This article at the Volokh Conspiracy about humanitarian principles is an interesting one. It reminded me of a discussion I had a with a friend in college about my intentions of joining the military – he made the same essential argument that war is ultimately “foolish”, regardless of the cause or justification. I immediately pointed out WWII- there was clearly a dire threat that could only be defeated through the strength of arms, that the price for ridding society of evil is high. His response was essentially “Well, yeah, that ONE time, but not any more” – as if the Holocaust and Rape of Nanking were one-time only engagements, never to be repeated by new actors on different stages.
Where I think that people stumble in their thinking is when they confuse ACTING neutrally (which is often the best policy) and THINKING neutrally. The blog author makes this point:
The utilitarian imperative of delivery of aid indeed requires and justifies a suspension of public judgment as to rights and wrongs in war–even as to things about which we might think it ordinarily both a right and even a duty to make private, and public, judgment. Humanitarianism’s refusal to judge is morally justified by humanitarian imperatives. Nonetheless, as a form of judgment, it must finally be reckoned an impoverished ethic.
That suspension of judgment in action as opposed to thought is, I think, a crucial one. Consider the same question in realm of criminal law. The legal presumption of innoncence exists for the good reason that it prevents miscarriages of justice and the conviction of the innocent – that said, it doesn’t and shouldn’t bind you in your personal thoughts. I was once chastised for calling OJ Simpson a murdered because he was found “Not Guilty” – the evidence is (to me) really clear that he did, in fact, murder two people. If I were in a position of legal authority over him, I would have to act as if he didn’t, but in my personal thoughts (and even personal actions) I can and should believe whatever the facts seem to indicate.
The same applies to warfare – the Red Cross (and groups like) do admirable and amazing things around the world, and they do so by remaining studiously neutral towards the conflict. That doesn’t mean that we should assume that there aren’t good and evil – just that in order to get desirable results, sometimes we have to pretend there aren’t.