Monday, September 27, 2010

Walzer and the Topic of Omission

I wanted to discuss this topic and it application to the Walzer text before the class moved on to the strategy bit of the coursework. As I read through the book I was reminded of the concept of the sin of omission. This is an explicitly religious concept most closely associated with Catholicism, but I think it bears mentioning within the context of Walzer’s book and the larger, secular debate about just and unjust war. To commit a sin of omission is to choose inaction when you can do something or you ought to do something. St. Thomas Aquinas, who Walzer refers to early on in the book, writes in Summa Theologica, “Omission is directly opposed to justice, as stated above; because it is a non-fulfillment of a good of virtue.” Here we have an indication from one of the philosophical giants that freely choosing to not act stands counter to justice.

If it follows that an action can be categorized as either just or unjust, then a corresponding inaction is subject to the same appraisal. To use an example from the text, if the Indian government was justified in intervening on the part of the Bengalis to stop Pakistani violence, would a decision to not intervene be considered an unjust act? Walzer does not give the idea of omission much, if any attention. I consider this a shortcoming of his overall argument, particularly in regards to his take on insufferable, genocidal strife.

On the subject of interventions Walzer proposes a self-help test. This would provide a country with the ability to choose inaction and still be justified in doing so provided there was this political tenuousness, but Walzer closes this loophole. He writes that when the crimes against humanity are so profane “that it makes talk of community or self-determination or ‘arduous struggle’ seem cynical and irrelevant, that is, in case of enslavement or massacre,” (pg. 90) a country can and must act. He says later that massacres make self-help tests a non-issue. He explains further that militarily defeating perpetrators of such an act is “morally necessary” and that, “Any state capable of stopping the slaughter has a right, at least, to try to do so” (pg. 106-108).

So where does this leave the U.S. in terms of its conduct of foreign policy? Have we not pursued what is “morally necessary” in the past, and does that constitute an injustice? I speak most specifically with regard to Rwanda and Darfur, but our reluctance to get involved in the Balkans is also worth noting. I ask this question not to be preachy but instead to highlight one thing in particular: if you want to inject the moral precepts and concepts of justice into the foreign policy debate and debunk realism, this is an important issue of contention. Walzer seems to argue that deeming something politically intractable (a typical defense for staying out of Darfur) is not sufficient when dealing with genocide or massacre, but I found the text decidedly mute and at best vague on the topic of inaction.

As an intellectual exercise, talking about justice and war is certainly beneficial, and Walzer is to be praised for articulately taking on as much subject matter as he did. But in terms of national security policy, such ruminations inevitably inject vagueness into the decision making process. The three examples in the preceding paragraph were (or are) all nauseating and gruesome to confront, but hesitation on the part of policy makers to not beat back abject, organized violence outside of its own territory is, in many cases, the prudent decision. Many disagree (most prominently Samantha Power), and Walzer might be one of them, I just can’t get that from the text.

As a spinoff question: does the prospect of “justice after war” mitigate the immorality of inaction? I think the quick answer is yes, but I have not given it much thought.

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