In Defense of the Innocent

Christopher O. Tollefsen
April 7, 2014
Copyright © The Witherspoon Institute
Reproduced with Permission
Public Discourse

Nigel Biggar's book In Defence of War has received much praise in recent months for its treatment of just war. The virtues of this book are many, and it deserves to be read and discussed by anyone interested in the ethics of war. But it also contains an ambiguity, or error, that should be noted by those same readers. In the bulk of this essay I'll attempt to identify this crucial turning point of Biggar's discussion and suggest an alternate route. How great a deviation that route is from Biggar's will depend on whether the turning point is indeed merely an ambiguity or, as I rather think, a mistake, a lapse in an otherwise very impressive book.

The Praiseworthy

Consider four features of IDoW that rightly merit the praise recently bestowed by National Review : "hands-down the most ambitious and consequential defense of the Christian just-war tradition we've seen in decades."

First, Biggar's opening chapter on Christian pacifism is exemplary. He looks at three of the most important Christian pacifists of the past few decades: Stanley Hauerwas, John Howard Yoder, and Richard Hays. Hauerwas he accuses of failing to present an adequate scripturally-based defense of his view; and Yoder, he argues, illicitly generalizes beyond the data of Jesus's rejection of violence in service of political nationalism to a complete rejection of the use of force.

Hays also generalizes beyond the New Testament's explicit prohibition of certain forms of violence to a blanket prohibition. Yet, as Biggar argues, right where one would expect the Gospels to repudiate warfare - namely, in Christ's numerous encounters with soldiers - we do not find this at all. There is no suggestion, for example, that the centurion at Capernaum, whom Jesus praises for his faith, should renounce his soldiering.

Second, Biggar's discussion in Chapter Two on "Love in War" is exceptional. Among its virtues are a highly nuanced and persuasive account of forgiveness as a two-step process encompassing (unconditional) compassion and (conditional) absolution. And the final account of the motives of soldiers in battle, which makes the case that love can be among those motives, is the best I have seen. It manifests a characteristic strength of the book as a whole: Biggar's attention to empirical data. In this case, the data consist of the accounts of soldiers from a number of wars who collectively make clear that love for one's fellow soldiers, and respect for one's opponents, are at least as central to the phenomenology of the soldier's experience as is hatred of the enemy.

Third, Biggar recognizes that an inadequately developed feature of just war casuistry is its account of proportionality . Biggar's chapter on this idea is again very strong and contains an extended and helpful case study of the British action at the Somme against the Germans in World War I. Particularly helpful in this chapter is his explanation of the " non -arithmetical and non -quantitative nature of judgments of proportionality."

Finally, the chapter on the Iraq war contains one of the fairest extended discussions of the justice of that war I have seen. Biggar puts to bed the oft-repeated claim that President Bush lied in the run-up to that war; presents a fairly convincing argument that the damage done in the war to civilians was proportionate to the gains, while admitting that there should have been substantially better planning for postbellum Iraq; and addresses the question of legality with considerable nuance.

He notes - rightly, I think - that the claim to legality is not the strongest of the claims that can be made in defense of that war. Indeed, I am not wholly convinced by his argument on this topic. But by situating the question of legality of the 2003 action in the broader context of resolutions dating back ten and twelve years before that, Biggar argues that at least the invasion of 2003 was not "clearly or simply illegal." And, as he notes, there could have been (as he believes there were) moral grounds for the invasion "even if it had been illegal."

These are all, in my view, standout discussions in this book, and my engagement now with an aspect of Biggar's approach that I disagree with is intended in no way to detract from my praise of it.

The Problem of Intention

Let me begin with a claim of Biggar's with which I am, on the surface of things, entirely in agreement, and which, again, on the surface, might be expected to engender some controversy. That claim is the assertion, in Chapter Four, that soldiers ought not to intend to kill their enemy. I have defended a similar claim here at Public Discourse , from which Biggar's claim follows: there should be no intentional killing whatsoever.

In consequence, all killing as may be permissibly accomplished, in war or elsewhere, must be not intended, must be outside the intention, in St. Thomas's phrase. Hence, as Biggar puts it, "The Christian doctrine of just war comes from the same Thomist stable as the principle of double effect; and insofar as it remains Thomistic, the former involves the latter." The death of combatants must be, to put it another way, always a side effect, and never something intended by a fully reasonable and upright soldier.

With all this agreement, where is the problem? It is in Biggar's account of intention, and in his subsequent treatment of what may be done not only to enemy combatants, but even to innocent civilians . Here, I will argue, Biggar parts company with the best recent (and, I believe, classical) moral analyses.

Consider an example given by Biggar of double effect in action. In Master and Commander , the ship will capsize unless the fallen mast is cut free. But a sailor hangs on the end of the mast and when the mast goes, so will he to certain death. His best friend sadly chops the mast away. "Did he," Biggar asks, "intend to kill his friend?"

Both Biggar and I would answer no. In my view, the sailor's end is the safety of the ship, and the means is the cutting away of the mast. The death of his friend enters into his deliberations neither as the end he pursues, nor any of the nested means by which he hopes to bring about that end: fetching the ax, so as to chop, so as to free the mast from the ship. All of this is within his intention; yet that which forms no part of his proposal for action is not within his intention. The death of his friend manifestly is neither an end nor a means for him.

One could see this example as an illustration of the claim that what is not chosen is not intended , but Biggar would disagree. As he puts it, "His friend's death was quite beside his intention - even though he chose it."

So what then is intention, in Biggar's account? He holds that to intend is not just to choose but also to want - want not in an emotional sense, but as a matter of rational desire, the desire for the good. And here again, there is the appearance of agreement, for in my view, what one intends is the end one rationally desires, and everything one takes to be needful for the attainment of that end, and thus sets oneself to achieve for its sake. And one can straightforwardly be understood to "desire," in the sense of rationally willing, all that one sets oneself to do for the sake of one's end, however emotionally repugnant one finds it.

There are occasional suggestions that Biggar too would accept this analysis, for, as he realizes, "a human action comprises ends and means," and, in his account, intention makes the difference between behavior that is a human action and behavior that is not. Moreover, he should accept it, for each means that is adopted stands as a proximate end on the agent's way toward the achievement of his overall objective. So if, as Biggar clearly believes, intention is of ends, then it is of means as well.

Were this reading correct, then some other claims made by Biggar would not be wrong, but only dangerously ambiguous. The most prominent of these claims is the statement that "the deliberate killing of the innocent is not wrong as such." Biggar also strongly suggests that it can be permissible to deliberately kill a soldier who is in agonizing pain with no prospect of relief.

Perhaps "deliberately" is being used here merely to indicate acceptance of that which is a side effect. One deliberately wears down one's sneakers in running, although one intends their wear as neither an end, nor as a means. This could be a passable usage, though "deliberate" strongly suggests "deliberation," which is precisely one's rational inquiry into the means that one will or will not adopt for the sake of one's end. So the ambiguity is dangerous: it suggests strongly that intentional mercy killing and the intentional killing of the innocent are both permissible.

Troubling Conclusions

But is it ambiguity, or error? I believe it is the latter, for if we look at the cases where Biggar believes the killing to be deliberate but not intended, it is clear that, contrary to his account, they are intended.

Consider, as paradigmatic, his dialectical exchange with David Rodin over the killing, in Rwanda, of Théoneste Hakizamungu by his brother Vénuste, who had been ordered to do so by the Hutu Interahamwe, lest they kill the entire Hakizamungu family. Drawing on classical Christian sources (I cannot here address the adequacy of his exegeses), Biggar argues that there would be no murder - no intentional killing - were Vénuste to kill his brother with his brother's consent (as actually happened) or without his brother's consent, for his brother is "obliged to sacrifice his life," and thus "has no right to it." Thus, "if Vénuste kills him, no such right is violated."

Or consider the hypothetical case of the mercy killing of the soldier: the soldier's throat is cut to bring him relief from his suffering. Biggar appears to believe that this is justified deliberate killing, yet also that it is not intended, since justified.

Such analysis requires for its success a flawed understanding of intention. Such an understanding, I believe, limits the willing that is part of intention to that which is rationally desired as an ultimate end. The killing of Théoneste is a means to the saving of the Hakizamungu family, as nearly every philosopher who has considered such cases would attest. And the slitting of the soldier's throat is effective for his relief only by means of the soldier's death, so death seems to be a means chosen for the sake of eliminating the soldier's suffering. If these actions are means, then they must be intentionally chosen or rejected. Biggar gives us no reason to think that chosen means are not intended, and there is, as I noted above, very good reason to think they are intended, whether by considering what it is to rationally desire something, or by considering the status of means as proximate ends.

If Biggar is to be read as I have read him here, then he is suggesting something very problematic indeed, and something I take to be absolutely contrary to the thrust of the just war tradition, and to the broader natural law tradition of which it is a part: namely, the idea that it can be morally permissible to intend to the death of innocent human beings, whether for their own sake (the wounded soldier) or for the sake of others (Théoneste Hakizamungu).

Such an error does not detract from the great strengths of Biggar's book; but it is important to recognize it as such, lest the formulation of the erroneous claim be taken for the assertion of the true claim that human beings should never be intentionally killed, whether in war or elsewhere.