1 November 2006 - Wednesday

The burden of proof

Quick background: in 1793, shortly after Louis XVI was beheaded, France and Britain went to war. Many British reform advocates were sympathetic in varying degrees with the French cause. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, then a moderate liberal in his early twenties, published a lecture entitled "On the Present War." In it, he protested the war with France and the related abridgements of British liberties (including the suspension of habeas corpus).

A few lines in this lecture caught my attention when I read it earlier this week.

But its total Causelessness must be proved: -- as if the War had been just and necessary, it might be thought disputable whether any Calamities could justify our abandonment of it. On a subject so universally discussed it would be a vain endeavour to adduce any new argument. The War might probably have been prevented by Negociation: Negociation was never attempted. It cannot therefore be proved to have been a necessary war, and consequently it is not a just one.
Challenged to show that the British war with France was unjust, Coleridge simply transfers the burden of proof to his opponents. Because they failed to exhaust the alternatives before going to war, they failed to prove the war just; therefore, the war is automatically unjust.

Of course, every time a nation goes to war, somebody is prepared to claim that the war was necessary and unavoidable -- even if it was a war "at a time and place of our choosing." But what actually goes into proving that? Are not our standards of evidence and our judgments about probability a crucial part of determining whether a war is conscionable, especially in democratic societies, where the war must eventually be justified before the people?

So Coleridge's remark got me thinking that it would be interesting to reframe just war theory in terms of probability and evidence. Sure, it's wonderful to declare that a war must be necessary to be just -- but how do we actually determine necessity? And how do we -- the citizens who are ultimately responsible for the actions of our government -- determine whether the war is waged with "right intention" or "proportional means"?

I'm not sure that I am saying anything useful. It's just a hazy notion I got while rushing through a school assignment.

| Posted by Wilson at 10:30 Central | TrackBack
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