Jus ad Vim: A Rejoinder to Helen Frowe

| March 2016
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Helen Frowe’s critique of jus ad vim suggests that such a framework is redundant when just war principles are understood “correctly.” My own view remains that jus ad vim is essential to understanding the ethics of force today. I think our difference in opinion about the rules that should guide the use of force is rooted in two fundamentally divergent worldviews. While I will respond to many of Frowe’s points below, let me begin with praise for her engagement, which has pushed me to think more deeply about the original argument, in particular whether it could be justified to escalate from vim to bellum and about pinpointing what jus ad vim contributes to our moral reasoning about the use of force.

Frowe argues from the revisionist just war position, accepting that this is the correct interpretation of just war principles. Revisionists reject the view that the state of war grants special privileges to those doing the fighting. Revisionism turns instead to a moral concept of liability and reformulates the ethics of violence in war in terms of individual responsibilities and rights. It is worth noting that Frowe’s critique is not simply aimed at jus ad vim; it is much bigger than that. Rather, she implies that any just war logic other than the revisionist viewpoint is flawed (page 122). The assumptions underpinning this claim are highly contested in the literature, to say the least. As others have argued, this view misses something important about the realities of war and is simply too impractical to be applicable to the entire continuum of violence in the international realm. Unlike Frowe, I do not see the revisionist view of just war as an ethical model that applies across the spectrum. My own view is grounded in an empirical observation about how violence is adjudicated in international society. I take as my starting point Walzer’s analysis of just war, which Frowe rejects. Ethical debate about state use of force has long distinguished between the conditions of peace and war, with different ethical frameworks governing each. In the former, the ethical constraints of law enforcement shape the extent to which a state can use force against a suspected criminal, while in the latter the laws of war apply to combatants on both sides.

My original attempt to theorize about jus ad vim emerged from another empirical observation: that there exists a gray area between law enforcement and war in which the moral rules are unclear. The U.S.-led drone campaigns are an illuminating example. The government speaks the language of just war to defend targeted killing, but as I argue elsewhere, there is something deeply troubling about its doing so. To clarify this area, I sought to theorize about whether and, if so, how, the morality of limited force differs from that of war.

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Helen Frowe replies: 

Daniel Brunstetter claims that I “argue from the revisionist just war position, arguing that this is the correct interpretation of just war principles” (131). None of my criticisms of jus ad vim turn on technical debates in contemporary just war theory – indeed, I don’t refer to revisionism (or, to use the more accurate term, reductive individualism) once. I argue instead that jus ad vim is misguided even by the lights of traditional just war principles. For example, the most plausible interpretation of the traditional jus ad bellum criteria holds that they apply throughout a conflict – as acknowledged by writers across the theoretical spectrum. That a wide range of goods and harms – including the harms of escalation – are relevant to proportionality is also neutral between theoretical approaches. The point that a weapon that reduces collateral harm does no better at satisfying the requirement to discriminate between combatants and non-combatants rests on the traditional view that discrimination requires aiming force only at combatants. Brunstetter engages with none of these arguments, mistakenly chalking each up to theoretical disagreement. Further, Brunstetter persists in one of the fundamental problems of the jus ad vim project: conflating the legal and the moral to postulate a ‘gray area’ that ‘the system’ neglects. What system? Certainly moral principles do not ‘neglect’ this area. Legal frameworks may neglect it, but just ad vim is meant to be a moral project – albeit, apparently, one that allows us to invent convenient moral rules with no sense of the underlying theoretical implications.


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Category: Issue 30.1, Response, The Ethics of War and Peace

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