Foreign Policy Blogs

The Theory of Righteousness; An Ethical Analysis of Atrocities and War

The Theory of Righteousness; An Ethical Analysis of Atrocities and WarThe Nuremburg Defense was invoked to justify the Jewish Holocaust at the hands of Hitler's regime. In essence, this defense says that following orders from ones superiors absolves the accused of responsibility. The Nuremburg Tribunal deemed this inadequate defense, stating that the defense of superior orders does not trump morality. However, arguing on the behalf of the righteous, St. Augustine argued that from the hand of Divinity, or superiority, comes the path of righteousness. Thus, killing in the name of righteousness does not violate 'thou shalt not kill.’

Nietzsche orates on a "tablet of virtues.' Each of us has a tablet of virtues that we carry and this set of moral dictums is represented by collective society. What holds for the Muslims may not hold for the Catholics. What holds for the Germans did not hold for the Jews. For, as Nietzsche says, my tablet of virtues hangs over my head alone, not yours. But, this tablet is derived from "above'; some notion of superiority, be it a deity, a general, a president, or a dictator. Yet, as Aristotle asks, does Man follow the word of God because it is His word, or because His word is good , the very debate on the Nuremberg Defense.

Thucydides believes that people are driven by pride, fear, and self interest. Because of this, they are always searching for ways to gain the advantage, while the rules of competition dictate that others try to handicap them. In an interactive system of units guided by self-interest, such as foreign relations, the bias of self-interest obliges states to become hyper-sensitive and hyper-responsive to factors that influence power. The bias of self-interest drives unites to prevent the ascension of others. Hitler did it, it occurred in Yugoslavia, and it occurs today.

The bias of self-interest also invokes a pre-occupation with self worth. The individual unit in any system views itself as righteous, capable, and deserving and this bias forms the basis of ideology. Social scientists note that this bias is unconscious and aggregates in collective in-group solidarity. It is a source of legitimacy among units operating within the same ideological set. Validity is therefore a comparative notion and derived from perceptions of threat. I will only cheat insomuch as I think you will cheat. I am right insofar as I see you as wrong.

Considering in-group tendencies towards solidarity, conflict between units is inevitable. Each unit lays claim to benevolence and piety and each unit is threatened by the other. If I feel you may cheat, I must be prepared to cheat. The same applies to the use of force. I must be prepared to use force, murder, rape or torture if I feel you are about to do the same. This is especially true if I see you as a threat to my survival. And, if I see you as especially powerful, you may frighten me and encourage me to lash out. Conversely, if I am powerful, I am more certain that my power is a reflection of my righteousness. I am then obliged to enforce it, as the Pope sanctioned the Crusades, as Hitler sanctioned the Crusades, as Slobodan Milosevic sanctioned his atrocities, and as even as America sanctions Iraq. According to the international theorist, Kenneth Waltz; "The possession of great power has often tempted nations to the unnecessary and fooling employment of force since justice cannot be objectively defined, the temptation of a powerful nation is to claim that the solution it seeks to impose is a just one."

Throughout history, Man has committed the most atrocious acts in the name of righteousness. Benevolence is relative. Those who hold capital punishment as just may oppose abortion. Is the death of one to save four lives acceptable? A hundred deaths to save thousands? Millions of deaths to save a nation? Looking further into relativism, we must compare acts to one another. In just war, the cause of death is relative to the cause itself. But again, we must remember that no party to conflict is beyond in-group bias. The Crusades, the treatment of Native Americans, African slavery, the Armenian genocide, The Holocaust, Srebrenica, Rwanda, and Darfur are horrific examples of the evil of man, but each had its justification by its perpatrators. It does not matter who Man is or what His cause; if man sees enemies beyond every horizon, he will find enemies behind every corner and act accordingly.

Nietzsche quote is from "Master and Slave Morality"

Dolly Chugh presented the notion of in-group bias as "bounded ethicality"

Waltz is quoted from "Theory of International Politics"

Thucydides is referenced from Robert Gilpin's "The Theory of Hegemonic War"

Just war theory is derived from Alexander Mosely.

Aristotle is from The Nicomachean Ethics.



Daniel Graeber

Daniel Graeber is a writer for United Press International covering Iraq, Afghanistan and the broader Levant. He has published works on international and constitutional law pertaining to US terrorism cases and on child soldiers. His first major work, entitled The United States and Israel: The Implications of Alignment, is featured in the text, Strategic Interests in the Middle East: Opposition or Support for US Foreign Policy. He holds a MA in Diplomacy and International Conflict Management from Norwich University, where his focus was international relations theory, international law, and the role of non-state actors.

Areas of Focus:International law; Middle East; Government and Politics; non-state actors