Ethics & War

Just War Theory

The topic concerning moral restrictions on warfare that go back to some of the earliest recorded works on war.  Is anything and thus everything permissible in war?  Great empires have carried out savage massacres with no regard to noncombatants or prisoners or whether or not warfare is justified on the grounds of self-defense or divine sanction.

Just War Theory has emerged slowly in the history of ideas and culture and addresses the following conditions: Nation (or empire or community) A is justified in waging war on nation B if (1) there is no other, peaceful alternative, i.e. a last resort; (2) Nation B has without proper provocation attacked A or attacked another nation C to which A has allegiance; (3) Nation A’s intention or goal is restricted to repelling B’s illicit, unprovoked attack and securing a stable peace; hence, the ultimate intention or goal of A must be peace; and (4) Nation A does not intend or foresee using illicit means in executing the war (directly killing or torturing noncombatants).  Other conditions have been taken into account such as the likelihood of A defeating B and a calculation of the costs involved.

Other questions:

Are there acts of war that are undignified, and should be outlawed?  The idea that there are ways of fighting “dirty” is as old as Homer’s epic, The Iliad, in which Odysseus’ request to use poison on his arrow is refused.  In the Vietnam conflict there were some cases when Americans would put human fecal material on the bullets.  Was that undignified?  Some believe that flamethrowers should be illegal.  There is a ban on chemical weapons, but what if the chemicals were non-lethal and did not permanently injure the enemy?

Is it ever permissible to take hostages in war?

Is it ever just to use an “innocent shield”?  Imagine you are in a MASH, a medical unit, caring for both your own and enemy wounded.  If you moved the 30 enemy prisoners into a containment area next to your unit, the enemy would be less likely to launch a rocket attack.  Is it permissible to do so?

If, for some reason, a draft was resumed in the USA, should it include both females and males?

For centuries we have used animals in war, and this is true today as well. The Seal Team that killed Osama bin Laden included a dog, pictured here.

What are the permissible uses of animals in war?  Check out this article from the Sun Sentinel for more.

The Roman Catholic Church has consistently condemned the use of nuclear weapons in war: CLICK HERE to read more.


“Pacifism” should not be thought of in terms of “passivity.” Strict pacifists are committed to absolute non-violence, refraining from the use of lethal force. A strict pacifist need not refrain from the use of force, however, doing anything possible to prevent, say, an unjust assailant from hurting others, so long as it does not involve deliberate violence.

A strategic pacifist renounces violence, but not absolutely and without any exceptions. A strategic pacifist may observe consistent non-violence so long as it is reasonable to believe that an oppressor or “enemy” or assailant is likely to be moved by non-violent resistance. Resistance can take many forms, from hunger strikes and fasts to blocking the path of military and police with one’s body.

The early Christian church largely supported an ethic of pacifism.  Some of the arguments that refer to the Bible to support an ethic of non-violence appeal to such passages as:

David is forbidden to build a temple for God because of his warfare:

But this word of the Lord came to me: ‘You have shed much blood and have fought many wars. You are not to build a house for my Name, because you have shed much blood on the earth in my sight. (1 Chronicles 22:8)

God’s ideal is explained by Isaiah, who prophesies a future Messianic Age where there will be peace amongst all humankind:

Sculpture outside of the U.N. building in New York City: “Swords into Plowhsares”

They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. (Isaiah 2:4)

The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:6-9)

Also the seventh commandment, “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13), has been interpreted as a command of pacifism.

Jesus appeared to teach pacifism during his ministry when he told his disciples:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matt. 5:38-39)

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. (Matt. 5:43-48, Luke 6:27-28)

Put your sword back in its place…for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. (Matt. 26:52)

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. (Matt. 5:9)

Also, when Jesus is captured, and Peter cuts off the ear of one of those who came to arrest him, Jesus heals the one who was injured.

St. Olaf’s Professor Edmund Santurri offers an engaging point of view on the moral evaluation of terrorism:

CLICK HERE to read “Philosophical Ambiguities in Ostensibly Unambiguous Times: The Moral Evaluation of Terrorism”
He also offers an interesting analysis of Liberalism, engaging the insights of both John Rawls and Augustine of Hippo: CLICK HERE to read “Rawlsian Liberalism, Moral Truth, and Augstinian Politics”

Also CLICK HERE to read Gordon Marino’s Huffington Post article about responding to the chemical weapons attacks in Syria