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Caught by Surprise: Post-Cold War Geopolitics and the Relevance of the Just-War Tradition - Justice, Neighbor-Love, and the Just War Tradition
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Article Index
Caught by Surprise: Post-Cold War Geopolitics and the Relevance of the Just-War Tradition
Justice, Neighbor-Love, and the Just War Tradition
An Anatomy of Just-War Moral Reasoning
Present Realities and Future Prospects: Concluding Reflections
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Part 2: Justice, Neighbor-Love, and the Just-War Tradition


The central question that I wish to raise before this esteemed audience is simply this: How might those who are responsible for policy propose to deal with the scale of humanitarian need in our day that is massive and frequently the result of unstable regimes? More specifically, what moral and political resources might inform our response to such situations – situations that typically fall short of formal war per se but which require some measure of interventionary force for humanitarian purposes? As it affects American foreign policy, few questions will be more pressing in the years ahead, as evidence from the past two decades amply demonstrates.

Difficult issues, it goes without saying, confront us. When, if ever, should a nation engage in coercive intervention for the primary purpose of saving lives or protecting the relatively innocent when its vital national interests are not directly at stake? Should governments – and thus, should we – respond and intervene in order to prevent (or retard the effects of) genocide, mass murder, enslavement of peoples or people-groups, and egregious human rights violations? Why or why not? Always? Never? Some times? If so, then when, why, and by what moral criteria? While answers to these questions require the painstaking business of moral discourse and moral discernment, each of us must be able to offer a rationale, regardless of the degree to which military training formally prepares us. And for those who place great faith in the UN, the words of one Burmese human rights activist need reiterating: “There are no countries in the world which have gained liberation through the help of the United Nations.”3

My thesis is straightforward and unapologetic: the just-war tradition – the mainstream of which extends for almost two millennia – constitutes an enduring and ever-fresh repository of moral wisdom, moral reasoning, and moral discernment. Not only does it serve us in situations of potential formal war, it also guides us with a similar rationale in the case of humanitarian intervention – that is, in situations that fall short of formal war per se. Why does it continue to speak and guide? Two rudimentary elements lie at the heart of classical just-war thinking, particularly as it has been refined in the Christian moral tradition, whether in its patristic, medieval, early-modern or modern expression. While these elements are permanent and compelling, they nevertheless are easily forgotten or obscured; hence, the need for reiteration. The first is the unchanging character of justice; the second concerns the ethical obligations that attend “neighbor-love.”

Rightly has someone called justice the moral tissue that binds together a society. That definition, simple as it is, is rich with implication. And it helps explain why the ancient philosophers intuited justice to be a “cardinal” virtue. Question: Why is it that we, in our culture, routinely use phrases such as a “travesty of justice” or a “miscarriage of justice”? The reason, which we all intuit, is that we assume justice to be of the same nature for all people everywhere and at all times. One doesn’t have to be a religious person to intuit that justice is (or, should be) the same for Cambodians, Koreans, and Canadians. And if it is not the same, then it’s not justice; and if it’s not justice, then it represents, in Nietzschean terms, “the will to power,” by which I mean it is  arbitrary, authoritarian, and degrading to the human spirit. Plato and Aristotle, no theists by any stretch of the imagination, offered enduring insights into justice – enduring because they are true for all people at all times in any location (an assumption that is offensive to the postmodernist and the radical pluralist).

And because justice is unchanging in nature – equally applicable to Rwandans, Russians, and Rhode Islanders – there is no such thing as moral neutrality. That is to say, human beings cannot be “neutral” about issues of justice, because what is just, right, impartial, good and wise is fixed in nature. Justice, because it is rooted in the design of human nature and human community wherever found, is measured in permanent ways and is not sliding, relative, contingent, or culturally-conditioned. Hence, we cannot be morally neutral on matters of justice; where and when we have the wherewithal to counter gross injustice, we must do so.

At this point, of course, I can hear the standard objection. But what I am most assuredly not suggesting is that a nation or regime should “police” the world, as the common objection goes. Indeed, the wisdom of the just-war tradition is that it requires that humans and nations severely qualify intervention or non-intervention – a process of deliberation that combines moral principle with pragmatic discernment. These two – principle and prudence – must go hand in hand; the latter is needed to indicate whether and how the former applies in a particular geopolitical context.

The second element, wed to justice, is what we might call love of the neighbor. Neighbor-love is expressed, quite simply, in the so-called “Golden Rule” teaching of both Plato and Jesus. The ethic of the “Golden Rule” implies both positive and negative obligations toward one’s neighbor. Positively, we treat others as we ourselves would wish to be treated; negatively, we do not treat others – or permit them to be treated – in a manner that we would not wish for ourselves. This simple moral guideline is rich with policy implications, both at the domestic and foreign level.

But “Golden-Rule” logic needs to be further clarified. Writing on the ethics of intervention during the tension of the Cold War, Princeton ethicist Paul Ramsey set forth the argument that just-war thinking is rooted in the recognition of certain inalienable ethical obligations that all humans, everywhere and at all times have toward one another. Speaking from within the Christian moral tradition, Ramsey readily granted that extending charity toward the “neighbor” or the stranger is counter-intuitive to our human inclinations. Nevertheless, he insisted, neighbor-love is a unique contribution of Christian moral reflection to social ethics, political theology, and in the end, policy considerations. Christian theology, of course, affirms that all people, based on their shared humanity (which derives from being created in the divine image) have an intrinsic dignity and hence deserve equal regard. An important implication of this intrinsic dignity is that human beings qua human beings are to be sheltered from arbitrary and inhumane acts of oppression; so, for example, the parable of the “Good Samaritan.4

But we seek to ameliorate human suffering not merely out of a sense of duty (although such surely is our duty); rather, we do this out of an awareness of human solidarity. In moral-philosophical terms, this sense of solidarity or neighbor-love accords with natural-law ethics: that is, all human beings possess basic moral knowledge – a moral pre-understanding, as it were, and what the apostle Paul called “the law written on the heart”5 – which requires of all people that they do good and avoid evil. This moral intuition concerns, in the words of one social philosopher, “what we can’t not know.”6 Therefore, neighbor-love, supported by Golden Rule- and natural-law moral reasoning, calls us, positively, to treat others as we ourselves would wish to be treated, based on our shared humanity and our capacity as moral agents, and negatively, to relieve or prevent intolerable suffering that confronts our “neighbor” – whether that be the next-door neighbor in our local community or a nation in the wider international community. Justice and charity working together will not tolerate the oppressive suffering of a neighbor.

If human beings fail to heed these rudimentary and universal moral intuitions, if they fail to uphold the good and resist or prevent evil, as they themselves would wish others to do on their behalf, then justice is impossible to realize. To be sure, one does not need religious faith to intuit moral obligation toward others, and to perform what is just and humane. At the same time, Christian theology sharpens our awareness of both (a) the fact that justice and charity are owed to all fellow human beings and (b) the symbiotic manner in which justice and charity cohere. These moral realities apply every bit as much to the community of nations of which we are a part as they do to the local neighborhoods in which we live.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 15 August 2012 17:15