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Teaching & Understanding Sept 11 Mark Hamm & Paul Leighton

Justice & War: Ethics of International Conflicts

Andrew Sabl UCLA

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Note: this course was an ad hoc effort.  In response to the events of September 11, UCLA asked professors to volunteer to teach one-unit seminars that would use professors’ academic expertise to shed light on current events.  Accordingly, the seminars met only one hour per week, had no written assignments or exams, and were graded pass-fail.  There was also an assumption that reading would be light: one article a week or thereabouts.  Finally, the current-events focus of the course meant that some of the readings were chosen based on literally current events—I asked the students to bring in articles from the previous week on the effects of U.S. bombing, humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan, the details of Taliban rule, and the like.  Those articles are not included below, as they would already be dated.

So the below is a cross between what we actually did and what I would have liked to do given more time: it is not intended as an actual syllabus, and I cannot be held responsible for anyone who uses it as such. 

Finally, UCLA quarters are only ten weeks long.  Most universities would want to include more topics than I had time for.  This is reflected below: I’ve listed more topics than I had time to teach

links in the grey boxes are provided by the webmaster

Class Readings

Notes on pedagogy

Weekly Topics

Appendix I: Ethics and War: Four Stylized Approaches

Appendix II: Weapons of War

Philosophers Speak Out: War, Terrorism, & Peace

War, Peace, & Military Ethics (Ethics Updates)

US Inst of Peace, Teaching Guide on the Justification of War 

Readings and other materials:

Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars.  Basic Books (many editions).  An indispensable book on this subject; the reasoning is sharp, the case studies concise and well chosen, and the particular judgments both plausible and controversial.  The book may be read as a whole.  But it’s probably more useful to read the early, theoretical sections first and then use the later chapters on specific topics (Terrorism, Guerilla War, Sieges and Blockades, etc.) on a one-per-week basis to introduce each subject and lead in to other readings. 

 David Decosse, ed. But Was it Just?  Reflections on the Persian Gulf War (Doubleday, 1992).  Contains excellent and provocative essays by Jean B. Elshtain and Stanley Hauerwas, as well as an essay by Walzer that’s also included in later editions of Just and Unjust Wars.

Joseph S. Nye Jr. , Nuclear Ethics (Collier MacMillan, 1986).  Not a deep book, but a useful policy-style summary of the issues with some useful typologies and insights.  Good references. 

 U.S. Catholic Bishops' Pastoral Letter on War and Peace, 1983. (see also The Church's Teaching on War and Peace, 10th Anniversary)

Gary J. Bass, Stay the Hand of Vengeance: The Politics of War Crimes Tribunals (Princeton University Press, 2000).

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War: especially the Mytilenean Debate and the Melian Dialogue.  The Rex Warner translation (Penguin) is accessible.  If time permits, Pericles’ Funeral Oration may also be assigned as setting the democratic-imperialism context for Athens’ ethical reasoning on these subjects.

 Carl von Clausewitz, On War.

Thomas Nagel, “War and Massacre,” in Mortal Questions (Cambridge University Press, 1979).

Notes on pedagogy       [links to other discussions of pedagogy]

 These are based on my experience and are not meant to be definitive.  Use as helpful.

 1. Ethical discussion on this topic means teaching facts, as well as discussing values. 

Students lack historical knowledge and command of current events.  However, good discussion requires that the professor avoid an expert, “fount of knowledge” role. 

Remedy: Assign the factual content (i.e., give case studies along with the ethical concepts) or require that students research their own cases and present them.  The latter obviously has pedagogical advantages.

The “case” method is excellent but must be supplemented by Deweyan/Socratic tricks.  It’s better to tease out the general from the specific than the other way around.

2.  Students find statements of abstract principle hard to evaluate. 

Probable cause: except for a few student activists and political junkies, they have little experience with vigorous political or ideological debate.

Remedy: Don’t assume that students have strong prejudices to be overcome, nor that they fit on an ideological spectrum.  (As political science has long known, most people’s opinions are inchoate and/or inconsistent.)  Students have opinions in particular cases—especially extreme cases involving genocide, carpet bombing, and similar instances.  But they must be provoked and prodded into seeing that these opinions rest on more general moral and political positions that they should articulate and defend.

 This is related to:

3. Students are reluctant to make ethical judgments.

This is the unintended consequence of a diverse society and education in tolerance. From constant (and justified) admonitions to be open-minded and non-prejudiced students often draw the conclusion that they should avoid justified moral judgments as well as unjustified ones.  Paradoxically (or perhaps predictably—an effect of democracy à la Tocqueville?) students are quite willing to make judgments regarding “contemporary issues” or “politics.”  A reluctance to make “moral” judgments does not rule out having strong opinions on collectively binding decisions. 


—Never put “Ethics” in a course title. Tell them later that ethics is what they’re doing; articulate the subject of the course in terms of politics. “Justice” is always a better title than “Right and Wrong,” “Contemporary Issues” better than “Contemporary Moral Issues.”

—Demonstrate to students, with humor if possible, that they make moral judgments all the time whether they know it or not. Their only choice is whether their judgments will be intelligent and reflective or casual and indefensible.

Weekly topics:

1. Introduction: Is “ethics in wartime” a contradiction in terms?

Walzer, Chapter 1 (“Against Realism.”); Clausewitz, excerpts. Attached typology of approaches to international ethics, adapted from Joseph Nye’s Nuclear Ethics (or, if time permits, a quick glance Nuclear Ethics itself.)

See also: International humanitarian law (IHL) in brief: International humanitarian law is a set of rules which seek, for humanitarian reasons, to limit the effects of armed conflict. It protects persons who are not or are no longer participating in the hostilities and restricts the means and methods of warfare. International humanitarian law is also known as the law of war or the law of armed conflict.

2. Basic concepts: aggression, total war, the rights of soldiers.

Walzer, Chapters 2, 3, 7.

3. Aggression and Preemption.

Walzer, Chapters 4-5.

4. Intervention and the Rights of States

Walzer, Chapters 6, 15.

see also Preemption, aggression and Catholic teaching (National Catholic Reporter)

Deterrence and Preemption by Daniel Moran, analyst with the Center for Contemporary Conflict (CCC), the research arm of the National Security Affairs Department at the Naval Postgraduate School

5. Massacre and Noncombatant Immunity

Walzer, Chapter 9; Thomas Nagel, “War and Massacre.” Gregory L. Vistica, “What Happened in Thanh Phong?”  New York Times Magazine 29 April 2001.  (Article on former senator Bob Kerrey’s activities as Navy SEAL.)


6. The Strong and the Weak

Thucydides: “The Mytilenean Debate” and “The Melian Dialogue.”

7. Weapons of War.

Scott Shuger, “Fire When Ready: Why we should consider using flamethrowers in Afghanistan.”  Slate, 31 October 2001. Attached worksheet, “Weapons of War” (by Andrew Sabl).

8. Nuclear War.

U.S. Catholic Bishops' Pastoral Letter on Nuclear War and Peace, 1983. Nye, Nuclear Ethics, excerpts. Walzer, Chapter 17 (“Nuclear Deterrence”). Film: Fail-Safe. Directed by Sidney Lumet (1964).  111 minutes. [see also The Church's Teaching on War and Peace, 10th Anniversary]

9. War Crimes: State Action and Personal Responsibility.

Walzer, Chaps. 18-19. Bass, Stay the Hand of Vengeance—excerpts as time permits. Film: Breaker Morant.  Directed by Bruce Beresford (1979).  107 minutes.

10. Sieges and Blockades.

 Walzer, Chapter 10. Topical cases as appropriate: Sudan and other countries should (unfortunately) provide excellent examples for some time to come. 

11. Guerilla War and Terrorism

Walzer, Chapters 11-12. Film: Battle of Algiers.  Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo (1965). 125 minutes.

12. Lying in Wartime.

[Topic in progress.  I would suggest several readings on the Pentagon’s proposed Office of Strategic Intelligence (see New York Times articles from about February 19-27, 2002), as well as excerpts from Anthony Cave Brown, Bodyguard of Lies (Harper and Row, 1975).]

13. Case study: The Gulf War.

Review of Walzer, Chapter 9. Essays by Elshtain, Hauerwas, and Walzer in But Was it Just?


Appendix I: Ethics and War: Four Stylized Approaches from Nye's Nuclear Ethics

1. Skeptic.  Moral principles are based on norms or conventions that exist within societies; all moral obligations stem from agreements among members of a society.  Therefore, we cannot speak of “morality” or “ethics” when it comes to relations among different countries.  Every state acts, and rightly acts, to protect its own interests.  A state may justify making war if this promotes its own interests; any alliances it forms are binding only as long as they serve its interests; any restraint it shows in international conflicts is based on a calculation that restraint is in its own interests.

2. Realist.  The skeptic is right that international relations are not governed by everyday (domestic) morality.  But the international system has its own rules based on all countries’ overriding interest in preserving peace.  Given that we lack an international arbiter or police force, the only thing that preserves peace is a balance of power among states.  A moral statesman therefore keeps an eye out for the balance of power, and pursues his or her own state’s interests with an eye to creating and preserving such a balance.  Strong states may protect their interests by dominating weak ones (“spheres of influence”) as long as this is not likely to cause a wider war.  (In fact, this tends to promote peace by making the states most likely to start wars feel more secure.)  Humanitarian goals are likely to upset the peace, since countries can always find some reason to find one another’s internal conduct unacceptable.

3. State moralist.  The basic moral units of international affairs are sovereign states.  The preservation of state sovereignty is both a good in itself and the basis for other goods such as national economic development and self-determination.  This is why international law and international bodies (such as the UN) represent states, not individuals. The biggest international crimes are aggressive war and unprovoked intervention, and imperial powers have always been prone to engage in these crimes.  Even when one country objects strongly to what goes on in another, sovereignty should be respected and states should not intervene in one another’s internal affairs.  Weak states need protection, and a doctrine of intervention unjustly benefits the strong.

4. Cosmopolitan.  The basic moral units in international affairs, as in domestic politics, are individuals.  Individuals have rights—to life and liberty, as well as other goods such as education and basic sustenance.  Artificial divisions among states only cement inequality and injustice.  Excessive regard for sovereignty allows states to oppress their own people, through murder and torture, or through other violations of political, economic, and cultural rights.  The international system should promote human rights and should license intervention when necessary  to enforce rights.  Those fortunate enough to live in  rich and powerful countries have an obligation to help their fellow human beings in poor and weak countries lead better lives.

--the above is a summary of the conceptual scheme presented by Joseph Nye in Nuclear Ethics (New York: Free Press, 1986), Chapter 3, who in turn credits Charles Beitz, "Bounded Morality," International Organization 33 (Summer 1979): 405-24. The author asserts the originality not of the underlying ideas but of the above summary, which is Copyright © 2001 by Andrew Sabl. Permission granted to reproduce for teaching purposes only; sale for profit prohibited.

Appendix II: Weapons of War

Which of the following should a civilized army refrain from using as a matter of principle?  Why or why not--what is the principle?

 1. Laser blinding weapon: reliably blinds for life a large percentage of the soldiers looking in a general direction when it goes off.  Completely nonlethal: too weak to burn skin. (This doesn’t exist but is theoretically possible and was under consideration a few years ago.)

 2. Targeted biological weapon: anthrax, botulism etc. distributed over the camps of enemy soldiers.  Assume that the weapon is (like anthrax) not contagious: it won’t spread to one’s own army or to civilians.

 3. First-generation chemical weapon (e.g. mustard gas): those who inhale a lot die from lung destruction; those who inhale a little may be permanently disabled (breathing becomes difficult and painful).  Gas masks provide protection.

 4. Deadly chemical weapon (sarin, other nerve agents):  Droplet on exposed skin kills unless washed away immediately.  Gas masks provide no protection; full protective gear is necessary.

 5. Land mine: likely to cripple when it does not kill.  Lasts a long time.

 6. Self-destroying land mine: renders itself useless after a few weeks or months.

 7. Fuel weapon: causes permanent burns and disfigurement when it does not kill.  Varying delivery systems with varying accuracy (flame-thrower, napalm drop, fuel bomb.)

 8. Incendiary bomb: Designed to cause raging fires among buildings.

 9. Explosive bomb or artillery: Intended as lethal.  Often cripples when it doesn’t kill, through destroyed limbs or internal injuries.  Harder to target than a gun.  Efficient at destroying troops.

 10. Gun:  Intended as lethal.  Often cripples when it doesn’t kill, through destroyed limbs or spinal injuries.  Easy to target very accurately.

 11. Knife:  Can kill when used skillfully.  Rarely cripples.  Extremely accurate to target.  Not very efficient.

 Copyright © 2001 by Andrew Sabl.  Permission granted to make reproductions for teaching purposes.  Sale for profit or without attribution to author absolutely prohibited.

Andrew Sabl is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics, the first chapter of which is available at Princeton University Press




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