Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Just War Theory

Beverly Hayes

Just War Theory: Rules for a Morally Legitimate War

War is chaos, death, and destruction. It takes the lives of innocents and guilty alike and wreaks environmental havoc than can take nature centuries to repair. War and the threat of war are realities that we live with daily, even in our modern world. Wars have freed people and wars have enslaved people. Citing Michael Gelven and Carl von Clausewitz, Brian Orend, prominent contemporary Just War theorist, states that “War should be understood as an actual, widespread and deliberate armed conflict between political communities, motivated by a sharp disagreement over governance.” It is only logical to assume that man would attempt to understand the nature of war and to reconcile the seeming conflict between religion’s New Testament pacifistic views and the reality in which we live. Can a Christian be a soldier? Can war ever be justified? Philosophers and theologians have been debating questions such as these for centuries. After all, according to the Bible the first war was in Heaven when Lucifer and his angels were cast out.

The three main perspectives regarding the ethics of war are Realism, Pacifism, and Just War Theory. Realists disregard the concept that war should involve ideas of morals and ethics. Warfare is motivated by power and national security and includes no room for an appeal for morality. The state should do whatever is necessary to win. However, some Realists do grant that there should be an agreement that limits the destructiveness that accompanies war because of economic reasons.

Pacifism has been described as “anti-war-ism” by Jenny Teichman in her book Pacifism and the Just War. They reject war in favor of peace and view war as always wrong. Many argue that a Pacifist’s worldview is unattainable, at least in our foreseeable future. Others say that it rewards aggression and fails to protect the people. Pacifists, however, contend that all acts of aggression can be countered with non-violent resistance and economic sanctions.

Just War Theory is the most widely held view. It deals with the justification of why, how, and by whom wars are fought and attempts to develop a set of conventions that can be mutually agreed upon by two warring peoples. Its beginnings can be traced to Cicero, Aristotle, Augustine of Hippo, and Thomas Aquinas among others, however, many credit Christian theologian Augustine with the founding of Just War Theory citing his comments on the morality of war from a Christian perspective.

Augustine agreed with Aristotle that the goal of a just war was peace, adding that it should be motivated by love, not violence, greed, or a desire for power. His views concerning a just war were an attempt to provide a basis whereby a Christian could cope with the difficulties and imperfections of the earthly life. He tried to provide a mechanism by which a just man could maintain his faith and still be a good citizen of the state. In Augustine’s view, war is a part of human existence. If it was motivated by charity and the prevention of injustice, it was permitted by God. If it was allowed by God then war, in and of itself, must not be evil. He combined the Roman and Christian values associated with war by connecting the legitimacy of war, as it pertains to national policy, and a good citizen’s duty to his sovereign and state. He put forth three guiding principles that he saw as necessary for a just war: it can only be declared by a legitimate authority, it must be waged for a just cause, and it must have right intentions.

In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas took Augustine’s comments and developed what was to become the Just War Theory. His most important contribution was the combining and methodical presentation of previously diverse insights from Augustine and others into a cohesive exposition in his Summa Theologicae. In it he discussed not only the justification of war but also activities that are permissible for Christians in war. Aquinas posed this question, “Whether it is always sinful to wage war?” In his answer, he depended heavily on Augustine’s original three principles to support his conclusions: legitimate authority, just cause, and right intent. His final systematic outline was eventually the basis for what became the two main divisions of jus ad bellum, the right to go to war, and jus in bello, right conduct during war.

Jus ad Bellum

Jus ad bellum includes the following: it must be waged by a legitimate authority, it must be waged for a just cause, it must be a last resort, there must be a formal declaration of war, there must be a reasonable prospect of success, and there must be a right intent.

Firstly, Aquinas agreed with Augustine that “legitimate authority” meant those who hold supreme authority and who are charged with protecting the people. According to Augustine in Contra Faustum, “the natural order which seeks the peace of mankind, ordains that the monarch should have the power of undertaking war if he thinks it advisable.” In Aquinas’ time, supreme authority would mean the sovereign and their appointed officials. Only those individuals or states could legitimately declare war, “as the care of the common weal is committed to those who are in authority, it is their business to watch over the common weal of the city”. Private individuals or soldiers acting on their own could not declare war.

The second, and arguably the most important, jus ad bellum principle, “just cause”, was explained by Aquinas simply as requiring that a hostile attack must be made upon a “deserving” recipient. Still relying on St. Augustine’s comments, it should be to “avenge wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished, for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly”. American political philosopher and author of Just and Unjust Wars, Michael Walzer, sums it up by saying that the one just cause for resorting to war is the “resistance of aggression”. A war that was not a response to previous aggression is nothing more than killing innocent people. The US Catholic Conference in 1933 defined just cause saying: “force may be used only to correct a grave, public evil, i.e., aggression or massive violation of the basic rights of whole populations.”

Thirdly, it must be a “last resort”. Resorting to war when there is still the possibility of a peaceful solution between the parties is not reasonable and is morally wrong. All other forms of resolving disputed issues peacefully should be exhausted before declaring war. The damage done during war to both sides of a confrontation make it what should be viewed as a final option. Augustine warned Christians to guard against developing a love of violence; it could make them fail to give full consideration to a peaceful alternative to war.

A “formal declaration” of war must be made. This is sometimes combined with the “legitimate authority” requirement. It requires that the intention to go to war must be made public to not only the enemy state but also to the citizens of its own state. Many times this gives innocent civilians the chance to leave the areas where the war would be fought. In medieval times, they would have been able to seek protection from their prince or sovereign. We see examples today of refugees fleeing war torn areas such as Syria and Darfur.

If there is no “reasonable prospect of success”, it would be unethical to go to war knowing that many lives would be wasted in a gesture that would not change anything. There must a reasonable hope of achieving the intended good. In a war where the bad effects outweigh the good effects, the criteria of reasonable prospect of success would not be met.

Lastly, jus ad bellum involves the condition of “right intent”. A state must intend to fight a war for the sake of its “just cause” and not for any ulterior motive, such as land acquisition, genocide, seeking power, etc. These would not be considered “just cause”, are not permissible, and would be judged immoral. War must be waged to administer justice and restore peace. If a war is undertaken for the wrong motives, God will know their true purpose and punish them accordingly. In regards to modern day International Law, ulterior motives are difficult to determine due to the difficulty in obtaining evidence proving intent.

Jus in Bello

According to Social Ethics: Morality and Social Policy, in Jus in bello, conduct permissible during war, two principles are central in determining what types of action are morally permissible in warfare: proportionality and discrimination.

Proportionality refers to the level of force used. It must be in proportion to the good the action is intended to achieve. There must be an estimation that the universal good will outweigh the universal bad (for both sides in the conflict) for the war to be “just.” Even if the cause of the war is just, using excessive means such as destroying a whole town and everyone in it or salting wells and land making it unusable for decades would not be ethical. Modern prohibitions, according to international laws, include the use of chemical and biological weapons.

Discrimination during war is understood to prohibit the intentional killing of innocent civilians. Soldiers are only entitled to use their weapons against legitimate military targets. According to Walzer, this means those that are “engaged in harm”. This principle specifies “intentional” killing of innocents as prohibited, but there are sometimes “unavoidable civilian deaths” especially with the advent of modern warfare. Relying on Aquinas’ Doctrine of Double Effect, designed to evaluate actions that have both good and bad aspects, civilian casualties are justifiable “if their deaths, although foreseeable, are not intended”. The view that collateral damage is permissible is widespread. Others view it as “reckless disregard” or “gross negligence”. Brian Orend in his article, War, states that it is “worth noting that all wars since 1900 have featured larger civilian, than military, casualties.” It is largely the principle of discrimination that is looked to when condemning terrorism as immoral. Terrorism is generally acknowledged to include the targeting of innocent civilians. In Just and Unjust War, Walzer defines terrorism as a “method of random murder of innocent people”. Rules of war, such as the Just War Theory, are generally only reliable between enemies who share cultural values such as a high regard for life and human dignity. These shared values make it easier to agree on and abide by limits to warfare. When the two sides differ dramatically because of religious beliefs, language, or race, they may see each other as “less than human”. This perception of inequality is rarely conducive to the atmosphere necessary to promote agreement on war conventions.


Just War Theory is man’s attempt to regulate an inclination toward aggression and destruction by imposing rules of “morality and ethics” aimed at maintaining a peaceful coexistence. It continues to evolve to accommodate the changing times and the evolutionary development of warfare. Orend offers a comprehensive outline of a third element, jus post bellum, just principles of combatants after the war. It deals with the “transition from war back to peace”. Some argue that weapons of mass destruction render Just War Theory obsolete and requires a different approach, but others maintain that they are still weapons and as such should be held to the same ethical standards. More recently, cyber war has become a topic of discussion. Can Just War Theory be adapted to deal with cyber terrorists? War is a complex issue, but the principles in Just War Theory are a worthy starting place. For the present, as Augustine conceded, man, especially Christian man, is left with the question of how to live in a world that is full of war.

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