On Wars of Choice, Las Casas, Transatlantic federations, and Reparations

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 09/03/2020 - 11:19pm in

Now the fact that one must refrain from war, and even tolerate the death of a few innocent persons, is proved by arguments and many authorities.
The first argument is this: According to the rule of right reason when we are confronted by two choices that are evil both as to moral guilt and punishment and we cannot avoid both of them, we ought t0 choose the lesser evil. For in comparison with the greater evil, the choice of the lesser evil has the quality of a good. This is what the Philosopher  teaches. Now the death of a small number of innocent persons is a lesser evil than the eternal damnation of countless numbers of persons killed in the fury of war.

Again, the death of the innocent is better or less evil than the complete destruction of entire kingdoms, cities. and strongholds. For not all of them eat the flesh of the innocent but only the rulers or priests, who do the sacrificing, whereas war brings the destruction of countless innocent persons who do not deserve any such thing. Therefore if those evils cannot be removed in any other way than by waging war, one must refrain from it and evils of this kind must be tolerated.
Furthermore, it is incomparably less disastrous that a few innocent persons die than that Christ's holy name be blasphemed by unbelievers and that the Christian religion be brought into ill repute and be hated by those peoples and by others to whom word of this flies, when they hear how many women, children, and aged people of their nation have been killed by the Christians without cause, as will unavoidably happen, and indeed has happened, in the fury of war. What, I ask, will be the result, if not a perpetual barrier to their salvation, so that there will be no further hope for their conversion? Therefore when there is a question of war over a cause of this kind it is better to let a few innocent persons be oppressed or suffer an unjust death. In fact it would be a very great sin, and against the natural, to wage war on these unbelievers for this reason. This is proved in the following way.
According to right reason, and therefore the natural law, it is evident that in every case and in every matter that concerns two evils, especially those involving moral guilt, one must choose that which is less harmful or is thought to be less harmful. Therefore to seek to free innocent persons in the case proposed, within their territories, as has been proposed, would be against the natural la,v and a sin, which, although not mortal, is very serious indeed. This is evident because the greater the damage sin inflicts the more serious it is, according to St. Thomas. And this is true even if that damage is not intended or foreseen, since everything that necessarily follows upon a sin belongs in some way to the very species of the sin. From such a war a countless number of innocent persons of both sexes and all ages will unavoidably perish, and the other evils that have been mentioned will necessarily follow upon that war. Therefore anyone who would try to free those who suffer evils of this type by means of war would commit a very serious mortal sin. ---Las Casas (1550-1552) In Defense of the Indians, chapter 28, translated by Stafford Poole, pp. 191-2. 

During the The Valladolid debate (1550–1551), Sepúlveda, the spokesperson for Spanish landlords in the Americas, articulated (recall) the case for humanitarian intervention on behalf of natives exploited by 'savage' indigenous practices. In particular, Sepúlveda called attention to the way vulnerable natives may be subject to human sacrifice and cannibalism. He, thereby, sketched their existence in terms of a proto-Hobbesian state of nature. At bottom his argument rests on two thoughts: (i) that the violent extension of civilization, conquest, is to be pursued because it ultimately benefits the backward and savage. The benefits include not just protection from local oppression, but also access to Christian conversion. And (ii) that immoral and wicked practices may justifiably invite humanitarian intervention.

There is little doubt that Sepúlveda's argument is offered in bad faith. But, as Las Casas recognizes, that is not sufficient to undermine it. On the question of sacrifice and cannibalism, Las Casas' strategy is not to deny its existence. But, first, he minimizes it frequency. Second, he claims that in many cases what looks like sacrifice is merely a legally sanctioned death sentence (and so unobjectionable). Third, that leaves a small number of victims from practices that serve a religious or (non-juridical) political function in indigenous societies. The question is, then, do these victims justify humanitarian intervention? And this question is pursued both as a contribution to just war theory (in particular, jus ad bellum) as well as a contribution to the borders of the Church and the role of the emperor in imposing these.

Because the natives never posed any threat to the Spanish, and no Christians were present in the Americas, the issue becomes  really a question about to what degree one can choose war under the pretext or in the service of humanitarian intervention. As is clear from the first paragraphs of the quoted passage above, Las Casas' answer is an unambiguous rejection of war under such circumstances. For, in war many  innocents will die necessarily. Las Casas adds many gruesome descriptions of how likely it is that in the fog of war enemy combatants and innocent bystanders are confused (and the latter harmed or killed) and that war always provides cover for other harms (including looting, plunder, rape, etc.). 

In these cases the dead innocent bystanders are harmed twice over: they get killed and they have no chance to be converted (and so receive eternal salvation, etc.). Moreover, while he does not emphasize this as much, the soldiers are put in great temptation to sin and fall into eternal damnation. So, the cost of war of choice in the service of humanitarian intervention is material and spiritual. Even if one does not share Las Casas' theological commitments, it is not difficult to articulate the spiritual costs in more psychological/social terms (PTSDs, broken social ties, etc.) that due justice to a more secular metaphysics.

In addition, and Las Casas is not shy about this point, if the ultimate point is voluntary conversion then exposing would be converted to great risks, even enormous harms, is self-undermining: "war is not a suitable means for spreading Christ's glory and the truth of the gospel, but rather for making the Christian name hateful and detestable for those who suffer the disasters of war." (355) As Las Casas repeatedly notes, the natural response to Spanish conquest and plunder is loathing of Spanish religion. So, while the particular details of the consequences of wars of choice may not be explicitly intended, they are foreseeable in a certain generic (one may be tempted to say statistical) way as belonging to a class of foreseeable "unavoidable" harms (even if the particular detail is not foreseen). Among the harms are epidemic illnesses, as Las Casas recognized.*  

Las Casas' argument presupposes here (and he argues it throughout the book) that because the indigenous are unbelievers  the Church has no prior dominion over them. In fact, because he treats the indigenous as self-governing polities with natural right to self-defense (“Every nation, no matter how barbaric, has the right to defend itself against a more civilized one that wants to conquer it and take away its freedom,” (355)), they also have a natural right to their own religious practices (which he assures his reader are theistic in practice).  In virtue of some such comments, Las Casas comes very close to finding the whole Spanish presence in the Americas illegal. 

He draws back from this conclusion for two reasons, one theological and one political (intimately connected). The political reason is that he needs the power of the emperor to subdue the Spanish landlords (and reform their abuses) and control the conquistadors. But the emperor and his court rely on income from the Americas; the emperor is in a zero-sum competition with other European powers, and the emperor has opportunity to extend his dominion and power by incorporating the American colonies in a pacific, imperial project in which the emperor becomes a protector of self-governing natives against their oppressors in the same way he is a protector of burghers against feudal landlords (see, e.g., the New Laws of Charles V). In addition, and this is connected to the theological reason, the emperor can create conditions for possibility of peaceful missions to convert of the indigenous. This is also the interest of the Church to hold on to colonial enterprise (and is explicitly present in the various papal degrees.)

Before I conclude, and as an aside, it is worth emphasizing that Las Casas develops here the foundations for the pacific federations based on shared and ever closer, converging values and shared interests familiar from the history of liberalism (recall here; and neo-Liberalism  (recall hereherehere)). And this also suggests that we can tell an alternative to Foucault's story. Recall that for Foucault 'Europe' was discovered when the Westphalian, non-zero sum system presupposed a zero-sum extra-European relationship that extracts wealth from would be enemies (in what we may call the Global South). On this view a zone of open-ended progress requires the domination of the backward global. Prior to the development of this system, there were opportunities for a more mutualistic relationships with the Global South.+  

The very possibility of a more mutualist, equitable approach founders on the limitations of imperial state capacity and the power inequality between the natives and Spanish. The Imperial state is, even when willing,** incapable of genuinely controlling the Spanish landlords from afar when their interests align against it. This means that Las Casas' own proposal --  "what has been taken unjustly" must be "restored" (362) -- is doomed to failure. This despite the fact that Las Casas' proposal is itself a compromise with political reality. I put it like that because his arguments entail a more radical conclusion, not just restoration but also, "reparation for injuries." (4)++


*The point is more explicit in Memorial de Remedios para las Indias (1516), where he advocates building hospitals for the locals.

+I do not want to overstate this. Clearly, even the most humane-minded Europeans assumed the superiority of their religion (even if they were critical of their civilization). 

**It clearly seems willing when the influence of non-Spanish (low-countries) courtiers is at its peak at the Court of Emperor V. These clearly recognize that the Spanish nobility is developing a new source of power and income in the Americas.

++This is not anachronism because the point is made explicit  by a fifteenth century editor of Las Casas, Bartolome de la Vega in the preface he attached to the Defense.