ESU Professors Discuss War, Justice, and Morality

By Dana Reese

Philosophy and political science professors gave an open panel discussion about “Just War Theory” Wednesday night, November 9, 2011 in Beers Lecture Hall.

The event started with the opening stance taken by Dr. Timothy Connolly of the philosophy department. He explained different types of war theory, focusing primarily on pacifism and realism. Using the analogy of bringing the “biggest gun” and bringing “a bow deer hunting,” Dr. Connolly addressed the mostly full lecture hall.

Focusing on popular figures from different categories, he discussed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., President Obama and Mohandas Gandhi.  The issue of Hitler and World War II Germany held much debate between the panelists and the audience questions. Hinting at pacifism, Dr. Connolly said, “was violence really the solution in World War II or did it cause more problems?”

In response, Dr. Johan Eliasson, of the political science department, explained the legal aspects of war. Drawing distinctions between “legality in war” and “morality in war,” he directed attention to the importance of “sovereignty in war.”

“We’re not talking about what’s fair… but what is justifiable–legal.”  Dr. Eliasson continued to explain laws and rules of war, turning to humanitarian intervention.  Questioning the audience about their knowledge of recent wars in Africa and the Middle East, he explained international law and organizations such as the UN and NATO.

“What is legitimate may not be legal.  What is legal may not be legitimate.  How do you determine when it is legal?  What are the criterion?” he asked the audience rhetorically.  The main point of his speech came down to “there are no clear answers.”

Taking the final part of the panel, Dr. T. Storm Heter took the podium, who was also the moderator of the forum, and discussed ethical theories of war.  Before beginning his presentation, he explained that his arguments were not necessarily his views, but rather important matters for the discussion.

Beginning with the problems associated with relativism, he questioned the importance of ethics versus custom. The example he gave was the perception of the United States looking at rebels as terrorists, while in their own group, the same person might be considered a freedom fighter.

“Ethics are not universal,” he said.

Another example Dr. Heter covered was the death penalty.  Still only in use in the United States and in China, international law condones the death penalty.

Continuing onto the theories of realism, he focused on the idea that the winners write history.

“War is hell.  You’re not going to be thinking about ethics… Rules are what people come up with after the fact. They are written by those who win.”  He discussed the idea of self interest in war.

The last field of war theory Dr. Heter spoke about returned to Dr. Connolly’s discussion and the topic of pacifism.

“Principled objection to violence,” is how Dr. Heter first described pacifism.  “Even in self defense, violence is not justified.”  Covering the major figures in the category, Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he ended the main discussion on “Just War Theory.”

The three began answering questions from audience members, particularly dealing with civilian casualties in war, why countries enter foreign wars and humanitarian efforts.  With a surprise guest, Dr. Peter Pruim of the philosophy department, asking a question from the back of the lecture hall, the discussion continued towards the weight of war’s importance.  His comments seemed to resonate the final outcome of the discussion:  War is always a failure.