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Saint Augustine
The Moral Crisis of Just War: Beyond Deontology toward a Professional Military Ethic - The Crisis of the Deontological Vision of Just War
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Article Index
The Moral Crisis of Just War: Beyond Deontology toward a Professional Military Ethic
The Crisis of Just War
The Crisis of the Deontological Vision of Just War
Beyond Values and Rules: Character, Virtue and a Professional Military Ethic
Just War, Character and Virtue
Character Amidst the Ruins: Virtue Across the Civilian-Miiltary Divide
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The Crisis of the Deontological Vision of Just War


What is in crisis amidst the changing face of war at the outset of the twenty-first century is a deontological vision of just war that construes the tradition as a kind of legalistic checklist disconnected from considerations of character and so reducible to duty and obedience. To make sense of this claim, it is necessary to make a brief detour through the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, one of the great philosophical minds of our age and one of the leaders in the contemporary revival of a character and virtue based approach to ethics. In his justly celebrated work, After Virtue, MacIntyre traces the public impasse in moral discourse – why public moral discourse so often degenerates into fruitless name-calling, dismissals, and “talking past” one another – to a shift in moral vision that occurred in the West as the medieval era gave way to the modern.29 In a nut-shell, his argument is that the moral incoherence of modernity is precipitated by the loss of a sense of a thick telos or purpose attributable to humanity and embedded in the character and virtues of particular communities.  The loss of this ontological teleology and concomitant character and virtue-based vision of morality were accompanied by the rise of utilitarian and deontological modes of moral thought.

Put in terms of military history, the shift MacIntyre describes corresponds in general terms to the eclipse of the era of chivalry, when warfare was deeply embedded in a way of life marked by character and virtues that were internalized (and visible externally in things like the artistry of armor and weaponry), and the advent of the modern era, when warfare was increasingly industrialized and the internalized virtues associated with warfare gave way to external rules imposed by discipline and authority.

Put more directly in terms of just war, this shift in moral vision and military practice was accompanied by a change in how the discipline of just war itself was understood and practiced. Prior to modernity, just war (at its best) was understood not as a deontological checklist of criteria or set of rules that anyone, be they saint or scoundrel, could pick up on the eve of battle and then understand and employ. Rather, the just war tradition was the name given to a discipline, a set of habits, practices, and dispositions, that were but the expression of the constant character and virtues of a people. It was, in particular, the extension of the virtue of justice that characterized a people in their everyday life, to the realm and practice of war.30 As an expression of the character of a community, the just war tradition was not a list of rules to be committed to memory so much as a set of markers for a way of life, a way of life characterized by virtues such as justice, prudence, temperance and fortitude that took form in the disciplines and practices summarized by the criteria.

In other words, just war was not simply a matter of sheer obedience and duty, of learning the rules in a few hours of ethics instruction by the chaplain and then summoning the will-power to obey them, perhaps with the encouragement of a friendly drill sergeant or forward leaning commander. It was not a matter of a checklist of criteria that anyone could use, without regard for character and regardless of whether one cared at all about justice and one’s neighbor yesterday or would continue to do so tomorrow. Rather it was a matter of practices deeply engrained in habit arising from commitments internalized over the span of one’s life in a community of like-minded and habituated persons. It was the kind of moral vision that might give rise to the well-known observation of General Sir John Winthrop Hackett, “What the bad man cannot be is a good sailor, or soldier, or airman.”31

With the advent of modernity, this character-based vision of just war collapsed and what (eventually) replaced it was just war as a deontological checklist and it is this deontological vision of just war that is in crisis today. That the moral model charged with upholding the just war discipline is deficient is suggested by two very different contemporary voices engaged with matters of military ethics. On one hand, Timothy Challans, a harsh critic of contemporary paradigms of military moral training (and no friend of a virtue ethic approach), notes that the celebrated “warrior ethos” does not foster reflection on and deep commitment to the ethics of killing. He writes, “the warrior ethos is really about a special kind of work ethic, one that centers on mission accomplishment and potential self-sacrifice, not on moral restraints and law-abidingness.”32 On the other hand, writing from a perspective much more congenial to a virtue and character ethic, Snider, Oh, and Toner observe that “Thus far ‘Warrior’ has not worked effectively for individual moral development. This is a . . . void in the Army’s vital effort to ‘move’ Soldiers from mere intellectual acceptance of a set of values to a personal lifestyle, a heart and soul embodiment of those values in everyday decisions and actions, which authentically ‘walks the talk’.”33 This deficiency, moreover, is not a matter of individual or isolated failures but part and parcel of a moral tension inherent in a military that, while aspiring to function as a profession characterized by particular virtues and internalized norms of excellence, is organized in many respects like a bureaucratic hierarchy, which, MacIntyre notes, is antithetical to the character of a profession insofar as bureaucracies are the domain of instrumental reason and “experts” highly skilled in the efficient manipulation of means for the sake of any end.34 Sort of like experts in sharpening and wielding the spear for any use or as Brian Imiola and Danny Cazier put it, “Any code whose underlying function is merely effectiveness will work equally well for the unjust warrior as for the just warrior.”35

The contemporary challenge to various criteria has already been noted. Once the crisis has been identified with the underlying moral vision, one can see more clearly that the current challenge to the just war tradition’s legitimacy is not circumstantial, that is, it is not inaugurated with the horrific evils of 9/11. Rather the stresses associated with asymmetric warfare are but the latest symptoms of abiding deficiencies with the deontological construal of just war.

While rules and commands are an important part of moral formation – and a character / virtue ethic recognizes the importance of commands and rules – the reduction of the moral life to a deontological vision suffers from several significant weaknesses that become particularly clear in the context of war fighting. First, there is the problem that the rules of war are always written for the last war. Said differently, it is simply impossible to anticipate and articulate a rule for every possible scenario that can arise on the battlefield, especially when the nature of war is constantly changing and combatants continuously adapting. This is implicitly acknowledged by those who argued in the wake of Vietnam (and who argue today in the midst of the Iraq and Afghan campaigns) that the war in question was a novel kind of war, and so we should not be surprised nor can we blame those who commit terrible acts precisely because it is not yet clear how the rules apply in this new situation. In other words, a rule-based approach is doomed to always play catch-up.

Second, and not entirely unrelated to the first problem, there is the problem of knowing which rules apply in which situation. For instance, one might well know and be committed to the principle of discrimination but when one is engulfed in the fog of war it is not always clear who is and is not considered a combatant and hence a legitimate target. Consider, for instance, the situation of a firefight in an urban setting where women are being coerced to collect weapons from the bodies of fallen insurgents or children are sent to collect scrap electronics that may be of use in constructing IED’s. One can know the rules but not be clear on which rules apply when.

Third, and perhaps most damningly, the deontological approach faces serious questions regarding its effectiveness. In the midst of the extraordinary stresses of combat and war, in the face of what Jonathan Shay, drawing on his work with Vietnam veterans, has called “atrocity producing situations,” knowledge and will-power are not particularly reliable.36 Along the same line, Philip Caputo, in his classic memoir of the Vietnam War, has noted that what distinguished the soldiers who participated in My Lai from those who refused was not a matter of who knew the rules and had been trained to follow them, since all knew and had been so trained. Rather, as he learned who did and did not participate, the difference that emerged was one of character.37 Likewise, Mark Osiel has argued that the “manifest illegality” standard for discerning unlawful orders fails on the same grounds: the deontological moral vision simply does not form soldiers in a fashion that would enable them to make the judgments necessary to discern what was in fact unlawful in the theatre of combat, with its attendant stresses and ambiguities.38

Last Updated on Tuesday, 10 July 2012 12:32