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-defence 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
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
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-defence was involved.
The Church’s teachings are clear when
innocent lives are at stake. According to the Catechism, “Legitimate defence can be not only a right but a grave
duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defence 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 defence.
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
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.
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.
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,
know as Jus in Bello.
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.
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.’
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
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.
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’.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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-defence and
pacifism seems powerless against modern weapons of mass destruction and mass
The Kantian Approach to war
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-defence 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.
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-defence 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.
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.