A number of commentators to my previous post (to my surprise) agree with Rothbard’s view that the American Civil War was unjust. They support this claim with a variety of arguments. Some claim that, as a matter of historical fact, Lincoln didn’t care about slavery but only about keeping the Union together, and that therefore the Civil War cannot be justified as defense of others (the slaves). Others argue that if the South wanted to secede the North should have let them go, under the general libertarian view that political power can only be justified by consent. The issue seems important enough to justify a new post.
The first criticism (that the North didn’t wage for on behalf of the slaves but for other reasons) confuses intention with motive. Intention covers the contemplated act, what the agent wills to do. I see a person in distress, decide to rescue her, and do it. An agent has the intention to do X when he aims to do X. It implies not only desire to do something but the commitment to doing it. This involves believing that the act is under the agent’s control. There is a direct connection between my willing something, my commitment to doing it, and my doing it.
By contrast, a motive is a further goal that one wishes to accomplish with the intended act. I rescued a person in danger because she owed me money. I had an ulterior motive, but I still intended to rescue the person. It’s just that I did it en route to getting my money back. This ulterior motive is not part of the class of actions called “acts of rescue;” only the intention is. It makes sense for you to say that my act of rescue was good (it saved a life) but that I am not a particularly admirable person because my motive was self-interested, not altruistic. The concept of intention fulfills a double role: it allows us to individuate the act, to say that the act belongs to a class of acts (such as acts of rescue); and it allows us, correspondingly, to praise or criticize the act under the moral principles that apply to that class of acts.
Applying this distinction to the Civil War, it seems clear to me that freeing the slaves was intended by Abraham Lincoln, even if he had an ulterior, non-altruistic motive, namely keeping the Union together. On the critics’ own account, Lincoln freed the slaves en route to keeping the Union together. So I think it is correct to say that the Civil War was a war in defense of others, the slaves, even if we can perhaps criticize Lincoln’s motive (and the realization of that motive, keeping the South in the Union). I believe that a sounder criticism of Lincoln is to say that he intended and achieved a good result (saving persons from a terrible injustice) on his way to achieving an unjust result, namely preserving political domination over an unwilling South. Act A, saving slaves, was a good act; act B, forcing the unwilling South to remain in the Union, was a bad act (if it was: I’m asssuming this for the sake of argument, see next paragraph.) The badness of act B does not cancel the goodness of act A: they are independent. The morality of the Civil War, then, must be judged by the general tools to evaluate acts with two effects, one bad and one good –the doctrine of double effect.
The second criticism, that the North unjustly prevented the South from seceding, is misguided under a libertarian view. It seems to me that a libertarian theory of secession must be individualistic. If the domination exercised by the federal government over Southern citizens circa 1860 was illegitimate, so would have been the domination exercised by the new Confederate authorities over any person that did not expressly consent to their rule. The assertion “The North didn’t have a right to keep the South in the Union” incurs in group-thinking. For libertarians there is no such thing as “a group” having the right to exercise authority over another “group.” The “South” doesn’t have a right to anything; only individuals have rights, and of course they may exercise those rights in groups (with the consent of each and every one of those persons). But collective entities do not have a “right” to wield political power vis-avis those who do not consent . The upshot is that, if there is a right to secession, it is an individual right: every individual is morally entitled to secede from the state. Perhaps, under libertarian principles, individual Southerners had the right, if they so wished, to secede from the North. But the eventual political authority of the Confederate government did not extend to those persons in the South who did not join those consenting citizens (let alone the slaves) –any more than, on libertarian grounds, the North had any authority over unconsenting individuals, wherever they happened to reside.