Why Just War Theory is Called Just War Theory

Here’s an interesting piece in two parts laying out some of the logical conundrums, paradoxes, problems and difficulties arising from Just War Theory as it is currently articulated.

Just war doctrine as the Church articulates it is every inch a prudential concession to human weakness, not a “doctrine” and emphatically not a “dogma” in the sense of a positive teaching.  What the Church teaches is peace first and foremost.  War is to the normative life of the Church what amputation is to the normative practice of preventive medicine.  Just War doctrine is formulated to try to make going to war as hard as possible, not to give us s trigger mechanism so that we can roll up our sleeves and commence slaughter just so long as we are somewhere in the ballpark of sort of fulfilling a couple of requirements.  As the articles show, even then war is mighty hard to square with the gospel since it is fraught with so many morally intolerable situations.  Still and all, we live in this world, not a perfect one and this brutal meat cleaver morality is sometimes the best our miserable race can muster.  Just war is an act of stooping down to a race of  barbarians, because we barbarians can’t (yet) do much better.  Maybe someday we can do with war what we have (partially) done with the other endemic condition of fallen man, slavery.

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  • “Maybe someday we can do with war what we have (partially) done with the other endemic condition of fallen man, slavery.”

    A nice thought, if it wasn’t for the fact that slavery seems to be alive and well and living under the assumed name of Human Trafficking.

  • The articles, unfortunately, are nonsense. Some of it is hard to discern but some of it is much easier to identify as wrongheaded.

    The archeological record is pretty clear that prehistorical man was one very violent species with one in three skeletons showing evidence of death by violence. The oldest form of warfare was genocidal, total war. The very concept of a civilian is a later development. And what is a civilian except somebody who does not fight?

    This development, the division of people who do fight from those who do not, is critical to the creation of non-genocidal warfare. Without it, genocide’s all you’ve got to lastingly settle things once words have reached the end of the line. With it, war winners can gain lasting benefit from the labor of losing side civilians and thus self-interest leads to the short step up of slavery, cultural genocide, population absorption, and other bits of nastiness that are only preferable to mass killing of everybody on the losing side.

    If you get what a civilian is wrong, and what you give up by monkeying around with the idea of civilians who fight, you end up at square one, genocidal warfare, the most morally offensive of all warfare types. Professor McMahan just flat out misstates what a civilian is and thus leads us astray from that bedrock principle, that some fight and others do not and those who do not fight are not to be killed.

    The end of this road can be seen in modern pro-genocide movements such as those found in the Middle East, generally those who shout “kill the jews” but certainly not limited to them. If you end up stripping out the most basic defense against genocidal warfare, you are building a justification for the worst of barbarism, irrespective of your intentions.

  • Jamie R

    The “assymetrical” rights of self-defense are there because of distinction. If civilians, as McMahan wishes, take up arms to defend their own combatants, there’s no reason for the enemy to recognize any distinction between civilian and combatant. McMahan isn’t calling for a better theory of just war. He’s calling for a theory of total war.

    He also ignores legal ways for civilians to make themselves lawful combatants through, e.g., levee en masse.

    But the biggest problem is that there’s a reason to distinguish jus ad bellum from jus in bello. That’s so that we don’t have war crimes trials and mass executions of every single soldier on the other side. Without the jus ad bellum / in bello distinction, every single German solider in WWII was a murderer. Every single American soldier would now be a murderer or accessory to murder. As a practical matter, we want soldiers to prosecute a war justly even when the war itself is unjust; otherwise, the army would only have unjust people in it.

    To argue from the other side of the problem – it makes sense to recognize that the decision to go to war was made by different people and is a morally different act than the act of prosecuting a war. Deciding whether the car you’re about to fire on is likely to contain civilians or combatants is morally independent of deciding whether the country you’re about to invade is likely to pose a threat because of non-existent WMDs. It makes sense to treat the decisions independently, since they’re independent decisions.

  • Jimby


    I am not sure you should claim that just war theory is designed to make it as hard as possible to go to war. I don’t think that is accurate. It is designed to ensure that wars are only waged when they ought to be. That is, just war theory can be, at times, a spur to a nation that ought to go to war but refuses to take up the awful activity. Those instances are not as well known, because we often forget smaller wars of self-defense and because we forget how many people did not want to fight some of the just wars their nations did in fact fight. Just war theory is used to convince people to fight when they ought too.

    And I in know way mean to reduce the wonderful clarity that just war theory provides regarding the strong preference for peace. I agree completely that it reigns in irascible peoples and rulers, but it also goads sloths and cowards at key moments by revealing, at times, that the irascible people are not always wrong.

    Not the current problem in the U.S.A.–I get it–but still thought I’d add my two sense here since you were speaking universalistically-esque.

    • ivan_the_mad

      See CotCC 2308 and 2309.