Can War Be Justified as Self-Defense?

Can War Be Justified as Self-Defense?

Does this framework even work?

This week on Liberty Weekly, I will be interviewing Laurie Calhoun, inter alia, about her book War and Delusion.

Laurie has a resume that is too long to list out here in full. Suffice to say, she is a philosopher and cultural critic. She is the author of several books and is a frequent contributor over at the Libertarian Institute.

In War and Delusion, Laurie dismantles Just War Theory, which is, as it sounds, a legal and moral justification for wars waged under a particular set of conditions. To most, this theory may seem outwardly reasonable. However, as Laurie elucidates in her book, it relies on faulty presuppositions that do not hold up to scrutiny.

In the first chapter of her book, Laurie confronts an argument that is of particular interest to libertarians: that war is morally permissible when waged in self-defense. She argues—rather convincingly—that the two concepts are not compatible.

For one—wars are most often waged between states. Indeed, some believe that war may only be waged between states. If the legitimate ability to wage war is not reserved to the state, it is, by definition, a phenomenon that can only occur between groups of people.

The libertarian should immediately question the notion of collective self-defense. This is because only individuals have rights.

Indeed, an individual’s right to self-defense derives from that individual’s self-ownership. The right to self-defense itself ultimately belongs to its corresponding individual. It is inalienable because no one but the individual who inhabits the body has an ownership claim to it. This inhabitation is physically impossible to transfer.

But of course, owning the right to self-defense is not the only justification for acting in the defense of another.

Let’s say, arguendo, that in the same way individuals could, a group claims to be legally and morally justified in acting in defense of another group. It may do so in one of three ways, by: 1) incurring a duty to defend through contract or assignment, 2) voluntarily undertaking a duty to defend, or, 3) acting with the privilege of defending another in preventing an imminent attack.

These justifications, however, don’t allow that group to wage a war under the color of defending another group.

The first, incurring a duty to defend through contract or assignment, is impossible in the collective context. A group cannot assign a duty to defend without the consent of each member of that group. Just as the state cannot obtain the actual consent of each of its subjects to its rule, a group cannot obtain an assignment of the duty to defend from each individual it claims to defend in a “just war.” If a neighborhood watch forms to defend the block, I maintain a right to tell them not to defend my person and property.

The second justification, voluntarily undertaking a duty to defend, suffers from the same flaw that the third justification does: the lack of imminence.

Surely an individual could voluntarily undertake a duty to defend the victim of a street mugging. This could result through intervening in a mugging that was already taking place. In this situation, the intervenor cannot leave the victim in a worse off position than before the intervention, as the consequences of war often do.

But, in contrast to the above permissible example, combatants do not fight wars to protect noncombatants from imminent attack. Furthermore, non-combatants writ large aren’t always under imminent attack in the broader context of war. The individual-defending-individual context simply does not traslate to group-defending-group.

Even if the above justifications translated to a group-defending-group context, Laurie argues it cannot be said that a defensive war is analygous to self-defense. This is because modern warfare always kills non-combatants. Indeed, she writes, since World War II, the majority of war casualties have been non-combatants.

If war is supposed to be a form of self-defense, then how can resisting violent aggression involve the very same act of aggression against other innocent people? If it is wrong to destroy innocent people, how, then, can it be right to destroy innocent people in the process of protecting innocent people?

Interestingly enough, Laurie’s view departs from Rothbard’s definition of a “just war:”

My own view of war can be put simply: a just war exists when a people tries to ward off the threat of coercive domination by another people, or to overthrow an already-existing domination. A war is unjust, on the other hand, when a people try to impose domination on another people, or try to retain an already existing coercive rule over them.

I tend to agree with Laurie’s take, to which I have added my own thoughts above, over Rothbard’s. Ultimately I believe both theories warrant more exploration on my part.

The reader should buy Laurie’s book War and Delusion to explore her arguments in more depth. I will be asking her about them our interview this week, to be released this weekend. Sign up for my premium Substack to get access to that interview as soon as it is recorded.

Further, if you’ll indulge me a bit more, it’d like to impress the importance of this subject matter.

Although many, including myself, contest the facts alleged to justify America’s wars of aggression, the libertarian does not often grapple with the more esoteric moral, legal, and philosophical underpinnings for these wars. Some may be tempted even to discard such discussion, turning instead to pragmatism in an admittedly dire geopolitical landscape. I posit that both approaches are equally important.

Just as Vladimir Putin attempted to explain a casus belli before Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, American leaders, bolstered by the think tankers and policy wonks of the military industrial complex, seek desperately to concoct some kind of moral, legal, and philosophical justification for their warmongering. The fact that these creatures cobble together such justifications affirms their importance.

Therein too, lies the battle.