Bad arguments in favour of war (Number One): The hypothetical murderer

The more I read about the history of World War One, the more I understand how we repeat our mistakes. Nearly every war is justified with claims that the situation is unique. Every time, the arguments made in favour of war are depressingly familiar.

I was reminded of this while debating “just” war on The Big Questions on BBC1 this week. There were good and helpful points made by people on various sides of the debate. However, with only an hour for the programme, there was naturally limited time for anyone to explain their position. It gave me the idea of a series of short blog posts about the arguments I most frequently hear in favour of war.

I decided to start with one that is constantly thrown at me: “What would you do if someone came into your house and threatened to kill you/your children/your elderly relatives/everyone in sight?”

Almost every pacifist has heard this challenge at some point. It sometimes varies, for example “If you had a gun, wouldn’t you shoot the person who was trying to kill your children?” (Where did I get this gun from? How would I know how to operate it?) When British conscientious objectors went before tribunals in the first world war, they were frequently asked what they would do if a German soldier tried to rape their sister.

So what would I do in this situation? I don’t know. Nor do you, unless you’ve been in this sort of position.

I don’t think that dwelling on unlikely hypothetical scenarios is the best way to reach ethical conclusions about how we should live. While many people around the world do face this sort of situation, I suspect we would do best to put our energy into tackling the causes of it rather than worrying about what we would do in their place. Some of the causes may lie closer to home than we would like to think.

Nonetheless, I do accept that this hypothetical question is a valid response to someone who argues that they would never be violent. But it is not a challenge to people who oppose war. War is not comparable to fighting back against an aggressor who is trying to kill your children.

War, by its nature, never involves simply fighting aggressors, but always includes harm to innocent people.

What would I do if someone entered my house and threatened to kill children in my care? I can tell you what I wouldn’t do. I wouldn’t go and kill his children. I wouldn’t drop a bomb on the town he came from. I wouldn’t lock up his granny. I wouldn’t regard everyone who shared his nationality as being my enemy, and less worthy of my love, loyalty and respect than people of my own nationality. Therefore, I wouldn’t go to war.


One response to “Bad arguments in favour of war (Number One): The hypothetical murderer

  1. “War is not comparable to fighting back against an aggressor who is trying to kill your children.”
    Quite so. And that question last Sunday really annoyed me. The answer the Mennonite minister gave was the same that most of us who do not own guns would give. What could anyone do but put themselves in between?
    And it’s not at all relevant to going to war (or not).

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