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Ideas of Michael Walzer, by Text

[American, b.1935, At Harvard, and then the Institute of Advance Studies at Princeton.]

1977 Just and Unjust Wars
Pref p.-5 Deep ethical theory is very controversial, but we have to live with higher ethical practice
     Full Idea: The substructure of the ethical world is a matter of deep and unending controversy, Meanwhile, however, we are living in the superstructure.
     From: Michael Walzer (Just and Unjust Wars [1977], Pref)
     A reaction: This may be the best approach to ethics. Nearly all applied ethics takes the common sense consensus on values for granted. Personally I think that is because the substructure is the obvious success and failure of human functioning.
02 p.21 Jus ad bellum and Jus in bello are independent; unjust wars can be fought in a just way
     Full Idea: Justice of war [ad bellum] and justice in war [in bello] are logically independent. It is perfectly possible for a just war to be fought unjustly, and for an unjust war to be fought in strict accordance with the rules.
     From: Michael Walzer (Just and Unjust Wars [1977], 02)
     A reaction: The perfect decorum of an unjust firing squad might even make the crime worse. There is something chilling about an evil army conducting itself perfectly within the ethics of warfare. Better than the other thing, though. McMahan disagrees.
04 p.52 Even non-violent intrusive acts between states count as aggression, if they justify resistance
     Full Idea: Every violation of an independent state is called aggression, which fails to differentiate between a seizure or imposition, and an actual conquest. …But what they have in common is that all aggressive acts justify forceful resistance.
     From: Michael Walzer (Just and Unjust Wars [1977], 04)
     A reaction: [compressed] Walzer concedes that this makes 'aggression' rather imprecise, and small acts can be used as an excuse for desired violent resistance. Each entrant in August 1914 seems to have had a slightly different motive.
04 p.58 If whole states possess rights, there can be social relations between states
     Full Idea: If states possess rights more or less as individuals do, then it is possible to imagine a society among them more or less like the individuals.
     From: Michael Walzer (Just and Unjust Wars [1977], 04)
     A reaction: The state's rights must derive from the people. Plots of land don't have rights. In some states the people are in conflict. It can't just be the government which represents the rights of the state.
04 p.72 The only good reason for fighting is in defence of rights
     Full Idea: The defence of rights is a reason for fighting. I want now to stress again, and finally, that it is the only reason.
     From: Michael Walzer (Just and Unjust Wars [1977], 04)
     A reaction: Walzer states at the beginning, without discussion, that his moral assumptions are based on the notion of rights. This is tricky because rights are assigned by some people to other people, and claims of rights can be challenged.
05 p.85 States can rightly pre-empt real and serious threats
     Full Idea: States can use force in the face of threats of war, if there is a serious risk to territory or independence. They are then forced to fight, and are the victims of aggression.
     From: Michael Walzer (Just and Unjust Wars [1977], 05)
     A reaction: [compressed] He uses this to justify Israeli pre-emptive strikes against Palestinians. I don't think his confident assertion of this principle is justified. It is open to massive abuse. There are, though, clearly situations where he is right.
06 p.90 Just wars are self-defence, or a rightful intercession in another's troubles
     Full Idea: Just wars may not be self-defence, if they are to help an independence struggle, or it is to save another country being invaded, or to prevent enslavement or massacre.
     From: Michael Walzer (Just and Unjust Wars [1977], 06)
     A reaction: [summary] Modern wars support some examples of these, but also suggest that without a long-term plan, or an understanding of the country they are entering, such intercessions may worsen the situation.
07 p.122 For moral reasons, a just war must be a limited war
     Full Idea: Just wars are limited wars; there are moral reasons for the statesmen and soldiers who fight them to be prudent and realistic.
     From: Michael Walzer (Just and Unjust Wars [1977], 07)
     A reaction: This is rather profound, I think. Watch closely the behaviour of the good guys when they are winning the war. In general, to know someone's moral principles, the best indicator is how they behave when they have power.
08 p.127 The duties and moral status of loyal and obedient soldiers is the same in defence and aggression
     Full Idea: The duties of individual soldiers …are precisely the same in wars of aggression and wars of defence. …The moral status of soldiers on both sides is very much the same; they are led to fight by their loyalty and their lawful obedience.
     From: Michael Walzer (Just and Unjust Wars [1977], 08)
     A reaction: He excludes war crimes. This is the thesis which Jeff McMahan objects to. It would be very odd to think that mafiosi and the legitimate police were morally equal, because the former are loyal. We should all try hard to avoid supporting unjust causes.
08 p.129 We can't blame soldiers for anything they do which clearly promotes victory
     Full Idea: It would be difficult to condemn soldiers for anything they did in the course of a battle or a war that they honestly believed, and had good reason to believe, was necessary, or important, or simply useful in determining the outcome.
     From: Michael Walzer (Just and Unjust Wars [1977], 08)
     A reaction: We can't blame unjust aggressors if their own lives are at stake, but what about in a surprise attack on the first day of the war (such as Pearl Harbour)? Or if they massacre the enemy with safe and overwhelming superiority?
08 p.136 Even aggressor soldiers are not criminals, so they have equal rights with their opponents
     Full Idea: Soldiers fighting for an aggressor state are not themselves criminals: hence their war rights are the same as those of their opponents.
     From: Michael Walzer (Just and Unjust Wars [1977], 08)
     A reaction: Walzer's main support for this is that opposing armies never regard one another as intrinsically criminal. It seems inevitable, though, that even the invaders themselves see that they are a bit more criminal than the defenders.
08 p.136 Napoleon said 'I don't care about the deaths of a million men'
     Full Idea: Napoleon said 'Soldiers are made to be killed. …I do not care a fig for the lives of a million men'.
     From: Michael Walzer (Just and Unjust Wars [1977], 08)
     A reaction: [Two separate remarks attributed to Napoleon] He apparently often said things like this this later in his career. It strikes me as despicable, and anyone who still tries to present Napoleon as admirable should be ashamed.
09 p.155 Double Effect needs a double intention - to achieve the good, and minimise the evil
     Full Idea: Double effect is defensible, I want to argue, only when the two outcomes are the product of a double intention - that 'good' be achieved, and that the foreseeable evil be reduced as far as possible.
     From: Michael Walzer (Just and Unjust Wars [1977], 09)
     A reaction: A good proposal, I think. We have to accept evil side effects sometimes, but it is immoral to pursue some good 'whatever the cost'.
11 p.182 Soldiers will only protect civilians if they feel safe from them
     Full Idea: Soldiers must feel safe among civilians if civilians are ever to be safe from soldiers.
     From: Michael Walzer (Just and Unjust Wars [1977], 11)
     A reaction: This is the great dilemma of any resistance movement. It is very easy for the soldiers to abuse their power, even if they do feel safe. Then what?
13 p.212 The aim of reprisals is to enforce the rules of war
     Full Idea: The purpose of reprisals is not to win the war or prevent defeat, but simply to enforce the rules [of war].
     From: Michael Walzer (Just and Unjust Wars [1977], 13)
     A reaction: That may be wishful thinking, since reprisals are often vastly more ruthless than the original offence, and there is often injustice in the nature of the reprisals, since they cannot be precise.
13 p.218 Reprisal is defensible, as an alternative to war
     Full Idea: Reprisal is the first resort of force. It is an alternative to war, and that description is an important argument in its favour.
     From: Michael Walzer (Just and Unjust Wars [1977], 13)
     A reaction: Enduring wrongs with dignity might be another alternative. Successful reprisals may be acceptable, but how do you assess their prospects?
13 p.221 States need not endure attacks passively, and successful reprisals are legitimate
     Full Idea: Whenever there is some substantial chance of success, reprisals are the legitimate resort of a victim state; for no state can be required passively to endure attacks upon its citizens.
     From: Michael Walzer (Just and Unjust Wars [1977], 13)
     A reaction: My concern is whether the reprisals have any direct connection to the attacks. They killed some of ours, so we will kill some of theirs is immoral. E.g. bombing Tripoli as reprisal for crashing the Lockerbie plane.
14 p.229 Rejecting Combatant Equality allows just soldiers to be harsher, even to the extreme
     Full Idea: Objections to combatant equality appeal to a sliding scale of 'the more justice, the more right'. …It allows the justice of one's cause to make a difference in the way one fights. …The extreme says soldiers fightly justly can do anything that is useful.
     From: Michael Walzer (Just and Unjust Wars [1977], 14)
     A reaction: This slippery slope fear seems to be Walzer's main argument in favour of the moral equality of combatants. See Jeff McMahan for the opposing view.
17 p.274 With nuclear weapons we have a permanent supreme emergency (which is unstable)
     Full Idea: With nuclear weapons, supreme emergency has become a permanent condition. …[283] But supreme emergency is never a stable position.
     From: Michael Walzer (Just and Unjust Wars [1977], 17)
     A reaction: The obvious instability of balanced mutual threat is a nuclear state which finds itself losing a war.
17 p.276 What matters in war is unacceptable targets, not unacceptable weapons
     Full Idea: The crucial distinction in the theory and practice of war is not between prohibited and acceptable weapons but between prohibited and acceptable targets.
     From: Michael Walzer (Just and Unjust Wars [1977], 17)
     A reaction: Walzer presents this idea as arising out of discussions about nuclear deterrence. Gas attacks were accepted in WW1 trenches, but modern gas attacks on civilians are a crime. Are nuclear attacks on strictly military targets OK? E.g a fleet.
17 p.281 Nuclear bombs are not for normal war; they undermine the 'just war', with a new morality
     Full Idea: Nuclear weapons are not designed for war at all. …They explode the idea of a just war. They are the first technological innovations that are simply not encompassable within the familiar moral world.
     From: Michael Walzer (Just and Unjust Wars [1977], 17)
     A reaction: A nuclear war can hardly lead to normal victory, if it destroys the thing you are trying to conquer. It is like bringing a machine gun to a boxing match.
19 p.305 Kidnapped sailors and volunteers have different obligations to the passengers
     Full Idea: Soldiers may stand to civilians like the crew of a liner to its passengers, for whom they must risk their lives. …But would they be so bound if the sailors had been kidnapped?
     From: Michael Walzer (Just and Unjust Wars [1977], 19)
     A reaction: The point, I assume, is that a conscripted army does not have the same obligations as volunteers. I can't imagine that principle being accepted in an army which is a mixture of the two.
19 p.309 Criminal responsibility can be fully assigned to each member of a group
     Full Idea: It is a feature of criminal responsibility that it can be distributed without being divided. We can, that is, blame more than one person for a particular act without splitting up the blame we assign.
     From: Michael Walzer (Just and Unjust Wars [1977], 19)
     A reaction: How far can this extend? To a large violent mob? To an entire nation? In court the responsibility is usually adjusted in the sentencing, rather than in the initial verdict.
Afterword p.333 If the oppressor is cruel, nonviolence is either surrender, or a mere gesture
     Full Idea: When one cannot count on the moral code of the oppressor, nonviolence is either a disguised form of surrender or a minimalist way of upholding communal values after a military defeat.
     From: Michael Walzer (Just and Unjust Wars [1977], Afterword)
     A reaction: The point is that ruthless conquerors may just kill the nonviolent, so it would achieve nothing. Nonviolence is only a plausible strategy in a fairly civilised world. Hard to disagree.
Afterword p.335 We can only lead war towards peace if we firmly enforce the rules of war
     Full Idea: We must begin by insisting upon the rules of war and by holding soldiers rigidly to the norms they set. The restraint of war is the beginning of peace.
     From: Michael Walzer (Just and Unjust Wars [1977], Afterword)
     A reaction: Last sentence of his book. Some cultures have a much greater tradition of ruthless cruelty than others, it seems. Most war ethics seems to concern how the good guys should respond to the bad guys (since the latter hardly care).
1983 Spheres of Justice
p.74 Complex equality restricts equalities from spilling over, like money influencing politics and law
     Full Idea: Complex equality tries to keep advantages in one area (such as money) from translating into advantages in politics or before the law.
     From: report of Michael Walzer (Spheres of Justice [1983]) by Tuckness,A/Wolf,C - This is Political Philosophy 3 'Complex'
     A reaction: Put like that, Walzer's complex equality becomes very interesting, and pinpoints a major problem of our age, where discrepancies of wealth have become staggeringly large at the top end.
p.97 You can't distribute goods from behind a veil, because their social meaning is unclear
     Full Idea: Walzer says behind the veil of ignorance there would be no way to know how a particular good should be distributed, because we would not know the social meaning of the good in question.
     From: report of Michael Walzer (Spheres of Justice [1983]) by Tuckness,A/Wolf,C - This is Political Philosophy 4 'Communitarian'
     A reaction: Is Rawls actually proposing to decide details of distribution from behind the veil? There is just the maximin principle. What that means in practice would surely come once the society was under way.
p.101 Equality is complex, with different spheres of equality where different principles apply
     Full Idea: Michael Walzer argues for 'complex equality', saying different goods belong to different distributive 'spheres', each with its own distributive principles.
     From: report of Michael Walzer (Spheres of Justice [1983]) by Adam Swift - Political Philosophy (3rd ed) 3 'Egalitarian'
     A reaction: Sounds interesting. Equality seems to make different demands when it concerns basic food for survival, or fine wines. You can spend your money freely, but hording in a crisis is frowned on.