Just War Theory and Holy War
“War has presented the twentieth century with perhaps its most crucial moral problem.” Robin Gill (1985:257)
In this handout we will explore the origins of Just War Theory and look at some of the major contributors.
The author of the Stanford article comments: “if we are to name names, the triad of Aristotle, Augustine and Cicero are probably responsible”, although Aquinas is the one perhaps most quoted in the literature.
We have already seen that the Bible is ambiguous on this issue. The Old Testament has many records of wars, such as those fought by Joshua or David. It is fairly clear that Jesus was anti-war, not least because his path to the cross is a paradigm of non-resistance and he rebukes Peter for resisting it in the garden of Gethsemane when he cuts off the ear of the High Priest’s servant (Luke 22:50). Jesus’ teaching on peace and loving your enemy doesn’t accord with Paul. Tertullian comments in the second century “the Lord afterwards, in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier”.
We need to keep distinct in our minds three issues:
Cicero lived at a time of civil war in Rome at the turn of the first century BC. He argued, much as the Puritans argued in the civil war in England, that “there are certain duties we owe even to those who have wronged us” (On Duties 1:11-13).
Cicero argued that “the rights of war must be strictly observed” by which he meant:
That war is a last resort after all forms of discussion have been tried.
That victors should be merciful: “we should spare those who have not been barbarous in their warfare”.
The purpose of war is to secure lasting peace “that shall not admit of guile”.
The conduct of war should be governed by humane laws.
That war should be only conducted after due warning and formal declaration.
That promises made to the enemy must always be kept.
Cicero also provides us with an interesting story:
“Our forefathers also give us another striking example of justice towards the enemy: when a deserter from Pyrrhus offered to administer poison to the King and thus work his death, the Senate delivered the deserter to Pyrrhus, thus they stamped their own disapproval on the treacherous murder even of an enemy.”
An interesting example has emerged recently of a double agent who spoke fluent German and won the confidence of the senior Nazi leadership. He made an offer to Churchill to become a suicide bomber, so ensuring the death of Hitler. Churchill turned the offer down, perhaps because, like Cicero, it offended his view of justice in war.
Until the conversion of Constantine in 324 AD Christians were invariably pacifist. Theologians of this period, such as Tertullian (160-220) or Origen (185-254) seemed to assume that all killing was contrary to the law of Christ. Origen was accused by some of undermining the state through his pacifism. He answered:
“None fight better for the King than we do. We do not indeed fight under him, although he require it; but we fight on his behalf, forming a special army, an army of piety, by offering our prayers to God” (Against Celsius 8.73).
When Christianity became the state religion there needed to be a moral justification for a standing army, and a moral case for war when faced with the threat of barbarian invasion.
Augustine (354-430) provided such a justification. He saw Peter’s use of the sword in the garden as an example of “hasty zeal” without authority, rather than condemnation of the sword as such. He argued that Jesus never taught openly about war or condemned the centurion for his occupation: he tried to reconcile the Old and New Testament positions, rather than arguing (as Tertullian had) that Jesus revokes it.
Augustine took a deontological approach, arguing that war was justified, because God commanded it in the Old Testament (in such passages as Joshua 10:40 or Deuteronomy 2:34). He argued that God alone could sanction such war “because he alone knows the suitable command in every case, and who alone is incapable of inflicting unmerited suffering on anyone” (Reply to Faustus VII.4). In so arguing Augustine is taking a natural law stance, for example in affirming “the act, the agent, and the authority for the action are all of great importance in the order of nature”.
But he also derived from Greek and Roman attitudes to war (such as Cicero’s) the ideas of “lawful authority”, “natural order” and “justice in war”, “for 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, and that soldiers should perform their military duties on behalf of the peace and safety of the community.” (VII,7) Few people today would accept Augustine’s view of the morality of war in the Old Testament, which seems at best to be precritical and at worst imputing immoral actions to God. However Augustine first put forward the three criteria developed by Aquinas.
Aquinas seems to have acknowledged the inevitability of war, and so spends hardly any time on the sort of moral issues which affect us today (such as the bombing of civilians, the treatment of prisoners, the idea of a pre-emptive strike). In his Summa Theologica (2a2ae, 40.1-2) Aquinas asks a number of questions including “is it always a sin to wage war?” He argues against Christian pacifism and such texts as Matt: 26,52, 5,39, Rom:12,19 with a summary of three criteria for just war (a development of Augustine).
It must be undertaken only on the authority of God or the sovereign, “just as they use the sword in lawful defence against domestic disturbance when they punish criminals, as Paul says, “if you do wrong, be afraid, for he (the one in authority) does not bear the sword in vain” (Romans 13.4). According to Paul, the proper constituted authority is an “agent of wrath” bringing judgement on the enemies of the state, and by implication, foreign powers who wish evil.
It must be for a just cause. Of course we must define “just cause” and Aquinas does so in this way: “those who are attacked are attacked because they deserve it on account of some wrong they have done” (VIII,4).
It must have a right intention, “they must intend to promote the good and to avoid evil” (VIII,5). Aquinas agreed with Augustine that desire for revenge, the desire to dominate are examples of immoral reasons for war.
Notice that Aquinas (following Augustine) takes a consequentialist approach. He is arguing that a war is justified if it has good consequences, such as the promotion of peace, increasing the good and decreasing an evil, or some appeal to “the common good”.
We need also to be clear that Aquinas set in motion a long-standing acceptance in the Roman Catholic Church of the legitimacy of war (as long as certain criteria were met). This tradition was continued into the present day, for example, by the Catholic Bishops conference in America in 1983 which gave further criteria for jus ad bellum (the just reasons for war) and jus in bello (the just ways of conducting war). This has had two main effects:
Challenges to militarism have come from non-Catholic Churches (such as the Quaker movement).
Churches such as the RC or Anglican churches have been ill-equipped to deal with the issues of war in a nuclear age raised by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These might be justified on utilitarian grounds, but are hard to justify on grounds of human rights or jus in bello.
A number of criticisms could be made of Aquinas’ three criteria:
Just because an authority is legitimate it does not mean it is moral. Many struggles around the world have been against cruel and unjust, but legal, regimes. Such wars of liberation take a much more fundamental view of justice, namely, that a ruler may lose his legitimacy if he oppresses his own people.
Just war theory does not help us explain what is happening in the Middle East. Here a non-sovereign people (the Palestinians) have been engaged in armed struggle since the foundation of Israel and their territorial displacement in 1949 into refugee camps. According to just war theory, their struggle is illegitimate, first because they are not a sovereign people and second because they are pursuing it by means, such as suicide bombings, which could never be condoned by just war theorists. Yet to a Palestinian there are ample moral grounds for their struggle, and the failure by the west adequately to acknowledge this may well have condemned the Middle East to decades of violence.
Aquinas’ conditions are only briefly explained and are not sufficient. This is why a more complete list, building on Cicero’s insights, has been compiled since, including the idea of last resort, of war being waged with the likelihood of victory, and using legitimate methods and proportional force (see Vardy and Grosch).
The case for Pacifism
The war in Iraq has proved, if proof was needed, that Christian states following their consciences can take very misguided decisions to go to war. After all, the authority was legitimate (even if UN sanction was arguably not granted); the end, of deposing a cruel and murderous tyrant, was justifiable, and the intention, of stabilizing the region, seemed honourable. What was less clear (despite mouthings about “weapons of mass destruction”) was whether Saddam Hussein presented a real threat to anyone (except perhaps Israel). As with any consequentialist approach a calculation was made at the time which, with hindsight, proved to be alarmingly wrong, for how do we gauge the likely outcome of war when there are so many variables (including the law of unintended consequences)?
Moreover, it seems that the allied forces have been unable to observe jus in bello (the conditions for the right conduct of war). Thinkers such as Cicero would have been appalled at the scale of civilian casualties, both those caused by smart bombs that did stupid things (such as land on hospitals), and those caused by fighting on the ground (where insurgent and civilian may be indistinguishable). It seems that America particularly has abandoned any pretence to a moral approach to war:
By holding prisoners without trial in cages in Guantanamo Bay, outside the jurisdiction of its own Supreme Court and without any clear definition of their role as combatants.
By proven mistreatment of prisoners at the Al-Ghraib prison (so far resulting in just one prosecution of a US female soldier).
By extensive arrest and detention of civilians in Iraq without trial (an approach which failed miserably in Northern Ireland in the 1970s). Thus we are forced back to consider the case for pacifism.
There are two possible approaches here:
Selective Pacifism understood as a willingness to fight only when one is convinced that a cause is just (and not just when you receive the call up papers from a legitimate authority). This seems to have been Martin Luther King’s position as outlined in a famous sermon “Against the Vietnam War.”
Thoroughgoing Pacifism understood as an unwillingness to fight anywhere, at any time, on any issue. This was the approach taken by Bertrand Russell, for example, and caused him to be placed in solitary confinement for a year in 1917. Even he wavered, however, when faced with the evils of Hitler.
Stanley Hauerwas is an American theologian who has written extensively on ethics. In his essay in the journal “Faith and Philosophy” (April 1985) he lays down the philosophical basis for pacifism. Hauerwas argues from a particular standpoint, that of Jesus’ view of the kingdom of God, a kingdom in which the rule is not through violence but through love. He argues that this kingdom revolutionises our ideas of human relationships, so that we are obliged to love both the weak and strong, the attacker and the attacked. “God calls us to be part of his rule by calling us to a community that is governed by peace”, and we must focus on God’s way as shown by the cross, “just as God refused to use violence to ensure the success of his cause, so should we”.
Hauerwas stresses that pacifism is not the same as passivity. To the charge that a pacifist acquiesces in injustice and violence by standing by as an observer, he argues that the Christian has no side except the side of God and his rule.
This rule, which is appropriated by faith involves such radical ideas as turning the other cheek, loving your enemies, and going an extra mile (See Matthew 5). The argument of the New Testament could be summed up thus: by following the example of Christ and his cross we eventually convert even our enemies, even at the risk of our own deaths.
Such radicalism would indeed take moral courage.
Here is an excellent summary of religious attitudes to war.
Gill R. A Textbook of Christian Ethics (T&T Clark, 1985) Section 3
Level 2 reading: (Bristol University undergraduate course) What makes killing wrong? Killing is often cited as a paradigmatic example of morally wrong conduct, but it is not so easy to develop a moral theory which provides an account of the wrongness of killing that adequately covers all cases. Is there a moral difference between killing and letting die (see Acts and Omissions and Euthanasia)? When is killing justified? Is it justified in self-defence? Is the killing of the innocent ever justified? There are obvious connections between killing and war. Is war ever justified? If so, under what conditions? Some theorists have attempted to set out criteria for a just war. The existence of nuclear weapons has heightened the stakes and changed the nature of war (as nuclear weapons are possessed precisely in order to deter their use by others) and raises various moral issues and paradoxes.
Norman, R – Ethics, Killing, and War (1995), Cambridge University Press
McMahan, J – The Ethics of Killing (2002), Oxford University Press
Glover, J – Causing Death and Saving Lives (1990), Penguin UK
Holmes, RL – On War and Morality (1989), Princeton University Press
Walzer, M – Just and Unjust Wars (1992), Harper Collins
Ramsey, P – The Just War (1968), Scribners
Teichman, J – Pacificism and the Just War (1986), Basil Blackwell
Kavka, G – Moral Paradoxes of Nuclear Deterrence (1987, Cambridge University Press)
Kenny, A – The Logic of Deterrence R. Hardin et al (eds), Nuclear Deterrence: Ethics and Strategy (1985) University of Chicago Press
Disclaimer. Inducit Learning Ltd. is not responsible for any content outside of the pushmepress.com domain. If you are a rights holder and you think we have breached your copright, please email the editor and we will remove it.