Ethics & Public Policy Center

What is the just war tradition for?

Published in The Catholic Difference on December 4, 2002



For more than fifteen hundred years, the venerable “just war tradition” has helped responsible Christians think through the many moral problems involved in deciding to go to war and in the conduct of war itself – and to do so in ways that recognize the distinctive realities of warfare. That this tradition “lives” in our cultural memory is demonstrated by the fact that Americans have, instinctively, been debating the future of the war against terrorism and the possible use of military force against outlaw states with weapons of mass destruction in classic just war categories:

What just cause would justify putting U.S. armed forces, and the American homeland, in harm’s way?

Who has the moral authority to wage war? The President? The President and Congress? The United States acting alone? The United States with sufficient allies? The United Nations?

Is it ever right to use armed force first? Can going first ever be morally imperative, not just morally permissible?

Can the use of armed force contribute to building peace, justice, and freedom in the world?

It says something important about American society that, in considering military action, we put these questions at the front of the debate. That is emphatically not the case in other countries, where foreign affairs are considered a realm of amorality. Americans don’t think that way. And that’s all to the good.

On the other hand, it should be a cause for concern that many of the nation’s religious leaders and religious intellectuals seem unfamiliar with the moral logic of just war thinking and with what we might call the just war tradition’s “location”.

Judging from the recent debate, it seems widely assumed by many religious commentators that the just war tradition is a set of hurdles – primarily having to do with the possible effects of war –  that religious thinkers set for policymakers. If the policy-makers make it over the hurdles, then religious leaders will, in recompense, offer at least a tacit blessing to the use of armed force. That, I suggest, is a very bad understanding of the just war tradition.

The just war tradition does not begin (as, against the historical evidence, so many religious leaders today insist), with a “presumption against violence” or a “presumption against war.” Why? Because to begin there is to begin with questions of means, not ends. Rather, as a tradition of morally serious statecraft, the just war tradition begins with the moral obligation of legitimate authorities to defend the security of those for whom they have assumed responsibility. Real just war thinking begins, in other words, with defining the morally appropriate political ends to be sought in a given situation: for example, the vindication of international law and prudent statesmanship by the disarmament of a lawless regime feverishly seeking weapons of mass destruction. Real just war thinking gets to questions of means – Can this be done through diplomacy and negotiation? Can this be done only by the use of proportionate and discriminate armed force? – afterwards.

Thus, in the just war tradition, means get related to ends in a morally serious way. To start with calculations about means is to start in the wrong place – and starting in the wrong place, in moral theology as well as in other areas of life, often gets you to the wrong destination.

There also seems to be some confusion about where the just war tradition is “located” – or, to put it another way, who the tradition is for. I suggest that it is primarily for statesmen – for those who have assumed the burden of moral responsibility for public policy. The proper role of democratically responsible religious leaders and public intellectuals is to clarify the moral issues at stake, while recognizing that there is a charism of political discernment that is unique to the vocation of public service. Religious leaders (like the Jesuit superiors of the United States) who suggest to the President of the United States that they have superior insight into the future of U.S.-Iraqi relations (because of the Jesuits’ alumni network with Iraqis and Iraqi-expatriates) make themselves (and, far worse, the just war tradition they debase) look absurd.

A great public resource should be better cared for by its traditional custodians.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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