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The Work of Prudential Judgment: Another Perspective on Syria from Catholic Theological Ethics

On Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, Catholics, Christians of other denominations, and women and men of good will observed a day of prayer and fasting in response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, at the invitation of Pope Francis.

On Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, Catholics, Christians of other denominations, and women and men of good will observed a day of prayer and fasting in response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, at the invitation of Pope Francis. As Tobias Winright noted a few days beforehand, prayer is action, not passivity. Often, it is the only thing to be done in an impossible situation with no other course of action available. But this is not to say that prayer is a “last resort,” as if it were just one among many alternatives available. It is the act of participation in the life of God, the One who is always present to human beings, who empowers us in all we do for good, who stands in solidarity with us when we suffer evil, who remains with us even when we do evil, who lived, died, and rose for us out of love. This God is present to those affected by the chaotic violence in Syria right now. To paraphrase Martin Luther, there is hope for those whose lives are a living hell because Jesus experienced a living hell on Golgotha. This hope in the midst of seeming hopelessness lies at the heart of how and why Christians pray.

We all live in a world that is both immensely good and profoundly broken. For this reason, all who pray receive both comfort and challenge from God. God draws us in and sends us out. When Jesus was transfigured on the mountain, he did not allow Peter, James, and John to remain there when they offered to construct booths for him, Moses, and Elijah. Instead, they went back down to continue their work of healing the sick and proclaiming the good news. Likewise, prayer for us is an activity from which we go out and to which we return, but not a place to linger indefinitely, especially when there is a pressing crisis at hand. As Winright puts it, “Prayer is necessary, but I worry that it is not sufficient. Maybe there is grace to do that and more for the sake of the suffering children of Syria.” The big question, then, is what is the “more?” What does God empower the world community to do concretely in response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria?

Catholic moral thought has traditionally drawn a distinction between exhortative discourse and normative discourse. The basic gist of this idea is that we cannot straightforwardly deduce the “Christian” moral response to a specific problem by appealing to the values expressed in Scripture or in traditional forms of worship and piety. Instead, all human beings necessarily employ practical reason and experience in order to make a prudential judgment concerning the best course of action for this particular set of circumstances, in accordance with one’s highest values. That’s just how moral reasoning works, whether one is a Christian or not. The Catholic tradition does affirm that the spiritual life of prayer should inform our sense of what our highest values are, but this prayer does not and cannot replace the practical judgments we make all the time as human beings in order to protect these values. Therefore, as Christians struggle to determine a moral response to what’s happening in Syria, what is called for is prudence. To be more specific, they need to exercise the virtue of dialogical, communal prudence, drawing upon their experience of past conflict resolution and carefully considering all courses of action available—even and especially those options that haven’t received much attention in the speeches of political figures or in the news media.

Many Christian commentators on the Syrian crisis have made reference to the just war tradition and the newer just peacemaking approach in their recent statements. Their analyses have generally been quite erudite in presenting the criteria of these frameworks and responsible in applying them to the situation at hand. However, whether one chooses to employ the just war or just peacemaking framework, neither of these can function as a sort of moral “formula.” One does not simply plug in the relevant data, press a button, and then expect the framework to produce an answer. To be sure, few writers have actually engaged in such abuse; the above commentators actually model very well the kind of prudential judgment I advocate to the extent that they are actively engaged in dialogue with one another. The point is that the just war and just peacemaking approaches are not formulas but normative ethical frameworks designed to deal with the contingencies of specific cases, and as such they presuppose more general values that derive from prior theological and philosophical reflection as well as history, culture, and law.

For example, proponents of the just war tradition cannot plausibly articulate what the “just cause” is in a particular situation without also making an implied reference to the substantive content of political justice and how this relates to fostering a sustainable peace. Similarly, the fact that the Geneva Conventions explicitly prohibit the use of chemical weapons as a violation of non-combatant immunity and the principle of discrimination is itself a reflection of the implicit experience of past wars, in which such weapons have wantonly disfigured human dignity and killed the innocent on a grand scale. Prudence, I argue, is the virtue we need to connect this rich history of moral reflection on human values to the present crisis of cyclical, violent retribution in Syria. Without it, our approach to conflict resolution among and within states will be reduced to damage control and shortsighted policy making. This is the essential difference between true prudence and mere “pragmatism.”
From the moral point of view, the humanitarian crisis in Syria is particularly acute precisely because it is so difficult—indeed, impossible—for the international community to promote and protect all human values. Yes, all morally serious persons value the protection of the innocent and non-combatants in time of war. Yes, we value legitimate political regimes whose policies aid the establishment of a just and sustainable peace. And yes, we value the enforcement of the moral norms embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that not all of these values will be equally realizable in practice, given the unique circumstances of this situation. Very soon the international community will be faced with the difficult and inevitable task of prioritizing our most cherished moral values.

My own sense of the situation is that we are primarily facing a conflict between the value of protecting innocent human lives in time of war and the value of enforcing widely-accepted norms that place limits on the means to be used in war. The means of intervention proposed by President Obama, the launching of targeted missiles into Syria without deploying ground troops, obviously reflects his commitment to and prioritization of the latter of these two values. From his perspective, it is true that many innocent Syrian lives will be lost when the missiles hit, and it is also true that such action against Bashar al-Assad might be perceived as U.S. support for rebel groups who employ similarly inhumane tactics, but the long-term consequence of allowing Assad or any political leader to use chemical weapons indiscriminately on civilians with impunity is judged to be the proportionately greater risk.

However, a different prioritization of values coupled with an expansion of our sense of the range of available alternatives can provide the basis for a prudential argument against unilateral military intervention by the United States. Everyone can agree that the norm prohibiting the use of chemical weapons was originally formulated in the interest of protecting human life. But if the sole purpose of a military intervention is to symbolically enforce this norm regardless of the likely consequences and without a feasible military objective, then that intervention probably subverts in the long-term the fundamental value it seeks to protect in the short-term. Another way of putting it is that following the letter of the law in this case undermines the spirit of the law. Therefore, in the absence of any certainty of what would be the likely political consequences for the Syrian people if the United States were to intervene unilaterally by missile strike, other courses of action must be considered as being among the potentially more just alternatives.

For example, forcing a vote in the U.N. Security Council, even though Russia would almost certainly use its veto power, would be an important step forward, encouraging the General Assembly to consider whether and how to implement the 2005 Responsibility to Protect doctrine (R2P) in the absence of a clear mandate from the Council. Christians in particular have strong reasons to support this conceptual reframing of state sovereignty, given the high value the Christian tradition places on preventing unnecessary and unjust loss of human life. Moreover, it remains possible for the United States to lead the way in negotiating an increased presence of non-military humanitarian organizations in Syria to address the immediate material needs of the people while the international community gets its house in order. It is thus abundantly clear that multiple options with a potentially greater justice claim than a missile strike still exist. President Obama, the U.S. Congress, and political leaders of every nation are obliged to give these alternatives their most serious consideration, or else persist in the moral charade that only one viable option remains.

Those Christians and women and men of good will who prayed and fasted on Saturday did well to heed the Pope’s invitation. But all of us are also called down from this mountain of prayer in order to participate in the hard work of prudential judgment, right now. The people of Syria do need our prayers, but the fruit of prayer must also be reaped in the world. We must find the most just course of action to take in this crisis, and we must do so through dialogue and critical reflection on what makes our common life together worth living in the first place.

Michael P. Jaycox is a PhD candidate in theological ethics at Boston College. His current research concerns the potentially constructive role of social anger in response to systemic injustice and oppression.

3 thoughts on “The Work of Prudential Judgment: Another Perspective on Syria from Catholic Theological Ethics

  1. Thanks for the post Michael, but I think there is a fatal flaw here. The core of your argument runs on a conditional. Namely: “if the sole purpose of a military intervention is to symbolically enforce this norm regardless of the likely consequences and without a feasible military objective.” Well of course that would be absurd. In fact it would lack political rationality altogether. This should lead us to suspect that it is not a real position in the hunt. If one takes seriously the President, or most (if not all) of the advocates of action, I doubt you would find any of them defending such a position. Certainly, some have put a great deal of thought into consequences (take, for instance, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/09/06/you_got_a_better_idea?page=full, or David Brooks analysis at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/politics/july-dec13/shieldsbrooks_09-06.html). The administrations position has articulated “changing Assad’s calculus concerning the use of chemical weapons” as its objective, and this seems a viable objective, even empirically testable. If Assad continues to use chemical weapons, the objective has not been achieved. It is a false (if commonly assumed position in the US) that one only has a military objective if one aims at regime change. Further, since people do speak a lot about the symbolism of strikes, it is important to note that symbolic acts have effects. If they did not, one would not think about them so much in Politics (and we think about them all the time in Politics). None of this is to say that military strikes are the right action for Syria, but if you are going to argue against military strikes you need to take the advocates of military action more seriously.

    1. Hello Kevin,

      Thank you very much for your thoughtful and insightful critique. After all, I did invite my readers to engage in a dialogical form of prudential judgment in the post. I am glad you heeded the invitation.

      Perhaps you are right that I have not taken advocates of the targeted missile strike more seriously. All of us have our intellectual and moral blind spots and prejudices, myself included. If I have understood you correctly, I can see your point concerning the political effectiveness of symbolic military actions. Moreover, I very much appreciate your sense of realism about what the role of the United States will have to be in eventually bringing this intractable conflict to the most sustainable and just resolution possible.

      That being said, I’m not sure that the flaw you have found in my argument is “fatal.” In fact, I think that had I said “primary purpose” rather than “sole purpose” in your partial quotation of the sentence I wrote, that change might have nullified your concern and been more consistent with what I argue regarding value prioritization in the rest of the post.

      After having listened to Obama’s speech this evening and heard yesterday’s news about the compromise (yet to materialize) offered by the Russian and Syrian diplomats, I am still not convinced that Obama’s proposal of a unilateral targeted missile strike takes adequate account of all the likely consequences or is the most just means to achieving his intended objectives: “to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, to degrade his regime’s ability to use them, and to make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use.”

      In particular, I think he fails to consider the extent to which unilateral military intervention might actually destabilize the geopolitical tensions of the region as well as exacerbate the refugee situation as unintended consequences of the strike. Concerning what Obama does intend, I think that it is more the threat of a strike rather than the strike itself which effectively deters leaders such as Assad. Suppose, hypothetically, that the proposed diplomatic solution had not been negotiated and Obama had followed through on his promise to strike. How great is the likelihood that this would have made a difference to Assad’s choice of tactics to use in the future? Obama undoubtedly has thought of this and took a calculated risk in threatening to strike. In this respect, he is at least pragmatic if not prudent. Notice, however, that none of his intended objectives in striking include the immediate protection of innocent civilians, which would not really be possible in anything more than a symbolic sense without ground troops. This is the point at which I was getting with his own prioritization of values.

      Moreover, any application of the R2P doctrine, the moral substance of which is implied in his argument, in accordance with the just war framework requires the involvement of the international community in order to claim legitimate authority. Of course, Obama is not completely uninterested in diplomatic solutions, as is evidenced by his efforts to broker a deal to have Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal placed in the hands of international monitors, but he does not seem to think that taking the time to build a multilateral coalition is practical at this point given the urgency of the situation. I argue that this judgment is imprudent and would be costly in the long-term.

      Again, to be clear, I am not opposed to military intervention when a justice argument for the use of military force exists; my argument is not pacifist at its core. I do, however, stand opposed to any unilateral military intervention to enforce international law within the borders of another nation, especially when the intervening nation has not been attacked. The moral authority to do so rests with the legitimate international bodies invested with this power.

      I would also like to mention that I am not sure that my own judgment on this matter is correct. If my study of Aquinas’s moral thought has taught me anything significant, it is that the more human reason descends into particular and contingent matters, the less certain moral judgment becomes. In that spirit, I concede that there is a place for legitimate disagreement between equally well-informed and well-intentioned thinkers on this very contingent matter–the specifics of the situation seem to change every day. And so, I respectfully receive your criticism in the hope that we may yet come to a greater understanding of how we may have prioritized differently the values we hold in common.

      Peace to you,

      1. Thanks for your gracious response Michael. The turn to the concrete here is quite helpful. Indeed, it seems to me essential that prudential analysis go all the way to get into the kind of narratives of probable outcomes that you explore in this response. And I certainly do agree with you on the need for prudence in just war thinking!


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