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Just War Theory Isn’t Obsolete

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War has been a constant, more or less, for all of human history. Yet many wars are unjust, often gravely and manifestly so.

In the face of this injustice, what is one to do? Many people, the realists, accept it. War and its injustices, they reason, are inevitable. If war will ever be overcome, that moment is not presently imaginable. Politicians across the world seem to endorse such realism, even if there is not much to recommend it ethically.

In rejecting realism, we must ask, “How can war be just?” Pacifism insists that it cannot be, so all war must be avoided no matter the cost. Just war theory, on the other hand, provides conditions defining the circumstances in which military conflict can occur justly. These conditions could, obviously, take a number of forms, but historically, answers have been relatively stable. The conditions can be divided under two headings restricting the right to go to war (jus ad bellum) and delineating what constitutes right conduct during war (jus in bello).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides one formulation for just war theory—what it calls “legitimate defense by military force.” There are four necessary criteria for jus ad bellum:

-The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

-All other means of putting an end to [the conflict] must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

-There must be serious prospects of success;

-The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.

With regard to the last condition, the Catechism helpfully adds, “The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.”

During war, the Catechism demands humane treatment for noncombatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners, while also ruling out all murderous acts. Moreover, each military action must be necessary and cannot cause disproportionate, even if unintended, harm. Thus the second, third, and fourth criteria for jus ad bellum essentially continue to apply in bello.

It isn’t necessary to be Catholic, however, to recognize the independent plausibility of these principles. Is it possible that a war could be justified? Since self-defense and the use of force by some entities, such as law enforcement, are both justifiable, it is hard to imagine an argument that war is unjustifiable in principle, even if the opportunities for just war are exceptionally rare in practice.

The question then is, “What would it take for a proposed war to be just?” The principles enumerated above, basically, prohibit wars that are pointless, ill-motivated, or ill-conceived. A war must be a response to something serious; moreover, it must not cause more damage than it averts.

Yet just war theory has been critiqued recently. For instance, the Vatican hosted a conference in Rome from April 11 to 13 to discuss what should replacejust war theory, which the conference organizers allege is obsolete. I will focus on the suggestion that the reality of modern war has rendered just war theory obsolete, and on the related contention that there is something deeply paradoxical in anything called a “just war.” Both critiques miss the point of just war theory. Moreover, the conference organizers’ position is susceptible to Elizabeth Anscombe’s famous critique of pacifism.

Read more at the Public Discourse.

Further Reading: Vatican Conference on Non-Violence Rejects “Just War” Theory

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