Just War and the Indian Tradition: Arguments from the Battlefield

In Comparative Just War Theory: An Introduction to International Perspectives. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 173-190 (2019)
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A famous Indian argument for jus ad bellum and jus in bello is presented in literary form in the Mahābhārata: it involves events and dynamics between moral conventionalists (who attempt to abide by ethical theories that give priority to the good) and moral parasites (who attempt to use moral convention as a weapon without any desire to conform to these expectations themselves). In this paper I follow the dialectic of this victimization of the conventionally moral by moral parasites to its philosophical culmination in the fateful battle, which the Bhagavad Gītā precedes. Arjuna’s lament is an internalization of the logic of conventional moral expectations that allowed moral parasitism, and Krishna’s push for a purely procedural approach to moral reasoning (bhakti yoga) does away with the good as a primitive of explanation and provides the moral considerations that allow us to see that the jus ad bellum and jus in bello coincide: the just cause is the approximation to the procedural ideal (the Lord), which is also just conduct. Jeff McMahan is correct in claiming that it is wrong for the unjust to attack the just. But it is also not obviously correct that it is the same set of moral considerations in war and peace that mark out the sides, for peace is largely characterizable by conventional morality, which all are forced to abandon in war. Walzer is correct that there are different sets of standards at play at war and peace, and that getting hands dirty in immorality is a price worth paying in war, but Walzer is thereby incorrect for a subtle reason: conventional standards by way of which jus ad bellum and jus in bello appear corrupt are themselves actually corrupt when the need for a just war arises. It is because moral parasites use conventional morality as a means of hostility and not as a means of fair, inclusive social interaction that conventional morality is corrupted and turned into a tool of the unjust. It is hence unjust to employ these standards to judge those whose cause is just, though such a judgement is conventional. Those who fight for a just cause thereby justly get their hands dirty by departing from conventional moral standards. But this is to the disadvantage of parasites who can only function in a climate where the conventionally good are constrained by conventional morality. Just war so understood deprives parasites their weapon of choice.



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Shyam Ranganathan
York University

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