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Citizen Responsibility for War in Imperfect Democracies

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 March 2010

Lisa Rivera*
University of Massachusetts


ABSTRACT: Are individual citizens of imperfect democracies morally responsible for unjust wars waged by their state? Moral responsibility for unjust wars involves both retrospective and social responsibility. Citizens of imperfect democracies are retrospectively responsible when they choose to vote for a leader they know will wage an unjust war. This situation may occur very rarely. For example, US citizens did not have this political option at the outset of the Vietnam and Iraq Wars. However, even when citizens are not retrospectively responsible they have the social responsibility to engage in collective action to address the harms unjust war causes.

RÉSUMÉ: Les citoyens des démocraties imparfaites sont ils moralement responsables des guerres injustes menées par leurs états? La responsabilité morale pour les guerres injustes implique à la fois une responsabilité rétrospective et une responsabilité sociale. Les citoyens des démocraties imparfaites sont rétrospectivement responsables quand ils choisissent de voter pour un dirigeant dont ils savent qu’il ménera une guerre injuste. Les citoyens américains, par exemple, n’avaient pas cette option politique au début de la guerre du Vietnam ou de la guerre en Irak. Cependant, même quand les citoyens ne sont pas rétrospectivement responsables, ils ont la responsabilité sociale de s’engager dans une action collective pour faire face aux dommages causés par une guerre injuste.

Copyright © Canadian Philosophical Association 2009

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1 Cf. David Copp, “The Collective Moral Autonomy Thesis,” Journal of Social Philosophy 38 (2007): 369–88; Pekka Makela, “Collective Agents and Moral Responsibility,” Journal of Social Philosophy 38 (2007): 456–68. Although I do not address collective responsibility, it is probably not the case that citizens of imperfect democracies are responsible for every unjust war, for example the war in Iraq. The notion of joint responsibility which may implicate individual agents in joint actions may cause citizens to be individually responsible. Cf. Seamus Miller, “Collective Responsibility,” Public Affairs Quarterly, 15 (2001): 65–82.

2 Note that this is not the claim that a person must be able to do otherwise to be free. (Cf. Harry Frankfurt, “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility,” The Journal of Philosophy 66 (1969): 828–39.) Rather, it is the claim that what the person did or did not do had some noticeable effect on the event. The counterfactual condition is merely intended to point out that a person has a noticeable effect on an event only if the event would not have occurred or would have been noticeably different had she acted otherwise. I will argue that people often are responsible for their attitudes about events but this is insufficient for retrospective responsibility.

3 Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 298.

4 Ibid., 294.

5 Ibid., 301.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., 298.

8 Michael Walzer, Obligations: Essays on Disobedience, War and Citizenship (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970), 7.

9 Michael Green argues that Walzer’s scepticism about willed membership here may create a problem for his view elsewhere that the presence of a political community or “the common life” gives states the right to resist aggression. Michael Green, “War Innocence and Theories of Sovereignty,” Social Theory and Practice, 18 (2002): 49. For the view that the common life justifies a state’s response to aggression, see Walzer, Wars, 54–7. David Luban also contends that Walzer is incorrect that a horizontal contract among members gives states the right to resist aggression. Cf. David Luban, “Just War and Human Rights,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 9 (1980): 160–81.

10 For a defence of representation in democracy see Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, Democracy and Disagreement (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 131–50.

11 The idea that ordinary citizens have a minimal participatory role echoes some views of Joseph Schumpeter. See David Held, Models of Democracy (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1987), 165–8.

12 Walzer, Wars, 302.

13 Ibid., 301.

14 Ibid., 302.

15 Ibid.

16 The Project for the New American Century advocated war against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. In a 1998 letter to Bill Clinton, this group argued that removing Saddam Hussein from power “now needs to become the aim of American foreign policy.” Central figures in the Bush administration—Cheney, Rumsfeld, Jeb Bush and Paul Wolfowitz—were members of this group. By itself, the letter was insufficient to alert voters to what was to come and, aside from Cheney, those in the project joined his administration after he came to office. (Prior to Cheney, vice presidents wielded very little power so voters had no reason to suspect that the views of this vice president would determine foreign policy.) During the 2000 election, George Bush claimed that he was skeptical of humanitarian intervention and was not interested in empire building. For example, he claimed that, in contrast to Gore, “I would be very careful about using our troops as nation builders. I believe in the role of the military to fight and win war and therefore prevent war from happening in the first place.” Thomas E. Ricks, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), 24.

17 The evidence is still out on whether the administration genuinely believed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The claim that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction posed an imminent threat to the United States had no basis, since there was no evidence whatsoever that Iraq possessed the capability to attack the United States with those weapons. Instead, the claim was that these weapons would be made available to terrorists, who might bring them to the United States.

18 A surprising number of people found the case for war to be convincing. Two cases are particularly notable. Judith Miller of the New York Times was particularly vilified because her coverage of the war was influential and gave credence to misinformation disseminated by the Bush administration. The Times later apologized for disseminating this false information. See Editorial, “The Times and Iraq,” The New York Times, May 26, 2004. Political theorist Michael Ignatieff also argued in favour of the war; this suggests that lack of intellectual sophistication was not the reason that some supported the war. See Les Whittington, “Ignatieff Admits Error on Iraq War,” The Toronto Star, August 3, 2007.

19 The supposed threat of Iraqi-sponsored terrorism against the United States was a distant threat. Thus, one very implausible claim was that the U.S. could not wait for weapons inspectors to finish their inspections of Iraq for weapons of mass destruction before launching attacks. Cf. “Blix Urges U.S. and U.K. to Hand Over Iraq Evidence, The Guardian, December 20, 2002, policy; “Blix: Lack of ‘Critical Judgment’ Led to Iraq War: Former Top UN Weapons Inspector Blames U.S., U.K. Leaders,”

20 This is not to say that extreme violent opposition—mass strikes, riots in the street, etc.—by many citizens acting together would have no effect whatsoever. But the fact is that the many well-attended protests throughout the U.S. and internationally, and the objection of many political, religious, and media elites, had no effect. Thus it seems reasonable to assume that the Bush administration’s desire to invade Iraq far outweighed its concern for public opinion. One element was somewhat different between the Vietnam and Iraq Wars: the Vietnam involvement was the result of a gradual build-up, while Iraq occurred much more quickly and involved a full-scale invasion. Further, the somewhat recent terrorist attack on the United States was undoubtedly responsible for at least part of the acquiescence by the media and citizens. Both of these factors may have prevented a more efficient and effective anti-war movement but it also seems plausible that the Bush administration was unlikely to be influenced by peaceful political protest, no matter how widespread.

21 Among the most prominent, three officials of the State Department resigned their posts in protest: Mary Wright, Deputy Chief of Mission in the U.S. Embassy, Mongolia; John H. Brown, Cultural Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow; and John Brady Kiesling, Political Counsellor of the U.S. Embassy in Athens. Claire Short, the British Secretary for International Development, also resigned in protest over British involvement in the war.

22 Before the invasion, many protests took place both abroad and in nearly every U.S. city. Two factors may account for the absence of very socially disruptive protests like those during the latter part of the Vietnam War: the lack of conscription and the fact that the government did not seem readily influenced by protest. It is difficult to quantify what constitutes substantial opposition. Although a majority of Americans did support the Iraq War at its onset, it was very unpopular in some quarters right from the start and it quickly became much more unpopular as it progressed. Opposition to the war did not significantly affect the Bush Administration’s policies. However, it is also noteworthy that Bush won a second term in office after the war had begun.

23 For a view on whether citizens are sufficiently knowledgeable to assess political events, see Michael X. Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter, What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997). Carpini and Keeter argue that although knowledge of current events, politics, and geography is fairly low among many citizens, it is reasonably high among a sizable minority. They claim the citizenry as a whole possesses a kind of aggregate knowledge that is sufficient for informed political deliberation.

24 In both Vietnam and Iraq it was widely assumed that a person will be for or against the war and that they should have reasons for this position. This suggests people see some obligation to consider alternative positions.

25 Russell Hardin argues that absence of causal efficacy on political outcomes may be a reason for citizens to avoid acquiring the relevant knowledge. There is no “social reason” to acquire knowledge if the citizen’s role “is entirely inefficacious.” Cf. Russell Hardin, Liberalism, Constitutionalism and Democracy. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 166. There are social reasons however, when citizens are concerned and wish to communicate about events that may directly affect them. War is often such a situation.

26 There is still some debate about whether the first term of the Bush presidency resulted from a legitimate electoral process. Legal processes did result in his presidency but some claim that such processes were corrupt.

27 Green, 46.

28 Ibid.

29 Ibid., 43.

30 Ibid., 51.

31 Ibid., 52.

32 Cf. Thomas Nagel, “War and Massacre,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 5 (1972): 123–44; Robert Holmes, On War and Morality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989). This is also Walzer’s view.

33 Green, 55.

34 Igor Primoratz, “Michael Walzer’s Just War Theory: Some Issues of Responsibility,” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 5 (2002): 236.

35 Primoratz, 236–7.

36 Ibid., 238.

37 Ibid., 240. Primoratz does not explain how direct attacks on civilians could be militarily useful. One way they are politically useful is that they may terrify the populace or undermine the national will to continue fighting. This seems to be not a military purpose but a political one. Primoratz believes that civilians who support the war do not have immunity and that there is a justification for attacking them on the grounds of self-defence. Given this view, it may not matter whether the goal is military or political. However, it is not clear that the political goal will be achieved by attacks on civilians. Such attacks frequently increase support for a war and make it more difficult to reach a settlement.

38 There are various strategies within liberal theory to show that citizens who personally disagree with a political outcome are nevertheless required to accept it. There are two reasons why, e.g., Rawls’ arguments in political liberalism are inapplicable to unjust war: His claims apply only to decisions that shape the basic structure of society and he is concerned with a nearly just society. In Political Liberalism the types of decisions that Rawls is concerned about citizens accepting are those concerning fundamental matters such as constitutional essentials and the assignments of basic rights and duties. John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 214. Among other things, the economic inequality of the U.S. prevents it from being nearly just in Rawls’s sense.

39 The U.S.-Vietnam War may have made citizens reluctant to engage in military adventures. It also created an anti-war movement that was responsible for much of the (unfortunately) unsuccessful protest against a war in Iraq. Although the Vietnam era is often cited as a period of resistance, the possibility of war against Iraq prompted immediate protest within many sectors of society at the point when preventing the war was more likely. This did not occur at the outset of the Vietnam War.

40 Protesters do hope to have an effect. And, I argue, the possibility they may have an effect is morally relevant. But the chances of their preventing the war at the outset are vanishingly small and it is reasonable to assume many of them are aware of this.

41 Iris Marion Young, “Responsibility and Global Justice: A Social Connection Model,” Social Philosophy and Policy (2006): 102–30. See also Iris Young, “From Guilt to Solidarity: Sweatshops and Political Responsibility,” Dissent, Spring 2003: 39–45 and Iris Marion Young, “Responsibility and Global Labor Justice,” Journal of Political Philosophy 12 (2006): 365–88.

42 Young, “Responsibility and Global Labor Justice,” 379.

43 Samuel Scheffler, “Individual Responsibility in a Global Age,” in Boundaries and Allegiances: Problems of Responsibility and Justice in Liberal Thought, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 39. Quoted in Young, “Responsibility and Global Labor Justice,” 374.