The Morality of War

by | Dec 30, 2001

Ayn Rand once said, “Wars are the second greatest evil that human societies can perpetrate.” Why only second? To understand, we must first do something that few have done since the peace ended on Sept. 11: We must ask what war is. From Webster’s dictionary, we get this definition of war: “a conflict of arms […]

Ayn Rand once said, “Wars are the second greatest evil that human societies can perpetrate.” Why only second? To understand, we must first do something that few have done since the peace ended on Sept. 11: We must ask what war is.

From Webster’s dictionary, we get this definition of war: “a conflict of arms between hostile parties or nations.” A rational debate is not a war. Indeed, a rational debate may not even be a conflict but a mutual attempt to unearth the truth. A heated argument is not a war–neither side is using force against the other. A robbery at gunpoint is not a war–one side is unarmed.

By Webster’s definition, there is war when a man, attacked alone in an alley, draws his gun in self-defense. Both sides in this conflict are armed. A turf battle between criminal gangs is also a war.

What is frequently absent in the war debate is an explicit attempt to pass moral judgment on the two sides. This is a life-and-death issue and it’s time to think about it.

The fundamental choice we make every day in dealing with other human beings is whether to interact by means of persuasion or force. Rational debate and heated argument are methods of persuasion. Robbery and assault are examples of the use of force. Determining the appropriateness of these two methods depends on taking into consideration the requirements of our survival as human beings.

According to Aristotle, “Man is the rational animal.” We cannot simply soak in sunlight and nutrients as plants do. We do not instinctively hunt down food like other animals. Everything we do depends in some way upon the exercise of our rational faculty. From deciding whether to eat to judging the character of others, we live and die by our minds.

We benefit from living in a society only to the extent that we can exercise our right to use our minds for our own profit. We cannot prosper if defrauded, robbed, or killed. In recognition of that fact, free people form governments. We establish courts with the power to settle disputes and enforce their edicts, a police to stop criminals and a military to protect against foreign threats.

But what sets a government apart from other social institutions is its modus operandi. While we implicitly agree not to initiate force against others, we cede the power of retaliation to the government.

Why? Because man is not only the rational animal, but also one with free will. Some choose to initiate force against their fellow human beings. How should the rest of us deal with them? If not prevented, evil men will run roughshod over anyone they can. Simply trying to persuade them to stop will not do the trick; we must resort to force. It is thus a matter of the survival of those who would not initiate force against others to prevent those who would by using retaliatory force against them. Normally, that power is delegated to the government.

It is a massive and deadly mistake to fail to make the moral distinction between the initiation of force and the use of force in retaliation against those who choose not to live peacefully. The man who drew his gun in the alley is moral because he is fighting for his life. The warring gangs are both immoral. Some wars are moral and some wars are immoral. It is not war but the initiation of force against others that is wrong.

By harboring Osama bin Laden, the Taliban regime has made possible great atrocities. The terrorists initiated force against us, threatening the lives they failed to end. We have a well-armed government for our defense, and it is waging a just, retaliatory war to prevent further atrocities in the future.

But if we are suffering the second greatest evil, who suffers the first? The oppressed Afghan people. To finish Rand’s quote, “The [greatest evil] is dictatorship, the enslavement of [a society’s] own citizens, which is the cause of wars.” The Taliban, in killing our countrymen, has endangered the lives of its own people by forcing the United States to defend its own. The ultimate responsibility for the casualties in this war, therefore, belongs to the Taliban.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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