Nozick on preemptive strikes

The second subsection of Chapter 6 (pp. 126-130) anticipates the worldwide controversy over President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair’s ill-fated decision to invade Iraq in 2003, which in hindsight, turned out to be one of the worst and costliest decisions in history. Here, Nozick asks, when is a preemptive attack morally wrong, and when is such an attack morally justified?

Recall Nozick’s key question from our previous post: may I prevent others from joining a protection association in the state of nature if I know that their protection association will later prevent me from exercising my natural rights in the future? It turns out that this question and the preemptive war question are analytically the same! Nozick, however, draws an artificial and untenable distinction, invoking the “last clear chance” doctrine from tort law: if an act requires a subsequent decision to commit a wrong — i.e. if the original act itself is not morally wrong — then one may not prohibit that act. As a result (according to Nozick), since the act of creating or joining a protection agency is in itself not a wrongful act, one may not therefore prohibit others from doing so.

So, what about our ill-fated decision to invade Iraq? It turned out Bush (and Blair) lied to the world, that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). But who cares? People lie all the time, so let’s assume that Hussein did have such weapons. According to Nozick’s moral logic, whether the Iraq war was morally justified or not would depend on whether the acquisition of WMDs is itself a wrongful act or not. Given that the U.S. military and a growing number of other countries (including Pakistan, India, and North Korea) now have their own stockpiles of WMDs and the ability to launch those weapons across their borders, does the acquisition of such weapons, by itself, constitute a wrongful act? What would Nozick say about Bush and Blair’s preemptive war? Alas, Nozick died in 2002, but it’s worth pondering how he would have answered this question.

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