This Journal is sponsored by the Assn. for Christian Conferences, Teaching and Service.

ISSN: 2354-8315 (Online)



Saint Augustine
Caught by Surprise: Post-Cold War Geopolitics and the Relevance of the Just-War Tradition - An Anatomy of Just-War Moral Reasoning
PDF Print E-mail
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
All Pages

Part 3: An Anatomy of Just-War Moral Reasoning


The moral wisdom that undergirds just-war reasoning, as already observed, calls us to both positive and negative moral obligations. Positively, we qualify our action or inaction morally, we aim to restore peace and the highest good, and we reflect soberly on the what, where, why and how of interventionary force; negatively, the tradition calls us to redress, retard or prevent evil, where and when we have the wherewithal to do such. Recall, for a moment, that military personnel are not the only ones who agonize over the moral particulars of applying coercive force. Policemen and law-enforcement officers, in the domestic context, do this all the time, even when the stakes are not as great. How do they proceed in exceptional cases of violent crime? They wait, they plan, they scheme, they consider risks, they collude, they take counsel, they wait, they strategize, they measure the effects and results, they wait, and in time they either act or don’t act, or they postpone acting. And when they do act, they determine that the law and common social standards of minimum decency have been broken and  they aim to get at the root of the problem (that’s just cause); they act under the authority of their office as public servants (proper authority); they seek to restore and safeguard the wider community for the greatest good (right intention); they seek to be measured in the means that they employ (proportionality); and they take every precaution to protect the innocent while rooting out the problem (non-combatant immunity). What are they doing? They are applying “just-war” principles.

To understand the classical just-war tradition is to appreciate the moral-philosophical assumptions that undergird the tradition. Philosophically, the just-war tradition understands itself as a mediating position between the ideological poles of Realpolitik or militarism on the one hand and pacifism on the other. In the wise words of the 17th-century Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius, the tradition believes neither that everything is permissible nor that nothing ever is.

Classical or mainstream just-war thinking has no equal. It alone facilitates the task of weighing military or humanitarian intervention because it subjects to intense scrutiny the relevant conditions that must justify intervention or non-intervention. While the moral criteria of the just-war tradition over the centuries have received varying emphasis and have gone through refinement based on their social and political context, they nevertheless have been continually reaffirmed – from Augustine to Gratian and Aquinas, to Luther and Calvin, to early-modern thinkers Vitoria, Suaréz and Grotius, to 20th century- and contemporary thinkers such as John Courtney Murray, William V. O’Brien, Paul Ramsey, Michael Walzer, James Turner Johnson and Jean Elshtain.

At the macro level, just-war moral reasoning refuses to do what is fashionable in our day, namely, to separate ethics from politics and policy, Moreover, it insists that there is no gulf between domestic justice and international justice, as I suggested earlier. Permit me once more to draw analogy to “criminal justice.” As responsible public policy, neither do we tolerate police brutality and unbridled law-enforcement on the one hand, as occurs in a police state, in order to deal with deviant behavior, nor do we acquiesce passively to violent crime and social chaos around us on the other. Justice, rather, is mediate, measured, qualified, proportionate, and intended for a greater good. We look neither to proponents of political realism in the Machiavellian mold nor to pacifist withdrawers, both of whom refuse to wrestle with the complexities of maintaining relative justice in an imperfect world. For the just-war theorist, “might” never makes “right,” but on occasion it may serve what is right.

Just-war moral reasoning is rooted in what one political ethicist calls an “Augustinian realism” about human nature, which assumes that (a) humans are capable of both good and evil and (b) responsible policy must mirror this moral reality.7 At the level of policy and responsible statecraft, this “realism” will express itself in important ways. For example, it will promote a healthy skepticism about the use (and misuse) of power. At the same time, however, it will refuse to opt out of political reality altogether in favor of utopian fantasies or irresponsible non-engagement.

In addition, it will always be cognizant of the provisional nature of all political schemes, systems, and arrangements. (So, for example, democracy, while it provides in relative terms one of the best means for humans to flourish, may not always be the best for every society. What’s more, even democracies decay and degenerate; thus, without a commitment to moral principle, no society will endure.) At bottom, just-war thinkers who are moral realists will insist that the linkage between politics and morality must not be severed, since an important part of politics – and ensuing policy – is how we respond to a world in which conflict, disagreement and disorder seem the norm.8 Policy, it should be emphasized, is the meeting-place of politics and morality, and our duty to act justly depends on our recognition of this symbiosis.9

Historically, two sets of moral criteria or conditions – familiar to most – have served to define what is permissible and impermissible with regard to war and coercive force. The traditional ius ad bellum criteria which denote justice in going to war – just cause, proper authority, and right intention – provide terms under which coercive intervention might be undertaken, while the ius in bello conditions – proportionality and noncombatant immunity – govern the means by which to proceed in war. One is justified, in my view, in arguing for the inclusion of a third category – ius post bellum – since post-war considerations of justice are informed by the same moral logic that undergirds ad bellum and in bello considerations. That there is a great need for post-war moral reflection is confirmed by recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. In short, what is required to help rebuild a society after intervention has occurred?

Regardless of our differences over the justness of the U.S. intervention in Iraq, the Iraqi people illustrate the importance of extending just-war thinking to post-war scenarios. Thirty years ago, remarkably, Iraq’s per capita income was $3,600 annually, roughly that of Spain at the time. Per capita income as of October 2003 barely reached the $600 mark. Between 1980 and 2001, Iraq tumbled 50 places in the United Nations Humanitarian Development Index.10

Civil society, utilizing diplomatic efforts, the “extended hands” of the military, the private sector, non-government organizations, even the church, plays a crucial role in reconstructing any semblance of a civil society in war-torn or politically decimated regions. And in Iraq, despite the great challenges it poses, there is great hope. The reconstructive task, however, begins with education. Education has something of a “humanizing” effect, particularly in cultures that have known totalitarian tendencies and repressive rule. Thus, basic exposure to ideas, to history, to other cultures, to literature, to law, to science and technology – all of these are critical. At a very practical level, job skills will need to be learned in order that Iraqis can be productive, utilizing their remarkable creativity. A future generation of leaders must be educated – leaders who will not simply emigrate to the West where they might live the rest of their lives.

What’s more, the legal system is all but non-existent in these countries. Again, this is due to monarchical or dictatorial practices. The rule of law is meaningless; law has been entirely arbitrary. Graft and injustice have largely been the norm. Overcoming the past in this regard is particularly challenging yet essential if a people is to become self-governing.

All of the important components in a nation’s re-birth – education, learning job skills, the rule of law, self-government, etc. – will contribute to the overall development of that people. Very often, socialist practices were the nearest thing to “official policy” in the past. Learning to be self-motivated, to serve others, to make basic wise economic decisions – these require a fundamental change in the way people think. Government restricted what jobs were available, where they could work, and how much they could earn. And in the end, government siphoned off from the people what resources they had in order to maintain power.

All of these and more considerations are rooted in a fundamental notion of justice. That is, all human beings have been endowed with certain inalienable rights – rights that in many regimes are denied. Nothing less than justice is required to allow formerly oppressed people to flourish. To be sure, we must be careful not to foist upon them our culture. They must learn to flourish in theirs. We do, however, facilitate what is due all people – the choice to be free from social-political tyranny.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 15 August 2012 17:15