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Just War Theory is a doctrine of military ethics of Roman philosophical and Catholic origin[1][2] studied by moral theologians, ethicists and international policy makers which holds that a conflict can and ought to meet the criteria of philosophical, religious or political justice, provided it follows certain conditions.



The idea that resorting to war can only be just under certain conditions goes back at least to Cicero.[3] However its importance is connected to Christian medieval theory beginning from Augustine of Hippo[4] and Thomas Aquinas.[5] The first work dedicated specifically to it was De bellis justis of Stanisław of Skarbimierz, who justified war of the Kingdom of Poland with Teutonic Knights. Francisco de Vitoria justified conquest of America by the Kingdom of Spain. With Alberico Gentili and Hugo Grotius just war theory was replaced by international law theory, codified as a set of rules, which today still encompass the points commonly debated, with some modifications.[citation needed] The importance of the theory of just war faded with revival of classical republicanism beginning with works of Thomas Hobbes.

The Just War theory is an authoritative Catholic Church teaching confirmed by the United States Catholic Bishops in their pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response, issued in 1983. More recently, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraph 2309, lists four strict conditions for "legitimate defense by military force":

  • 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 it 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. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

While Nicholas Adams claims such views have a long tradition, critics claim the application of Just War is only relativistic, and directly contradicts more universal philosophical traditions such as the Ethic of reciprocity.[citation needed] Secular humanists may accept just war theory based on universal ethics without reference to Christian morality.

Just War theorists combine both a moral abhorrence towards war with a readiness to accept that war may sometimes be necessary. The criteria of the just war tradition act as an aid to determining whether resorting to arms is morally permissible. Just War theories are attempts "to distinguish between justifiable and unjustifiable uses of organized armed forces"; they attempt "to conceive of how the use of arms might be restrained, made more humane, and ultimately directed towards the aim of establishing lasting peace and justice."[6]

The Just War tradition addresses the morality of the use of force in two parts: when it is right to resort to armed force (the concern of jus ad bellum) and what is acceptable in using such force (the concern of jus in bello).[7] In more recent years, a third category — jus post bellum — has been added, which governs the justice of war termination and peace agreements, as well as the prosecution of war criminals.

Libertarian scholar Murray Rothbard stated, "a just war exists when a people tries to ward off the threat of coercive domination by another people, or to overthrow an already-existing domination. A war is unjust, on the other hand, when a people try to impose domination on another people, or try to retain an already existing coercive rule over them."[8]

Criteria of Just War theory

Just War Theory has two sets of criteria. The first establishing jus ad bellum, the right to go to war; the second establishing jus in bello, right conduct within war.[9]


Jus ad bellum

Just cause
The reason for going to war needs to be just and cannot therefore be solely for recapturing things taken or punishing people who have done wrong; innocent life must be in imminent danger and intervention must be to protect life. A contemporary view of just cause was expressed in 1993 when the US Catholic Conference said: "Force may be used only to correct a grave, public evil, i.e., aggression or massive violation of the basic human rights of whole populations."
Comparative justice
While there may be rights and wrongs on all sides of a conflict, to override the presumption against the use of force, the injustice suffered by one party must significantly outweigh that suffered by the other. Some theorists such as Brian Orend omit this term, seeing it as fertile ground for exploitation by bellicose regimes.
Legitimate authority
Only duly constituted public authorities may wage war.
Right intention
Force may be used only in a truly just cause and solely for that purpose—correcting a suffered wrong is considered a right intention, while material gain or maintaining economies is not.
Probability of success
Arms may not be used in a futile cause or in a case where disproportionate measures are required to achieve success;
Last resort
Force may be used only after all peaceful and viable alternatives have been seriously tried and exhausted or are clearly not practical. It may be clear that the other side is using negotiations as a delaying tactic and will not make meaningful concessions.
The anticipated benefits of waging a war must be proportionate to its expected evils or harms. This principle is also known as the principle of macro-proportionality, so as to distinguish it from the jus in bello principle of proportionality.

In modern terms just war is waged in terms of self defense or in defense of another with sufficient provocation.

Jus in bello

Once war has begun, just war theory also directs how combatants are to act:
(Jus in bello)

Just war conduct should be governed by the principle of distinction. The acts of war should be directed towards enemy combatants, and not towards non-combatants caught in circumstances they did not create. The prohibited acts include bombing civilian residential areas that include no military target and committing acts of terrorism or reprisal against civilians.
Just war conduct should be governed by the principle of proportionality. An attack cannot be launched on a military objective in the knowledge that the incidental civilian injuries would be clearly excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage (principle of proportionality).
Military necessity
Just war conduct should be governed by the principle of minimum force. An attack or action must be intended to help in the military defeat of the enemy, it must be an attack on a military objective, and the harm caused to civilians or civilian property must be proportional and not excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated. This principle is meant to limit excessive and unnecessary death and destruction.

Ending a war: Jus post bellum

In recent years, some theorists, such as Gary Bass, Louis Iasiello and Brian Orend, have proposed a third category within Just War theory. Jus post bellum concerns justice after a war, including peace treaties, reconstruction, war crimes trials, and war reparations. Orend, for instance, proposes the following principles:

Just cause for termination
A state may terminate a war if there has been a reasonable vindication of the rights that were violated in the first place, and if the aggressor is willing to negotiate the terms of surrender. These terms of surrender include a formal apology, compensations, war crimes trials and perhaps rehabilitation. Alternatively, a state may end a war if it becomes clear that any just goals of the war cannot be reached at all or cannot be reached without using excessive force.
Right intention
A state must only terminate a war under the conditions agreed upon in the above criteria. Revenge is not permitted. The victor state must also be willing to apply the same level of objectivity and investigation into any war crimes its armed forces may have committed.
Public declaration and authority
The terms of peace must be made by a legitimate authority, and the terms must be accepted by a legitimate authority.
The victor state is to differentiate between political and military leaders, and combatants and civilians. Punitive measures are to be limited to those directly responsible for the conflict. Truth and reconciliation may sometimes be more important than punishing war crimes.
Any terms of surrender must be proportional to the rights that were initially violated. Draconian measures, absolutionist crusades and any attempt at denying the surrendered country the right to participate in the world community are not permitted.

Alternative theories

  • Militarism - Militarism is the belief that war is not inherently bad but can be a beneficial aspect of society.
  • Realism - The core proposition of realism is a skepticism as to whether moral concepts such as justice can be applied to the conduct of international affairs. Proponents of realism believe that moral concepts should never prescribe, nor circumscribe, a state's behaviour. Instead, a state should place an emphasis on state security and self-interest. One form of realism - descriptive realism - proposes that states cannot act morally, while another form - prescriptive realism - argues that the motivating factor for a state is self-interest. Just wars that violate Just Wars principles effectively constitute a branch of realism.
  • Revolution and Civil War - Just War Theory states that a just war must have just authority. To the extent that this is interpreted as a legitimate government, this leaves little room for revolutionary war or civil war, in which an illegitimate entity may declare war for reasons that fit the remaining criteria of Just War Theory. This is less of a problem if the "just authority" is widely interpreted as "the will of the people" or similar. Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions side-steps this issue by stating that if one of the parties to a civil war is a High Contracting Party (in practice, the state recognised by the international community,) both Parties to the conflict are bound "as a minimum, the following [humanitarian] provisions." Article 4 of the Third Geneva Convention also makes clear that the treatment of prisoners of war is binding on both parties even when captured soldiers have an "allegiance to a government or an authority not recognized by the Detaining Power."
  • Nonviolent struggle - The "just war" criterion of "last resort" requires believers to look for alternative means of conflict. The methods of nonviolent action permit the waging of political struggle without resort to violence. Historical evidence and political theory can be examined to determine whether nonviolent struggle can be expected to be effective in future conflicts. If nonviolent action is determined effective, then the requirements for "just war" are not met.[10]
  • Absolutism - Absolutism holds that there are various ethical rules that are absolute. Breaking such moral rules is never legitimate and therefore is always unjustifiable.
  • Pacifism - Pacifism is the belief that war of any kind is morally unacceptable and/or pragmatically not worth the cost. Pacifists extend humanitarian concern not just to enemy civilians but also to combatants, especially conscripts.
  • Right of self-defence - The theory of self-defence based on rational self-interest maintains that the use of retaliationary force is justified against repressive nations that break the zero aggression principle. In addition, if a free country is itself subject to foreign aggression, it is morally imperative for that nation to defend itself and its citizens by whatever means necessary. Thus, any means to achieve a swift and complete victory over the enemy is imperative. This view is prominently held by Objectivists.[11]
  • Consequentalism - The moral theory most frequently summarized in the words "the end justifies the means."

List of just war theorists

See also


  1. ^ The first philosophers of just war were Aristotle and Cicero, and the first theologians St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas
  2. ^ "Just War Theory [The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]". 2009-02-10. Retrieved 2010-03-16. 
  3. ^ "Religion & Ethics - Just War Theory - introduction". BBC. Retrieved 2010-03-16. 
  4. ^ Christians and War: Augustine of Hippo and the "Just War Theory"
  5. ^ Christians and War: Thomas Aquinas refines the "Just War" Theory
  6. ^ "". Retrieved 2010-03-16. 
  7. ^ "Home > Publications >". 1998-09-01. Retrieved 2010-03-16. 
  8. ^ [1] This article is based on the talk given by the late Murray N. Rothbard at the Mises Institute’s Costs of War conference in Atlanta, May 1994. It was published in the book of the same name. The audio file of this talk can be found at [2]
  9. ^ Childress, James F. (1978). "Just-War Theories: The Bases, Interrelations, Priorities, and Functions of Their Criteria". Theological Studies 39: 427–45. 
  10. ^ Sharp, Gene, "Beyond just war and pacifism: nonviolent struggle toward justice, freedom and peace" Ecumenical Review, April, 1996.
  11. ^ "'Just War Theory'" vs. American Self-Defence, by Yaron Brook and Alex Epstein

Further reading

  • Benson, Richard. (The Just War Theory: A traditional Catholic moral view), The Tidings (2006). (Showing the Catholic view in three points, including John Paul II's position concerning war)
  • Brough, Michael W., John W. Lango, Harry van der Linden, eds., Rethinking the Just War Tradition (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2007). Discusses the contemporary relevance of just war theory. Offers an annotated bibliography of current writings on just war theory.
  • Fotion, Nicholas. War and Ethics (London, New York: Continuum, 2007). ISBN 0-8264-9260-6. A defence of an updated form of just war theory.
  • Heindel, Max. The Rosicrucian Philosophy in Questions and Answers - Volume II (The Philosophy of War, World War I reference, ed. 1918), ISBN 0-911274-90-1 (Describing a philosophy of war and just war concepts from a Rosicrucian point of view)
  • Khawaja, Irfan. Review of Larry May, War Crimes and Just War, in Democratiya 10, ([3]), an extended critique of just war theory.
  • MacDonald, David Roberts. Padre E. C. Crosse and 'the Devonshire Epitaph': The Astonishing Story of One Man at the Battle of the Somme (with Antecedents to Today's 'Just War' Dialogue), 2007 Cloverdale Books, South Bend. ISBN 978-1-929569-45-8
  • O'Donovan, Oliver. The Just War Revisited (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
  • Ramsey, Paul. The Just War (New York: Scribners,1969).
  • Steinhoff, Uwe. On the Ethics of War and Terrorism (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007). Covers the basics and some of the most controversial current debates.
  • Walzer, Michael. Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, 4th ed., (New York: Basic Books, 1977). ISBN 0-465-03707-0.
  • Walzer, Michael. Arguing about War, (London: Yale University Press, 2004). ISBN 978-0-300-10978-8.
  • v. Starck, Christian (Hrsg.): Kann es heute noch gerechte Kriege geben?, Wallstein-Verlag 2008

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010
(Redirected to Just war theory article)

From Wikiquote

Just war theory is the attempt to distinguish between justifiable and unjustifiable uses of organized armed forces.


  • Pax melior est quam iustissimum bellum.
    • Translation: Peace is better than the most just war.
  • .מלחמת שלום הגליל היתה מהמוצדקות ביותר במלחמות ישראל
  • We must not let what happened lead to a deepening of divisions. Religion must never be used as a reason for conflict. [...] With all my heart I beg God to keep the world in peace. From this place, I invite both Christians and Muslims to raise an intense prayer to the One, almighty God whose children we all are, that the supreme good of peace may reign in the world.
    • Pope's spokesman Dr. Joaqun Navarro-Valls: ...the pope believes that the extremists directly responsible for the attacks on the United States could and should be distinguished from the wider threat of Islamic fundamentalism and that any response should be limited to punishing the guilty.
    • Pope John Paul II, Astana, Kazakhstan, September 23, 2001 [1]
  • The war in Afghanistan against apocalyptic terrorism qualifies in my understanding as the first truly just war since World War II.
  • I say: NO TO WAR! War is not always inevitable. It is always a defeat for humanity. International law, honest dialogue, solidarity between states, the noble exercise of diplomacy; these are methods worthy of individuals and nations in resolving their differences. I say this as I think of those who still place their trust in nuclear weapons, and as I think of the all too numerous conflicts which continue to hold hostage our brothers and sisters in humanity. Bethlehem reminds us of the unresolved crisis in the Middle East, where two peoples, Israeli and Palestinian, are called to live side by side, equally free and sovereign, in mutual respect. Faced with the constant degeneration of the crisis in the Middle East, I say to you that the solution will never be imposed by recourse to terrorism or armed conflict, as if military victories could be the solution. And what are we to say about the threat of a war which could strike the people of Iraq, the land of the Prophets, a people already sorely tried by more than 12 years of embargo? War is never just another means that one can choose to employ for settling differences between nations. As the charter of the United Nations Organisation and international law itself remind us, war cannot be decided upon, even when it is a matter of ensuring the common good, except as the very last option and in accordance with very strict conditions, without ignoring the consequences for the civilian population both during and after the military operations.
  • When war, as in these days in Iraq, threatens the fate of humanity, it is ever more urgent to proclaim, with a strong and decisive voice, that only peace is the road to follow to construct a more just and united society. Violence and arms can never resolve the problems of men.
  • Constantine was converted to Christianity by a vision that came to him on the eve of the battle of Milvian Bridge: "He saw with his own eyes, up in the sky and resting over the sun, a cross-shaped trophy formed from light, and a text attached to it which said, 'By this sign, conquer' ". Soon the cross would morph from being a hated symbol of Roman brutality into the universally recognizable logo of the Holy Roman Empire. Within a century, St Augustine would develop the novel idea of just war, trimming the church's originally pacifist message to the needs of the imperial war machine.
  • Every decision to launch a war, even if it is the most justified and clear decision, is never easy. [...] It should not be utilized in the political race of those who wish to rise to power even at the price of baseless self-destruction, which lacks logic and boundaries – all this around a war which was the most justified.
  • Ron Paul: I strongly believe that there is a Christian doctrine of just war. [..] Christ came here for spiritual reasons, not secular war and boundaries and geography. And yet, we are now dedicating so much of our aggressive activity in the name of God, but God, he is the Prince of Peace. That is what I see from my God and through Christ. I vote for peace.
    Sam Brownback: I vote for peace, too. But I also vote for the protection of life, and I vote for the strength of America, and I vote for our place in the world. This is a key country, and it's a country that is standing up to Islamic fascism, and it's a country that is standing up for the rights of individuals, and I think there is a just war that is going on in Iraq. --Values Voter Presidential Debate, September 17, 2007 [5] [6]
  • There are two rules of war that have not yet been invalidated by the new world order. The first rule is that the belligerent nation must be fairly sure that its actions will make things better; the second rule is that the belligerent nation must be more or less certain that its actions won't make things worse.
    • Martin Amis, "The Palace of the End", The Guardian, 4 March 2003

See also

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