Hearts, minds and morals

The Ethics of War

May 25, 2007

The long history of Christian reflection on the morality of warfare, the just war tradition, has been sharply criticised in recent decades.

First, it is argued that traditional criteria cannot apply to the very different forms of modern warfare. This is quite untrue, for if one makes a judgment about the rightness or wrongness of a particular military action, the criteria used by those of us who are not absolute pacifists will be the traditional criteria. Second, it is said that the criteria are so general as to give no real moral guidance and therefore can always be used to justify wars, whether those wars are justifiable or not. There is truth in this. Too often wars that were later seen to have been unjustified were the subject of moral justification at the start.

This is a superb, comprehensive collection of the basic texts that make up the just war tradition. Some have been very difficult to get hold of and others have been translated for the first time. It will be an indispensable resource for all departments of international affairs, ethics, war studies, peace studies and many history departments.

Although just war thinking is associated with figures such as Augustine and Aquinas, there is little that is distinctively Christian about it. It belongs to the long tradition of natural law thinking, based on the assumption that we can all make basic moral judgments whatever our beliefs or lack of them. So this collection rightly begins with Greek and especially Roman writings, which provided the intellectual milieu for early Christian thinkers.

During the Middle Ages it was not just the great theologians who helped to shape the Church's thinking on this subject, but the Church's lawyers, the canonists, and particularly Gratian, whose writings are included here. Also influential, sadly mainly in theory, were the injunctions that came out of the peace of God and the truce of God in the 12th century, intended to protect particular groups of people such as agricultural workers. But this thinking came to a sharper intellectual focus in later Dominicans, especially Francisco de Vitoria. With de Vitoria, we have the beginnings of a clear distinction between ius ad bellum (the conditions that must be met for military action to be seen as morally justified at the outset) and ius in bello (the morality of the conduct of the war). De Vitoria said of the latter that the innocent (non-combatants or, in a later formulation, those not directly contributing to the military aspect of the war effort), must not be the direct object of attack. He recognised of course that the innocent too often get killed as a result of an attack on a military target. In this case, evils must be weighed, and it could be that even in a just war, a legitimate attack on a military target might be morally wrong if the unintended but foreseen consequences on the innocent outweighed any good that might be achieved.

De Vitoria is usually regarded not just as a theologian and moralist but as a founder of international law. So is Grotius, the Dutch jurist who continued this tradition in the Protestant world, who also appears here.

During the Cold War, with the advent of nuclear weapons, the just-war tradition once more came to the fore in Christian thinking as the principles of discrimination and proportion used by de Vitoria were crucial for thinking about the possible use of these terrible weapons. Strangely, it was an American Methodist, Paul Ramsey, who brought a new precision to the tradition, which until then would have been regarded as essentially Catholic in its approach.

It was interesting that both those who supported a policy of nuclear deterrence and nuclear pacifists (that is, non-pacifists who would under no circumstances support the use of nuclear weapons), appealed to the same criteria. So it is good to have some of Ramsey's writing here, as well as a famous essay by Elizabeth Anscome.

In the modern period, most of the texts are by Americans, because some of the best writing has come from there, including that by the historian of the tradition James Turner Johnson. In Britain, the most influential thinker, Sir Michael Quinlan, was precluded by his job in the Ministry of Defence from writing much, but it is hoped that in a subsequent edition one of his essays might be included, as well as something by Sir Michael Howard, who has written with such insight on this subject as an historian of war.

In 2004, a high-level panel report to the United Nations set out the criteria to be met for military intervention in the modern world. In slightly different language it almost exactly reproduces the just war criteria: a tribute to the intellectual resilience of this long tradition. This, too, is a text that should be included in any later edition.

The Ethics of War: Classic and Contemporary Readings. First Edition

Editor - Gregory M. Reichberg, Henrik Syse and Endre Begby
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 731
Price - £65.00 and £22.99
ISBN - 9781405123778 and 785

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments