This informed Christian response to more than one hundred common questions regarding the ethics of war demonstrates the viability of just-war reasoning in responding to contemporary geopolitical challenges.
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About the Author
J. Daryl Charles(PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) is an affiliated scholar of the John Jay Institute and the author, editor, or co-editor of fourteen books.
TIMOTHY DEMY (PhD, Salve Regina University), a retired US Navy commander, is an associate professor of military ethics at the US Naval War College.
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JUST-WAR TRADITION AND THE PHILOSOPHER
Q. 1 What is the role of natural-law thinking in just-war moral reasoning?
Natural-law moral reasoning proceeds on the baseline assumption of a shared nature in all human beings, regardless of culture or location. Part of that "nature" is a moral intuition that discerns between good and evil and expresses itself at the most rudimentary level by eschewing moral evil and doing good (so, Thomas Aquinas). Thereby it provides a common moral grammar for all people — for people of religious or nonreligious persuasion — and facilitates moral discourse in a culturally and socially diverse context.
What needs emphasis is that human beings demonstrate this moral intuition on a daily basis at the most rudimentary level. In traveling, for example, we have the option of taking the plane, the car, the bus, or the train. And along the way, we might opt for yogurt, a hamburger, a burrito, or Chinese food. None of these decisions, as they concern travel or eating, is infused with moral meaning; each has legitimacy. If, however, we were to decide between eating a hamburger and eating human flesh, then our decision would take on considerable moral significance. And if the purpose of our travel were to eliminate human beings in the service of the Mafia, our travel would suddenly acquire a moral cast. Why? One need not be a religious person to discern the difference.
The fact that natural-law thinking goes against the stream of contemporary moral and political philosophy, as well as jurisprudence, says nothing about its efficacy or its viability. It is only to point out that human reflection on what T. S. Eliot called "the permanent things" is perceived as out of step with the contemporary Zeitgeist. Perhaps the cultural or ethical relativist might offer a rejoinder. Perhaps, one might argue, as does one criminologist in the journal Criminal Justice Ethics, cannibalism has moral and social significance in a particular culture and therefore should be honored. And perhaps killing relatively innocent human beings because they stand in the way of business is permissible. Recall the cultural relativist's insistence that morality is social and culturally constructed, that there are no objective or transcendent moral guidelines for humans universally. In general, then, it would appear that moral principle, if we may call it such, inevitably comes into conflict with self-interest, not only in the cases of cannibalism or Mafia business-as-normal. And this, as one political philosopher has well argued, is the perennial problem for a society that wishes to order itself meaningfully and justly. But the fact of conflict does not in and of itself explain the presence of moral principle. When confronted with an option, why not opt for human flesh? And who is to say that killing for the Mafia is wrong? After all, it would seem that, at least in some cases, one man's murder is another man's business savvy.
While most social scientists are not in the habit of reading Aristotle, they would surely benefit from his musings on human culture. In Politics, Aristotle formalized what most human beings intuit: the community — and specifically, the political community (the polis) — is a "natural" human association — "natural" in the sense that it corresponds with our inherent nature. To argue that our nature is social — and thus moral — is to argue for what is self-evident; hence, the organic link between Politics and Nicomachean Ethics. By implication, Aristotle was arguing that the human propensity for an ordered community sets human beings apart from animals. Moreover, the capacity of language, as Aristotle well understood, is an inherently moral capacity, insofar as language can "declare what is advantageous and what is the reverse," just as it can "declare what is just and what is unjust." Herein human beings distinguish themselves from the broader animal kingdom. And although in the last three decades arguments have been proffered by certain sociobiologists and primate philosophers that human morality has its genesis in evolution and that this "evolving" can be observed in nonhuman animals, such arguments are purely speculative and ignore very basic differences between humans and nonhumans. Chief among these is that we do not expect animals to offer excuses or justifications for their actions — a moral realm that presupposes reason plus expression through language. To be able to employ a language or grammar of morality is to possess moral agency — the freedom to choose particular types of action over others, which then can be deemed praiseworthy or blameworthy.
In religious terms, Christian theology distinguishes between a general and a more particularized mode of revealed knowledge operative among humankind. Accordingly, what unites all people is the former, a knowledge of moral "first things" that is prior to any knowledge they might acquire. This "prior" knowledge — what we can't not know, in the words of one social philosopher — is precisely what one New Testament writer wishes to describe when he refers, in his letter to the Romans, to a moral law "written on their hearts" (Rom. 2:14–15). Pagan Gentiles, he notes, "do by nature the things required by the law"; thereby "they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts." Because of this "law" that is rooted in human "nature," nonreligious peoples' "consciences [are] bearing witness" and "their thoughts ... accusing" them. This is none other than the language of the natural law. It is "nature" because it describes the way things are, and the fact that not everyone gives assent to the natural law does not assail its universal reality. It is a "law" because nothing can change our essential nature. Since moral depravity is actual and total in extent but restrained in degree, the potential in humans to express depravity, devastating as it may be, neither eliminates our ability to choose to do good (freedom) nor releases us from the sense of moral obligation (culpability, the common good).
To employ the language and logic of morality is to presuppose of necessity that (1) there is a right and a wrong and (2) humans exercise a moral "freedom" with respect to particular choices. This freedom, in turn, means that people can be held responsible for their actions. Thus, for example, when people are rewarded or punished not for the moral quality of their acts but for the accident of their racial background, it must be said that racial discrimination is wrong of necessity and not merely on the basis of perspective, circumstance, or social location. This conclusion is a moral predilection that all people everywhere and at all times intuit, even when some people in some cultural locations refuse to honor it. Moral "first principles," it should be emphasized, cannot be proven or "demonstrated" through experiment since they are anterior to human experience and experiments. The proposition that "all men are created equal" cannot be "demonstrated"; it is a "necessary truth" based on the reality of human nature. For this reason, as one political philosopher observes of the moral skeptic:
The person who seeks to deny the existence of morals will spend most of his days trying to flee from the perils of contradiction and the tangle of his own argument. He will discover, again, that for the man of reason the existence of morals must hold the place of a necessary assumption or a first principle in the ground of his understanding.
Clearly, in the exercise of human moral freedom, there are differing degrees of culpability and guilt — among individuals and among nations. And these must be handled in differing ways according to a moral "system" that is consistent and coherent. Both "criminal justice" in the domestic context and classic just-war thinking draw from the same "system" of moral reasoning. Both proceed on the basis of certain fundamental baseline moral discriminations. For example, we discriminate between relative guilt and relative innocence, we discriminate between greater and lesser forms of evil and injustice, and we discriminate qualitatively between criminal and punitive acts. Moreover, both draw from the same canons of moral principle in the pursuit of justice: for example, sufficiency of cause for justifying intervention, the rationale of a greater good or right intention in applying coercive force, proportionality with respect to means, and publicly legitimized authorization for applying coercive force.
The natural law is acknowledged both in the classical philosophical tradition and in the mainstream of the Christian moral-philosophical tradition, both of which generously inform the Western cultural tradition. In Thomistic thought we observe a particularly sophisticated development of natural-law thinking. Aquinas is careful to explain the link between human intuitions and the natural law and to establish the natural law as the basis for just, rightly ordered relations. Early-modern just-war thinkers build upon Thomistic thought, applying natural-law moral reasoning to questions of territorial sovereignty and international relations.
To the surprise of many, the notion of the natural law is resolutely affirmed in the writings of the Protestant Reformers, who thought deeply about issues of government, legitimate authority, civil society, and the common good, and not merely about matters of faith, the church, and ecclesiastical culture. However deeply entrenched a present-day bias against natural-law thinking would seem to be among Protestant thinkers, it cannot be attributed to the sixteenth-century Reformers themselves. While it is undeniable that they sought to champion a particular understanding of grace and faith that in their estimation was utterly lacking, their emphasis was not to the exclusion of modes of moral reasoning that were rooted in natural-law thinking.
Both Luther and Calvin believed that the "golden rule," as it is expressed in both Plato and Jesus' teaching, was simply the restatement of a higher inviolable law, or norm, rooted in a moral universe, by which human deeds are judged. Calvin writes that "there is nothing more common than for a man to be sufficiently instructed in a right standard of conduct by natural law." It is significant that even Luther, for whom grace is so crucial, insisted that law and an uneasy conscience are the first point of contact between the Creator and all human beings. The uneasy conscience, as Luther understands it, is nothing more than the expression of an internal "law."
It goes without saying that the age of Augustine and Aquinas and that of early-modern thinkers differ greatly in the sort of dilemmas that needed addressing. Given the cultural synthesis of the Middle Ages, for example, medieval theorists developed their understanding of just war explicitly from religion and secondarily from natural law. This relationship is reversed in the Age of Discovery and the early-modern period, when new challenges to just-war thinkers emerge. These challenges concern people outside Christendom as well as a divided Christendom. Regarding the first: Does just-war thinking apply to non-Christian peoples? What about cultures and nations that find themselves outside Christendom? Do the very same just-war criteria apply? Why or why not?
Three early-modern theorists who provide an important adaptation of just-war principles on the basis of an appeal to natural law are Francisco de Vitoria (1480–1546), Francisco Suárez (1548–1617), and Hugo Grotius (1583–1645). By the year 1510, disquieting reports had reached Spain that Native Americans were being denied basic liberty and property. The immediate challenge confronting Vitoria was the Spanish vision to colonize the new peoples of the Americas. Spain was prepared to justify war with Native Americans to possess their land and seek their "conversion" to the Christian faith. Vitoria's task was to challenge the Spanish king on the basis of the unjust treatment of the American Indians. Against conventional thinking his argument was nothing short of scandalous: neither the king, nor the pope for that matter, could authorize war against the Indians. Neither religious nor economic nor political reasons alone make coercion and warfare just, Vitoria argues in Reflections on the Indians and the Law of War; Indians and Spaniards have equal rights. The only cause for war that is just is a wrong that is intuited through natural moral law, a wrong that is discernable to all people everywhere through reason. Going to war based on religious differences or "the spirit of discovery" is not justifiable. No war is just that inflicts upon a population unprovoked injustice. And even were the Indians to attack the Spanish, a just response would be only a defensive response that sought to minimize loss.
In Vitoria are to be found the beginnings of international law, that is, of principles governing all nations that are anchored in natural moral law. Vitoria's argument is significant because it acknowledges an international community of independent states or people groups that have rights, territorial sovereignty, and reciprocal duties as to conduct. Unlike just-war thinkers before him, Vitoria grounds the notion of just war not in Christian theology per se, but in moral obligation that is known through natural-law reasoning. What natural reason has established among the nations is that certain rights and privileges, rooted in justice, are inviolable. Nature establishes a bond between all men; man is not a wolf to his fellow man; he is another man. If principles of just war are applicable to non-Christian peoples, then the rationale, the very basis, for justice and peace could not be narrowly Christian. Human-rights violations and justification for going to war are the same for all people everywhere; they are rooted in moral realities that are unchanging and universally applicable.
Central to the work of Suárez are the emphasis on natural law and the matter of how states are to conduct themselves. Whereas civil law is alterable, based on customs and usage, the law of nature is universal and unchanging, governing how human beings as well as nations deal with one another. All aspects of justice flow from this reality. Under the rubric of charity, Suárez scrutinizes the role of the state in both defensive and offensive modes: "A required mode and uniformity as to it [warfare] must be observed at its beginning, during its prosecution and after victory." This mode of moral conformity, Suárez was careful to maintain, is founded upon the natural law and is common to religious and nonreligious alike.
Considered the father of modern international law, Grotius confronts the dilemma of just limits to war in much the same way as Vitoria and Suárez. The results of his work would be foundational for just-war thinking in the modern era. In his important work The Law of War and Peace (1625), Grotius argues that how nations relate to one another is governed by universally binding moral principles. These are "binding on all kings" (1.1.10) and "known through reason" (1.3.16). This argument has important implications for both the church and the state, for it places limitations on both. It also places limitations on whether nations may go to war justly and how warfare is to be conducted. Given the reality of the natural law, such rules of military engagement are valid for all people. Historian Paul Christopher has well summarized the importance of Grotius's work, observing among his more enduring contributions: (1) international law, grounded in the "laws of humanity" that govern international relations, (2) advocacy of universal, natural laws that impose moral and legal restrictions on nations, and (3) clearly articulated rules of international law for the conduct of war that specify jus ad bellum and jus in bello requirements.
Vitoria, Suárez, and Grotius understand justice to have deeper roots than mere religious confession. Justice is known through nature and is intuited universally as binding upon all people everywhere. Thus the "law of nature" becomes a "law to the nations" (jus gentium), holding people groups accountable to the unchanging demands of justice, which orders right relations. As an extension of antecedent Christian moral thinking, just-war principles find confirmation in the natural law and not solely an appeal to religious faith.
Natural law presupposes both the existence of universal moral norms and a basic awareness of these in all humans. Natural law is assumed to exist among all peoples, based on a shared humanity. It is a "natural" system of ethics that neither depends on one's being religious nor contradicts religion. Something is forbidden because it is wrong in sic. For this reason, natural-law thinking is foundational to just-war theory. The just-war thinker holds certain moral truths to be self-evident. This applies both to individual criminals, who need restraint and punishment in the local community, and to nations that violate basic moral norms in the wider human community. The very premise on which just war rests is that there is a universal "moral sense" that informs human beings, in relative terms, as to what is good, just, and acceptable over against what is evil, unjust, and unacceptable. The question of how we decide, procedurally and internationally, to deal with these gross violations is a secondary — though by no means unimportant — matter, calling for wisdom and prudence.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "War, Peace, and Christianity"
Copyright © 2010 J. Daryl Charles and Timothy J. Demy.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
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Table of Contents
Part One: Just-War Tradition and the Philosopher,
Part Two: Just-War Tradition and the Historian,
Part Three: Just-War Tradition and the Statesman,
Part Four: Just-War Tradition and the Theologian,
Part Five: Just-War Tradition and the Combatant,
Part Six: Just-War Tradition and the Individual,
What People are Saying About This
“When two of the brightest minds around put their insights together on questions about war, peace, and Christianity, you get this remarkable book. Employing a question-and-answer format, the authors seek to prompt readers of all kindswhether philosophers, historians, statesmen, theologians, combatants, or individualsto consider carefully the complex issues before them and to foster further investigation. When might war be right and peace be wrong, or vice versa? No question, regardless of difficulty, is off-limits for Charles and Demy, whose own perspectives are generously rooted in the natural moral law inscribed on the human heart, in a Christian worldview revealed in Scripture, and in the classic just-war tradition, which eschews both militarism and pacifism. War is hell on earth and the stakes are extremely high. This book provides much-needed theoretical and practical wisdom on this sadly perennial issue. In our post–Cold War, terroristic, and morally ambivalent era, it couldn’t be more timely.”
David K. Naugle, Chair and Professor of Philosophy, Dallas Baptist University
“Charles and Demy have done a masterful job not only of posing the most important moral questions surrounding war but also of proposing trenchant and sophisticated answers to these questions firmly grounded in the natural-law tradition. As if that were not reason enough to purchase the book, the added benefit for theologians, church historians, ethicists, religious educators, and seminarians is that both authors, who write as evangelicals, find that the notion of natural law is resolutely affirmed in the work of the Protestant Reformers, who themselves were deeply concerned about issues of just governance, legitimate authority, civil society, and the common good, in addition to matters of faith, the church, and ecclesiastical culture. This book’s treatment of these issues and far more is itself an excellent example of the equity that the authors think is characteristic of the just-war tradition. I highly recommend this book.”
Stephen J. Grabill, Senior Research Scholar in Theology, Acton Institute for the Study of Religion
“As one who has written about just-war theory in the media during times of conflict, I find it refreshing to be able to recommend a book that explains that just war is not a theory that gives license to the use of violence, but one that attempts morally and responsibly to address the issue of the proper use of force. This book is well done and repays the time one gives to grapple with the difficult area of human conflict.”
Darrell L. Bock, Executive Director of Cultural Engagement, The Hendricks Center, Dallas Theological Seminary
“The new threats to international peace and security have cried out for moral clarity, for a fresh appraisal of the relevance of the Christian just-war tradition. In War, Peace, and Christianity, J. Daryl Charles and Timothy Demy have answered the call admirably. Unlike most of what passes for ‘biblical ethics,’ their careful analysis refuses to use the Bible as a proof text for political propaganda. With great intelligence and common sense, the authors have assembled the insights of natural law, historical experience, political realism, and biblical theology. Those who hope to impose utopian schemes for world peace will find no comfort here. But those who seek justice as part of the command to ‘love thy neighbor’ will find much wisdom to light the way.”
Joseph Loconte, Associate Professor of History, The King's College; author, God, Locke, and Liberty
“Far too much recent commentary emanating from the Christian community on matters of war and peace has been ad hoc, sentimental, and ill-informed, without any grounding in the church’s profound and nuanced tradition of moral and practical reflection on the subject. Charles and Demy have sought to address this problem, answering even the most knotty questions with lucid and learned essays that provide Christians of various backgroundsphilosophers, historians, statesmen, theologians, combatants, and ordinary individualswith an inviting point of entry into that rich tradition. The result is a book to be grateful for, one that has the potential to improve the quality of our thinking on these essential matters.”
Wilfred M. McClay,G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty, University of Oklahoma
“This is an important book. In an era when Christians are tempted to think that pacifism is the biblical and responsible position of a Jesus-follower, this volume makes a reasoned and erudite argument to the contrary. It makes available to readers a wealth of scholarship in a format that is inviting to the nonspecialist. I recommend this book for university courses in political science and ethics, to Sunday school classes on contemporary issues, and to thinking Christians considering one of our most urgent societal debates.”
Gerald R. McDermott,Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion, Roanoke College; coauthor,The Theology of Jonathan Edwards
“Warfare as I knew it in the 1980s and ’90s has changed forever. My son, an Army Infantry officer on his third deployment to Iraq/Afghanistan, is dead center in the middle of this country’s modern-day warfareinternational terrorism. In light of the statement ‘there will always be evil men, and thus there will also be the need to restrain evil men,’ authors Charles and Demy tackle the tough questions: Are we justified in responding to and intervening in this global threat? What is our just-war theory toward rogue groups that target innocent people and our military? Does the United States of America have a moral obligation to militarily respond to global terrorism? Is all use of force just? What is the definition of classic just-war tradition and war against evil and injustice? This in-depth volume will answer these and many other pertinent questions that face our country today.”
Robert J. Keneally, Lieutenant Colonel (Retired), United States Air Force
“Charles and Demy have authored a book that carefully and clearly offers answers to some of the most important questions of our time concerning justice, war, and pacifism. Unlike some other Christian authors who approach these and similar questions, Charles and Demy maintain that justice, rather than the mere absence of conflict, should be the working principle that animates both citizen and soldier. In that sense, the authors hearken us back to the nonpacifist and non-‘realist,’ indeed Christian, roots of the just-war tradition.”
Francis J. Beckwith, Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies, Baylor University; author,Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice