Great Ideas Seminar on War and Peace
Edward J. Dodson
[Excerpts from an exchange of ideas that occurred in
October and November 2001, moderated by Max Weismann of the Center for
the Study of Great Ideas]
There are two ways of settling disputed questions:
one by discussion, the other by force; the first being
characteristic of man, the second of brutes. We should have recourse
to the latter only if the former fails. -- Cicero
Welcome to another discussion of the Great Ideas. We shall consider
the twin ideas, the inseparable ideas of War and Peace. These two
words, "war" and "peace", are day in and day out
on everyone's lips. It may even be that the ideas they represent are
in everyone's minds. Whether or not they are clearly understood is, of
course, another matter. And I am hoping that in the course of this
discussion we can get some clarity on the meaning of these two
The problem of war and peace, how to avoid war, how to secure peace,
is perhaps the most important and the most urgent problem of our time.
It is, of course, a practical problem, a problem that can be solved
only by right action, not simply by right thought. Nevertheless, the
right action cannot be taken unless we can think straight and do think
straight about the causes and the nature of peace. Right thinking
about this subject is indispensable to right action.
A sound understanding of war and peace exists and has existed for
centuries in the tradition of the Great Books. It has been available
to men for centuries. And yet century after century this sound
understanding of war and peace has not been taught to the young in
schools and it has not been possessed by men in general.
We begin by asking each of you the following Yes or No questions.
When most of you have responded, we will start the discussion.
1) Do you believe global peace is possible? Yes or No
2) Do you believe war is ever justifiable? Yes or No
3) Do you agree with the adage, if local peace depends on local
government, world peace depends on world government? Yes or No
Please answer with just a Yes or No.
Max Weisman asks To be sure that we understand you
correctly, if human beings do not have the right to life, wouldn't
that annul any meaningful discussion of the ethical consequences of
war and peace?
Ed Dodson here I previously expressed the view that justice
demands that positive (i.e., manmade) law adhere to moral law. Thus,
the question I would raise is whether any moral law gives to the
individual a "right to life"? The answer, I suggest, is that
this is not possible. Locke put the argument in its proper context;
namely, that we come together in voluntary association to form a
society for the purpose of enhancing our prospects for survival and to
prosper. What we possess as a right is not to life but to liberty,
meaning that any person who attacks me and does me physical harm
violates my liberty. Such behavior falls in the realm of criminal
license and is, therefore, subject to a reasonable individual response
(defense) or, if this is no longer possible because my life has been
taken, by reasoned societal remedy (e.g., expulsion, incarceration,
By this reasoning, a society acts wisely by establishing the means to
protect its members from attack, whether by individuals or by foreign
armies and/or mercenaries. Admittedly, there are important and complex
conditions associated with this "right to defend one's life"
we need to discuss. Foremost is our fundamental right -- our
birthright of equal access to the earth -- which is clearly violated
by the system of nation-states and claims of group sovereignty over
portions of the earth. War, as an instrument of the nation-state and
of factions competing for control over nation-states, has undeniable
Ed Dodson (Responding to Greg Given)
Your comment poses the interesting question of whether we not only
have a right to defend ourselves but a moral obligation to defend the
lives of other innocents to whom we are attached in some personal or
formal way. Our laws do not obligate us to act when we see someone
being attacked, but many people do respond and attempt to assist the
person being injured or at least try to drive away the attacker. Some
of us (either because of our individual nature or our nurturing, or a
combination of the two) are more prone to take action than others.
Some of us are more fearless than others. Some of us are more
confident in our ability to successfully intervene than others. Thus,
while the moral action, the just action, is to offer assistance, we
are not all mentally or physically equipped to respond as we ought.
Warfare between groups strikes at the core of moral obligation
because most of those doing the fighting and dying are involuntary
agents of governing elites able to force the mobilization of societal
resources for purposes unrelated to the well-being of the majority of
people who will experience the consequences. Both Leopold Kohrs and
Kirkpatrick Sale have made the argument that in order to bring an end
to warfare leaders must be denied access to the quantity of resources
necessary to engage in war on a large scale. The best way to do this
is to break up the large nation-states into numerous smaller ones.
Thus, no one group would have a large enough population or industrial
output to challenge the community of nation-states. The almost certain
result would be annihilation.
Ed Dodson (Responding to Paul Harrison)
I would add to what Paul Harrison says by returning to Locke's
remarkable distinction between acts that fall into the realm of "liberty"
and those that fall into the realm of "licence." We possess
a moral right to defend our life and our legitimately acquired
property against the exercise of criminal licence on the part of other
individuals and other groups. A just society will prevent its
government from exercising criminal licence. Thus, individuals who
defend themselves from criminal licence -- even when they do outside
the support of the laws of the state -- are exercising their liberty;
they are behaving morally; they are behaving justly.
Greg Givan (Responding to Ed Dodson)
Ed Dodson: ". . . whether we not only have a right
to defend ourselves but a moral obligation to defend the lives of
other innocents . . .
I think we do have, must have. It would be a cold morality that said
it was acceptable to do nothing while innocents died helpless.
Ed Dodson: "The best way to do this is to break up
the large nation-states into numerous smaller ones."
I fear that the Balkan experience, and countless like it, indicate
that this solution is unlikely to help.
Ed Dodson (Responding to Jim Reardon)
Jim Reardon: I agree that an individual has the right to
defend himself against criminal license in a state of nature or, in
society, when no appeal to the law is possible or practical.
However, once government is established and, in the given
circumstance, an appeal to law is practical, the individual is no
longer justified in dispensing their own justice. In the act of
forming a government the individual has assigned his executive
powers to the state.
Ours is a world dominated by cultural relativism. Governments differ
only in the degree to which they serve entrenched privilege. In most
societies there is some appeal to law; however, few of alive today
have had much of a say in forming a government. There are no unclaimed
lands to which we can migrate and create a new society. If we are
guided in our behavior by moral principles, we will work for change or
we will attempt to escape to live somewhere we believe to be
substantially more just. In virtually every society existing today,
the prospect exists of being treated unjustly for behaving justly.
Written laws may be inherently unjust or not properly enforced. What
we must face often is whether to not to challenge unjust laws and in
what manner to do so.
Jim Reardon (Responding to Ed Dodson)
Ed Dodson: Thus, individuals who defend themselves from
criminal licence -- even when they do outside the support of the
laws of the state -- are exercising their liberty; they are behaving
morally; they are behaving justly.
I agree that an individual has the right to defend himself against
criminal license in a state of nature or, in society, when no appeal
to the law is possible or practical. However, once government is
established and, in the given circumstance, an appeal to law is
practical, the individual is no longer justified in dispensing their
own justice. In the act of forming a government the individual has
assigned his executive powers to the state.