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Phoenix Philosophy Meetup Group Message Board Socrates Cafe Philosophy Discussion in Tempe Discussion Forum › Socrates Cafe Summary: Was the American Civil War Justified?

Socrates Cafe Summary: Was the American Civil War Justified?

David W.
Tempe, AZ
Fellow Philosophers -

My thanks to everyone who participated in Wednesday evening's meeting and gathered afterwards at Doc & Eddy's for drinks and socializing. Below is a summary of the discussion. It's not a precise narrative but rather an organized description from my notes and impressions.

1. QUESTION: At the start of the meeting, each participant offered an initial answer to the question: "Was the American Civil War Justified?" From the 24 participants, 11 said yes, 10 said no, and 3 said yes and no. Some of the reasons given by those who said yes were: a) War was a reasonable response to Southern aggression. b) Benefits of maintaining the union of states were greater than the costs of war. c) War was necessary to end slavery. Some of the reasons by those who said no were: d) Slavery would have ended without war. e) War is always wrong except when defending yourself. f) Southern states had a right to secede. Some of the reasons given by those who said yes and no were: g) Both sides acted criminally in how they conducted war. h) War resulted in increased federal government, increased income taxes, and reduced rights. i) Both Northerners and Southerners felt justified, so how can you decide who's right?

2. DEFINITIONS: Participants first brainstormed each definition before critiquing to insure that all possible definitions were at least silently considered.

The following definitions were suggested for justified: a) Right and valid. b) Warranted and authorized. c) Reasonable and logical. d) Ethical and moral. e) Legal and constitutional. f) Fair. g) Virtuous. h) In accordance with the principals of America's founding fathers.

Participants who initially answered no argued that justified should be defined as legal because congress didn't authorize the war, which would mean the civil war was illegal under the constitution. In addition, they felt states had a constitutional right to secede. Participants who initially answered that civil war was justified argued that none in the group were constitutional scholars, thus making us unqualified to debate the war's legality.

To justify the significant time devoted in each meeting to definitions, the moderator pointed out how the definitions determine the outcome. By arguing justified meant legal, those against the war were trying to control the discussion by preventing the consideration of non-legal justifications.

To move the discussion along, the moderator suggested that the group adopt the definition of justified that he promotes at every meeting, which is "acceptable under all five ethical approaches": Utilitarian (benefits outweigh costs), Rights (non-violation of legal and natural entitlements), Fairness/Justice (equitable application of principals), Common Good (community improvement), Virtue (admirable and life-affirming). For details on the approaches, read "A Framework for Thinking Ethically" at­

The moderator then asked the group to decide what should be debated as ethical: the declaration of war, the conduct of the war, or the war's outcome. The group agreed to debate whether the declaration of war was ethical.

Given the above definitions, the question "Was the American Civil War Justified?" was understood to mean "Was the Northern response to the Southern declaration of secession acceptable under all five ethical approaches?"

3. ASSUMPTIONS: Participants offered the following suggestions for why the question was being asked: a) To determine when war is justified. b) To better understand state's rights. c) To learn from history so as not to repeat mistakes.

To help focus the discussion, the moderator asked the group to debate one assumption: From where do states or citizens get a right to secede? Someone suggested it was in America's Declaration of Independence, which prompted the moderator to read its first two paragraphs:

"When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."

The moderator then asked the group what the U.S. government did to deny the Southern states the rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," which would have justified their declaration of independence. Though in 1865, some Southerners argued that they were being denied their freedom to own black people, no one in the group raised that as an ethical justification. Instead, the only reason offered by the anti-civil war participants were tariffs, which raised the cost of imported goods and reduced the price for Southern crops.

Those who felt tariffs justified secession argued that the American colonists declared independence because of tariffs. A history teacher in the group responded that the colonists were against taxation without representation, which the Southern states could not claim because they had representation in congress.

4. OBJECTIVES: In addition to considering what the U.S. government did to justify Southern secession, the moderator asked the group to consider whether the U.S. government was justified under the "Just War Theory" http://en.wikipedia.o...­ to go to war. The criteria for just war as enumerated in paragraph 2309 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church are: a) "The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain; b) All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective; c) There must be serious prospects of success; 4) The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated." The moderator pointed out that under these criteria, the United States Catholic Bishops declared their opposition in 2003 to going to war against Iraq.

5. OPTIONS: The options for answering "Was the American Civil War Justified?" which was understood to mean "Was the Northern response to the Southern declaration of secession acceptable under all five ethical approaches?" were yes and no.

6. COST BENEFIT: Arguments for and against civil war were offered throughout the meeting. One argument that stood out for the moderator was from a participant who suggested that none of the decision makers in 1865 could see their actions leading to so much destruction and bloodshed. Instead, much like the decision makers in 2003, they thought that war would be limited and short.

7. ANSWER: At the end of the meeting, participants gave their final answers to "Was the American Civil War Justified?" The final answers were No (12), Yes (10) and Don't Know (2). Only a few participants changed there initial answers.

You can post your comments to this discussion on the Message Board under the topic "Socrates Cafe Summary: Was the American Civil War Justified?" at http://philosophy.mee...­ You can also suggest a question for a future meeting by posting it on the message board under the topic "What Question Should We Discuss?"

The question for the next meeting on Wednesday, March 25th, will be "Is it Ethical to Eat Animals?" You can read an event description below my signature and RSVP here http://philosophy.mee...­

Hope to see you there.


Is it Ethical to Eat Animals? - March 25th
PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, state on their website that "People who support animal rights believe that animals are not ours to use for food, clothing, entertainment, experimentation, or any other purpose and that animals deserve consideration of their best interests regardless of whether they are cute, useful to humans, or endangered and regardless of whether any human cares about them at all (just as a mentally challenged human has rights even if he or she is not cute or useful and even if everyone dislikes him or her)."

At the next Socrates Cafe, we will discuss the question, "Is it Ethical to Eat Animals?" How does PETA define ethics? What obligations do you have to animals? Are vegetarians more virtuous than meat-eaters? To prepare for the meeting, read the Wikipedia entry on Animal Rights at http://en.wikipedia.o...­ and PETA FAQs at­

Only 25 people can attend. RSVP now at http://philosophy.mee...­
Phoenix, AZ
Post #: 50
Participants who initially answered no argued that justified should be defined as legal because congress didn't authorize the war, which would mean the civil war was illegal under the constitution. In addition, they felt states had a constitutional right to secede.
Can someone please point to the language in the Constitution that authorizes secession. If this truly was a Rebellion why would Congress need to authorize and declare war on the South? From the Federal government's point of view they were still part of the United States. That would be like the U.S. declaring war on David Koresh before storming his compound. Congress only needs to declare war on foreign nations. To declare war on the South validates their position of leaving the Union and forming a new country.

Since I didn't say much in the meeting here are some of my thoughts written the next day:

2009 is the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth so let's review the Civil War aka the Rebellion aka War of Northern Aggression aka War of Southern Independence. The term "Civil War" seems to be a misnomer since they were not fighting over control of the central government. The southern States were trying to leave the Union and start their own country, so it really was a Revolutionary War or War of Independence. Was this war inevitable? Was the northern response to the southern secession justified?

1) slavery
2) maintain the Union
3) State's Rights
4) tariffs

Typically, school children are taught that the war was fought over the idea of slavery. However true, this seems rather simplistic. Anytime someone claims that it was over State's Rights I always respond by saying "yeah, the right to hold other human beings in bondage" believing their argument rather specious. Lincoln started his Presidency and the War stating that holding the Union together was paramount. As the initial battles went against the Northern Armies it has been claimed that the Emancipation Proclamation was a propaganda ploy since it didn't end slavery, but instead only applied to slaves held in territories currently in rebellion. The impact of tariffs is an interesting backdrop to the buildup of the war. This was a time before the income tax, capital gains tax and inheritance tax. The federal government's primary source of income was off tariffs from exports. The South was a large part of that tariff income with cotton exports to Britain. However, it was the Northern cities that received the largess of federal government spending. The two economies were very different. The North, with twice the population, was based on finance and industrialized factory work while the South was more of an oligarchy of large plantation owners and smaller sustenance farmers. With an eventual end to western expansion the South saw their power would continue to diminish in the federal government as population dictates Congressional seats. Was secession a response to these economic differences?

1) Have the government buyout all the slaves.
2) Slavery was uneconomical and would have ended on its own.
3) Allow the States to leave without a fight.

Could America have followed Britain's Emancipation Law example and bought out all the slaves? I haven't found any good contemporary sources on this subject. My impression is that southern slave owners would not have been receptive to the idea. The second argument seems both morally wrong and pure speculation. Improved technologies might have decreased the demand for some of the labor, but I see no reason to think that slavery would have ended on its own any time soon. Further, how can we allow this "peculiar institution" to continue right next door waiting another 40 or 50 years for it to end peacefully? Finally, letting the Confederate States leave and waiting to see what happens seems unworkable for the same reasons.

Ramifications of the War or allowing the dissolution of the Union
1) World history would look very different.
2) Slavery would have continued on in N. America.
3) The war introduced new federal powers.

How different would the world look if the war was never fought? Would the U.S. have bought Alaska from Russia in 1867? Would a weaker U.S. have been able to help Europe during WWI? If we don't enter WWI do the combatants enter into a negotiated peace instead of the German crushing Treaty of Versailles and thereby prevent WWII? There are a lot of interesting What Ifs in this scenario. With slavery continuing in the South for another generation would the war have been inevitable? Probably. I don't see how the Northern States could allow it to continue indefinitely. Border conflicts over things like fugitive slaves would only intensify. My biggest concern over fighting the war and my critique of Lincoln is the subjugation of the individual and States to federal control. This war saw for the first time federally mandated conscription. That means slaves were used to free slaves? The war saw the first use of the income tax. Lincoln set the precedent of bypassing Congress to fight a war without Constitutional authority. After the attack on Fort Sumter he should have recalled Congress to get a formal declaration of war, instead he invaded the southern states. Although I suppose that he didn't want to validate the Southern cause by declaring war on them since he still considered them part of the U.S. At the very least he should have recalled Congress in order to consult them on events as momentous as this. Unfortunately, this Presidential authority extended into the 20th Century with "police actions" in Korea and Vietnam. Other actions like suspending the writ of habeas corpus, spending money before Congress appropriated it, and imprisoning 18,000 suspected Confederate sympathizers without trial doesn't exactly endear me to him as the greatest President evar.

As this post demonstrates, the "Civil War" is far more complex an issue than is typically made out. It brings into question a lot of interesting ideas about Just War. Over 600,000 men in their prime died during the war. How many statesmen, artists, inventors and other standouts of their generation were lost? Was it necessary?
David W.
Tempe, AZ
Post #: 183
As this post demonstrates, the "Civil War" is far more complex an issue than is typically made out. It brings into question a lot of interesting ideas about Just War. Over 600,000 men in their prime died during the war. How many statesmen, artists, inventors and other standouts of their generation were lost? Was it necessary?
Jack. I loved reading your post. It was informative and well-reasoned. The only thing missing was a conclusion.

My answer to the question "Was the Northern response to the Southern declaration of secession acceptable under all five ethical approaches?" is yes.

As you pointed out, war was inevitable. How many more would have died if we had waited for the technology of war to advance and the Southern states to better prepare for invasion?

As you pointed out, the freedom to own black people and the plantation economy it supported was the "right" being defended by Southerners. One hundred years later, Southerners would claim the right to continue to live in segregation from black people. War was necessary to prevent these oppressions.

On March 6, 1857, in the case of Dred Scott v. John Sandford, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney read the majority opinion of the Court, which stated that slaves were not citizens of the United States and, therefore, could not expect any protection from the Federal Government or the courts. The opinion also stated that Congress had no authority to ban slavery from a Federal territory. People of African ancestry, he declared, "are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word "citizens" in the Constitution." Therefore, "they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect." Thus, since slavery couldn't be ended in the courts or the congress, war was the only means.

Common Good
We are a much stronger country today because we are united in our diversity. As June pointed out in the meeting, even the Europeans have recognized the need for a union.

Would it have been more admirable and life-affirming for President Lincoln to allow the Southern states to secede without a fight? No.
A former member
Post #: 6 would take some time to work through all five ethical approaches.

However, a brief comment on deciding ethics by the constitution. What if Palestinians want their own homeland? What if those in Darfur felt their own homeland was needed. Are we going to oppose such things on the basis of those persons having lived under a constitution that did not mention sucession?

The civil war was a very good thing for slaves of that day, there is essentially no question of that. I am, however, questioning means for ethical justification of it. The American Civil War would have been ethically justifiable, at its inception, if it were for the purpose of freeing slaves. it was not, initially. Two years into the war, when Lincoln changed his mind and decided to free slaves should the north win, it became ethically justifiable. My belief was that it was not so at its inception.

(And is everyone aware that four slave holding states and territories fought for the union?)
user 8869511
Chandler, AZ
Post #: 4
Slavery was nearly ended in the colonies with the Declaration of Independence. Page three of the draft includes:

"he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people,"

History notes that a few members of the congress refused to sign the declaration until this passage was removed.

Likely this is one of the earliest examples in American history where members of congress placed political expediency above being virtuous.

It can be incurred that the moral failure of a few men, resulted in the deaths of about one million individuals.

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