Discover Intelligence & Interview and Subscribe to the Newsletter!
It is with special pleasure to host Dr. Alexander Moseley in Intelligence & Interview to cover a topic which interested me for a long time now: Philosophy of war. Yes, exactly. Many of you are familiar with Just War Theory and the moral and political philosophy discussed by JWT philosophers. JWT is so influential that actually is probably the only philosophical area to be spilled over even beyond its first intentional research, as now there is also what is called “Just Intelligence Theory”. However, many arguments can be made for a philosophy of war that is not related to morals or even political philosophy. This is what I’ve called “pure philosophy of war.” Since I started exploring the topic almost ten years ago, I come up with Alexander Moseley’s book A Philosophy of War (2001), which I immediately found inspiring for the different angle he tackled the problem. After having read his book, I wrote an article freely available in this blog for the Italian readership (Alexander Moseley – A philosophy of war (una filosofia della guerra) Then, I got in touch with Alexander, and I invited him to write a piece for a collective book I was editing on the philosophy of war and piece (Socrate va in guerra: Socrate goes to war), where Dr Moseley covered the crucial topic of the causes of war. It is then with my distinct pleasure to publish the interview on Scuola Filosofica – for those who don’t know it yet; it is one of the leading cultural blogs in Italy. In the name of Scuola Filosofica Team, our readers, and myself, Giangiuseppe Pili, Alex: thank you!
1# Dr. Alexander Moseley, let’s start from the basics. How would you like to present yourself to the International readers and Philosophical School (Scuola Filosofica)?
A good question! Although I have worked in the university sector, most of my research and writings after my doctorate were done while running a private educational company as ‘an independent academic.’ I have been commissioned to write several articles on the ethics of war and the nature of ‘the warrior’ after publishing my first book, A Philosophy of War in 2001. I continue to research broadly and in turn my thinking has evolved to some extent from those early researches (see notes below on consciousness).
2# As I personally discovered when working on my book that philosophy neglected war. Few philosophers directly tackled war in any meaningful sense of the word “tackling.” For instance, even those few, Hobbes and Hegel (I won’t consider Heraclitus, who frankly didn’t offer any substantial account of it), covered it as a subpart of their theories (respectively political philosophy and philosophy of history.) As one of the few philosophers that, instead, decided to dive deeply into the philosophy of war, what are your thoughts on this (unbelievable) neglect? Why is that and how did it influence our understanding of war and peace?
From my research for another on-going project on various philosophers’ thoughts on war, I think ‘neglect’ is a strong word. I agree that, for instance, the classical and modern political philosophers’ views on war can be interpreted as seeing war as fitting into a sub-section of their theories, but I would also argue that most of them sought to define or to relate war as something bigger than politics or as Hegel does, a philosophy of history.
Plato, for instance, saw war as a necessary condition for humanity in the absence of a creation (or recreation) of the Ideal State which could put a brake on the slide into further moral dissolution; his view can be considered a metaphysical theory of human nature. Similarly, early modern writers such as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau see war as an element of human nature that expresses itself either in the rudimentary state of nature and hence in the absence of an overarching government (for Hobbes and Locke), or a product of civilizing influences which take us away from our allegedly kinder, solitary hunter-gatherer self as found in the state of nature (Rousseau). That the disposition to war is seen as an integral element of the human condition naturally lends itself to the psychological theories of war that have surfaced in the last century or more; psychological theories in turn emanate from metaphysical concepts of what being human entails.
I think all good theories seek to define war as something more than political, indeed, on that note, I often joke that Clausewitz got his famous phrase, that war is the continuation of politics by other means the wrong way round; from some perspectives such as the anarchist-libertarian views, politics is the continuation of war by other means!
3# Your book is titled “A Philosophy of War.” Why the article “a”? Why not just “Philosophy of War.” Though it looks pedantic, I think this choice sheds light on the nature of your position – maybe I’m wrong!
I recalled the style of early modern philosophers whose writings on various topics were prefaced with titles such as “An essay on…” “An essay concerning…”, which to my mind suggested a humility, an offering to the public of their thoughts, and implied in such language is also the acceptance that this essay/book/talk, etc., is part of a conversation to which it hopefully adds value. It’s not a dogma.
4# Is war a categorical (like logic/illogic, life/death, day/night, etc.) or a nuanced notion (like a shade of color)? What is your definition of war?
Nuanced. I’m not a fan of binary categories for they place an absolute division in people’s minds, from which debate becomes harder to join; for instance, on reflection “peace versus war” suggests that peace is the complete absence of war, and war the complete absence of peace, or that one is entirely peaceful or entirely bellicose in nature. Peace suggests an absence of warfare, but it does not necessarily mean the absence of warlike intentions or dispositions or even political policies (amassing an army at a border, for example, which has not yet started firing but whose presence could hardly be construed as peaceful). Studying history as well as the common definitions of war used since the Ancient Greeks shows that many definitions are lacking or are limited – there are too many counter-factuals to some definitions of war or writers often project their own (psychological) conception of the world, or personal experience of war, onto their definition. That leads us to recognize philosophically that all definitions can only be working definitions – concepts that have a use, but whose intellectual boundaries may alter as we learn more.
Nonetheless, I did not want a definition to be grounds for a never ending intellectualisation of this deadliest of all endeavours.
Accordingly, I tested various notions that would be more robust and more useful for researchers over competing definitions and hence offered that “war is a state of organized open-ended collective conflict.”
This sought to capture that war is organized by hierarchical or decision-making authorities of some form or other – elders, parliaments, senates, monarchs; that it is a state of affairs, which implies that it is not an event such as the firing of a gun but a way of being-in-the world, however construed, as in ‘We’re at war…’, even though no firing has commenced; that it is open-ended (or infinite) rather than a closed or finite event such as a boxing match, which has rules and an opening and closing bell; that it involves a collective (armies) rather than an individual in pursuit of violence. The last would permit gang or ‘mafia’ warfare, for instance, which I think is relevant, but disallow the sociopath declaring a personal war on a people or nation.
Testing the definition against the many definitions that have been proposed underlines its usefulness. It may be too broad for some who would, for instance, propose leaving out non-state violent actions such as terrorist activity by sub-political groups or guerrilla warfare; but often those moves may hint at ulterior motives to remove moral and international legal status of such combatants, so that they may be interred without reference to Geneva conventions. Others proclaim that wars can only be authorized by states, which again would remove of a lot of warfare in human history effected by state-less peoples – or revolting peasant armies; similarly it hints at a juridical definition that is highly limited and subject to altering notions of the state, and states are very new phenomena for many people around the world.
5# What do you think a philosophy of war should be about? For instance, should it be only about ethics? After all, historically speaking, the only portion of what can be legitimately called the philosophy of war was indeed about morals; specifically, this always recalled just war theory. Just war theory is extremely influential and highly debated. As philosophers, should we (I partially include myself in this “we”!) restrain our interests in ethics?
My dissertation submitted at Edinburgh included the ethics of war, or a review of the Just War tradition. I had to split that off to get the publication and a popular and simplified version of Just War Theory appears on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Be that as it may, a cogent philosophy of war should include ethics but not be defined solely by ethical theories. Usually, we start of introducing warfare to students as an ethical problem – should we go to war, what kind of acts in war are permissible, or a failure of international relations say; but we quickly shift to considerations of why we go to war and what it is about us as humans that disposes us to such violence.
It is difficult to constrain the philosophical study of war to any usual department; it’s a bit like a philosophy of sex, except perhaps sex could involve an aesthetic approach that would be harder (but not impossible) for philosophers of war to analyse. (One can imagine someone claiming that “war is beautifu” and I may have come across references to such a move, perhaps in a film? I note that it is the title of a photography book by David Shields, using the phrase ironically though.)
Philosophizing on war involves politics and ethics, but it quickly takes us into metaphysical discussions and theology (humanity’s ‘fall’ or ‘innate sinfulness’); it can evoke epistemological considerations regarding ‘what acts constitute acts of war?’ which become interesting – for instance, in the Renaissance period, casting aspersions on a ruler’s honour was deemed a just cause for war. The recognition that causing offence was gradually accepted as too flexible and subjective and so was gradually dipped by the rise of a juridical view of war, a point that current puritanical ‘woke’ proponents need to learn.
You are right that Just War Theory – or the Just War Tradition for it is also evident in non-literary societies – is influential and debated. It was certainly the most interesting area to delve into because it transcends the usual ethical theories we teach undergraduates – utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics, drawing, in my opinion, on useful elements from all three. It permits a flexibility whilst acknowledging that war is an aberration, a last resort, something not to be taken lightly.
6# Do you believe war is an eminently human phenomenon? This is another interesting debate the philosophy of war should solve. I argued that it is, but an argument can be made for the opposite case. What do you think about the nature of war in this respect?
I see war as necessarily emanating from our nature, certainly; but I maintain an optimism too.
The study of prehistory hints at collective violence in early homo sapiens circa 10,000 years ago and ethology (study of animal behaviour) shows how chimpanzees form marauding murderous troops that seize territory that is eerily reminiscent of human aggression.
That violent animal is in all of us. It is, in that respect, not something that we have invented as we have radio transmitters or electric cars; aggressiveness is within our bodily inheritance. But we can also acknowledge that we have learned to restrain our aggression just as we have learned to constrain our sexual desire; by what particular means and norms is the stuff of history, but the very history of peace-making which continues down to the present suggests how keen we are to restrain our tendency to fight instead of trade, say, or to avoid conflict in favour of negotiation. This is where cultural factors unleashed by education and the rule of law over violence, by codes and norms that emphasis rationality over aggression begin to work their magic – the softer mores of trade, conversation, sports, art, music, etc., begin to calm our tendency to want to impose our will on others through violence.
In recent years, I have been interested in research into consciousness in the works of varied researchers who have utilized MRI scans and other readings of the brain or the workings of our endocrine system; and particularly their results on the changes that the brain undergoes when participants alter their thinking from say fearful and angry to acceptance, peace, or love (sometimes in meditative states). The physiology of the brain changes: that is, new neural patterns form that assist feelings of empathy and understanding, the ability to calm tension and violent dispositions is enhanced.
My tentative conclusions that can be drawn from what I am reading indicate that individuals sit on a spectrum of aggressiveness – from full on, sociopathic tendencies to higher levels of consciousness that are loving, kind, peaceful, and wise. The latter may give up all forms of violence or only use them when necessary. “I turn the other cheek, but I will still arrest you…” This may then be extended to cultures and to their pacifying norms or ‘memes.’
Earlier in my research, I was enamoured with the cultural dispositions our societies have towards war or peace, and that has not disappeared. To take a contemporary example, we may watch with a morbid curiosity how the Taliban, who have recently taken over Afghanistan (summer 2021), behave. They are, from many accounts, immersed in a culture of violence towards anyone not of their kind, mentality, or version of Islam. They exhibit a narcissism and an absolutism that jars others’ cultural sensibilities: just as a violent person entering a restaurant tends disturbs a peaceful environment, so the Taliban disturb the international community. The medical findings would suggest that indeed, ‘they cannot help themselves,’ given their inability to empathise with liberal or humanistic values, a comment Christ said on the cross about his persecutors.
But rather than accepting the mentality of aggressors as ‘genetic’ and absolute, research indicates strongly that some/most violent people can undergo change. We witness the behavioural changes to energetic and aggressive children who slowly mature into realizing that they need to change. It may come with biochemical changes from within or from dietary alterations, or it may come from a sudden realization that their path is the wrong one – an epiphany as it were. We also know, for instance, that a child born of violent parents could be brought up as a peaceful child when adopted into a different family culture. We can thus connect our thoughts on war and aggression to the field of epigenetics which has been slowly altering our understanding of how genes can be switched on and off by environmental (and I would include in that psychological and cultural) factors. We have an innate ability to calm our biological aggressiveness down – simply by altering our breathing to deep breathing, the parasympathetic system is engaged. Cultures act in a similar way – they can present models and patterns of behaviour of peaceful interaction and resolution, and in turn enable wiser, more loving behaviour to flourish over the fearful and angry paths that we are all capable of treading. “Functional medicine” is presenting very interesting findings in that regard.
7# According to human history and to (too many) recent events, it looks like war could be with us forever. However, you argued that a peaceful world is possible. I must tell you that I argued this as a possible in theory but extremely unlikely scenario. What is the gist of your position and how can the world be a better place from this point of view?
If we take civilization as a process in ‘civilising’ us away from violence and towards peace, and if we take on board some of the epigenetic implications that modern science is slowly uncovering (that our genetic expression can be altered), then I would claim that war is something we could overcome. But this idealism is tampered with the reality of what we are – or rather, what most people are – currently.
Consider the archetypal idealist phrase cast about at the start of the Great War (the First World War) – that it would be “a war to end all wars.” A war to end all wars was certainly the idealists’ hope – but really, to seek the end of violence violently seems a non-starter! Would we end lying by telling the biggest lie of them all?
However, if we all improved physiologically such that we empower our empathy, such that we learn to seek love and peaceful resolution and not fall prey to the animal within, then the end of war would be possible.
I am quite taken with Dr David Hawkins’s ‘map of consciousness’ (available on a web search for images thereof), which exhibits a logarithmic scale of consciousness found in humanity (and in the animal kingdom too). His best exposition is found in his book, Power versus Force, while the means for raising our consciousness is found in Letting Go, a modernized version of a Buddhist realization that our mindsets sit on a spectrum and that we can raise our consciousness by altering our perception or beliefs about the world especially our emotions.
There is much in his work that is elucidating for a philosopher, but for our purposes here, Hawkins quantifies our consciousness on a scale from 0 (dead) to 1000 for the highest conscious energy that a human body can handle – Christ, Buddha, for instance. What is interesting is that there is a point, around 200 as he defines it, that the human mind awakens (morally, spiritually, whatever words we want to use): it becomes aware of others as people rather than as others who are useful or who get in the way – people to be respected and later to be loved and loved unconditionally. Indeed, over 200 we begin to see how other people are just us in a different form – the stuff of poets, lyricists and mystics, one could quip, or the psychological basis of sympathy and empathy … and so of peace.
This is my interpretation of his talks and writings, of course, which I cannot give justice too in these brief comments. But let’s see if we can stir the reader’s curiosity: below 200, we are, Hawkins notes, physiologically not capable of empathy and sympathy; we live in a modality and the energy of survival. For the eastern medically oriented, we live in the spleen; above we begin live in the heart (now considered a mind-like structure by some western medical researchers). Below 200, we are motivated by the negative vices – blaming others, despairing, anxious, fearful, craving, desirous, scornful and proud – we use up energy trying to force our will upon the world, or we withdraw from it in despair. Above 200 on his scheme, we move to courage, trust, optimism, forgiveness and understanding, and we use power – our energy increases and life becomes less stressful and tiring. In simple terms that are relevant here, we move from hate to love, war to peace, fear to courage, etc. And with that move in our thinking, in our belief patterns, our physiology changes accordingly. This all implies that we can change – we can alter our way of being-in-the-world from one being fearful to being courageous, say. It may take a long time – or it may take an instant, as we read of people enjoying a sudden epiphany that their life needs to change.
Entertainingly, take from it what you will, Hawkins notes that his reading of humanity’s consciousness was that it has been for the most part of our history below 200. Around 100 around the time of Christ (fearful, anxious), to 190s for much of the modern era (proud, demanding), until very recently, when it evolved to being over 200 in the late 1980s, which implies a shift from survivalism toward a living in a more feasible, ‘can-do-it’ culture dominating the world. Arguably, science and education have empowered rational discourse over violent and we have certainly seen the extent and quantity of wars diminish over the past few decades; war becomes an aberration rather than the norm. Incidentally, Francis Fukuyama in his Origins of Political Order poignantly reminds the reader how few democracies there were in the 1970s compared to today – all of these civilizing forces may be having their influence. Hawkins’s readings may also reflect the effect of self-development movements which tend to encourage reflection (over reaction) and mental cum spiritual growth in the modern world. However, he also notes, reasonably when one observes human behaviour in modern politics and in history, most people remain below 200 – that is, most people lean into aggression in its varied forms, and could easily tip the world back into a fearful war-ridden place.
Regardless of whether we may agree with Hawkins’s assessments – indeed, he presents ways to us to test his observations – we may accept his astute reading of human nature. We cannot trust or enter into agreements with politicians or states that are negative in their demeanour – we cannot deal rationally with irrational people and we would be naïve to believe we could. Chamberlain’s agreement with Hitler was one of a naïve politician doing a deal with the equivalent of a crack dealer – trust was not an element of Hitler’s persona.
The survivalist conscious or mentality is very Hobbesian in that regard, and will accept war as the nature of things, as an inevitability. From this level of thinking – stuck perhaps in its neurological patterns as modern medicine is uncovering – war will never be far off. But as more people raise their ability to understand others, learn how to reason through problems, accept and forgive their own faults and others’, trade services rather than insults, and subtly undergo neurological changes corresponding to the calmer mindset, then humanity may begin to walk the path to peace in sufficient numbers that will in turn affect the cultural disposition to violence.
On a personal note, I am moved by the campaign in sports to end racism. Having sat in football stadia and been shocked by the foul language used against all players, an explicit shift by players and managers to support anti-racist symbols or reminders to supporters to avoid being brutally offensive may speed up an educational-cultural effect. ‘Taking the knee’, which seems an empty politicized gesture invoking American racial politics and hints of Marxist ideology akin to the clenched fist, may nonetheless serve as a reminder that we – as a civil people – need to recognize the lives of others, to imagine ‘walking around in their shoes.’ That is a source of peace.
8# Considering the new forms of waging war such as hybrid warfare, asymmetric warfare, or cyber warfare, it looks like humans militarized all sorts of domains, meaning from knowledge to culture. What is the future of war? What does philosophy teach us about it? One lesson could be that war is not simply a chameleon but a very adaptive creature in itself. Or maybe it is just that it is still a way of life… What is your take?
Philosophy always seeks the guiding principles to help us become wiser (one would hope!). From my studies, I have not seen any requirements to adjust the working definition of war that “war is a state of organized open-ended collective conflict.” I say “working” because it allows for alteration, but it seems a very robust definition that permits us to study the changing face of war.
The definition – and hence any philosophy of war drawn from it – is not affected by, for instance, technological developments that allow people to throw weapons, or more destructive weapons, from greater distances; nor is it affected by the operating of assassin-drones or the violent assault through so-called cyber warfare. Behind each aggressive move is a conscious person deciding to unleash a weapon or a fist. Insofar as that person is acting with or under some form of authority, then they are engaged in warfare rather than criminality. And so, an attack on the internet cables of the South China Seas would be an act of war; so too the killing of soldiers or officers of an enemy army using drones, cruise missile strikes, or perhaps, one day, orbital weapons stations (Star Wars’s ‘death stars’). The old warrior ethic of fighting face to face was challenged by the advent of the spear and the arrow, but the nature of war did not change just because a peasant could shoot an armoured lord in battle.
War will continue to evolve with technology – currently it is ‘progressing’, but it could easily ‘regress’ should we turn on the endeavours of the human mind and ‘wage war’ on intelligence (it’s happened in Chinese, Arabian, and European history before, never mind because of the wars waged against the cultures of South America and Asia by conquerors).
Its physical impact certainly reflects the technological abilities of the people who engage in it, but I am rather taken by your comment that war is “a very adaptive creature in itself.”
Arguably, the adaptive element is the human mind. Mind – in its negative modality in which it seeks simple survival or victory and control over others to survive – is conniving, sly, manipulating, deceitful, immoral, and devious, etc. It is like Othello in Shakespeare’s eponymous play or like the ideal Prince in Machiavelli’s work, or Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, “warring in heaven against heaven’s matchless King.” War can be fought by such altering means as the devious see fit – using propaganda to brainwash the poorly-educated, encouraging obedience before imposing it, recording people’s private lives and data to be used against them at some point in the future (used by all totalitarian states), or simply diluting the key cultural institutions that act as bulwarks against violent trespass by the state’s officers such as the family (whatever form it takes culturally) or a neutral education in favour of a state defined education, or by destroying a sense of community and self-reliance through encouraging dependency on governmental handouts (bread and circuses, employed by the Roman emperors).
By acting to keep people ‘down’ (below 200 as Hawkins may say), governments in effect sustain the energy of war. We see this brought about when authoritarian governments (typically) begin to lose their grip through deleterious economic policies and the leadership declares a neighbouring people (or a minority/other people within the country, Nazi Germany, Rwanda) as the scapegoat and so unleashes “the dogs of war.” A poignant phrase, for that is what such people become – animals, rather than humans in the moral-humanist-theological sense of conscious beings.
For such people, kept in a fearful mode, the tragedy of war may indeed define their life. But not for all – when war begins, we see the millions moving away, some out of fear, naturally, but others because they know that war is innately destructive and murderous and is something it is worth getting as far away from as possible, like lava spilling down a hillside toward their town. Their hope sustains their move to a new country, and hope is very human and positive, it creates the seeds for the next peace one could poetically add!
9# How can our readers follow you?
I don’t do much social networking but my website and email can be used –
alexandermoseley.com – advertising my coaching/tutoring services but also an overview of writings
email@example.com which can be used for further questions or discussion
10# Five keywords that represent you?
Currently – resilient, forgiving, understanding, curious, and amiable