09 October 2001

A quick refresher course on "Just War Theory":

The theory is rooted in biblical texts (Deuteronomy 20, Amos 1:3-2:3; Romans 13:1-7; etc.) and in Christian reflection over the centuries, with important contributions by Ambrose, Augustine, and Aquinas. It was pretty much carried over intact into Reformation thought by Luther, Calvin, and others.

The criteria of just war can be divided in various ways, but a pretty typical list would include:

1. Just Cause
2. Just Intent
3. Last Resort
4. Formal Declaration
5. Limited Objectives
6. Proportionate Means
7. Non-combatant Immunity
8. Reasonable Hope for Success


"Just cause" requires that the use of force be for defensive purposes only--politics, imperialism, aggression, and revenge are not permissible causes.

"Just intent" says that the objective is to protect the innocent and to restore peace and, moreover, the individual soldier has the responsibility to make sure his motives are aligned.

"Last resort" tells us that force can only be used after reasonable attempts at compromise, negotiation, diplomacy, and so on have been exhausted.

"Formal declaration" is designed to assure two things: (a) that the war is carried out by a proper authority who has the jurisidiction to wage war in the circumstance and (b) to protect the military from their fellow countrymen who might otherwise support the other side.

"Proportionate means" requires that use of deadly force does not exceed that which is necessary to accomplish the just goals--total war, use of nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons, etc., would seem to be prohibited by this unless they can be used in an extremely limited way.

"Noncombatant immunity" protects innocent civilians from being the direct targets of deadly force--this does not mean that collateral damage must be avoided at all costs, but that such damage when foreseen must be carried out only under the conditions of "double-effect." "Double-effect" is when one acts in pursuit of a good end when it is known beforehand that such an action will produce bad collateral results in addition to the accomplishment of the good end. The conditions for acting in this way are usually outlined in the following manner:

(a) the action contemplated must be in itself either morally good or morally indifferent;
(b) the bad result must not be directly intended;
(c) the good result must not be a direct causal result of the bad result; and
(d) the good result must be "proportionate to" the bad result.


"Reasonable hope of success" suggests that there are times when the greater good is either to not respond with force or to submit to the aggressors, in cases where the benefits of such surrender can be reasonably expected to outweigh the cost in human life of waging war.

Of course, even if one accepts Just War Theory in general outline, the far trickier business is that of applying it to concrete circumstances.