I had the privilege of attending the Symposium “Just War, the Common Good, and Right Intention,” held by the Faculty of Philosophy at Dominican University College in Ottawa, Ontario on November 14 to 16. I was invited to the symposium to speak on “Constructing the Common Good in Just-War Reasoning.” In my talk I noted that, in the United States, just-war theorists such as Joseph Koterski, David Baer and Joseph Capizzi, and Mark Allman and Tobias Winright, draw on concepts such as “the common good” or “peace” in order to provide conceptual unity to the criteria of the just-war theory, or, as in the case of Allman and Winright, to link the criteria to ethical considerations before and after war takes place. Drawing on St. Augustine’s claim in Book 19 of his City of God that all seek the peace “that suits their wishes,” however, I suggested that to pursue this line of reasoning, we must be more attentive to how the identities that bind us together into something “common” and the shared interests we perceive as “good,” are constructed and transform over time. Noting that the states we often take for granted as the primary agents of war are themselves social constructs, I went on to describe how states’ self-identities and national interests are shaped through a combination of cultural tradition, domestic activist groups, and pressure from other states. Finally, I argued that the norms that govern states’ decisions about war reflect these identities and interests, and that if we desire to see the just-war theory play a more decisive role in public policy making, then we should give more consideration to how our own communities’ identities both hinder and support that goal.

m02010091900005I go into so much detail on my own talk because the response to it was enlightening. The talk struck a chord with many of the participants because, as one scholar explained to me, Canada, under the leadership of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is undergoing a transformation in its military policy. For many decades, Canada has principally engaged in humanitarian and peacekeeping missions, but Canadians perceive a shift in policy under Harper to a more interventionist stance; for example, Canada has continued to participate in the NATO mission in Afghanistan despite increasing popular opposition, and it has also taken a more assertive stance over its rights in the Arctic Ocean. The Harper government has also undertaken a massive increase in military spending to increase the size and improve the equipment of the armed forces. As one participant at the symposium told me, “I used to be proud to be Canadian, but now I am not sure.” This sentiment perfectly illustrated the theme of my talk; more than disagreement over foreign policy is involved here, but rather one’s very identity as a Canadian. Changes in the norms governing a state’s participation in war reflect underlying changes in the nation’s identity, changes which can even leave an individual alienated from their nation.

In the United States, it can be easy to neglect how the ethical dilemmas relating to war that we discuss often reflect our nation’s status as the world’s sole superpower. For me, learning how Canadians are grappling with how to think about the just-war theory in the context of their own nation’s identity was the most valuable part of my experience at the symposium.

Canada’s humanitarian identity was tackled head on by Kaleigh S. Heard, a graduate student at the Royal Military College of Canada, in Kingston, Ontario, in her paper “The Duty to Humanity?” Heard insightfully contrasted the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which first broached the notion that nations should militarily intervene for humanitarian purposes, with the Canadian International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty’s 2001 report The Responsibility to Protect. Whereas the former document was focused on the narrow and strictly defined case of genocide as a justification for armed intervention, the doctrine of the responsibility to protect (R2P) greatly extends the scope of conditions within a nation that might justify intervention by the international community. Heard pointed out, however, that Article 7 of the United Nations Charter only authorizes the use of military force for the sake of “international peace and security,” and she argued that this condition puts limitations on the sorts of domestic situations that could justify military intervention under the R2P doctrine. Heard then went on to argue that the ongoing civil war in Syria is just such a situation; its potential for regional escalation is a primary justification for intervention. Heard is certainly correct that we need to think more carefully and critically about when military action can be justified in humanitarian cases, since it is so easy to be driven by moral fervor; however, as I have argued elsewhere (here and here), it is precisely the potential for regional escalation in a conflict such as that in Syria that should give us second thoughts about intervening.

Many just-war theorists in the United States are re-examining the criterion of right intention; for example, David Baer and Joseph Capizzi have argued that a just intention, that is, an intention aimed at true and lasting peace, provides a unifying principle for the other just-war criteria. In his paper “L’intention droite comme hypothèse dans la justification de la violence politique,” Jean-François Méthot, a professor of philosophy at the Dominican University College, admitted that fulfillment of the criterion of right intention will be reflected in the other just-war criteria, but also insisted that the function of the criterion of right intention is not simply to unify the other criteria. Rather, Méthot’s reflections considered right intention as focused on communication. This criterion requires a belligerent to state their causes for war, using moral arguments that could potentially be persuasive to other nations. This statement then provides a standard by which the nation’s subsequent actions can be judged. Although not explicitly mentioned, Méthot’s argument suggested the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas’s communicative ethics, given Méthot’s insistence that the justness of a nation’s cause emerges through the public evaluation of its claims.

This focus on communication as also reflected in a celebration of the publication of the second edition of Randal Marlin’s Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion. Marlin, who teaches philosophy at Carleton University in Ottawa, also gave a talk on “The Ethics of War Propaganda: Framing the Issues,” applying ideas from his book to the issue of war. Using “propaganda” in the relatively neutral sense of a government providing persuasive communications regarding its intentions and policies, Marlin proposed the basic ethical criteria that propaganda should be both truthful and used in support of just causes. He also discussed, however, how our perceptions of information and arguments are often shaped by our own preconceptions and by the “framing” of the message, making ethical evaluation sometimes difficult.

This is only a small sampling of the papers offered at the symposium. One thing these papers had in common is that they presuppose that just-war reasoning takes place within a community of nations. As Heard emphasized, we do have responsibilities, even if they are circumscribed, toward those suffering abuse from their own governments. Then, as noted by both Méthot and Marlin, nations have the responsibility to communicate their aims clearly and truthfully to the broader international community. In my own talk I mentioned how for Americans, the sense of global solidarity needed to fulfill the sorts of humanitarian responsibilities the just-war theory requires of us is underdeveloped. Perhaps, then, there is something that American just-war theorists could learn from their Canadian counterparts about thinking ethically about war in the context of a global community of nations.