Rights Theory, Libertarianism

Violence, Wars, and States

[UPDATE: Due to an error, comments were disabled on the original version of this post.  It is being reposted with comments enabled.]

Violence is bad news. Individuals should think twice about the use of force, even for defensive purposes, and states should avoid war-making even more thoroughly.



Ultimately, moral analysis needs to focus on the actions of particular people. People are moral actors; groups and institutions aren’t. It can be useful to talk about the behavior of groups and institutions, but ultimately this behavior can be analyzed as the (sometimes) coordinated behavior of individuals. It’s individuals who make choices, and it’s finally choices (I would argue—but not here) that are the loci of moral assessment.

As a general matter, it is (I believe) reasonable for individuals to use force to stop unjust attacks against themselves and others. And there is no reason to suppose that individuals can’t or shouldn’t cooperate with each other in the course of doing this.

It doesn’t follow, of course, that it is always reasonable for them to do so in a particular situation. Most importantly, this may be because noncombatants may be injured in the course of an action involving the defensive use of force. It’s not enough to avoid targeting noncombatants. If harming them is a by-produce or side-effect of an otherwise reasonable defensive action, this has to be taken into account.

Roughly, it seems to me, there is something unreasonable about subjecting someone to a risk of harm—even in the course of an otherwise reasonable defensive action—when one wouldn’t be willing to see oneself or a loved one subjected to a comparable risk of harm in relevantly similar circumstances. What makes your life more valuable than that of the potential victim in this case? There seems to be a morally troubling arbitrariness about a willingness to tolerate collateral harm to strangers when one wouldn’t judge it acceptable to suffer the same kind of harm itself. (Let me dispose of a red herring here: of course I might take special care to avoid harming my loved ones if I were the one subjecting them to harm; the question is whether the collateral harm I’m considering causing to strangers

would be permissible under a rule about collateral harm in such cases I’d want to see everyone follow with respect to strangers.)

This doesn’t mean that causing collateral damage is never acceptable, but it seems clear to me that it would very frequently not be reasonable to cause foreseen but unintended harms to noncombatants.

Avoiding the risk of collateral damage is obviously not the only reason an individual might choose not to engage in an otherwise justifiable defensive use of force. There might be long-term consequences of choosing force—say, the persistence of vendettas, or misunderstanding on the part of others—that might be worth avoiding, just as there might be long-term consequences of avoiding the use of force when one needn’t have avoided it—increased possibilities for reconciliation, for instance—that might be worth embracing. But these don’t change the fact that, for individuals, acting alone or cooperating voluntarily, the defensive use of force can sometimes be appropriate.


State violence is a different matter, for multiple reasons.

Lack of discrimination. Because state actors are rarely responsible for tortious conduct committed in war-time, they are all too likely to cause indiscriminate harm to noncombatants. Sometimes, of course, as in the cases of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, noncombatants are actually targeted. But even when they’re not, they are harmed with alarming frequency—far more often than would be the case if state actors actually asked themselves whether they would be willing that they or their loved ones be subjected to the risks of collateral harm they are imposing on others. This is especially true when state actors opt for long distance bombardment (whether from cannons, airplanes, or drones) as an alternative to on-the-ground engagement. Bombardment obviously has the potential to decrease casualties on the side of those responsible for it, and so to reduce drains on the state’s coffers and political problems for leaders overseeing war efforts; but it is morally dubious in many cases because of its relatively indiscriminate character.

Blowback. War breeds resentment—among those whose loved ones are killed, whose possessions are destroyed or stolen, whose societies come as a result of war to be dominated by autocrats. And this resentment, obviously, can lead to further violence.

The growth of tyranny. State actors’ perceived need to mobilize and consolidate domestic support for war leads to the implementation of repressive measures, including censorship, propaganda, torture, surveillance, and due process violations of various kinds. Not only are these troubling on their own—they also are all too likely to persist after war’s official end.

Basis in conscription. State-made wars are very frequently fought by conscripts. Conscription is a species of temporary enslavement, and employing it seems to be an unjust means to achieve any objective, even a potentially noble one.

Deeply problematic motivations. State actors tend, for predictable reasons, to undertake wars for dubious reasons—for national or personal glory, for imperial dominance, or to feather the nests of elite cronies (not that good motives somehow justify the destructiveness of war).

Undesirable achievements. The motives are bad enough. But too often, of course, at least some state actors succeed in using war to extend their governments’ capacities for control and exploitation over others. High-flown rhetoric often masks imperial ambition, and would-be empire-builders are happy to take advantage of opportunities provided by idealists in order to pursue their own dubious goals.

Unintended consequences. Even when war-makers’ motives are noble (as I doubt they almost ever are), lack of knowledge about the situation on the ground and the inherent unpredictability of the future trip up efforts to do good, a fact that circumstances in Libyaserve to highlight.

The growth of the military industrial complex. War-making by states helps to birth all-too-intimate relationships between politicians, military leaders, and economic elites happily dependent on the money provided to pay for military equipment and other resources. The wealth siphoned off by these elites is often misspent even from the perspectives of those who favor war in principle, given the wastefulness and inefficiency of war production undertaken in tandem with the state. But it also gives them more access to and more influence over politicians, enabling them both to press for non-war-related privileges and also, and even more troublingly, to push for continued preparedness for war during peace-time and even, all too frequently, for new hostilities.

Funding through taxation. State-made wars are funded using taxes extracted from the unwilling—which ought to be troubling because nothing entitles the state to claim anyone’s resources at gunpoint.

Funding through inflation. Since raising taxes overtly is politically unpopular, wars have increasingly come to be funded using inflationary money-creation by state central banks. This ultimately functions much like a tax, destroying the value of people’s savings and exerting distorting effects throughout the economy.

Failure to ensure that decision-makers internalize costs. Funding through taxation or money-creation is also troubling because, since state actors aren’t covering the costs of warfare themselves, it will be tempting for them to initiate wars unwisely, without any regard for their likely costs. Once they have begun wars, they can be expected to overspend: they won’t face pressures to economize. And of course this will lead those who desire wars and are responsible for them to continue these wars long after they would do so if the costs were internalized.

Cronyism. War leaders responsible for conflicts for which they and their cronies can force others to  to pay will confront incentives to use the vast sums of money that states at war typically claim to enrich those very cronies cronies. Thus, not only will ordinary people be despoiled to fund politicians’ war efforts, but resources will be misdirected from the uses to which ordinary people would prefer to put them.

Unmanageable scale. Tax- or central-bank-driven funding for warfare also means that it will be more likely to be carried on on a large scale—with more troops, more weapons, more ambitious goals, and more willingness to remain engaged for longer periods. One practical effect is that destruction will be increased. Another is that mistakes will be more likely—with potentially awful consequences. I don’t mean targeting mistakes or other tactical errors, per se. Rather, my concern is with long-term objectives. A group of volunteers a lathe Abraham Lincoln Brigade might well seek to turn back a tyrant; state actors can delude themselves into thinking that they can remake a region of the world. Bigger military undertakings leave more room for errors of this kind, and the concomitant commitment of resources in utterly irrational ways in support of such mistakes.

Misallocation of resources. The vast cost of state-driven wars leads to a massive misdirection of resources from productive to unproductive uses, minimizing opportunities for investment in productive activities that provide people with things they actually want and need.

There are thus multiple reasons for states to stay out of the war-making business. Further, these factors justify people in opposing plans for war on the part of states even when they do not immediately see evidence of likely injustice: state-made wars are extremely risky on multiple fronts.


When they are fought by states or state-like entities, wars of independence and secession fall foul of the same strictures as other state-made wars. Individuals and groups are, of course, morally entitled to secede from the control of states. The use of force to secede is in principle just, though there are obviously risks of short- and long-term harm that must be taken into account when secession is being contemplated and that may in particular cases rule out the use of force in an otherwise just cause. But the use of force not only to secede but to establish a new monopolistic state is, of course, as unjust as the continued imposition of state rule on would-be secessionists. And even those not yet convinced that establishing or maintaining states as such is a bad thing have reason, given the many dangers and inequities associated with states’ war efforts, to oppose wars of independence and secession undertaken by newly created would-be states as much as ones undertaken by established ones. The only just war of secession or independence is thus one that aims at the establishment of a stateless society and that does so with full respect for the moral limits on violence.

That does not mean, of course, that the use of force to resist a secession movement, even one likely to issue in the establishment of a new state, is appropriate (though perhaps a state might reasonably aid people who do not want to secede and be subjected to a new state, except that a state’s use of tax funding for this purpose would be as unjust as its use of tax funding for anything else). A state has no authority to impose its control on those who wish to be independent. And even if it did, the general reasons to oppose state-made wars give people good reason to oppose states’ use of force to stop secession movements.


As long as there are states, there is obviously the risk that they will go to war. And state actors are painfully unlikely to acknowledge the injustice of tax-based funding, conscription, or empire-building, or the general risks associated with war-making. State actors are unlikely to renounce war. Ordinary people who oppose state-made wars will be unlikely to be able to persuade state actors even to embrace anything like the full panoply of just-war constraints, though they should certainly seek to limit states’ war-making to any degree and in any way peacefully possible. But given the likely behavior of state actors—hungry for power and glory, appreciative of the public support war leaders often receive—those opposed to states’ wars will often have little choice but to proceed pragmatically. By arguing that states should only go to war for defensive reasons, they need not conceive that there is anything legitimate about states. They can, however, appeal to people who haven’t—unfortunately—given up on the state but who recognize the general injustice and waste associated with warfare.

The argument that states should only fight wars to defend their territories against invasion need not be seen, therefore, as any sort of concession to the legitimacy of states or any sort of denial of the artificiality of their borders and the national identities they seek to sustain. It is rather the (incomplete) expression of a principled opposition to state-made wars in general, framed in a way that acknowledges the reality of state power and recognizes the limits on attempts to undermine it via frontal ideological assault.

An argument against state-made wars is not in any sense an argument that individualsshould never use force far from their homes to assist those who are victims of violence. But individuals acting in this way don’t run most of the risks states do; and when they do confront parallel risks, these risks are considerably reduced as compared to those created by war-making states, particularly because such individuals and their voluntary supporters would unavoidably be expected to internalize the costs of their actions.


As will be apparent, I am not a pacifist, though I think there are powerful reasons to urge pacifist policies on states (see, e.g., here and here). But for anyone who believes that a society organized on the principle of peaceful, voluntary cooperation is the best kind of society, and the only just kind of society, violence is always something to be avoided and resisted where possible. People can justly use force to defend themselves or others, though there will sometimes be moral reasons even for them not to do this. But states should be discouraged from doing so whenever possible. Whenever states engage in wars, even putatively “holy” ones, bad, and frequently unjust, things happen. There is thus good reason for people to discourage state-made wars—including wars designed to establish new states and to prevent their establishment—whenever possible. A straightforward pragmatic strategy for doing so, and so for minimizing the damage done by such wars, is to argue strenuously against any war undertaken by a state that doesn’t involve defense of the state’s own territory.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the interesting post. I am curious about the following, based on the recommendation in your final paragraph. WWII is generally thought to have started when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, and Britain and France then declared war. Of course, they had tried appeasing Hitler in advance of that without success. Was it wrong for Britain and France to come to the aid of Poland pursuant their defense treaty, even though it was not an attack on their territory? Do you think the world would be a better place if they had not finally confronted Hitler? Might there be other (apparent) counter-examples to your recommendation?

    • While this isn’t a direct reply to your question (and I’m not Gary), I think it’s misleading to describe Britain’s previous policy as appeasement — unless saying “nice doggy” while looking for a rock is appeasement.   (And the policy “failed” because of Churchill, not because of Hitler.)  Chamberlain had no illusions about Hitler’s intentions; at the same time that he was doing the public peace dance with Adolf, he was building up Britain’s military as fast as he could.  He expected to be at war with Germany, but he — not unreasonably — wanted to delay the start, because he thought Britain shouldn’t count on getting American assistance again and so should wait until it was strong enough to win on its own.  Churchill, by contrast, favoured confronting Hitler as soon as possible — essentially attacking the dog before you’ve found the rock.  Churchill openly admitted, in his we-shall-fight-on-the-beaches speech, that his policy depended for its success on the hope of eventual American assistance.  Churchill was willing to gamble Britain’s independence on the hope that an at-the-time heavily isolationist America would send its sons into a second bloodbath; Chamberlain wasn’t.  Of course Churchill won his bet, but that hardly makes Chamberlain an idiot.

      • Anonymous

        If you desire to describe Chamberlain’s decision to hand Czechoslovakia over to Hitler on a silver platter as something other than appeasement, that is your right. But, my research indicates that your statement that “Chamberlain had no illusions about Hitler’s intentions; at the same time that he was doing the public peace dance with Adolf, he was building up Britain’s military as fast as he could” is incorrect.  My source is William Machester’s second volume of his Churchill biography, “Alone: 1932-1940.”

        This book is 755 pages long, and documents on a week-by-week and even day-by-day basis the inner workings of the British government during this period. It is heavily footnoted, and based on first hand accounts of these events, private correspondence, speaches in Parliament, etc. It is impossible to read this book and agree even in the slightest way with your claim. Obviously, I cannot do a page-by-page review of all the evidence cited by Manchester, but on p.292-3 he writes:

        The Chamberlain government, however, clearly agreed with Lord Londonderry, and continued to refuse to allow adequate funds for defense. In February 1938, the secretary for air, Lord Swinson, having been blocked in his earlier proposal, again submitted an RAF budget, this one representing “the minimum for security.” Attempts to match the Luftwaffe’s overwhelming superiority in fighter planes were abandoned; the RAF would settle for enough aircraft to meet German “bombers that could be used against this country.” Inskip said that would be too expensive. He proposed cutting back not only Britain’s first-line air strength but also the reserve…

        You can, if you like,  defend Chamberlain’s policy as reasonable under the circumstances, but he was not building up defense “as fast as he could.” The narrative told and documented by Manchester is that Chamberlain thought a full-scale defense build-up would be bad for the economy, while Churchill fought tooth and nail, by fair means and foul, to force this build-up whatever the cost. Also, Manchester’s narrative is entirely inconsistent with your statement that “Chamberlain had no illusions about Hitler’s intentions.”

        • Have you read Dutton’s bio?

          • Anonymous

            No, professor, I confess I have not. If you will cite me to specific pages, I will try to have a look. Now, your turn. Are you familiar with the passage in Milton Friedman’s “Capitalism and Freedom” (p.19), where in warning about state ownership of the means of mass communication, he says this:

            From 1933 to the outbreak of World War II, Churchill was not permitted to talk over the British radio, which was, of course, a government monopoly administered by the British Broadcasting Corporation. Here was a leading citizen of the country, a Member of Parliament, a former cabinet member, a man desperately trying by every device possible to persuade his countrymen to take steps to ward off the menace of Hitler’s Germany. He was not permitted to talk over the radio to the British people because the BBC was a government monopoly and his position was too “controversial.”

            Friedman’s version of events is quite hard to square with your understanding of history, and entirely consistent with what Manchester reports, but I am sure you will have an answer. This point is quite tangential to Prof. Chartier’s post, and to my set of questions, so I don’t want to fight about this forever.  I will just say that your interpretation is, for my money, pretty far out of the historical mainstream. But history sure ain’t mathematics so I doubt I can decisively prove you wrong.

    • Does Godwin’s Law apply to discussions of just war theory?

      • Anonymous

        Hi Matt,
        Sorry, but I have no idea. I don’t believe I have ever held myself out as an expert on “Goodwin’s Law,” and in fact I have never heard of it (shame on me I am sure). Nor, do I claim to be an expert on “just war theory,” although I do have certain ideas on the subject.

      • Anonymous

        It seems like one of the subjects  where the comparison might be a legitimate counter example.

      • Anonymous

        Hi Matt,
        Having done a little more research, it appears to me that you were making a joke. There is at least one version of “Goodwin’s Law” which essentially states that as a debate continues and becomes more intense the chances of one of the participants calling the other a “Nazi” or implying that he/she has views that exhibit Nazi-like features, increases exponentially. The person making this comparison is thought to lose all credibility by doing so. I love a little levity in philosophical discussions, but for the record I think Goodwin’s Law cannot yet be invoked here. I have said nothing that in any way impugns Prof. Chartier’s character, and the history of WWII is an important historical subject.

        In any case, there are many other examples of nations coming to the defense of others without suffering an attack on their own territory. When Napolean escaped from exile on Elba in 1815, reformed his army, and went on the rampage, Britain came to the defense of its continental allies. Now, initially many people thought Napolean was a force for modernization and reform, but by 1815 I think most saw him simply as a would-be tyrant. There are other examples that come to mind, but I won’t bore you with them now. 

        • Yes, just a joke. 🙂
          For what it’s worth, the version of Godwin’s Law with which I am familiar doesn’t involve calling the other person or their views Nazi or Nazi-like. It merely involves “invoking” the Nazis.

    • Matt Pugsley

      I think that Professor Chartier’s position introduces an element of arbitrariness by restricting the permissible wars of states to those used to defend their *own* territory. If it’s permissible for me to use violence to defend myself against unjust violence, what justifies the use of violence is not that it is *me* that is being unjustly attacked. What’s important is that “a person” is being unjustly attacked. That is what we are preventing with the use of violence. That is why it is permissible for me to use violence to defend others from unjust violence.

      It seems to me that the same logic should apply to states. If Britain is unjustly attacked, it is permitted to defend itself. If Poland is unjustly attacked, it is permitted to defend itself. But if Poland is unjustly attacked, why is Britain not permitted to defend Poland (especially when Poland is unable to defend itself)? The attack is unjust, regardless of who (if anyone) responds. It is therefore just to respond with force. (I expect I would agree with at least some of the examples to which Professor Chartier alluded where the use of violence in self-defense may be unjustified. Morality is, after all, very complicated. But I assume those examples don’t involve Hitler attacking Poland.)

      I understand that the position is a pragmatic one, but even pragmatic positions should be wary about arbitrariness. I think this element of arbitrariness makes the position less defensible.

      I also think that there may be pragmatic reasons to ignore this problem however. The adage “give an inch, they take a mile” can apply to hawks as well as anyone else. As lots of countries get together to defend the target of aggression, their combined resources can lead to violence that is more massive than what is justly warranted by the details of the situation. (Kuwait may be an example of that.) And it may lead hawks to feel greater confidence in the holiness of their cause when others are with them, thus leading them (and others) to discount the other costs mentioned (blowback, tyranny, growth of the military-industrial complex).

      Perhaps the charge of arbitrariness is incorrect. Perhaps there are pragmatic reasons for sticking to ‘only defend your own territory’. Either way, I think the strategy of “argue strenuously against any war undertaken by a state that doesn’t involve defense of the state’s own territory” will be more successful if it is able to answer Mr. Friedman’s “What about Poland?” question.

      • Anonymous

        I don’t know whether you meant to address your comment to me, or to Prof. Chartier, but I will take the opportunity to offer a couple of thoughts in response to your comment. My own view is that just as in our personal conduct, in the international realm there is an irreducible role for moral discretion. That is, there is no universally valid rule that will provide clear and unambiguous guidance in all cases.

        I believe that the international sphere resembles nothing so much as Locke’s state of nature because there is no single power that can claim a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Rather, there are a large number of states, all acting in what they perceive to be their self-interest, with varying degrees of ruthlessness and willingness to resort to unprovoked violence. Locke held that in a state of nature any peaceful party may justly punish an aggressor, even though the aggressor has not specifically acted against him/her, because an unpunished aggressor represents a clear and present danger to all those wishing to live in peace. See 2nd Treatise, Chap. III, sec. 16-8. I think Locke’s reasoning is sound.

        Given this, I see no reason why in a state of nature peace-loving persons may not band together in alliances to resist or punish aggressors in a coordinated way, or why this principle should not also apply today to states. Having said this, it is obviously the case that great care must be taken in exercising this right for the reasons noted by Prof. Chartier. Just because we have the moral right to punish, there may be a variety of prudential reasons why we should elect not to do so. Nevertheless, I think it would be a mistake for a generally peaceful state (at least relative to others) to renounce this right or for citizens to insist that it do so.

  • Anonymous

    I like that you’re putting some of the emphasis on how conflict is conducted. I think that’s a necessary part of any discussion about a just war. 

    I think you’re running the risk of tossing the baby out with the bath water, in a sense, by suggesting the people are moral and institutions are not. I’m not sure about groups — that depends on how they are related (which brings us back to some institutional aspect).  The danger I see is that we start thinking of all institutional arrangements as neutral, from amoral perspective. In a sense this what neoclassical economics did with classical economics. 

    Smith’s argument for markets is not efficiency, or even wealth per se, His argument is that the market institutions leads somewhat amoral/immoral people to produce morally preferable outcomes: the city does get fed even if the farmers could car less about people starving in the city. If we take that for the sack of the argument, then we do want to consider the moral considerations of how our institutions affect our choices and the social outcomes resulting from those social interactions.

    If we a moral element out of institutions then I’m not sure you can ever get to a moral war — which perhaps is not a bad conclusion to draw but I think i almost assumed by the assumption of moral actions only follow individual action, not group or systemic actions.

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