JUST WAR THEORY

(Copyright retained by author)

Some initial principles

‘War’ may most simply be defined as violent hostilities between nations.

So defined war may be distinguished from: 1.  non-violent conflicts between nations; 2.  violent hostilities between private persons (which might be called fighting or crime); and, 3.  fighting between or among subordinate groups within a community (rioting; feuding).  Where human communities are not organized into nation states war should probably be defined somewhat more broadly to include violent hostilities between large, organized groups such as tribes or provinces.

Peace, justice, tranquillity, and order are good and are normal conditions for human flourishing.  Governments, rulers, and, in a democracy, citizens are morally obligated to do their best to promote peace, justice, tranquillity, and order.

The opposite of these good things is not ‘war’ or military hostilities between nations, but rather is injustice.  Or to put the matter positively, justice is more fundamental than, and is a condition for, true peace.

It is possible to have a completely pacified population which is not at ‘peace’ or enjoying tranquillitas ordinis (the tranquillity of order), because it is subject to constant injustice, official violence, ethnic persecution, massive criminality, or similar evils which are directly contrary to peace, justice, tranquillity, and order.  In other words, there are some things worse than war.

For instance, suppose that in Lower Slabovia a new government comes to power which institutes the murder of all blond babies, the torture of all people belonging to opposition parties, and the invasion of all neighboring lands with the stated goal of exterminating the populations of those neighbors.  Then suppose that the new government in fact does invade the neighboring state of Upper Slabovia.  Suppose also that the Upper Slabovians have the power to stop the Lower Slabovian invasion, to overthrow the Lower Slabovian government, and also thereby to save the blond babies and many of the people of Lower Slabovia from death and torture.  Would a refusal of the Upper Slabovians to defend themselves really serve the cause of ‘peace’?  Is passivity in the face of invasion, murder, and torture something that promotes or hinders peace?  Surely true peace, justice, tranquillity, and order would best be served by a defensive war.
To give another example, one can easily imagine wars that would be far less damaging to Russia than was the government of Josef Stalin with its concentration camps, mass murders, and use of starvation to destroy whole classes of people or regions of the country.

The starting point of just war theory is the proposition that there are things worse than war.  Therefore, there are times when war is justified and moral.  But because war is directed towards the service of justice, tranquillity, and order, some actions are impermissible in war.  A just war may not be fought in a way or for reasons that undermine the just purposes of the war which are to serve justice, tranquillity, and order.  War can be moral, but not all wars are moral.

What about the Sixth Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’?  The better translation of the commandment is that found in the Prayer Book, ‘Thou shalt do no murder.’  (BCP p. 69)  The Hebrew word here means to murder, usually with the sense of a wicked killing.  Evil king Ahab, for instance ‘kills’ the innocent man, Naboth, in order to steal his property in I Kings 21:19.  So, the killing condemned in the Sixth Commandment means ‘unjustified, immoral killing’ or ‘murder’ rather than the execution of a lawful capital punishment or killing in the course of a just war.

Against the idea that just war is possible are two other positions, which seem to be opposed to each other but which in fact share a common rejection of the idea that war can be justified and just:

  1. Pacifism, which holds that war is so terrible that it can never be justified;
  2. Bellicism, which holds that war sometimes is necessary and that when it is necessary it is necessary to win at all costs; therefore to the bellicist it makes no sense to speak of ‘just’ war or of ‘justice in’ war. In a necessary war everything is permitted.

The just war tradition rejects both pacifism and bellicism.  Just war theory holds that pacifism can lead to evil, unjust results which do greater harm than war probably would to the goods of peace, tranquillity, and order.  But it also holds that some wars do greater harm than would avoidance of war and also that sometimes a war which itself is justified becomes unjust because of the way in which it is fought.

The Church since the time of Saint Augustine (died 430) has held to the just war theory against both pacifism and bellicism.  Some, but not all, wars are justified.  Justified wars may be fought so as to become unjust.

Therefore the just war theory seeks two main goals:

  1. Jus ad bellum – justice in going to or beginning a war
  2. Jus in bello – justice in fighting the war

A war which meets the criteria for these two goals is a just war in which a Christian may legitimately and conscientiously fight.

The just war theory is maintained in the Anglican tradition in particular.  Article XXXVII in its original version, which is much modified in the American Prayer Book, concludes that ‘It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars.’  The official, Latin version of the Articles uses the technical term ‘just wars’ to translate the final clause ‘serve in the wars’ (justa bella administrare).

Since the responsible public officials have access to information the citizens do not and have been given responsibility by the whole community precisely to make such public decisions, Christians also have traditionally deferred to public officials when it was not entirely clear what the right course of action is.  Examples of misuse of public position in modern times have led to skepticism about this traditional deference, but it still seems generally appropriate.

  1. Justice in going to war (Jus ad bellum)

The just war tradition has developed a number of conditions or prerequisites which must be met before a war justly may begin.  Most of these conditions flow from the starting point of the theory:  that a just war is a lesser evil which sometimes must be accepted in order to serve the interests of justice, public tranquillity, and order.  Here I will simply list the conditions for justice in going to war with a brief explanation of each, including its connection to the general starting point of just war theory.

A.  A just war must have legitimate, just, public, and moral intention and goals. Self-defense is the most obvious example of a legitimate goal.  A war may be justified to repel an invasion, to undo a gross injustice from the past, to defend an ally, or for similar purposes.  A just war may not begin to achieve national glory, to seize a neighbor’s territory or wealth, or to serve the interests of private persons or corporations.

Even just grounds for going to war do not justify war if its real purpose is immoral.  For instance, suppose East Kumquat declares war against the much weaker land of West Kumquat on the just grounds of preventing repeated border incursions.  Suppose, however, that the East Kumquatians in fact want the war and desire it as a pretext to seize the rich West Kumquatian city of Citrusville. Then the real goal of the war is immoral, despite the bad behavior of the West Kumquatians.

B.  The goals of a just war also must be reasonably foreseeable, limited, and achievable. Almost all wars involve loss of life and property and disruption of peace and tranquillity.  Therefore war can only be a lesser evil, and thus can only be just if the good that may result from it is greater than the foreseeable harm that will result.  If the evil of the war is in fact foreseeably a greater evil, the war is unreasonable and immoral.  If the war is in pursuit of unachievable goals, it would be better not to wage the war.  Likewise the war needs to be limited in its goals.  By definition unlimited goals are not foreseeably achievable.  Just wars should not have an enemy’s unconditional surrender as a goal, but rather should seek clear, stated, limited, and achievable results, even if those results are large and encompassing.

The foreseeable evils resulting from the war must be proportionate to and justified by the foreseeable goods to be achieved.  The foreseeable good and evil must be weighed as best as can be, and the good needs to be great enough to justify the evil.  For instance, suppose the United States seeks the restoration of a small piece of northern Maine that was seized long ago by Canada. Furthermore, the United States might well have the power to achieve that restoration by force of arms.  That goal is clear and limited.  However, the foreseeable harm that such a military effort would do to our trade and to our long and peaceful friendship with our neighbor to the north would far outweigh any gain to be achieved.  Therefore such a war fails this condition.  Likewise the incineration of a city with a million inhabitants to achieve a minor gain is disproportionate.

C.  War should be a last resort. If the just goals of war can be achieved without the foreseeable and unforeseeable evils of war, obviously those evils and the war should be avoided.  So every reasonable means short of war that might achieve the just and limited goals of war must be exhausted before a just war is begun.

D.  Related to the third condition is the fourth: a formal declaration of war is necessary.  A formal declaration of war is itself the final step short of war that may allow for the achievement of the nation’s just goals without war.  The declaration of war states the aims of the war and gives the enemy a final chance to meet just demands and to avoid the violence and harm of war itself.  Also a formal declaration gives one’s own nation a final opportunity to debate the matters of war and peace, to form a national consensus, and to achieve clarity about the purposes and reasons for fighting.

E.  A just war must be declared by the highest responsible public authority. If every individual or if private organizations or lower levels of government are free to declare war, then chaos will quickly result, and chaos is opposed more than anything else to the goods of peace and justice.  Every legitimate constitution therefore gives the powers to declare and make war to clearly defined public officials.  So, for instance, in the United States, the Constitution gives the power to declare war to the Congress and the power to wage war is given to the President within the limits of the laws.  The governor of Georgia may not declare war on Mexico or Alabama or Athens.  Nor may the military wage war legitimately in our republic without the control of civilian officials responsible to the voters.

2.  Justice in fighting a war (Jus in bello)

If we presume that a country goes to war for just reasons and in a just manner (jus ad bellum), then for the war to be and remain just it also must be prosecuted and fought justly.  This ‘justice in war’ (jus in bello) is the second main condition for just war.

The means used to fight a war that began in justice may be so evil as to render the war immoral.  This fact is of general concern to statesmen and citizens.  Furthermore, individuals serving in the military must be aware that even while they properly extend the benefit of the doubt to their political and military leaders, and even while many combat situations involve great confusion and ambiguity, nevertheless there are some acts of war which are clearly immoral and in which a Christian may not legitimately participate.

One of the requirements for jus in bello is an extension of the principle of proportionality which came into play in considering justice in going to war.  We said above that in considering going to war ‘[t]he foreseeable good and evil must be weighed as best as can be, and the good needs to be great enough to justify the evil.’  This consideration must not only be made before the outset of hostilities, but also arises regularly in the conduct of a war.  Is the foreseeable harm to be done by a given act under consideration proportionate to the good to be achieved?  The fact that the war is initially just does not justify actions in the war that are unnecessarily destructive or violent or that involve loss of life and property all out of proportion to the good to be gained.

The other and main requirement for justice in fighting a war is the principle that noncombatants are to be protected.  Even in war we never may directly will the death of an innocent person.  Therefore it is always immoral to fail to guard civilian lives or to engage in acts of war that primarily affect innocent persons.

While enemy combatants may be personally admirable and good, in their role as prosecutors of an enemy’s aggression and violence they are legitimate targets for the counter violence of just warfare.  Enemy noncombatants, however, are not legitimate targets.  It does not suffice to argue that in modern war a whole society may be mobilized and thus, in a sense, become combatant.  Young children and babies and the morally incompetent are in no sense combatants, and the combatant/ noncombatant distinction is generally valid even in modern wars.

To explain this second requirement we must begin with the moral principle that it is always wrong to do evil, even if we do evil that good may result.  We may not do evil to achieve good.  It is never moral to do that which is intrinsically wrong, no matter the good we foresee.  Do the ends justify the means?  Nothing can justify the means if the ends do not, but no ends, good or bad, can justify morally evil means.  Thus the principle of proportionality (weighing the good to be achieved against the evil that will foreseeably result) only comes into play after we have determined that the act in question is moral in and of itself.

To illustrate these principles consider a case not involving war.  Suppose Jose is a terrorist armed with a revolver who has seized a plane with 100 hostages.  Suppose he demands that the government kill his enemy, Barney, in return for the release of the hostages.  Suppose that Barney is a nice man similar to you and me.  Consider two scenarios for what happens next:

i.  SWAT team is probably able to storm the plane, kill Jose, and free most of the hostages.  It is foreseeable and probable, however, that before his ability to do harm is ended, Jose may kill a few of the hostages with his gun.  Is it moral for the SWAT team to storm the plane?  Well, there is nothing intrinsically immoral about killing a terrorist who threatens deadly harm to others.  In fact ending Jose’s ability to threaten life is intrinsically good and may both save the lives he threatens and also discourage future would-be hostage takers.  That being the case, we may weigh the good and evil to be achieved by storming the plane.  We should be sure that there are no options that might end the seizure without any threat to the passengers’ lives.  If there are no such options, or they are very unlikely to be successful, then storming the plane seems moral, since many lives will be saved, even if a few might be lost.  The act is intrinsically moral and the evil to be tolerated is proportionate to the foreseeable good to be achieved.

ii.  Suppose that Jose cannot be prevented from acting as he threatens. Is it moral to kill Barney to save the hostages?  Barney is an innocent man.  It is always wrong to will directly the death of the innocent, no matter the good to be achieved by doing so.  Therefore it is immoral to kill Barney, no matter how many lives may be saved.  It is not moral to kill Barney to save ten others or to save 100, 1,000, or 1,000,000 others.

If we propose killing one person to save a million lives, some people might be tempted to say that the killing is moral.  They may be seduced by the apparent utility of saving so very many lives.  But consider the consequences of saying, in effect, that it is moral to do evil if the good to result is large enough.  If it is moral to kill one innocent person to save 1,000,000, then why not to save 100 or ten?  Why not to save two?  Why not to save one person whom I like more than the one person I propose to kill?  Why not kill one Republican or Democrat or blue-eyed person in order to save one Democrat or Republican or brown-eyed person?  Why not kill a dozen people whom I dislike to save one person whom I like or consider particularly important.  Why not kill Jews to provide Lebensraum for Germans?  Once the absolute inviolability of innocent life is rejected, the slippery slope to gas chambers and murder looms before us.  We may not do evil that good may result.

Nonetheless some acts that involve the deaths of innocents are tolerable in war.  To distinguish these tolerable, regrettable deaths from immoral, directly willed killings moral theologians have developed the so-called double effect theory.  Many moral acts have more than one consequence.  Some acts have both a good effect or result and a bad effect or result.  Such acts have a ‘double effect’.  It is possible to will ‘directly’ as the immediate and intended goal of one’s act one of these ends while regretting and only tolerating reluctantly (‘indirectly willing’) the bad result.  In some cases it is permissible to will directly an act with a primarily good result despite some foreseeable bad results. The double effect theory helps to sort out such cases.

Suppose that in the course of a just war President Smith orders the bombing of a bomb factory in the enemy land of Segway.  Some civilians live in the vicinity of the factory and might be killed if the factory is bombed.  Is it moral to bomb the factory?

The bombing would foreseeably have a good and a bad effect.  The good result would be the destruction of a bomb factory that helps in the war effort of an enemy.  The bad result will be some deaths of innocent civilians.  We cannot say without further information if the bombing is moral.  Instead we have to go through the steps of double effect theory to reach an answer.  The bombing would be moral:

1.  If the act itself is moral;

The destruction of a bomb factory belonging to an aggressive nation in the wrong is a desirable, moral, and good thing, akin to taking away a criminal’s gun.

2.  If the agent’s direct intention is moral;

President Smith desires to undermine the aggressive power of the enemy, which is moral.  He does not desire the civilian deaths, which are bad.  He would destroy the factory without hurting civilians if he could.  He regrets the foreseeable evil of civilian deaths.  His intentions, thus, are moral and focused on the good effect.

3.  If the good effect is not caused or preceded by the evil effect, but rather either precedes or at least is simultaneous with the bad effect;

The destruction of the bomb factory is the direct, and directly willed, effect.  The civilian deaths follow the bombing of the factory either in simultaneous explosions or in subsequent explosions or fires set off by the munitions in the factory.  The civilian deaths do not precede or cause the destruction of the bomb factory.  Thus the bombing is not a case of doing evil that good may result, but of doing good from which some evil regrettably may result.

4.  If the foreseeable good is proportionate to the foreseeable evil.

If the factory is large and the civilian deaths are few, President Smith may judge the regrettable evil effect to be outweighed by the lives to be saved in the long run.  The evil then is said to be ‘proportionate’.  Note that this is the last consideration in the decision-making process and only becomes relevant after the prior determination that the act is itself not intrinsically immoral.

Often bombings of this sort can be justified by double effect theory.  The usual relevant questions are:  Is the target primarily military?  and, Is the resulting good proportionate?  Again, the judgement of proportionality follows the other steps of the theory.

Suppose President Smith proposes to bomb Oldtown, a large city in Segway.  Suppose Oldtown has two small military bases, but is primarily civilian and is important to the Segwayans as the site of their ancestral founding and as the center of their culture.  Is it moral for President Smith to bomb Oldtown in order to break the morale of the Segwayans, end the war quickly, and so save lives?  Suppose the foreseeable casualties in Oldtown are 50,000, while the lives to be saved (on both sides) may be as many as 1,000,000.

At this stage the number of lives at stake is irrelevant, because the judgement of proportionality cannot justify an otherwise immoral act but can only justify an intrinsically moral act which has some foreseeable good and evil consequences.  In this case the good ends (demoralizing the Segwayans, ending the war, and saving lives) do not precede and are not simultaneous with the destruction of a primarily civilian target.  Rather the destruction of the civilian target and of many, many innocent lives, is itself the first consequence that in turn causes the demoralization and surrender of the evil enemy.  This is a case of doing, rather than merely tolerating, evil in order to achieve good.  Such a bombing clearly fails the double effect theory and the traditional tests for morality.

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