A Critique of Just War Theory

by Benjamin Studebaker

Today I had a seminar on just war theory, the theory of when it is justifiable for one state to go to war with another. Throughout the seminar, it continued to strike me that just war theory in and of itself is a mistaken concept. Let me show you what I mean.

Firstly, it is important to establish what just war theory is and what it says. We are talking about jus ad bellum, when it is just to go to war, not jus in bello, what it is morally permissible to do when one is at war. The doctrine of jus ad bellum, when it is just to go to war, contains six stipulations each of which is a necessary condition for a war to be just. These are:

  1. The existence of a just cause.
  2. Possession of legitimate authority to wage war.
  3. The war is fought with good intent.
  4. The war has a reasonable chance of success.
  5. War is the last possible resort.
  6. The war’s harms are not disproportionate to its goods.

Much of the argument within just war theory focuses on what precisely is meant, or ought to be meant, by each of these stipulations. What is a just cause, what is legitimate authority, what is good intent and how do we evaluate it, and so on down the line. My trouble with all of this boils down to this objection–why is war different from other state policies such that it requires six very arduous conditions to be met in order for its use to be considered just, and why are those conditions so utterly unrelated to one another or to any moral theory or principle?

There is no unifying principle in just war theory. The six principles do not all derive from one moral argument; there is no final highest principle to which they all appeal. Individual stipulations in just war theory could be dropped without creating a contradiction–they do not follow from each other or from the same source.

This is important, because in political theory, we never do this. In theory, there is usually some value to which we are ultimately appealing–utility, equality, liberty, priority, rights, god’s will, some such thing. We argue that the given value is important, more important than competing values, and then we derive a system of moral behaviour on the basis of that value and prescribe it normatively to states, either in a deontological or consequentialist way. There is no one value at the heart of just war theory, no single foundation to which it appeals or which holds it together. It is simply an arbitrary amalgamation of different political concepts, nothing more. Existence of a just cause appeals to the value of justice without defining it; legitimacy is appealed to, again without definition; intent is appealed to despite its usual moral irrelevance (effects are consequentially good or bad regardless of what the goal of the effector was prior to the initiation of the effect); some theorists out and out dispute the notion that we should not fight when resistance seems futile; it is assumed that war is the worst way to resolve problems without any deliberation or consideration of worse outcomes; finally, it appeals to utility, the balancing of harms and goods.

These values are not mutually reconcilable. If, like me, you are inclined toward a utilitarian consequentialist view of justice, stipulations #1, #4, and #6 mean ultimately the same thing–paying attention to whether or not there is good that will be achieved that justifies the negative consequences of war. #2, #3, and #5 have nothing to do with consequences and are disregarded as arbitrary deontologies. For the lover of utility and usefulness, the only stipulation for whether or not a war is just is whether or not the war is a net good for the citizens of the state making the decision.

By the same token, if you are a deontologist of either the secular or religious nature who believes that certain things are morally good or bad in and of themselves regardless of their situational consequences, #1, #4, and #6 are appeals to an empirical context the importance of which you deny. #2 and #3 are functions of whatever particular deontology one subscribes to, while #5 is itself an out and out deontological claim that war should always be of last resort, asserted without any support or appeal to anything, and consequently may or may not be in accordance with whatever deontological philosophy one holds.

Since just war theory, as it stands, is neither deontological nor consequentialist, it amounts to a shoddy compromise between the two that is ultimately unsupportable because, in so far as it appeals to multiple irreconcilable moral theories at the same time, it is a walking contradiction.

Instead of one arbitrary, shoddy just war theory, there should really be several, to account for the different moral perspectives that can enter into the debate:

  1. Statist Utilitarian Just War Theory: a state is justified in waging war if the war is in the well-considered long-term interest of its own people.
  2. Internationalist Utilitarian Just War Theory: a state is justified in waging war if the war is in the well-considered long-term interest of all people.
  3. Religious Deontological Just War Theory: a state is justified in waging war if the war is the will of the deity/deities or spreads the deity/deities’ moral vision in a way that the deity/deities approve of.
  4. Secular Deontological Just War Theory: a state is justified in waging war if the war meets the moral conditions set forth in the particular deontology (of which there are many at wide variance with one another, so I’ll leave this here–see Kant for an example).

If the reader remains unconvinced and wishes to refute this critique, the reader would need to find a unifying principle within just war theory that tied it together and made it valid. It would still not necessarily be the case that just war theory as it stood would be morally correct, however. Each of the four different broad categories of alternative just war theory I included are contradictory and cannot be held all to be true–even a just war theory grounded in a unifying principle would only be one of many viable positions one could hold on the topic.

The only other alternative is to embrace a view that contradictions within theory are acceptable, a view which commits one to simultaneously believing a thing and its opposite, something I would hold to be metaphysically impossible and consequently sophistical nonsense. Contradictory positions are not mutually tenable; they are merely a sign of bad theory or indecision on the part of the theorist.