Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Just War Theory

It is sometimes argued that Just war theory (JWT) is of no use because it is ineffective to stop wars and is often used by governments prosecuting war as a moral cover for its actions. A further criticism is that JWT only kicks in at the last minute when the chances of a peaceful outcome is fast receding from improbable to impossible. In other words JWT finds the limelight just as the decision to go to war has been made and the government is looking around for a way of justifying this decision.

These criticisms seem to me me a little unfair. Firstly even if the slide to war has acquired a sense of inevitability the first requirement of JWT is that all peaceful means have been exhausted so there is a chance to pull back and consider other avenues, the government can also be criticised for opportunities missed or deliberately spoiled. This requirement also highlights the properly limited character of JWT because it points to the need for a Just Peace Theory, which is to say that JWT should be understood as only one specific outworking of a broader theory of the states task of pursuing justice. Its ineffectiveness in preventing war is not a failure of JWT so much as a more general failure of governments to seek justice in all its actions, in particular in the international realm.

The use of JWT in trying to give a moral veneer to an unjust war is certainly to be regretted, but appeals to freedom and democracy for ideological purposes are equally to be deplored, and these need not be discredited on account of such abuse. The only other options for a critique of warmongering is an absolutistic pacificism, such a position certainly cannot be co-opted in the justification of war! However by its very absolute character pacificism is unable to engage with the specifics of a particular situation, JWT in contrast encourages a critical evaluation of the situation which can latch onto the concrete realities of states entering into peace endangering scenarios.

JWT, it should be remembered, has a role to play in evaluating the prosecution of war and military hostilities just as much as in the decision to go to war. This is illustrated in this article from the Economist on Israels actions in Gaza. In a more thorough fashion see James Skillen's assessment of the war in Iraq from a while back.

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