Violence, Wars, and States

Article by Gary Chartier.


Violence is bad news. Individuals should think twice about the use of force, even for defensive purposes, and states should avoid war-making even more thoroughly.


Ultimately, moral analysis needs to focus on the actions of particular people. People are moral actors; groups and institutions aren’t. It can be useful to talk about the behavior of groups and institutions, but ultimately this behavior can be analyzed as the (sometimes) coordinated behavior of individuals. It’s individuals who make choices, and it’s finally choices (I would argue—but not here) that are the loci of moral assessment.

As a general matter, it is (I believe) reasonable for individuals to use force to stop unjust attacks against themselves and others. And there is no reason to suppose that individuals can’t or shouldn’t cooperate with each other in the course of doing this.

It doesn’t follow, of course, that it is always reasonable for them to do so in a particular situation. Most importantly, this may be because noncombatants may be injured in the course of an action involving the defensive use of force. It’s not enough to avoid targeting noncombatants. If harming them is a by-produce or side-effect of an otherwise reasonable defensive action, this has to be taken into account.

Roughly, it seems to me, there is something unreasonable about subjecting someone to a risk of harm—even in the course of an otherwise reasonable defensive action—when one wouldn’t be willing to see oneself or a loved one subjected to a comparable risk of harm in relevantly similar circumstances. What makes your life more valuable than that of the potential victim in this case? There seems to be a morally troubling arbitrariness about a willingness to tolerate collateral harm to strangers when one wouldn’t judge it acceptable to suffer the same kind of harm itself. (Let me dispose of a red herring here: of course I might take special care to avoid harming my loved ones if I were the one subjecting them to harm; the question is whether the collateral harm I’m considering causing to strangers would be permissible under a rule about collateral harm in such cases I’d want to see everyone follow with respect to strangers.)

This doesn’t mean that causing collateral damage is never acceptable, but it seems clear to me that it would very frequently not be reasonable to cause foreseen but unintended harms to noncombatants.

Avoiding the risk of collateral damage is obviously not the only reason an individual might choose not to engage in an otherwise justifiable defensive use of force. There might be long-term consequences of choosing force—say, the persistence of vendettas, or misunderstanding on the part of others—that might be worth avoiding, just as there might be long-term consequences of avoiding the use of force when one needn’t have avoided it—increased possibilities for reconciliation, for instance—that might be worth embracing. But these don’t change the fact that, for individuals, acting alone or cooperating voluntarily, the defensive use of force can sometimes be appropriate.



State violence is a different matter, for multiple reasons.

Lack of discrimination. Because state actors are rarely responsible for tortious conduct committed in war-time, they are all too likely to cause indiscriminate harm to noncombatants. Sometimes, of course, as in the cases of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, noncombatants are actually targeted. But even when they’re not, they are harmed with alarming frequency—far more often than would be the case if state actors actually asked themselves whether they would be willing that they or their loved ones be subjected to the risks of collateral harm they are imposing on others. This is especially true when state actors opt for long distance bombardment (whether from cannons, airplanes, or drones) as an alternative to on-the-ground engagement. Bombardment obviously has the potential to decrease casualties on the side of those responsible for it, and so to reduce drains on the state’s coffers and political problems for leaders overseeing war efforts; but it is morally dubious in many cases because of its relatively indiscriminate character.

Blowback. War breeds resentment—among those whose loved ones are killed, whose possessions are destroyed or stolen, whose societies come as a result of war to be dominated by autocrats. And this resentment, obviously, can lead to further violence.

The growth of tyranny. State actors’ perceived need to mobilize and consolidate domestic support for war leads to the implementation of repressive measures, including censorship, propaganda, torture, surveillance, and due process violations of various kinds. Not only are these troubling on their own—they also are all too likely to persist after war’s official end.

Basis in conscription. Not only are state wars tax-funded. They are very frequently fought by conscripts. Conscription is a species of temporary enslavement, and employing it seems to be an unjust means to achieve any objective, even a potentially noble one.

Deeply problematic motivations. State actors tend, for predictable reasons, to undertake wars for dubious reasons—for national or personal glory, for imperial dominance, or to feather the nests of elite cronies (not that good motives somehow justify the destructiveness of war).

Undesirable achievements. The motives are bad enough. But too often, of course, at least some state actors succeed in using war to extend their governments’ capacities for control and exploitation over others. High-flown rhetoric often masks imperial ambition, and would-be empire-builders are happy to take advantage of opportunities provided by idealists in order to pursue their own dubious goals.

The growth of the military industrial complex. War-making by states helps to birth all-too-intimate relationships between politicians, military leaders, and economic elites happily dependent on the money provided to pay for military equipment and other resources. The wealth siphoned off by these elites is often misspent even from the perspectives of those who favor war in principle, given the wastefulness and inefficiency of war production undertaken in tandem with the state. But it also gives them more access to and more influence over politicians, enabling them both to press for non-war-related privileges and also, and even more troublingly, to push for continued preparedness for war during peace-time and even, all too frequently, for new hostilities.

Funding through taxation. State-made wars are funded using taxes extracted from the unwilling—which ought to be troubling because nothing entitles the state to claim anyone’s resources at gunpoint.

Funding through inflation. Since raising taxes overtly is politically unpopular, wars have increasingly come to be funded using inflationary money-creation by state central banks. This ultimately functions much like a tax, destroying the value of people’s savings and exerting distorting effects throughout the economy.

Failure to ensure that decision-makers internalize costs. Funding through taxation or money-creation is also troubling because, since state actors aren’t covering the costs of warfare themselves, it will be tempting for them to overspend: they won’t face pressures to economize and they will confront incentives to use the vast sums of money that states at war typically claim to enrich their cronies. Thus, not only will ordinary people be despoiled to fund politicians’ war efforts, but resources will be misdirected from the uses to which ordinary people would prefer to put them.

Unmanageable scale. Tax- or central-bank-driven funding for warfare also means that it will be more likely to be carried on on a large scale—with more troops, more weapons, more ambitious goals, and more willingness to remain engaged for longer periods. One practical effect is that destruction will be increased. Another is that mistakes will be more likely—with potentially awful consequences. I don’t mean targeting mistakes or other tactical errors, per se. Rather, my concern is with long-term objectives. A group of volunteers a la the Abraham Lincoln Brigade might well seek to turn back a tyrant; state actors can delude themselves into thinking that they can remake a region of the world. Bigger military undertakings leave more room for errors of this kind, and the concomitant commitment of resources in utterly irrational ways in support of such mistakes.

Misallocation of resources. The vast cost of state-driven wars leads to a massive misdirection of resources from productive to unproductive uses, minimizing opportunities for investment in productive activities that provide people with things they actually want and need.

There are thus multiple reasons for states to stay out of the war-making business. Further, these factors justify people in opposing plans for war on the part of states even when they do not immediately see evidence of likely injustice: state-made wars are extremely risky on multiple fronts.


When they are fought by states or state-like entities, wars of independence and secession fall foul of the same strictures as other state-made wars. Individuals and groups are, of course, morally entitled to secede from the control of states. The use of force to secede is in principle just, though there are obviously risks of short- and long-term harm that must be taken into account when secession is being contemplated and that may in particular cases rule out the use of force in an otherwise just cause. But the use of force not only to secede but to establish a new monopolistic state is, of course, as unjust as the continued imposition of state rule on would-be secessionists. And even those not yet convinced that establishing or maintaining states as such is a bad thing have reason, given the many dangers and inequities associated with states’ war efforts, to oppose wars of independence and secession undertaken by newly created would-be states as much as ones undertaken by established ones. The only just war of secession or independence is thus one that aims at the establishment of a stateless society and that does so with full respect for the moral limits on violence.

That does not mean, of course, that the use of force to resist a secession movement is appropriate. A state has no authority to impose its control on those who wish to be independent. And even if it did, the general reasons to oppose state-made wars give people good reason to oppose states’ use of force to stop secession movements.


As long as there are states, there is obviously the risk that they will go to war. And state actors are painfully unlikely to acknowledge the injustice of tax-based funding, conscription, or empire-building, or the general risks associated with war-making. State actors are unlikely to renounce war. Ordinary people who oppose state-made wars will be unlikely to be able to persuade state actors even to embrace anything like the full panoply of just-war constraints, though they should certainly seek to limit states’ war-making to any degree and in any way peacefully possible. But given the likely behavior of state actors—hungry for power and glory, appreciative of the public support war leaders often receive—those opposed to states’ wars will often have little choice but to proceed pragmatically. By arguing that states should only go to war for defensive reasons, they need not conceive that there is anything legitimate about states. They can, however, appeal to people who haven’t—unfortunately—given up on the state but who recognize the general injustice and waste associated with warfare.

The argument that states should only fight wars to defend their territories against invasion need not be seen, therefore, as any sort of concession to the legitimacy of states or any sort of denial of the artificiality of their borders and the national identities they seek to sustain. It is rather the (incomplete) expression of a principled opposition to state-made wars in general, framed in a way that acknowledges the reality of state power and recognizes the limits on attempts to undermine it via frontal ideological assault.

It is not in any sense an argument that individuals should never use force far from their homes to assist those who are victims of violence. But individuals acting in this way don’t run most of the risks states do; and when they do confront parallel risks, these risks are considerably reduced as compared to those created by war-making states.


As will be apparent, I am not a pacifist, though I think there are powerful reasons to urge pacifist policies on states (see, e.g., here and here). But for anyone who believes that a society organized on the principle of peaceful, voluntary cooperation is the best kind of society, and the only just kind of society, violence is always something to be avoided and resisted where possible. People can justly use force to defend themselves or others. But states should be discouraged from doing so whenever possible. Whenever states engage in wars, even putatively “holy” ones, bad, and frequently unjust, things happen. There is thus good reason for people to discourage state-made wars—including wars designed to establish new states and to prevent their establishment—whenever possible. A straightforward pragmatic strategy for doing so, and so for minimizing the damage done by such wars, is to argue strenuously against any war undertaken by a state that doesn’t involve defense of the state’s own territory

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