War And Peace: Just War Theory

June 23, 2022 by Essay Writer

What is War

War is conflict among states where armed forces confront the armed forces of another state. It is generally conducted within certain customs or laws. By common consent war is generally seen as ‘just’ if it is in self-defense and if it is sanctioned by the UN. However, there were just wars prior to the formation of the UN and UN permission is not intrinsic to just war theory. It is difficult to argue the idea of ‘just cause’ if the war is against a state that poses no immediate threat, but which perhaps has an undemocratic regime. War used to be something that you read about in history books, but now you can see it every day. Apart from disease and natural disasters, we see the horror of war all the time and not many other things are able to bring home human suffering to such an extreme level. It can be very hard to imagine why anyone would want to go to war with the population of another country; that any sane individual would want to attack another country to seize its land or to change its political processes. Therefore, there must be a range of powerful motivations that would mean going to war.

Out of most social issues, war is probably the only ethical issue that has produced such a large demonstration of public feeling. In the past, war was seen to be something in far-off lands and the casualties were predominantly professional soldiers on the battlefield. Today, travel and communication means that the world has become a much smaller place and we receive live coverage on television. The majority of casualties today are civilians, who lose their homes, their livelihood, many even their lives. War most of the time spills into terrorism which in many cases can present an even greater risk and threat to everyday civilian lives.

People go to war for greed, for excitement and adventure, for religion and politics. War is a very peculiar human activity and can bring out some of our best traits, such as courage and self-sacrifice, and yet it can also lead men and women to commit acts of cruelty and barbarism. The aim of Just War Theory is to provide a guide to the right way for states to act in potential conflict situations. It only applies to states, and not to individuals (although an individual can use the theory to help them decide whether it is morally right to take part in a particular war).

The Development of Just War

The moral theory of the ”just war” or ”limited war” doctrine begins with the presumption which binds all Christians: We should do no harm to our neighbours; how we treat our enemy is the key test of whether we love our neighbour; and the possibility of taking even one human life is a prospect we should consider in fear and trembling. The issue of the legitimacy of killing or using violence against other people has occupied philosophers since ancient times. Most societies have rules that forbid killings, to prevent a community falling into anarchy, but they also distinguish between murder and killing in war or as a form of punishment. This means that there has to be a clear understanding of what constitutes a war and how it should be conducted. Aristotle, for example, believed war was justified if self-defense was involved.

The Church’s teachings are clear when innocent lives are at stake. According to the Catechism, “Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility. ” The Catholic Church always emphasizes peace over violence. Many examples are cited throughout Scripture. There is a presumption that binds all Christians that we should do no harm to our neighbours; how we treat our enemy is the greatest example of our love for our neighbour. However, the Church acknowledges special circumstances where evils and injustices exist that provoke a response which requires a legitimate defense.

Old Testament writings show the Jews believed God commanded them to fight their enemies. Stories also indicate their belief that it was totally acceptable to massacre non-combatants: Deuteronomy 3:24, records the annihilation of the King Sihon’s subjects: women and children included, ‘We left no survivors’. The arrival of Jesus marked a dramatic change because he preached non-violence. ‘Do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you’, he told his followers in Matthew 5:39. The early Church adopted this pacifist approach until Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Church was then required to change its approach to warfare in response to the state’s political needs. St Augustine was instrumental in this departure from pacifism and his ideas were developed by Aquinas. The theory of Just War, which began then, continued evolving in the United Nations Charter and the Geneva Convention.

The Requirement for a Just War

The requirement for a Just War changed as things went along, Augustine stated that War can only be started by a recognised authority and that there must be a Just Cause. Aquinas then added to the Just War in that he added that a war can only be fought for a just intention which he defined as the ‘advancement of God or the avoidance of evil’. A while later, The Catholic Bishops of America developed three more clauses from Aquinas in 1983. The claims of both sides must be evaluated before war can e started. It is called comparative justice. There must be a reasonable chance of success to ‘prevent the irrational resort to force or hopeless resistance when the outcome of either will clearly be disproportionate or futile. ’ This would prevent people being killed or maimed for a hopeless cause. Proportionality, where the ‘damage inflicted and the costs incurred by a war must be proportionate to the good expected by taking up arms’, which means it would be morally wrong to use excessive force to achieve a small gain. War must also be the last resort after all other attempts to resolve the dispute by negotiation have failed. Finally, only legitimate targets should be attacked and there should be discrimination between combatants and innocent civilians.

Jus in Bello and Jus ad Bellum

When the morality of war is considered, there are two key areas of concern which the Just war theory addresses. One is whether it is right to go to war, which is known by the Latin name Jus ad Bellum. The other is concerned with who the war is to be conducted against, known as Jus in Bello. What is meant by recognised authority?

Now let’s consider the criteria of Just War and see how easy it is to put into practice. With a recognised authority, it is generally accepted that only the head of the country or the state government is permitted to declare war. In recent times there has been a move in public opinion to seek a much wider permission for War. British involvement in the 2003 invasion of Iraq only went ahead after a vote in Parliament but many people wanted the United Nations’ authority for the war, this is mainly because the invasion of Iraq was not in response to an attack.

What makes a Cause Just? Many would regard this as the most significant point, but equally it is one of the hardest to determine. Doesn’t everybody thing their cause is just? Is it possible to be objective? Augustine said, ‘A just war is not to be described as one that avenges wrongs, when a nations state has to be punished for refusing to make amends for wrongs inflicted on its subjects, or to restore what has been seized unjustly. ’ In Aquinas’ opinion, ‘Those who are attacked should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault. ’ What makes an intention just? There is some overlap here with the previous point because Aquinas defined a just intention as the advancement of good and the avoidance of evil. Here too it is difficult to be objective’ most states believe their intention is just. This point was included to prevent rulers declaring war simply because they wanted to destroy another country or for a totally unrealistic cause. As Aquinas summed it up in the Summa Theologica, for a resort to the sword to be justified it must be on the authority of a sovereign, for a just cause rightly defined, and for a right intention.

Why include comparative justice? It was felt that if each side thought about how their opposite number viewed the situation, it might lead to a more peaceful outcome. The apportioning of punishment to the losers and rights to the winners has to be carefully balanced to respect human rights and create peace. Are the values at stake critical enough to override the presumption against war? Is it possible to assess the likelihood of success? It is considered wrong to start a war if you do not stand a chance of winning, because war involved the destruction of life and property. So it would be unethical for a state to sacrifice the lives of its people (and the lives of its enemy’s people) in a futile gesture that would not change anything. However, this condition can be dealt with by forming alliances with other countries in order to make an unwinnable war winnable by ganging up on a common enemy. The idea of ‘winning’ is not a simple one. It’s probably better to rephrase the condition like this: A war is only a just war if there is a reasonable chance of success. This way of putting it makes it clear that there has to be an absolutely clear idea of what will count as success before any decision can be taken about the moral rightness of a particular conflict. Thus the aims of a war must be set out in advance.

Why proportionality? This was included to ensure that one state does not use war as a pretext for meting out totally unreasonable force on another country. This clause is particularly important now that weapons of mass destruction like nuclear or biological warfare exist in some countries’ arsenals. The harm they can cause is truly massive and must be measured against the gain. On the other hand, technological advances now make it possible to target destruction extremely precisely: more commonly known as the ‘surgical strike’.

A last resort

None of the philosophers involved in the Just War Theory relished the idea of war: all believed peace was preferable in all circumstances. This clause requires countries to make every attempt to resolve a dispute by negotiation before considering an armed response.

Discrimination Between Targets

This clause was designed to protect innocent civilians. It requires the war to be waged against soldiers and military targets. In addition to people, buildings also have to be considered, so in this circumstance, it would be wrong to bomb a waterworks or power stations. What does pacifism involve? Pacifism is the belief that war is wrong because violence is not the right solution to a dispute. Within pacifism there can be a broad range of views. Some pacifists are absolutist and oppose the use of violence even in self-defence. Pacifism can also include an opposition to activities that support war, like weapons manufacture. Most pacifists will not undertake military service and are usually referred to as a conscientious objector. During the Second World War, when conscription came in, pacifists often undertook non-combatant duties; working as stretcher bearers or other medical work that involved saving life. Such were the experiences of Desmond Doss, an American pacifist combat medic who was a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, refusing to carry or use a firearm or weapons of any kind. Doss became the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honour, for service above and beyond the call of duty during the Battle of Okinawa.

There are other pacifists who take a contingent attitude towards war in that they say it is the lesser of two evil, even though it may be wrong.

Catholic Pacifism

Although we are examining the view from a Catholic point of view, it is worth being aware that most religions have followers who will make a case for pacifism, the most noteworthy being Buddhism, which is a religion particularly committed to non-violence. Quakers are the only major Roman Catholic demonization wholly committed to pacifism. Their argument is that a violent response to a situation solves nothing and actually escalates the dispute. Quakers have been conscientious objectors in times of war and in times of peace are involved with the United Nations, working towards international resolution. Because Jesus rejected violence and preached against it in the Sermon on the Mount, some members of other Christian denominations are also pacifist, and believe that in following Jesus’ doctrine of live and resisting violence, they are following Christianity. However, pacifism is not actually the traditional Christian response to war. Since the times when Augustine first outlined the concept of a Just War, Christians have accepted that war is acceptable when confronting evil.

The Ethical Reasons

There are secular reasons for pacifism, which this extract from the British Humanist Association’s views on war and peace demonstrates. ‘Human life is all the more valuable if you do not believe in an afterlife and humanists (indeed any rational person) would think very carefully before supporting any war, because of the loss of life involved. Wars are hugely destructive, ruining lives, wasting resource, and degrading the environment…’ The arguments for pacifism include that as an absolutist philosophy, it is straightforward to apply, also it respects the idea of sanctity of life, finally for Christians, it closely follows the teachings of Jesus. However, the arguments against pacifism are that it can allow evil to flourish, it offers no real protection for the innocent, it removes the right for self-defense and pacifism seems powerless against modern weapons of mass destruction and mass genocide.

The Kantian Approach to War

As a deontological argument, Kant focused not only on the action itself, but also on the motivation for that particular action. As part of his categorical imperative, Kant required an action to be universal for it to be moral. It is difficult to formulate a maxim that will allow killing to be universal since this would go against the base laws of nature. Perhaps it might be possible to universalise the right to self-defense when someone is threatened by violence. Although it may seem unlikely, but if everyone followed Kant’s first maxim and only fought in self-defence, all world wars would end. Kant’s second maxim, requiring humans to be treated as ends not means, makes it difficult to justify anyone being killed in a war that is being fought for the greater good of the state. War might, however, be justified as its purpose were to liberate members of that country from an oppressive ruler. The third maxim requires that everybody is treated as though they have the same human rights. It could be argued that this is exactly what the United Nations sets out to do.

The Utilitarian Approach

As a teleological theory, Utilitarianism is concerned with the outcome of war, rather than the act itself. To judge the morality of war, all the pain and injury that result from war has to be weighed against the pleasure and gain that war can produce. It is necessary to weigh up the losses and gains of both sides in the conflict. The aftermath of the Iraq war has shown that weighing up the long-term as well as the immediate consequences of a war is extremely difficult.

The Approach of Natural Law

The first of Aquinas’ five primary precepts, the preservation of life, is relevant to a consideration of the morality of war, but it could be used by either side. War could be justified as a method of self-defense or as a way of protecting innocent lives in danger. But equally, Natural Law could be used as an argument against going to war, where the loss of life is inevitable and some of that loss will be of innocent civilian life.

Catholic Teaching and War

The majority of Catholics believe that war is an acceptable method of defeating evil, provided the conditions for a Just War are followed. While Jesus himself did advocate pacifism, Catholics also point to the other stories where Jesus accepted limited use of violence. Most notably, he personally violently overthrew the tables of the money-changers in the Temple in order to restore the sanctity of the place. Jesus also advised his followers to arm themselves with swords before setting out to the ministry in Luke 22: 36 – 38. The teachings of the Church since Augustine have led Christians to understand they have a moral duty to fight in support of their country.

A modern Christian approach to the subject of war has been led by the philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr, who rejected pacifism as heresy. He argued that love cannot work in the world unless we are proactive. In an imperfect world here sin and evil surrounds us, it may be necessary to resort to violence to bring about peace on earth. Following on from that, he believed that a community must impose order and justice on its people – using force if necessary. The moral rules which govern the behaviour of individuals are not the same as those which govern community behaviour, since God rules through human institutions like government and courts. Although Christian realists believe war is an evil, they accept that it may necessary to prevent even greater evils and they would accept a war which in turn, accepts serves national interest as morally acceptable.


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