Who bears the responsibility for decisions to go to war? Those who lead or those who are led? Professor Arlene Saxonhouse addressed this complex question in her recent talk, “Deciding to Go to War: Who’s Responsible?” at a workshop in March. Professor Saxonhouse's presentation centered on the significant and persistently difficult question of who in a democracy bears the responsibility of the polity’s decisions, specifically the decision to go to war. Should the leaders or citizens be held responsible? Should we attribute culpability to those who persuade or those who are persuaded? Drawing mostly from a debate in Thucydides' History of Peloponnesian War, and to some extent from Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Politics, Professor Saxonhouse examined various interpretations of the ancient writers’ responses to a thorny question that continues to be as relevant in contemporary debates as it was during antiquity.
“I tried to show how a view that exonerates the people from responsibility for decisions to go to war leads to a portrait of democracy where the people are simply the dupes of their leaders. The view that finds the people responsible grants agency to a "democratic people" (a complex concept to begin with), but also would make them subject to the punishments accorded such decisions. I do not come down on either side, but try to show the moral and political implications of both perspectives,” said Saxonhouse.
Professor Saxonhouse spoke to and answered questions from an engaged audience that spanned a variety of disciplines including, but not limited to, Classics, Philosophy, Comparative Literature, and Political Science. Her talk was part of a conference that explored what we can learn from our persistent fascination with ancient writings on war and war figures and how these writings can influence our understanding of contemporary wars. The conference, Our Ancient War: Rethinking War through the Classics, was sponsored by Context for Classics (an interdisciplinary faculty consortium at the University of Michigan) and various campus departments, including Political Science.
Arlene Saxonhouse is the Caroline Robbins Collegiate Professor of Political Science and Women's Studies. She also holds an adjunct appointment in Classics. Her main interests are in political theory, especially ancient political theory, about which she has written extensively. Professor Saxonhouse has also published journal articles, chapters, and books on gender in political theory and modern political theory. She teaches a variety of upper-division undergraduate courses and regularly teaches the graduate level seminar, History of Political Thought.