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Our Hope for Justice: Aristotle, Hobbes, and the War on Terror

Publié le 1 avril, 2008 | Pas de commentaires

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The War on Terror presents an interesting if difficult case for applying classic notions of justice to the idea of war. To try and resolve some of these difficulties, it may help to look back to the political philosophy of Aristotle and Hobbes, who, in similar ways, address problems inherent in the pursuit of justice that are applicable to the situation of the War on Terror.

Defame, 2006
Certains droits réservés.

Throughout the last six years, a common wisdom has emerged about the War on Terror: it is conventionally spoken of as, and assumed to be, a conflict of both a character and kind that is wholly novel. Our manner of speaking about the War on Terror also implicitly acknowledges that this new conflict requires ingenuity and innovation in order to combat this new threat. However, it is difficult to detect a corresponding change in the conception of justice in relation to war. Specifically, we observers of politics have failed to consider that our traditional notions of a “just war” and the “just use of force” may not apply to the War on Terror, given its highly ideological orientation1. It lacks all of the common spatial, temporal, and physical boundaries that we are accustomed to dealing with. It is borderless and territory-less, lacking a fixed definition of success or visible goal, while the parties who comprise the different sides are in constant flux.

Despite the novelty of the War on Terror, what has remained constant is the aforementioned application of notions and language of justice to this conflict. It is impossible to overlook the ever-present pursuit of justice within politics, be it the pursuit of a just domestic regime, justice in international and interstate relations, or even the desire to be a just individual in one’s personal interactions. The most common application of justice to politics concerns the just use of force and employment of military power in the context of war. One might even argue that the question of how one should treat others is the fundamental question of all political philosophy, as well as the starting point of foreign policy. Thus we are faced with a perplexing question: how do classical or established understandings of justice relate to the modern War on Terror?

Aristotle’s Thoughts on the Matter

We might be able to better understand the pursuit of justice in the War on Terror by turning to Aristotle, who considered justice generally, rather than the specific justice of war. In his treatise On Rhetoric, Aristotle has this to say about the source and role of anger:

“Let anger be defined as desire, accompanied by mental and physical distress, for conspicuous retaliation because of a conspicuous slight that was directed, without justification, against oneself or those near to one2.”

Aristotle’s definition fits the needs of our situation surprisingly well. The events on the morning of 11 September 2001 were such a “conspicuous slight”, and the loss of innocent civilian life was “without justification”. But what is most interesting is that he identifies anger as the distressed desire for conspicuous retaliation; passion necessitates a reaction. Unfortunately, it is not a clear-headed, rational reaction but one taken under “mental and physical distress”, and we are presumably prone to overreact or react mistakenly. Even more problematic, however, is that Aristotle identifies a kind of “pleasure” that “follows all experience of anger from the hope of getting retaliation3.” We tend to dwell on this hope for retaliation until its pleasure swells in the mind so as to become dreamlike: We do not necessarily want to retaliate because it is deserved, or justifiable, but because we take pleasure in imagining ourselves carrying out the retaliation4.

In a political context, Aristotle has provided us with the means by which to analyze the initial moments of the War on Terror, and to pose an important question about waging an ideological war for “hearts and minds”: what is the proper retaliation for a conspicuous slight if the slight never moves beyond the realm of opinion, idea, or belief? Certainly, the attacks of 9/11 were specific incidents that initiated a predictable military response because they took the recognizable form of a physical attack. But this specific moment of physical attack precipitated a boundless ideological war. What, then, is the proper retaliation for a conspicuous slight that takes the form of an idea, not an attack? We would do well to recall the original name for the war in Afghanistan and the original military buildup to respond to 9/11: “Operation Infinite Justice”. A name change to “Operation Enduring Freedom” was announced shortly thereafter5. It goes without saying that the former name captures the tenor and tone of the War on Terror to a much better degree than the latter, reflecting an important part of Aristotle’s analysis by highlighting the impossibility of completing an infinite enterprise. The original name also reveals the retributive and vengeful nature of the War on Terror, and the ultimately limitless desire it is meant to satisfy.

Hobbesian Retributive Justice

By identifying this hope of retaliation for perceived injustice, Aristotle lays the foundation for one of the fathers of modern political and international thought, Thomas Hobbes, to construct one of his most memorable images. Hobbes’s depiction of the natural condition of humanity is a metaphor whose lasting impact can still be observed in many analyses of international politics. Interpreters of Hobbes often observe that it is mankind’s fear of others in the anarchic state of nature that leads to its astounding violence. However, it is often forgotten or simply overlooked that the violence witnessed in Hobbes’ state of nature is not driven by a fear of others so much as a claim to justice, or the desire to extract punishment for not being treated or esteemed as one expects. Indeed, despite Hobbes’s avowed hostility toward Aristotle, they agree amicably on this point. Hobbes puts it thus:

“Every man looketh that his companion should value him at the same rate he sets upon himself, and upon all signs of contempt, or undervaluing, naturally endeavours, as far as he dares (which amongst them that have no common power to keep them in quiet, is far enough to make them destroy each other), and to extort a greater value from his contemners, by damage, and from others, by the example.6

The violence of Hobbes’s natural condition stems from a desire for just retribution, or retaliation. In the absence of a power to overawe or to keep them in quiet, people cannot help but try and procure what each individually perceives to be what he or she deserves from others. A conspicuous slight, even when mildly offensive, is easily interpreted as horribly offensive.

This is the everlasting source of violence in Hobbes’s natural condition, and it is rooted not in fear, but in hope – the hope to be treated justly, to be properly esteemed, or to get one’s due, and to extort it violently if necessary. We recall Aristotle’s formulation of the “hope of getting retaliation”. To this end, the reason we are so violent, according to Hobbes, is that we each individually believe ourselves to be more able and wise than others, and from this equally-perceived ability comes an equivalent hope for success. Likewise, Hobbes remarks that his Leviathan is the “king of the proud” because it is constructed with the intention of managing our passion for “vain-glory”, which Hobbes defines as precisely this habit of “feigning or supposing” abilities in ourselves that we do not possess7. Our ability to get the retributive justice we seek is a dream in Hobbes’s analysis, just as it is in Aristotle’s. In all events, it is our hope for justice that tends to unnecessary violence in the account of the natural condition, and it is this hope that needs to be moderated in civil society because it is easily indulged but never satisfied, and attempts to gratify it beget violence upon violence. The truest cause of the troubles inherent in applying conventional notions of a just war to the War on Terror is what Aristotle and Hobbes identify as our incessant desire for retributive justice, and a certain inability to appropriately retaliate to any perceived slight while trying to achieve this justice.

Vice-President Cheney Proves Them Right

Aristotle and Hobbes, who both identify a passion for retributive justice in humanity, reveal how easily it is awakened yet difficult to satisfy. Both thinkers also direct our attention to the potential violence that can result from indulging this hope. By elucidating the problems of seeking retributive justice, these thinkers let us see with much more clarity the trouble with waging a just war for the simultaneous purposes of retaliating and winning over hearts and minds. US Vice President Dick Cheney, in an address in 2007 on the events of 9/11, presents one of the clearest and most lucid articulations of this underlying claim for retaliation and retributive justice:

“We’re fighting a war on terror because the enemy attacked us first, and hit us hard […] and they are scenes the enemy would like to see played out in this country over and over again, on a larger and larger scale[…]We have to go after the terrorists[…]and bring them to justice.8

Significantly, in Vice President Cheney’s entire 3200-word address this is his lone mention of justice as it relates to the War on Terror, and this invocation is couched in the language of passionate retaliation and retribution. Likewise, his observation that the enemy “attacked us first” is a simple statement of fact, but his inclusion of “and hit us hard” is quite plainly a direct claim of being treated unjustly. The question we must address is the extent to which this passion for retributive justice helps or hinders addressing the threat of terrorism.

The desire for retribution, as it appears above, is an unlimited desire, and a desire for justice that can never be satiated. If the established aim of the War on Terror is the satisfaction of a particular desire for justice in response to an offence whose injustice is never-ending, how can the War on Terror ever be deemed a success? Or, to put it more tersely, how can a war be waged against the notion of injustice or the thought of being treated unjustly? When the injustice might occur “over and over again on a larger and larger scale” the desire for retributive justice becomes all the more intense and difficult to satisfy.

Vice President Cheney is not the first, nor the last, to be in such a tenuous situation, nor can he be blamed for framing the desire for justice the way he has. Indeed, he is a shining example of the phenomenon articulated by Hobbes and Aristotle. We might even detect the feigning of abilities Hobbes alludes to insofar as Mr. Cheney seems to have no doubt that any action taken will be successful, even though he frames the threat as never-ending and implicitly endless. The violence in Hobbes’s natural condition derives from a perceived injustice, and the hope of being looked upon with the same value that one sets for oneself. Likewise, it is the hope of satisfying the desire for retributive justice that is at the heart of Vice President Cheney’s remarks, more so than the fear of attack.

An Unlikely Solution

If we look to the tradition of political thought once more, we find an evaluation of our situation and a solution in an unlikely place: Machiavelli’s The Prince. What should be surprising for most is that in spite of his famous reputation for being an advocate of cruelty, Machiavelli conceives of a situation where a war to win over hearts and minds is fought with physical arms. When he discusses the modes for conquering a papal principality, or a principality that is held together by religious conviction, Machiavelli cautions against the use of force9. Force, he says, will only chase the population closer to their Prince, or harden and reinforce their shared beliefs. The solution, Machiavelli says, is not to wage a war with conventional arms, but with ideas: physical weapons are of no use in the ideological realm. One suspects that if this most famous of warmongers cautions against the use of physical force, and councils restraint in certain situations because it is efficacious, one should heed his advice.


1. In emphasizing the ideological component of the War on Terror I do not mean to ignore or eschew the pervasive physical aspects of the endeavour. Rather, I mean to draw attention to the more fundamental point of the War on Terror, that the physical violence normally defined as terrorism is a symptom of prevailing ideas and beliefs – political, philosophical, religious, or otherwise – and that changing these ideas and beliefs will also quell the violence.
2. Aristotle, On Rhetoric: A Theory of Cvic Discourse. Trans. George A. Kennedy New York: Oxford U. P. (1991). Book II.2.1, my emphasis.
3. Aristotle, On Rhetoric, II.2.2
4. Ibid.
5. BBC News, “Infinite Justice, out – Enduring Freedom, in”, Sept 25, 2001. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/1563722.stm>
6. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Ed. Edwin Curley. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company (1994). Ch. XIII, Para. 5, my emphasis.
7. Hobbes, Leviathan, Ch. XXVIII, Para. 27 and Ch. VI, Para. 39, .
8. VP Speech at Westpoint, May 2007, my emphasis. <http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2007/05/20070526-1.html>
9. Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, Trans. Harvey C. Mansfield Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1998). Chs. VI, XI, and XIII.

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