Good, Evil, and War






Good, Evil, and War



It is easy to see how two evil states may go to war. They may have conflicting interests that they seek to settle by means of organized violence: for instance, they may have designs on each other’s territory or wealth. It is also easy to see how a good state and an evil state might go to war—as when the evil state attacks the good state and the good state defends itself. But it is not easy to see how two good states could be at war, since neither will engage in unjustified aggressive acts towards the other. They may have conflicting interests, but they will not seek to resolve these conflicts by armed combat. In war at least one party has to be an evil actor. So we can always infer from the existence of a war that one side at least is evil.

            It might be objected that this generalization (“the first law of war”) cannot be quite right as stated, since it is logically possible for two good states not to perceive each other as good. What if each state views the other as having evil intentions even when it does not? Will they not then be capable of war? It is quite true that a state can misperceive the moral standing of another state (“the Great Satan”, “the Evil Empire”), but in such a case war will not be the outcome, because the perception of evil will be addressed by peaceful means, i.e. diplomacy. The good state will endeavor to discover whether the perception of evil that it has of the other state is well grounded: that is, it will apply the principle that states are innocent until proven guilty—even if some prima facie evidence of guilt exists. Misunderstandings in human relations can occur, but a good state will seek to remedy such potential misunderstandings. Only if a state is not good will it allow mistaken impressions of evil to persist, leading to the possibility of war.

            There is another logically possible case to consider: two evil states that perceive each other as good. Will they go to war? They may, because the perception of goodness may not outweigh the evil ambitions of the state in question. Perceiving the other as virtuous is not usually sufficient to deter violent action against the other. In addition it is unlikely that an evil actor will openly admit the virtue of its target when pursuing its self-interest, whether person or state. That is why war is always accompanied by propaganda alleging the evil of the enemy.

            It follows that without evil there would be no war; to abolish war we simply need to abolish evil. War is certainly not an inevitable consequence of autonomous states with conflicting interests, even vital conflicts. History need not be the history of war. Abolishing evil isn’t easy, to put it mildly, but at least we now know how to prevent war, as a matter of principle. There is nothing inevitable about war.

            It might be wondered whether there can be such a thing as a virtuous state, given how large and complex states are. Are any states today virtuous states? If any are, they are certainly very few. But states can become more virtuous, and as they do so they become less likely to engage in war. On the other hand, vicious states will always be at war as part of their natural condition. The more virtuous a state is the less prone is it to war. If we are interested in abolishing war, we should work to promote national virtue at the political level. Decreasing the hatred of foreigners will be part of that effort, but many other things will be involved.

            These banal points apply to a wider range of human interactions than wars between modern heavily armed nation states. The OED defines war as “a state of armed conflict between countries or groups within a country”. But the concept of war has a wider application, as in the “war of the sexes” or the “war on terror” or “the war on drugs”. There are wars between families, neighbors, religions, races, and relatives. Not all of these wars involve bombs and guns: some are waged with words or discrimination or snobbery or laws or sanctions. In all these cases, however, the same basic principle applies: there must be at least one evil actor. It may not always be clear who the evil actor is, since both may be engaged in violent acts—though some of these may be just acts of self-defense. But a pair of virtuous actors can never be at war; someone has to be culpable.

            We don’t want to count boxers, brawlers, and duelists as engaged in war, even though they are engaged in violent conflict. To be at war implies something in the way of long-term strategy and purpose: it takes more than one battle to make a war. The rules of combat are also much less fixed in war, where the actors typically deem it acceptable to use whatever methods they have available to ensure victory. This is why rules of war have been introduced, though they are continually flouted. The natural condition of war is lawless ruthlessness. Paradoxically, the more ethical codes of war become, the more likely it is that actors will engage in war, since war will not be prosecuted in the complete absence of ethical restraint. A nation at war will not accept defeat if it can win by breaking a few rules, though a typical boxer will concede defeat even if he could have won by fouling. In the latter kind of case both parties may be virtuous actors, consenting to the violence that occurs. Mass boxing matches are not wars. For a genuine war there has to be evil on at least one side.

            It is notable that the rhetoric of war always involves imputations of evil against the enemy. No one ever says they are going to war with X even though X is a thoroughly decent person, tribe, or country. War can only be justified by allegations of evil: military evil, religious evil, economic evil, etc. And a country at war always tries to elevate its moral self-image. This is because of the conceptual link between war and evil: war is necessarily what is prompted by evil. If two countries are equal in virtue and yet have conflicting interests, they will justify waging war by imputations of evil—never by acknowledgement of moral parity. Two countries that are morally comparable may justify a state of war by insisting that the other country embraces an evil ideology, even when there is no significant difference in human conditions in the two countries. War can never be conducted in full open awareness of the other side’s virtue. Even a war of plunder will be represented as a moral crusade.

            We will therefore not understand the nature of war if we try to represent it in morally neutral terms. Wars are not armed conflicts stemming from conflicting interests or divergent ideologies—or else good actors (on both sides) could be involved in wars. The concept of evil is essential to the concept of war: actual evil and perceived or putative evil. A war is not like a chess game or a game of tug of war or an arm-wrestling contest. Wars are not a subspecies of games. I would define a war as an organized purposeful armed conflict in which one or both parties are evil (bad, wicked) and are judged to be so. The evil may take different forms, as may the arms that are employed, but it will always involve morally unjustifiable actions. It is perfectly possible for one party to a war to be entirely blameless, in spite of its violent actions, but then the other party must be blameworthy. There cannot be entirely blameless wars. Virtuous agents can never be at war. Whenever a war is in progress one side or the other is guilty. This is why human wars are fundamentally different from group violence among animals (unless we suppose that some animals are capable of evil). War is the natural expression of human evil; it is not some kind of fact of nature or inherent political tendency. Great powers do not inevitably clash; they do so only because of specific identifiable acts of wrongdoing. War is not a historical or political inevitability but a choice to act on evil impulses. There are no “good wars” in the sense that virtuous nations can find themselves at war with each other. If two states find themselves heading toward war with each other, they should always ask where the moral fault lies, and never assume that war is unavoidable.


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