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:
- The existence of a just cause.
- Possession of legitimate authority to wage war.
- The war is fought with good intent.
- The war has a reasonable chance of success.
- War is the last possible resort.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Unifying Value: Life
1 The existence of a just cause: An unjust cause, such as those propagated by Nazi Germany, are inherently anti-life. Thus, only just causes will fit the value.
2 Possession of legitimate authority to wage war: Those without the proper wisdom to lead will result in unnecessary death.
3 The war is fought with good intent: Evil intentions beget evil results. See number 1 for the same exact thing.
4 The war has a reasonable chance of success: Going into a doomed failure is a meaningless sacrifice of life.
5 War is the last possible resort: Any option that does not cost life is inherently better than war, which does.
6 The war’s harms are not disproportionate to its goods: E.g. don’t bomb 6 million people to save $10.
Number 3 also makes sense under life an a unifying value when a Christian view is used, as sinful thoughts are considered equally harmful to sinful actions.
Under a preserving life principle, one would be obliged to allow without resorting to violence every kind of evil and thievery save murder and genocide, because the only available moral use of war would be as a means to prevent more killing. This means that if a state invades your territory but promises not to kill anyone as long as you give them everything you have, you’re obliged to consent.
The key problem is that a life principle puts the quantity of lives above their quality. The goal becomes the mere maximisation of births and minimisation of deaths, irrespective of how abiding by that principle harms the living in other ways.
Well, who said a unified theory would be a good one automatically? There are a surprising number of people who value quantity of life over anything else. Certain sects of Christianity display this so (un)elegantly: anything that could prevent life (birth control, condoms, abortion) is a sin, anything that could end a life (murder, euthanasia, suicide) is a sin. The only option is to create as many souls as possible to love Jesus. What happens on earth is secondary.
In that case, would not the theory of just war being proposed merely be one of religious deontology in which war is justified when it is the will of the deity or deities, with the will of the deities being termed to mean the propagation of life?
Exactly. By that token, they are indeed unified under one principle: direct contrast to your original claim.
To speak more plainly, if the origin of the “life” principle is religion, it’s a religious deontology. If it’s about promoting the best consequences where “best consequences” are thought to be whatever produces the most life, it’s consequentialist. If it’s about not killing because not killing is really important as a principle, it’s secular deontology. It doesn’t seem to be distinct from the various theories I discussed.
You’re right, it demands one or more flat contradictions between life and one or more of the six principles. Upon thinking a little harder, I think I’ve found some:
1. Authority and wisdom are not synonymous. Only states have the authority to wage war, and states are not necessarily wise; by the same token, many non-state actors can be wise. If the goal is to preserve life and say, the Nazis have invaded my country and my government foolishly abdicates and I and my fellow citizens can either permit the Nazis to kill people or fight them without legitimate authority to fight, the second principle and the principle of life are in conflict.
2. Imagine that I, as the leader of an alien civilisation, decide to wage a war of conquest on Germany in 1938. My intentions are terrible, but in destroying Germany I promote life by preventing World War II. The principle of life can thereby conflict with the third principle.
3. Only if “harm” is assumed to mean exclusively “destruction of life” does the 6th principle work with a life principle. It would not be disproportionate to wage a war which will kill a single person in order to prevent all the farmland in Alabama from being destroyed, even though the destruction of that farmland would not result in any deaths. The sixth principle would seem to permit war to prevent this, but a principle of life would forbid a war deemed seemingly just by the sixth principle.
One to remember is that the only way to break the system is to have a situation in which all are met and the principle of life is averted. If any one of the six do not fit the action, then the action is automatically deemed immoral.
The situation in which Nazis invade and the government abdicates, the obvious first alternative to war is flight. Flight would presumably lower the death toll as opposed to ending up with high casualties on both sides.
In the alien scenario, you as the leader has immoral thoughts, which in Christian morals, is equivalent to murder. The life principle is still broken.
Understandably, you may find that argument rather weak. The other question is, of course, the impact on the Germans. If an alien invasion laid waste to several million Germans, the death toll would obviously be very high. (Of course, the scenario is hard to work with, as the veil of ignorance on the aliens’ part makes motives less relevant to others involved. People, especially those with authority to declare war, have a notion of what is going on. In the case of ignorance, the aliens cannot know whether the region they are taking is ether good or evil, and cannot be considered a part of the existing war. In this case their intentions simply lack moral value positive or negative.)
The question of farmland has two serious flaws. The first is that destroying a large amount of farmland will likely result in a food shortage somewhere, thus causing loss of life, at least in most cases. The second is that wars do not tend to be nation vs. person.
Flight does not lower the death toll because the nature of the Nazi regime is to continue to expand and kill people until it is destroyed. If you do not think that is the nature of the Nazi regime, imagine a hypothetical regime that acts in this way, such that killing all the Nazis is the only way to bring about an end to its killing. Flight becomes appeasement. Instead of standing and fighting to reduce the number of Nazis so as to weaken the regime and bring about its eventual collapse, flight permits the continued expansion of the regime (and of the group of people that it massacres).
If you’re saying that Christianity is founded on thought crime, then you have a scenario in which the Christian doctrine self-conflicts, because behaviours deemed immoral can nonetheless produce an outcome deemed more moral in aggregate. I may be immoral to wish to see every last German dead as a vicious alien genocidal monster, but I end up preserving more life by doing so, which sets my thoughts in moral contradiction with my actions. The doctrine does not seem to resolve this–am I to be rewarded for my deeds or condemned for my thoughts? If my intentions lack moral value, then you’re rejecting the importance of whether or not I have good intentions, and thus one of the six principles is being rejected.
The war isn’t nation versus person, it’s nation versus nation–say it’s just that the one person we are going to kill is the enemy ruler, and his next in line is anti-war. And say the farmland is not going to produce a famine because it’s all cotton plantations–all for the textile industry, none for edible consumption–so no one will die as a result of the destruction of the farmland, but many will be made jobless and immensely poorer. The quality of life for the people of the state will drop precipitously, despite the lack of deaths.
I’m an undergraduate student of International Relations researching jus ad bellum principles for the first time. So, I have some difficulty understanding the philosophical arguments.
Can any one please present me a critique of the “Right intention” principle?
“Right intention” is problematic because it’s ambiguous–which intentions are morally acceptable and which are not? One needs a further theory of what the purposes of war ought to be. There’s quite a bit of scope for debate over that. In the above piece, I provided four broad families of thought on the subject of what a “right intention” might consist of, each of which produces quite different outputs. So for instance, a statist utilitarian would see war to weaken a rival state or acquire wealth or resources as justifiable while an internationalist utilitarian would not, because internationalists evaluate utility globally rather than nationally. Some secular deontologists only support wars of self-defense, and so would oppose all aggressive war. Utilitarians are not constrained in that way. Religious deontologists might support wars for religious reasons that would be objectionable to all other categories. Does that help to clear it up for you?
Thanks Benjamin. That really helped.
So far, I found Jeff McMahan who holds a revisionist approach to just war theory and didn’t specifically address right intention criterion.
Could you help me if something else? Well, I could not find the reason(s) why most (at least it seems so) just war theorists do not mention the comparative justice criterion as part of jus ad bellum. At least A. Moseley and B. Orend in their online articles didn’t mention why.
Thanks in advance
Lots of theorists don’t mention the comparative justice criterion because they’re opposed to it on the grounds that they believe it encourages/justifies aggression, and lots of theorists are axiomatically opposed to aggression.
If war is justified if you have suffered a greater injustice than your adversary, then war might be justified as an aggressive tool–the injustices may have transpired pre-war, and one might initiate war in order to correct them.
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