Professor’s Perspective: Burgh: Don’t ‘punish’ Syrians

Last week the Philosophy Club held a discussion about some of the philosophical implications regarding the conflict in Syria. The Rider News (TRN) sat down with Dr. Richard Burgh, professor of philosophy, to ask some of our own questions.

TRN: Is it worse to die from sarin gas than from a bullet?

Burgh: Probably not — it depends on where the bullet hits you. You die from a slow stomach wound or you die from sarin gas; they’re both horrible deaths. So I think the question, “What’s worse to die from?” depends. Most people aren’t killed outright with bullets. They die from a stomach full of shrapnel — death prolonged. You get shot in the head and you’re a paraplegic for the rest of your life. I think the notion of which is worse to die from is a silly question.

TRN: How is it right to use violence to restrict that particular form of violence, which was the use of chemical warfare?

Burgh: I don’t think it was justifiable. If you listen to the language of our politicians, they talk in terms of punishing Syria. “We have to show Syria. We have to punish Syria.” The philosophic question is, “What does it mean to punish another country?”
Punishment involves the intention of inflicting suffering. So if you’re going to punish another country, you’re going to make the country suffer? How do you make a country suffer? Do you bomb a highly metropolitan area and kill as many civilians as you can to make the country suffer? Do you kill the leaders?
When you talk in terms of making Syria suffer, [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad isn’t going to suffer. The military is not going to suffer. The wealthy in Syria aren’t going to suffer. If we bomb and send missiles in and kill innocent people, civilians are going to be killed, your average citizen who’s innocent. How does killing innocent civilians constitute punishment?
I think the idea of using warfare to punish another country is silly because war guarantees people, even innocent people are going to die. War releases a set of forces that are totally uncontrollable and unpredictable. If you’re going to use war as punishment, you’re punishing a country in a way that you’re guaranteeing innocent people are going to be killed. I think talking about punishing a criminal by killing some innocent person is wrong.
You could imagine some heinous mass murderer and we decide we’re going to punish him by killing his mother — clearly wrong, but that’s what we’re doing when we start talking in terms of using punishment to deter another country.

TRN: In a larger view, does it even make sense to have “laws” of war?

Burgh: The existence of international law is another philosophic question. To have a law, you’ve got to have a law to break. To have a law, you’ve got to have a party that’s going to punish infractions of the law. With international law, we have neither. You have the U.N. but the United States has a veto power in the U.N., Security Council, as do Russia and China. So we’re only bound by a law that we agree with. But you can have international treaties and you can have a treaty against using chemical weapons. That becomes a form of international law, and that’s a good thing. Countries realize that when we’re going to engage in warfare, we want to restrict what we’re going to do and that’s an agreed-upon restriction. So in that sense, the rules of warfare make sense.

TRN: Does the agreement between Russia and the U.S. stem from President Obama’s threat of force? If so, does that mean force or the threat of force is sometimes justifiable?

Burgh: It certainly seems like this agreement has risen out of Obama’s threat of force and it’s good, but it has its consequences. I don’t think it justifies the threat of force because you could plan out other scenarios. Suppose the Soviet Union hadn’t brokered a peace. Once you threaten force, the force has to be credible. If the threat’s not credible, there’s no point in threatening anyone. So when the United States threatens force they’re putting themselves in the position where they now have to use it. Luckily, this worked out well. It would have been seriously wrong for us to have sent missiles into Syria.
The history of warfare goes all the way back to [Christian theologian]Augustine and one thing theologians, philosophers, everyone agrees on is the necessary condition for a just war is self-defense. You can only launch war to defend yourself. Pre-emptive strikes are never justified, and so in this case we were going to initiate warfare where there was no issue of self-defense. We were not threatened and I think in terms of war, it’s even questionable whether self-defense justifies war. There are people who argue that even that doesn’t justify war, but I think minimally if you’re going to go to war against another country where you’re guaranteeing killing innocent people, the only justification can be self-defense.

Printed in the 9/18/13 edition.

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