Joe Chapa on Moral Philosophy and Just War Theory in Military Trauma | PoP 395

Joe Chapa on Moral Philosophy and Just War Theory

Is war morally acceptable? How can we better prepare military people for war psychologically? How can therapists be of more value to their veteran clients?

In this podcast episode, Joe Sanok dives deep into conversation with Joe Chapa about the complicated and debatable topic of war, military trauma, the moral question marks that surround it, as well as unpacking the ‘Just War’ theory.

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Meet Joe Chapa

Joe Chapa on Moral Philosophy and Just War Theory in Military Trauma PoP 395

Joe Chapa has been a major in the US airforce for over 13 years and is currently studying a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Oxford. He’s a senior pilot with more than 1400 pilot and instructor pilot hours with experience in both major humanitarian and combat operations.

With a keep interest in philosophy since his high school days, once completed, Joe will use his practical studies to teach at the airforce academy.

Follow Joe on Twitter and find his paper at The Strategy Bridge.

In This Podcast


In this podcast episode, Joe Sanok speaks to Joe Chapa about the complicated and debatable topic of war, the moral question marks that surround it, as well as unpacking the ‘Just War’ theory.


What is moral philosophy and ‘Just War’ theory?

Moral philosophy is a sub-set of philosophy which is often called ethics. Within that sub-set there are multiple questions around how military people should behave.

‘Just War’ theory is multi-disciplinary with a lot of philosophy and history involved, as well as a heavy religious component. What the theory has always been about is how to regulate and provide a moral set of constraints in war.

How can your work apply to therapists and counselors?

It’s all about informing people who work with veterans. We need to break down the constructs formed around military people, and first and foremost, see them as the human they are.

With that being said, there are certain stressors that come with being in the military which other people won’t have. One thing to consider is that we give very young people a lot of responsibly very early. And that’s the only way we’re able to do what we do. But that means sometimes when people leave the military, it’s often a shock to the system. The transition can come with its own set of problems. And people react differently.

Military people want to be able to tell their story but it has to be under reasonable conditions. And there is also certain language we can use to change the way we talk about the ‘Just War’ theory.

The language of ‘Just War’ theory can prepare people for the moral nuances of war.

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Meet Joe Sanok

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Podcast Transcription

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This is the Practice of the Practice podcast with Joe Sanok, session number 395.
I’m Joe Sanok, your host and welcome to the Practice of the Practice podcast. I am live here in Practice of the Practice world headquarters at the base of the Old Mission Peninsula here in beautiful Traverse City. Hope you are doing amazing. You know, if you are just starting a practice, you know, maybe you have a full time job and you have a commute and you listen to this when you drive around doing home-based work or maybe you dream of making your, I almost said your podcast, I mean that would work too, but your private practice grow into a clinic or a wellness center or something that reflects your values and you want to impact your community. You know, this is the podcast for you and this is the community for you. We have amazing communities, whether it’s mastermind groups or our membership groups or Killin’It Camp, that’s right around the corner. We’re trying to create authentic community that goes deeper than the typical online communities here.
One way we do that is coming up right around the corner, is Next Level Practice. Actually, I think at the time of this launch of this podcast, the doors will be open. So, you can actually get direct access to that over at So, we have over 30 e-courses, we have live events every month. We have a dynamic community of over 300 therapists that are growing their private practices. We have coaches, consultants, counseling private practices, all sorts of people in that membership community. If you also are interested, we have a webinar that is all about how to get to a 100K in two years, and that’s over at practiceofthepractice.com100K webinar.
So, we have a lot going on this month. September’s a big month for us. We want to make sure that we help people that are just starting at the very beginning. Next month we’ve got Killin’It Camp coming up, I think tickets have closed at this point for that, but at right now as I’m recording, we have 120 of those sold. But I’m guessing that in late August, which, now when you’re hearing this is in the past, but as I’m recording, this is the future. We’re anticipating we’re going to be at over 200 people that are at that. So, awesome for a first year of a conference.
Well, today we’re diving into moral philosophy and just war theory in the context of military trauma. The reason I wanted to do this is, you know, I have a lot of interests that go beyond just private practice and consulting and making money and business. I studied comparative religion as my major in undergraduate school and then also did a major in psychology. So, I did a double major. My honors college thesis was psychological approaches to teaching ethics at the primary level. So, moral philosophy, religion, spirituality, how we decide what’s right and wrong in our lives is really important to me.
You know, between my undergrad and grad school, I studied kind of all over the world, just trying to take in all the different ways that people think. So, I went to Nepal for six weeks in Thailand, took my grandma to Paris and went to Haiti and studied with a voodoo priest and then also kind of learned how some missionaries down there run things. I went to New Orleans and volunteered at a shelter for people with AIDS. So, that year between my undergraduate and grad school was really formative for me, where I intentionally tried to get new experiences that would push my boundaries.
The big takeaway I have is that we often want it to be clear. We want to be right or right or wrong, such as war is always wrong and we should never fight or war is always right. But today’s discussion with Joe Chapa, we really get into the messiness of war. We get into some deep conversations and some actual things that happened that you’ll have moral question marks on them. So, if you have kids, I’m going to highly encourage you to listen to this at a different time if you have kids with you, now if you have kids. If you have kids, you can’t listen, but because we do go into some of the nuances of war and the things that happen in war and you know, as a parent, you may want to just maybe listen to this at a different time, just so that your kids aren’t asking questions about things that you aren’t prepared to talk with them about. So, without any further ado, I give you Joe Chapa.
Well, today on the Practice of the Practice podcast, we have Joe Chapa. Joe is a major in the U.S. Air Force and a doctoral student in philosophy at the University of Oxford. He’s a senior pilot with more than 1400 pilot and instructor pilot hours with experience in major humanitarian and combat operations. We’re going to be talking about just war theory today and a number of other things. Joe, welcome to the Practice of the Practice podcast.

[JOE CHAPA]: Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.

[JOE]: Yes, I’m really glad that you’re here. Even before we got recording, I feel like we had a lot of stuff that we could dig into. Well, why don’t we just start with a little bit about your military service and then how you got into just war theory?

[CHAPA]: Yes, great. I’m an officer in the United States Air Force and I’ve been in 13 years, this month actually. I’ve had an abiding interest in philosophy for a long time, really since high school and I tried going for the philosophy major, oh correction for a technical major, engineering major in college and I quickly learned that that was not for me. I switched over to philosophy and so I got to study just work theory there for a little bit, but then really once I got out sort of into the military, flying airplanes, serving with military people, there are some things that I saw that were just really compelling on how important it is for us to understand just for theory in particular, but sort of military ethics more broadly and to have a good foundation, a good understanding of why we’re morally permitted to do the things we do in the military.
So, from there I ended up teaching at the air force academy, and so, I really got to dig deep. They’re the ones who are funding the degree at Oxford studying more philosophy and just war theory so I can eventually go back and teach for them. So, I’ve kind of now, a dual professional U.S. Air Force officer, but also academic at the same time, which is pretty exciting.

[JOE]: Yes. Well, you had mentioned before we started rolling that the military does well with kind of psychology and then also with chaplains, but there’s sort of this gap there. Talk a little bit about that gap that you’ve experienced in the military or that you’ve seen others experience.

[CHAPA]: Yes, so, I think actually in the U.S. military, and I guess I should speak specifically for the air force, though, I am obligated to tell you that the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Air Force, but just from my experience, I think we actually do a pretty good job of providing people with psychological and clergy chaplain resources to deal with whatever kind of problems they might have. So, on your local base, the chaplain’s office will host marriage retreats where you can go do marriage counseling stuff, they’ll provide counseling in the form of trained psychologist with a counseling certification to work through counseling on either family stuff or combat stuff or really whatever it is that’s going on.
My concern, especially having taught philosophy at the air force academy, is that we kind of give people a dose of just war theory, moral philosophy at the very beginning of their career and then we don’t spend as much time on it later on as I think we should, like we really ought to. And so, in the end, what you get is a kind of a retroactive look at how do we serve people who are already suffering because of what they might’ve experienced in combat? What I want is a little bit more of a forward-looking view that says, how do we, how can we better prepare these young people to go do violent things, which many of them are going to do in combat? How do we kind of lay out that moral landscape so that when they get out there in the fight, they’re better prepared to deal emotionally, psychologically, spiritually with what they’re asked to do?

[JOE]: Yes. So, maybe walk us through, just so that we have a common language as listeners. What’s moral philosophy? What’s just war theory? What are the definitions that we should understand before we dig in a little further?

[CHAPA]: Yes, great question. So, moral philosophy is a subset of philosophy, which is a really broad field. Moral philosophy is often called ethics and so, typically what people do is they define moral or morality as sort of your personal approach to morals or my personal approach to morals. And then ethics is the systematic study of that field, of that content. So, moral philosophy is this systematic study of what morality is. And so, in the history of moral philosophy, you have big names like Emmanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill and Aristotle, and they all have competing ideas of how humans ought to behave or what we ought to do and how we should treat each other. So, that covers really a lot of stuff, and then within that there are questions about how military people should behave, and that kind of starts to approach the just war theory question that you had.
Just for theory really is pretty interdisciplinary. There’s a lot of philosophy involved, but there’s also history, there’s also a heavy religious component, especially in the early years. A lot of people say that St. Augustine is the founder of just war theory in the fifth century AD. Others want to include Aristotle, from about 400 BC and also Cicero from the first century AD. So, you’re starting to get the sense that it’s really long, 2,500-year history. But what just war theory has always been about, is trying to decide how to regulate, how to provide a moral set of constraints in war, which sounds really counterintuitive, right? Because you might think, “Hey, in war we’re going to go out and try to kill people in order to achieve our political objectives. So, why would we possibly want to put moral constraints on that?”
So, there are kind of two competing views at either end of an extreme. One extreme says, it’s kind of the pacifist view that says violence is never the answer. War is never morally permissible. And then at the other extreme is this kind of prescriptive realism that says, “Hey, once you’re at war, the gloves come off, anything goes. You know, all is fair in war.” Just war theory tries to strike this middle ground that says, “No, war is sometimes permissible and yet it should also be constrained morally speaking.” There are things that are immoral in war. And so, that 2,500-year history of the just war tradition ended up resulting in international humanitarian law over the last 500 years or so. 400 or 500 years.
So, you might think that, “Well, we have the law now. So, what do we need the theory for, the philosophy for?” Well, the philosophy is the ground for the law. It provides the ideas in which the law is based. And so now all of that to say in our modern 21st century world, we have international law that governs war but then we also have just war theory. And those are different in the same way that law and morality are different domestically. So, I believe that if I were to just tell a bold face lie to you right now, that would be morally wrong, but it wouldn’t be illegal, right? I wouldn’t go to jail for that. And in the same way, there might be things that are legal in war but not morally permissible but they might be morally permissible but illegal.

[JOE]: One thing that comes to mind is, I’m thinking all right, the people that are in power are the ones that are kind of saying what’s morally permissible and so, I’m thinking about even the American revolution. I would guess that, you know, the British would have said, “Hey, it is morally impermissible to hide in the bushes and to shoot people whereas you need to like march in a line and then, whoever wins,” and that they would have argued that ethically the way the Americans fought was not moral. Like, it seems like when countries are in power, they’re going to create a system that maybe benefits them. I haven’t studied this nearly as much as you have, like how has that argument dissected or is that even kind of part of the discussion?

[CHAPA]: Yes, it is, and so, one of the things that war theorists like to say is that the nature of war remains the same, but the character of war changes over time. And so, every time you see one of those changes where there’s this big drastic shift in the character of war, there is a kind of a churn among the theorists to say, “Wait a second, is this new thing, is this new weapon or is this new tactic morally permissible or not?” And so, exactly like you described, you know, originally the Longbow was considered to be unethical because it allowed the Longbow man, the archers to shoot at the mounted knights from far away, right? So, the knights were swinging maces and swords, whatever the case may be. This is Henry the 5th of Agincourt, right?
He employed these Longbow men to shoot from outside of the enemy’s range and people thought, “Well, that’s not fair. How can it be fair to kill them if they can’t kill you?” But over time that became adopted. The same thing with the Crossbow. The Pope outlawed the use of the Crossbow because the Crossbow had such a high velocity arrow that it could pierce a knight’s armor and so, now you have a person that can take down at knight. That’s not gentlemanly. That doesn’t sound fair. And so, the Pope outlawed the Crossbow and then you saw similar stuff with the submarine. Submarine can’t be fair. Right? And so, all of these iterations of weapons where the immediate response was to say, “Wait, this is new and different. This doesn’t seem fair.” And then over time there’s this kind of normalization process where we over time have to reflect and decide what’s permissible and what’s not.
So, those are all examples of things that when they first, sort of appeared on the battlefield, people thought that they were unethical, but over time they became adopted as norms. Some examples of things that didn’t go that way where the use of chemical weapons in World War I. Almost everyone after World War I decided chemical weapons are bad. They’re bad, specifically because they’re indiscriminant. Once you release that weapon, you can’t control where it goes or who it affects. And so, you’re no longer able to target only combatants. Now you’re inadvertently targeting everyone.
And so that’s been a pretty strong norm for the last hundred years that you can’t use chemical weapons. And you see that even in the news in the last few years in Syria, for example, that the world denounces the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria, right? So, that’s an example of one where people said, “Hey, this is unethical.” And that stuck. Even after a hundred years, we still agree that it’s unethical and in fact illegal.

[JOE]: Are there right now people that are looking at the moral philosophy? Are there tactics that are still kind of in the gray area that, you know, the average philosophers saying, “It’s similar to the Crossbow and the Pope outlawed that.

[CHAPA]: Yes. So, one of the things that, it was a topic of conversation really pretty intensely for about five years was the use of what we in the air force call ‘remotely piloted aircraft’. The rest of the world tends to call them drones. And it was the same kind of arguments that you saw with the submarines and the Crossbows that, “Hey, this is unfair. You’re holding someone at risk on the other side of the world, but you, the pilot are not held at risk. That doesn’t seem fair.” Then that conversation has kind of subsided a little bit. It didn’t really come to a resolution. It just sort of dissipated. Now the latest thing is artificially intelligent weapons or autonomous weapons which don’t really exist yet to the degree that people describe them in the literature. but that’s the thing that the technologists are promising. That in 20 years or 50 years, we’ll have a weapon where you can just kind of hit enter and it will go out and do the military job without human input.
So, that really challenges the just war conceptions because just war was built around the idea of human agents making decisions. And so, if you have a machine now that’s endowed with that capability, that does raise a bunch of questions for just war theory. So, that’s kind of one of the hot topics of the day.

[JOE]: Yes. I was reading some AI science recently and the more I read it the more terrifying it is as to how close we are to having it outpace us. Then having it have access to a weapon, I don’t know. That kind of freaks me out.

[CHAPA]: Yes. I mean, that’s an important topic. I’m actually co-authoring a paper right now with some other U.S. military officers and our position is that the literature is a little bit skewed in that. I don’t know who started this, but there’s this trend in the literature on the ethics of AI weapons that refers to the human in the loop, human on the loop or human out of the loop and everyone freaks out about the human out of the loop scenario where the machine just operates on its own. And our view is actually that’s not the right way to characterize it. Instead of looking at the machine’s decision cycle, that is where is the human relative to the machine decision loop, we should instead ask where is the machine relative to the human decision cycle. That way the human remains at the center of the concept, and then, I think if we approach it that way, then we’ll be in a better position to be able to bound it and constrain it and make sure that the human is still at the center of it.

[JOE]: But I hear the point, I mean, like technology just in every area is going so fast. It seems like at some point it’s going to be able to figure out how to outsmart humans.

[CHAPA]: Yes. I mean that’s a concern.

[JOE]: I think it’s all like Terminator II on us, but, —

[CHAPA]: Yes, singularity, right? The technologists call it singularity. That moment that autonomous weapons or autonomous systems become super intelligent, more intelligent than humans. I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about that, but when I do think about it, it is terrifying.

[JOE]: Right. Well, let’s not go down too far into that rabbit hole because we just become conspiracy theorists and neither of us want that to be our new reputation. So, take us through kind of from more of a macro level, what are kind of ways to think about, you said there’s this spectrum and you know, kind of in the middle, just war theory just trying to figure that out. To the average citizen, I look at any administration and I say, and I know that you can’t speak on behalf of the military. And I don’t want to get into that side of, I want to stay on kind of the ethic side, but, it’s like, I feel like if I criticize something, you know, there’s something that comes out that the military did that later on they find out that there was all this politics behind it or big money behind it or whatever, that somehow I’m un-American.
That’s the narrative that I often hear, that you either support vets completely, you support the wars completely or you’re critical and un-American. Now, how do on that spectrum, you’ve got the people on one side that are, you never go to war and then there’s people on the other side as you framed it that are like, once you’re in war, the gloves come off. Like how do you speak to those different camps through that lens of just war theory?

[CHAPA]: Yes. So, I almost think there’s two different spectrums to consider there. So, I do, as a military ethics guy, I am interested in that middle position between the passivist view and the ultra-realist view, but what you’re describing, especially in the United States, to me it looks like there’s a trend from the Vietnam era. So, during the Vietnam era, it seemed like there was an assignment of responsibility to the veterans for the war. That is, if you thought that the Vietnam war was an unjust war, then fellow citizens tended to hold individual soldiers responsible for that. And that’s probably not fair. That’s probably not fair to them.

[JOE]: Yes, especially if there was a draft. I mean, it’s one thing if someone chooses to sign up for it, is knowing and then make a draft. Yes.

[CHAPA]: Right. And so, I think what you see is that pendulum started to swing, and in my personal opinion, it swung too far to the other side now where, uh, where you’re not allowed to ever say anything bad about the military. I don’t think that’s right either. I think the United States military works for the populace. That’s the customer that the military serves, and so, I think those customers, those fellow citizens should have a vested interest in what the military is doing and how well it’s doing. I think where the military fails, the civilians should, through their elected representatives, should hold the military accountable.
I think politically it’s hard to do that because that pendulum has swung so far to the extreme of, “Thank you for your service,” which is to say that almost like military members and military organizations can do no wrong. And historically we know that’s not true. They can do wrong. And so, I —

[JOE]: I think that that premise that the military works for us, then we’d have to go into kind of the politics of how our elected representatives get, do they get there because of us or because of big money? Because, I mean, there’s so many other nuances that, you know, even how people get elected, that kind of goes into why the population may not believe that the military has them as their best interest versus a big business or something like that.

[CHAPA]: Yes, I think that’s a fair criticism. I mean, again, this is just my opinion here, but I would take a look at the recent presidential debates and just look at the percent of the questions that are about foreign policy versus domestic policy. Foreign policy questions tend to be largely absent during a presidential campaign season. And I think that’s too bad, you know, because I think the military is going to go out in the world and is going to do things on behalf of the American citizen. So, I think it would be healthier for us if foreign policy was a part of that discussion while we’re in the midst of electing those representatives rather than waiting until after they’re elected.

[JOE]: Yes. So, I want to kind of zoom into kind of individual service members because a lot of the listeners here, they, may be help people through doing EMDR to help after trauma. They may help with PTSD or marriages that fell apart, lost someone in the military. So, how do you see applying your work, because you’ve written some papers that have got some attention recently in a lot of positive ways, how do you see informing therapists, informing people that are working directly with service members or their families? Like how does this work go into that micro level?

[CHAPA]: Yes, I mean, I think the first thing I would say is that it would be a mistake to consider the military as this monolithic person, right? Because military members are people too. And so, I think when you interact with a service member or a veteran, the first thing we should all recognize is that you’re interacting with a human person and all human persons are different from one another. So, it would be a mistake to kind of paint them with the broad brush of veterans as if that is kind of the sole defining characteristic. But I do think that military service can come with certain stressors that maybe people outside the military or most people outside the military don’t have. So, one thing to consider is that, one thing I think we’re proud of, and rightfully so in the military is that we give very young people a lot of responsibility very early.
And I think that’s the only way we’re able to accomplish the mission and do what we do. But that means that when people leave the military, sometimes there’s a, a bit of a, I haven’t left the military yet, so I’m speaking out of turn a little bit and I’m just kind of aggregating from stories that I’ve heard, but from my perspective, it looks like there’s a bit of a shocking realization. I have heard people say that looking back, I realized that what I did in the military is the most important thing I’ll ever do. And that can come with kind of a whole set of burdens about what am I going to do with the rest of my life now that I’m out. And I think other people have a very different response, which is to say, “I’m so glad that I now have this freedom that I didn’t have when I was in.”
So, again, not everyone’s going to react in the same way. But the first thing I’d say is they’re not a monolithic group and everybody’s different. The second thing I would say is that people, people do have, there are specific stressors that come with military service that maybe you don’t, you wouldn’t find as much elsewhere. And then finally, just in general, this is not just for practitioners, I know most of your listeners are providers, but this isn’t just for providers, but just in general. Military people want to, this is again, my opinion. Military people want to be able to tell their story, but it kind of has to be under reasonable conditions, right? So, there’s a whole bunch of stories out there, especially in the moral injury literature in which soldiers came back, war fighters, veterans came back, they told their stories and the response they got was not the one they wanted.
The response they got was something like, “Oh, I can’t believe you could do that to another person, caused that violence to another person,” or whatever the case might be. So, in the stories I’m referring to those individuals who said, “Okay, that’s it. I’m never telling my story again.” Okay, well that can’t be a healthy response. So, there has to be some way of allowing veterans to tell their stories, kind of in a judgment-free environment so that we can start to have a genuine conversation and close the gap that I think exists between the U.S. military and U.S. citizens at large.

[JOE]: Yes. And one thing that I’ve observed in talking to vets and also talking to other clinicians that work with vets is the loss of comradery when they leave the military. That coming back into civilian society and not having that group of people that you’re so deep with is often difficult as a transition as well.

[CHAPA]: Yes, I think that’s right. My own experience is slightly different here because, I’m out in England doing academic work. So, I already feel that even as a guy who’s still in the military. So, I can imagine how much stronger that sensation of loss of comradery is when one leaves the military sort of permanently.

[JOE]: Yes. I want to dig into the paper that you wrote recently that you said has been kind of getting some acclaim. Tell us a little bit about the paper and walk us through some of the things you discussed in it.

[CHAPA]: Yes, I wrote a paper for an online journal called the Strategy Bridge, and the paper is advocating for moral philosophy as a forced protection measure. So, what I’m doing in the paper is something like, what I said at the beginning of this discussion which is laying out the ways that the study of moral philosophy at the unit level. So, I’m talking about down there at the individual soldier, airman, sailor, marine level can do to better prepare combatants for war. So, specifically what I have in mind is something like this. I heard a story, this isn’t my personal story, but I heard a story and it’s in the paper about a pilot who took a shot against a high value individual. So, this is a pilot who’s now going to release this weapon and kill someone who needs to be killed.
This is a bad person who’s going to go out and hurt innocent people. But the high value individual, the target on the ground, that target’s son was nearby and so, after the target was struck, the pilot had to watch as the son came over and sort of picked up body parts and put them back in the shape of a human person. This was just devastating for the pilot who had to watch all this. And it turns out the pilot had a son about the same age as the boy on the screen. So, you just look at all that and think that that’s obviously going to be a devastating event. It might be a morally injurious event. That is, the pilot might suffer moral injury as a result. So, moral injury outside of the kind of narrow constraints of post-traumatic stress disorder, moral injury is much broader than that.
And a person can suffer moral injury if they witness or participate in acts that sort of cut deeply against their deeply held views about humanity or morality. So, if this is a morally injurious event, then this pilot might suffer moral injury. And I look at all that and say, “I don’t know that at the unit level we have a good, we’re well prepared to explain to that pilot the moral nuances of what he’s just done. So, we tend to have one of two different extreme responses. On the one hand you could say, “Hey, war is hell, and you knew what you were getting into when you joined.” Like, well, that’s not going to be very encouraging. On the other hand, you could say, “Hey, he’s just an evil, he’s an evil guy who had to die.” Or you might even say he deserved to be killed.
Those are not words that we would use in just war theory. So, I think those are actually false claims to make, and that also doesn’t help the person who’s suffering from moral injury because he just watched, he’s sort of projecting his own life onto the life of this person killed, watching the son walk up. So, saying that bad guy deserved to die is not really going to help him deal with the moral injury. And so, I think what we need is a little bit more of a robust account of just war theory in order to explain to this pilot why he might be suffering. So, there’s a couple of examples I give in the paper. One thing we could do is distinguish between what’s called retributive and distributive justice.
So, reattributed, you can hear the word retribution in there. Retributive justice says that people get what they deserve. So, if you hold a view of punishment that says, when we punish criminals, what we’re really doing is providing retribution for their past wrongs, that would be a retributivist’s view of punishment domestically. And that view was a really old view in just war theory, some 1500 years ago, but it really is not a very common view anymore. And typically, what just war theory deals with is distributive justice that says, “Okay, we have harms and benefits. What’s the most just way of distributing those harms and benefits?”
So, in this case, we would say, look, someone has to be harmed because that high valued individual on the ground is going to kill innocent people. He’s going to place an improvised explosive device and kill non-combatants, for example. I don’t actually know what he was going to do, but let’s just say that’s what he was going to do. I know that someone’s going to be killed knowing that who ought to be killed will surely ought to be the person who was responsible for implanting that improvised explosive device. That’s the high value individual.
So, we’re able to distribute harms and goods based on responsibility for unjust harms. And that’s the kind of language that some just war theorists use, and I think that’s really helpful because once we dispatch with the retributivist’s language of, “He deserved it. He was evil. He was just a bad guy,” then we can explain why even though we know that we just orphaned this kid and that’s a terrible, terrible, tragic result of war, we can explain why it was morally necessary to do that. So, that’s one way I think that the language of just war theory can prepare people for the moral nuances of war.

[JOE]: I mean, it sounds like moving from a very, I don’t want to call it primitive, but the black and white view of the world; it was either good or it was bad. There was either good guys or bad guys. And to move into that, there are nuances there that, you know, even it reminds me of that movie, Eye in the Sky where the basic kind of thing is there’s this drone and they’re going to take out this individual, but then a civilian comes into kind of contact and so they have to call it off and discuss it. This sort of thing is nuanced and that it’s really hard to say this is always the yes, this is always the, no.

[CHAPA]: I think that’s exactly right. And one of the other terms I use in the paper is a moral remainder. So, if you have a black and white view of the world according to which an action is either 100% right and good and best, and the alternative decision is 100% bad and evil and worst, well then there’s never going to be a moral remainder. You either did the right thing or you didn’t. But war is more complicated than them. And so, when you harm people because they need to be harmed in order to protect other innocent people from being harm, there’s almost always going to be a moral remainder; some moral costs that someone will have to pay in order to do the right thing. So, in the case I gave the fact that this boy is now an orphan that is an extreme, that’s a really high moral cost that someone has to bear.
I would argue that the boy is going to bear it, but also to some degree, the pilot is going to bear that for the rest of his life. So, it is nuanced and it is complicated and that’s something that we have to discuss. No one ever talks about the fact. That is, recruiters never talk about the fact that part of your military service might be carrying this moral burden; a moral burden that you carry for having done the right thing. That’s complicated. That’s hard work, and I think we could do a better job of discussing that at the unit level.

[JOE]: How does history play into some of these discussions? Because I think about, I mean, people will say, you know, I think about that boy, if I watched my dad get blown up right in front of me, like I’m probably going to be more prone to be against the person that blew up my dad. So, even looking at Afghanistan, like how much we funded that against the Russians, you know, I mean, these stories of where the very thing we’re trying to stop, we then create more of, how does that history play into these discussions?

[CHAPA]: Yes, I mean, again, it’s complicated. So, one of the things that’s important to recognize, I do a particular brand of just war theory that takes the rights and duties of individual persons really seriously and treats collectives, not like they don’t matter, but less seriously. And because that’s the view that I hold, it matters to me a great deal that soldiers who are deploying right now to Afghanistan today have almost nothing to do, most likely have nothing to do with the war in Afghanistan in 2001.

[JOE]: Sure.

[CHAPA]: So, when we take a step back, it looks like the same war, but those are different people facing moral dilemmas and moral challenges that are unique to them based on the time that they participated in that war. So, at the same time you might say something like, “Well, the United States is responsible for the Taliban having the weapons they had because the United States funded some of the operations against Russia in the past,” or whatever that argument is. That might be true, but that doesn’t bear so much on the individual soldiers and airmen, etc., that are going to fight that war. So, I think the history is really important. I just don’t want to conflate those two things. The ways in which we think the states are responsible for this or that and the way we think that individual persons are responsible for their actions.

[JOE]: Sure. That, that’s good to hear kind of that structure of how you frame that out. So, if every private practice owner in the world were listening right now, what would you want them to know?

[CHAPA]: Yes. So, I think I would just want to say that there’s a good chance that at some point you’re going to interact with a veteran. You probably do it already, and I would just encourage you to interact with those veterans in a way that allows them to tell their story in a nonthreatening environment. I think that’s what most veterans want. I think it’s good for all of us, and I think engaging about the content of a person’s service and then thanking them for their service is just a much healthier way of going about civic relationships, that I’m thanking them for their service by itself. So, I would just encourage you to do that whenever you have the opportunity.

[JOE]: Well Joe, I really appreciate this discussion because I think that so often, whether it’s the media or how we approach things is so polarizing and these are discussions that are messy, that are complex and we want to dig deeper on this podcast into those kinds of discussions. So, if people want to learn more about moral philosophy, just war theory or your work, are there any books, recommendations or ways they can follow your work?

[CHAPA]: Yes. So, if you want to follow what I’m doing, you can look at my Twitter handle. It’s @JosephOChapa, all one word. And then if you want to see the paper that was recently recognized in the Strategy Bridge contest that’s, And there’s really a lot of resources out there, and so, I don’t want to pick out individual books, but I’ve recently been looking at Providence Magazine. Providence magazine has good historical content from the just war tradition, and then there are occasionally ethics contributions to War on the Rocks and that’s a good place to pick up some stuff too.

[JOE]: Awesome. And it’s, so, is War on the Rocks, is that part of Providence Magazine or something separate?

[CHAPA]: No, those are completely separate online journals.

[JOE]: All right, cool. And we’ll put all that in the show notes. [crosstalk] [CHAPA]: War on the Rocks does a really good job of current events and Providence Magazine does a really good job of history and so you get both if you look at both places.

[JOE]: Awesome. Well, we’ll put the links to that in all the show notes. Joe, thanks so much for being on the Practice of the Practice podcast.

[CHAPA]: Thanks for having me. It was a real privilege.

[JOE]: I want to just encourage you to have conversations with people that have different points of view than you. We live in such a polarizing world right now politically, religiously, and so many different ways. And you know, Joe and I clearly had some differing opinions and I pushed back on some things, but I respect the fact that he’s taken the time to think through them. I want to encourage you to have those deeper conversations.
I have a group of friends that we go deeper and we challenge the thoughts that we’ve been handed by our parents, by institutions, by religious organizations, to really think through what do we believe and think now as full-grown adults. And I think it’s really important that we do that. So, I want to encourage you to go beyond just your business, go have those deep conversations, challenge yourself to think and ask those deep questions, because that’s what we’re all about here. It’s becoming better humans, and how we do that is through our businesses and our big ideas and being present for our families and our friends.
Also, you know, one way to save a bunch of time and to make things easier on yourself is to use Gusto. Gusto has been amazing for me with my business and with payroll. Head on over to, you get three months free. I tried it and I’m still trying it and using it. It’s made it so easy. It’s so much cheaper than using the accountant that I used to use. Thanks, so much for letting me into your ears and into your brain. Have an amazing week. Bye.
This podcast is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regards to the subject matter covered. It is given with the understanding that neither the host, the publisher, or the guests are rendering legal, accounting, clinical, or other professional information. If you need a professional, you should find one. And thanks to the band Silence is Sexy for your intro music. We love it.



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