Just War Tradition


Consider the war in Iraq under the principles of the just-war tradition.  Be sure to study everything below, including the excellent summary from the Catholic Bishop's Conference and the statements from Kant.  Determine where--if anywhere--US action or Iraqi action or the action of other military was at variance from the just-war tradition.  Where--if anywhere--were any of the moral agents involved in the war effort at variance with Kant's criteria and demands.  What wars are possible if we were to be in full agreement with the just-war tradition and with Kant's criteria?  Is pre-emptive strike compatible with the just-war tradition and with Kant's criteria?   Submit this paper also in the appropriate forum as an attachment.  By the way, if anyone wants to delve more deeply into these issues, s/he can also get a copy of the Geneva Conventions, which are available over the web.  Please keep in mind that I merely need to see evidence that you understand the just-war tradition, not whether you are of any particular political persuasion.  Keep your focus without getting defensive, please.

from: A statement by the United States Catholic Bishops' Conference, November 1993.

The just-war tradition consists of a body of ethical reflection on the justifiable use of force. In the interest of overcoming injustice, reducing violence, and preventing its expansion, the tradition aims at:

  • clarifying when force may be used,
  • limiting the resort to force, and
  • restraining damage done by military forces during war.

The just-war tradition begins with a strong presumption against the use of force and then establishes the conditions when this presumption may be overridden for the sake of preserving the kind of peace which protects human dignity and human rights.  In a disordered world, where peaceful resolution of conflicts sometimes fails, the just-war tradition provides an important moral framework for restraining and regulating the limited use of force by governments and international organizations. Since the just-war tradition is often misunderstood or selectively applied, we summarize its major components, which are drawn from traditional Catholic teaching.

First, whether lethal force may be used is governed by the following criteria:

  • Just Cause: force may be used only to correct a grave, public evil, i.e., aggression or massive violation of the basic 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;

  • Legitimate Authority: only duly constituted public authorities may use deadly force or wage war;  [these days and for most cases, this authority is the assemblage of representatives of all nations.]

  • Right Intention: force may be used only in a truly just cause and solely for that purpose [without ulterior motives such as, e.g., the reassignment of oil-production rights];

  • Probability of Success: arms may not be used in a futile cause or in a case where disproportionate measures are required to achieve success; [no, it’s not OK to nuke an entire region.]

  • Proportionality: the overall destruction expected from the use of force must be outweighed by the good to be achieved; [Can we be sure that not more people will die by bombs than by the evils of a dictatorial regime?]

  • Last Resort: force may be used only after all peaceful alternatives have been seriously tried and exhausted.

These criteria (jus ad bellum), taken as a whole, must be satisfied in order to override the strong presumption against the use of force.

Second, the just-war tradition seeks also to curb the violence of war through restraint on armed combat between the contending parties by imposing the following moral standards (jus in bello) for the conduct of armed conflict:

  • Noncombatant Immunity: civilians may not be the object of direct attack, and military personnel must take due care to avoid and minimize indirect harm to civilians;

  • Proportionality: in the conduct of hostilities, efforts must be made to attain military objectives with no more force than is militarily necessary and to avoid disproportionate collateral damage to civilian life and property;

  • Right Intention: even in the midst of conflict, the aim of political and military leaders must be peace with justice, so that acts of vengeance and indiscriminate violence, whether by individuals, military units or governments, are forbidden.

End of the material from the US Catholic Bishops Conference

 Rights of Military Personnel

Immanuel Kant:  

  • Kant argues in favor of a full amnesty at the secession of hostilities as part of any war.  

  • In the tradition of Grotius, he also argued in 1797 already for the judicial need of a league of nations; apparently European nations of the time already used a court at the Hague in the Netherlands for solution to some of the international problems.  

  • In addition, Kant says: “No war of independent states can be a punitive war (bellum punitivum), for punishment can occur only in the relationship of a superior to a subordinate, but that is not the proper relationship between independent nations” (Suhrkamp edition, p. 470/471).  

  • Kant also addresses the rights of military personnel: “All means of defense are permitted for the state under siege of war, except those, the use of which would make it impossible for its citizens to function as citizens. . . . Part of this constraint is not to use the state’s soldiery as spies, not to use the state’s soldiery or even foreigners to assassinate, to poison, to act as sharp-shooters from ambush, or to spread incorrect news—in short, a state must not use malicious means which are likely to destroy the confidence and trust which are necessary for the establishment of a lasting peace afterwards.” (Suhrkamp edition, p. 471).  I am sure that Kant would have also included military “high-stress and duress interrogation units” here, in part because of the damage done to the psyche of the interrogators themselves.  

  • These remarks are particularly important in view of Kant’s strong rejection of any professional army, which he says is an unsettling provocation for the rest of the world.  Instead, Kant acknowledges the occasional requirement of a citizenry in uniform, the nature of which citizenry may not be perverted by way of its military service.





Reinhold Schlieper
August 31, 2002