Peace or justice?

Which is more important – peace or justice? According to the standard interpretation of Just War Theory, there is a ‘presumption against war’; the harm war does is so great that anybody wishing to wage it has to prove their case beyond all reasonable doubt, and peace – defined as ‘an absence of war’ – is a supreme value. Some philosophers, however, claim that there is no presumption against war. Rather there is a ‘presumption against injustice’. In this view, an absence of war (‘negative peace’) is not true peace at all. In order to produce a ‘positive peace’, in which justice flourishes, it is permissible to fight.

An interesting new survey reveals that the inhabitants of different countries have very different attitudes towards this issue. According to the Halifax/IPSOS Global Snapshot, produced for the 2015 Halifax International Security Forum, ‘over 70% of Americans and Chinese – more than any other country – believe that under certain conditions, war is necessary to achieve justice … [but] only 38% of Russians agree with that statement.’ I have been unable to copy the chart used in the Global Snapshot Report, but have entered the data into an Excel spreadsheet to produce a version which shows the main results, as follows:

Percentage saying that war is sometimes necessary to achieve justice (Halifax-IPSOS)
Percentage saying that war is sometimes necessary to achieve justice (Halifax-IPSOS)

A number of things come out of this. First, the Anglosphere (the USA, UK, Australia, Canada, and to some extent India) is remarkably belligerent. Second, Hispanic countries (Mexico, Spain, Brazil, and Argentina) seem remarkably peace-loving. Third, Russia is a lot less inclined to wage war for some interpretation of ‘justice’ than most Western states. How do we explain these differences?

Power may have something to do with it. The United States, China, and Saudi Arabia are, probably not coincidentally, the first, second, and third largest spenders on defence in the world, while the UK is fifth. It would appear that having a lot of weapons may create, or spring from, an inclination to use them. But that wouldn’t explain why Russia and Japan (4th largest and 7th largest spenders respectively) are so much less inclined to use force than the USA and China. There appear to be some missing variables.

Culture and history are obvious candidates to fill the gap. As I have mentioned in previous posts, ‘just war’ isn’t part of the Russian philosophical tradition. War is seen as a tragic necessity, fought for reasons of security and not as a means of pursuing ‘justice’. By contrast, the modern Western philosophy of universal human rights means that it is relatively easy for Western Europeans and North Americans to regard war as something which can bring justice to the world. The religious zeal of the Saudis may perhaps give them a somewhat similar attitude. Overall, I speculate that countries which prefer peace to justice either haven’t had much experience with war (Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico), and so haven’t got into the bad habit of thinking that it might be a good idea, or have had really bad experiences with war (Japan, Spain, Germany, and Russia), and so have learnt the hard way that war doesn’t bring justice and is best avoided.

What obviously isn’t true is the much beloved neoconservative idea that democracies are peace-loving. Some are, but some aren’t. And Russians, it appears, value peace more highly than Americans.


11 thoughts on “Peace or justice?”

  1. And what are the penalties when the “War for Justice” fails [as it almost always does] in improving the situation. Behavior and it’s results are the truth and the metric for philosophical soundness. this is a thought in progress. What are the punishments for those who war for justice but don’t achieve it. It’s a form of human experimentation. this is a thought in progress… .cheers.


    1. There alas, very rarely any penalties. LBJ lost his presidency over Vietnam, as he didn`t dare run again, but beyond that I can`t think of a Western politician who has suffered politically from a war, even one which failed – look at Bush and Blair, both re-elected after Iraq. There is, sadly, not much by way of accountability.


    2. The crime is: As leaders, organizers, instigators, or accomplices in the formulation or execution of a common plan or conspiracy to wage wars of aggression, and war or wars in violation of international law.

      Back in the day, you got hanged.

      In the United States, you get re-elected.


  2. Off the top of my head, without inquiring any further, I would think that the reason the Anglosphere is generally gung-ho about war is due to the heavy influence of Hollywood and American culture right across the English-speaking world; the stylised presentation of war in Hollywood movies and TV shows, emphasising explosions and shoot-outs but not presenting the consequences of violence and its effects on people and families; and how this spills across into other parts of society like sport and government policy.

    On the other hand, Latin-American countries might view war negatively because they have had plenty of experience fighting among themselves, have had civil wars or have had military governments that terrorised their own people in ways similar to the harassment people in Syria and Iraq are being harassed by ISIS, with kidnappings, separation of families, arbitrary arrests, tortures and people being disappeared.

    The other possibility that should be considered with respect to countries like the US, Saudi Arabia, Israel or the UK is that war is seen as preferable to peace because peace is something to be worked at or maintained and that sounds too much like hard work, whereas war results in a clean slate that allows certain agents to do whatever they like without having to compromise or make deals. In other words, if the costs of maintaining the peace are greater than the costs of war, then war becomes the preferred option. “Justice” would serve as a convenient excuse.


  3. I think you have it backwards in the beginning. Idea of just wars comes before military spending.

    As for democracies I think Delbruck wrote this form of government always was the most belligerent. From Athens to our present.


  4. This is from the inhabitants of a country. But the decision isn’t always on the people. Justice is not the only reason to go to war. What about power?


  5. Perhaps it has something to do with their self-righteousness, arrogance, the failure of self-reflection. Many Americans think of their society as almost perfect, and most definitely the best in the world; the “shining city upon a hill”, and all that.

    So, obviously all the injustice in the world is done by others (the big Other), and they, the others, need to be forced to accept American moral authority. Luckily, we, the Americans, have enough weapons and heroes in uniform to set ’em foreigners straight! Praise God and pass the ammunition! Hallelujah!


  6. Justice for whom? That is the big question. Try this poll on the Pine Ridge Reservation and their concept of justice and for whom will probably be quite different than the 70% of ‘Muricans queried.


  7. In the spirit of extrapolating from a single poll–and the pollster in question is yet to establish itself as a worthy competitor to Pew, WVS etc–I’d add another hypothesis: the status of war-talk in different language. In my beloved Anglosphere, policy and media discourse have cultivated the war metaphor and the accompanying rhetoric since the 1940s in ways that may be surprising/shocking to outsiders. Barry Glassner, Chris Hedges and countless mass comm scholars have examined this in the US context, and I am sure others have in the rest of the Anglo-world. But who knows, maybe South Americans and Russians like to wage wars on drugs, poverty etc., too.


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