCT, things are right or wrong simply because the gods command or forbid them, there is no other reason. (This is like a parent’s who says to a child: it’s right because I said so!)

To answer the question of whether morality can be based on a god we would have to know things like: 1) if there are gods; 2) if the god we believe in is good; 3) if the gods issue commands; 4) how to know the gods’ commands; 5) if we found the commands—say in a book—how would we know the commands are good ones; 6) if they were good commands how would we understand or interpret them; 7) if the came from a book which translation of the book; 8) how could you know if the translation is accurate; 9) can any translation be accurate; and 10) even if the translation was accurate how would you interpret the words you read. This is just a partial list of the problems you encounter trying to base ethics on a god or religion.

Difficulties also arise if we hear voices commanding us, or we accept an institutions’ authority. Why trust the voices or authorities? And which institution? Which revelation? Obviously, there are enormous philosophical difficulties with basing ethics on religion.

But let’s say that there are gods, that you have found the right one, that the right one issued commands, that the commands are good, that you have access to the right commands (because you found the right book, church, or had the right vision), that you understand the commands, that you interpret the commands correctly even though they came from a book that has been translated from one language to another over thousands of years? (Anyone who has ever translated knows that you can’t translate word for word between languages.) But let’s just say that somehow you are right about everything. Can you then base ethics on religion?

More than 2,000 years ago Plato answered this question in the negative. In Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates asked a famous question: “Are things right because the gods command them, or do they command them because they are right?” If things are right simply because the gods command them, then their commands are arbitrary—without reason. There are no good reasons for their commands. The gods then are like petty tyrants who just command things because they have the power.

On the other hand, if the gods command things because they are right, then there are reasons for their commands. The gods command things because they see or recognize that certain commands are really good for us. But if that is the case, then there is some standard or norm or criteria by which good or bad are to be measured. And this standard is independent of the gods.

So either the gods command are without reason, and therefore arbitrary, or they are with reason, and thus are commanded according to some standard. This standard—say that we would all be better off—is thus the reason we should be moral. And that reason, not a god’s authority—is what makes something right or wrong. And the same is true for an authoritative book. Something is not wrong simply because the book says so. There must be a reason for this and if there is not, then the book is simply wrong.

Of course one could argue that even if the gods are petty tyrants who command us without reason—except for say their own amusement—we should still follow the commands so as not to suffer—since the gods are possibly powerful and mean enough to do so. If they can inflict eternal torture—if they are the ultimate sadists—then we do have a reason to follow their commands—to avoid torture!

The response to this is that we don’t know that the gods will reward us for following their non-rational commands. Maybe the gods reward people who use their reason and don’t accept such commands and punish those who are so frightened as to accept non-rational commands. This seems to make some sense, if the gods are petty, tyrannical bullies, they might like it if you stood up to them. Who knows?

The foregoing discussion should suffice to show how difficult it is to base ethics on religion. Again, even if one could overcome all the practical difficulties involved in philosophically justifying religion, it seems that either a) the gods commands are arbitrary and there is thus no reason to follow them; or b) the gods commands are not arbitrary and there are reasons for them. But if the latter is the case, then we are doing philosophical, not theological, ethics. We are looking for the reasons why things are moral or immoral.

Finally, you might object that the gods have reasons for their commands, and we just can’t know them. But if this is the case, if we really can’t know anything about the gods’ reasons, if the ways of the gods “are mysterious to humans,” then what’s the point of religion? If you can’t know anything why the gods command things, then why follow their commands, why have religion at all, why listen to the preacher? If it’s all a mystery, then no person or book or church has anything coherent to say about god, ethics, or anything else. and in that case you should just be a skeptic.

If we want to rationally justify morality, then  we will have to do it in a moral theory independent of hypothetical gods. We will have to engage in philosophical ethics.