TCS Daily

The "Real Reason" for the War

By Keith Burgess-Jackson - November 11, 2003 12:00 AM

Suppose I adopt the (classical) liberal view that paternalistic legislation is unjustified. I believe, let us assume, that it is always a good reason to prohibit and punish actions that they threaten harm to others -- in other words, I endorse what philosophers call the harm principle  -- but that it is never a good reason to prohibit and punish actions that they threaten harm to the actor -- in other words, I reject legal paternalism. My view, in a nutshell, is that the state has no business interfering in people's purely self-regarding activity. People have a legal right to harm themselves, to be fools, to be stupid (by my standards).


Now suppose a law is introduced in my jurisdiction requiring motorcyclists to wear safety helmets. Can I, qua liberal, support such a law? Before answering this question, stop and think. Should I care about the motives of those who introduced the legislation? Or should I ignore their motives and ask whether my own principles justify it?


Two things complicate the situation. First, there can be more than one motive for a given action. I may save a drowning friend not just because I care about the friend, but because I hope for reward. Two motives, one action. Since legislation is a joint product, there can be as many motives for it as there are legislators.


Second, there can be more than one justification for a given action. Here is philosopher Gerald Dworkin:


Almost any piece of legislation is justified by several different reasons, and even if historically a piece of legislation can be shown to have been introduced for purely paternalistic motives, it may be that advocates of the legislation with an anti-paternalistic outlook can find sufficient reasons justifying the legislation without appealing to the reasons that were originally adduced to support it. (Gerald Dworkin, "Paternalism," chap. 2 in Paternalism, ed. Rolf Sartorius [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983 (essay first published in 1972)], 19-34, at 20)


Why should I, a liberal, care what motivated the legislation? Shouldn't I ask whether it can be justified by principles that I endorse? Shouldn't I ask, specifically, whether the legislation is justified by the harm principle? Suppose riding a motorcycle without a safety helmet threatens harm both to the actor and to others. Then it finds support in both the harm principle and legal paternalism. That I reject legal paternalism doesn't mean that I can't or shouldn't support the legislation. Indeed, I should support it! I should support it because the harm principle, which I endorse, endorses it. It is neither here nor there, to me, that some other principle, which I reject, also endorses it.


Let us apply these ideas and distinctions to the war in Iraq. I hear it said ad nauseam (by, for example, Chris Matthews of MSNBC's Hardball) that the "real reason" President Bush went to war in Iraq is such-and-such (that he wanted control over Iraqi oil [perhaps to help his "oil buddies"], that he had a personal vendetta against Saddam Hussein, that he wanted to divert attention from a faltering economy, that he sought greater influence in the Middle East, that he had imperialist ambitions, that he wanted to campaign for reelection in 2004 as a victorious commander-in-chief, and so forth).


What does this mean: "real reason"? Matthews and other critics seem obsessed with President Bush's motives in going to war in Iraq. Shouldn't they be concerned with the war's justification? I assume that Matthews and other war critics believe that some (but not all) wars are justified. They must, therefore, have a principle that distinguishes justified from unjustified wars. Why don't they forget about President Bush's motives or stated justifications and ask whether the war is justified by their own principles? I have yet to hear Matthews address this question. To this day, having watched his program for many months, I have no idea what he would consider a justification for war. If he is a pacifist, he should say so.


Let me give an example. Suppose I believe in humanitarian intervention (as liberals once did). I believe, say, that the United States should intervene in other countries to prevent -- and perhaps to punish -- atrocities (understood as widespread, systematic human-rights violations). Suppose I reject intervention on other grounds, such as the acquisition of territory or resources. Now suppose I'm convinced that President Bush's motive in going to war in Iraq was the latter rather than the former. Should it matter to me? No. What I should say is that the war is justified (by my own principles). It is justified not because of the president's stated reasons for going to war, which I reject, but in spite of them. I will think, and say, that the president did the right thing for the wrong reason.


The debate about the war in Iraq is frustrating to philosophers such as me because it focuses on motives rather than on justifications. It is off track. I am not saying that if we focused on justifications there would be agreement. Not at all. There will almost surely be disagreement, since there are different (contending) principles of justified war. But at least we would be arguing about the right thing: principles. Each of us should ask the following question: Given my principles of justified war, does the war in Iraq pass muster? In answering this question, one need make no reference to either President Bush's principles or his motives. Those are irrelevant considerations. Focusing on the president is a distraction, and ultimately an evasion of responsibility to think things through for oneself.


Keith Burgess-Jackson, J.D., Ph.D., Associate Professor of Philosophy, Department of Philosophy and Humanities, The University of Texas at Arlington. Visit Burgess-Jackson at his blog home which can be found at

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