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What are the main features of the ‘Just war theory’?

Examine and comment on the reasons why some thinkers criticize this theory?

War is commonly known as open armed conflict between two or more parties, nations or states. Within a war, the aim is usually to triumph over the opponent by inflicting maximum damage upon them with minimum damage to themselves. The just war theory looks at how situations such as these can be carried out fairly and justly with the minimum amount of suffering possible.

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In this essay I am going to outline the main characteristics of the just war theory mainly devised by Thomas Aquinas and then decipher how successful it is in determining how workable the theory is in the face of conflict and warfare.

The just war theory was first developed by Aristotle and Cicero in 4 BCE who said that war for the purpose of self-defence was justified. It was later expanded on by St. Augustine in the 5th century when the leader of Rome felt that the pacifist Christian attitude of the society was weakening Rome’s defences. Many were reluctant to fight believing the teaching of Jesus from the Bible that you must always turn the other cheek, so Augustine justified the idea of war to defend the church in the threatening of the faith.

The just war theory was finally wholly developed by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century who came up with criteria that should be fulfilled in order for a war to proceed. He divided this criterion into two sections jus ad Bellum when it is right to fight and jus in Bello, how to conduct the war. The theory responds to the idea that life is sacred but recognizes that in some cases it may be necessary to cause death to prevent death.

Within jus ad Bellum Thomas Aquinas states that war can only be started by a legitimate authority ‘the authority if the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged’ and that this authority must be competent. The Catholic Bishops who extended Thomas Aquinas’s theory said that the war must be declared by those with responsibility for public order, not by private groups or individuals. This in most cases would be the government but in some cases, it may be the religious leader.

Thomas Aquinas also made it clear that there must be a just cause for going to war ‘those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault’. He said that there must be a real and certain danger and that a war should not be fought for retribution. Cases where the just war theory would deem it an acceptable cause to go to war include the protection for the innocent, the preservation of decent existence and the guarantee of human rights. It was also stated that it must be defensive and not aggressive.

The third concept of the just war theory is that there must also be a just intention ‘the advancement of good or the avoidance of evil’. It stated that war should be entered into with no immoral intentions but in the pursuit of peace avoiding unnecessary destruction. Under the theory, war should not be entered into with the deliberate intention of assassinating the leader of the country.

An important factor within the criteria is that of proportionality which occurs again within jus in Bello. It asserts that there must be proportionality between the injustice that led to the war and the damage caused by the war. It means that the destruction caused by the war should not be excessively larger than the actual wrong done by the enemy.

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The criteria also recognize that war is a last resort and that other options and ways of dealing with the conflict should be attempted first and only when all peaceful ways of ending the conflict have been tried that war should be entered into. However, war should not be waged unless there is a fair chance the war will be won, as under the just war theory it is immoral to enter a hopeless war as it causes losses, which serve no purpose. There is no point in going to war if the outcome does not result in a better situation than the one previous.

A final point was added to the criteria by the Catholic bishops, which stated that both sides of the conflict must be fairly considered before waging war on the opponent. Although this final criterion is a little hard to fulfil because it is difficult to assess a situation without having a biased view.

The criteria for jus in Bello looks at how the war once entered into should be conducted. There are fewer points to these criteria but they are crucial in successfully carrying out a just war.

The first criteria are again proportionality, which was partly looked at in jus ad Bellum. It states that the damage caused by war cannot be disproportionate to the damage being caused by the threat. It is unacceptable to kill one hundred men because the opposition killed one, as that would be disproportionate. It also states that the minimum force necessary should be used to be proportional to the original danger.

The final point made in the just war theory is that there must discrimination between killing innocents and non-innocents. Within a war, civilians must not be killed intentionally and weapons should not be used on civilian areas in spite of military complexes.

The just war theory is often criticized by ethical thinkers who mainly argue that it is too simplistic, ambiguous and impractical.

The first criticism of the just war theory is its simplicity. Although the just war theory ensures that individuals and small groups cannot wage a war of their own accord and recognizes the need to have some kind of order and leadership within the war, it is simplistic to suppose that one leader however competent would be able to satisfy the needs and wants of everyone. In democratic nations, it is clear what authority would make the decision to wage war but if a nation is undemocratic then the just war theory does not adhere to the needs and rights of minority groups. In the case of civil wars, it does not suggest the correct behaviour towards a situation where the current legitimate authority is incompetent. It denies oppressed people the opportunity to defend their rights.

It may seem that to avoid the unnecessary destruction of life would be desirable but in the case of a group of oppressed people by their nation leader, they would feel that their chances of success in securing their basic human rights would be below. Does this mean that they should not fight; some may say that ‘it is better to die standing up than to live kneeling down.’ Sometimes can it be right to protest against injustice and give your life even if you cannot win, especially if it is the last resort? The just war theory does not explain what would be the moral thing to do in this case. Pacifists would argue that you could always submit rather than wage war meaning that the last resort would never outcome in war only peace.

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The just war theory also recognizes the need to have a real and certain danger before entering the war and that the aim of that war should be to rid the nation of that danger but it is unrealistic to suppose that there would be a single cause or intention in going to war. If there is more than one cause and intention there are always going to be ulterior motives and causes for going to war meaning that there cannot be a complete just cause of intention for going to war. The complex reasons behind going to war mean that there must be levels of justness that each war fits into. Is it morally to right to wage a war that isn’t a perfectly just war. When asking this question you must ask how can I achieve a just war if there is no way in which I can predict what the consequences of waging that war will be and even for sure whether it will be successful. In the case of proportionality also you cannot previously calculate the damage and injustice that will be caused by the war and so you cannot judge whether you are acting in proportion to the threat.

The just war theory is also extremely ambiguous. It does not specifically define what makes an authority competent or legitimate. One person’s view of a competent may differ greatly from another person’s idea of a competent authority. The same applies with just cause and intention some people may think that when Tony Blair decided to wage war on Iraq because of the threat of weapons of mass destruction that this was a just cause but another may think that this cause is not just as other countries hold powerful weapons and we do not wage war upon them. The just war theory is strengthened by the criteria of proportionality and last resort, which avoid the killing of innocents and unnecessary deaths, as these points encourage morality within the war.

However, just intention may justify the killing of one nation’s innocents in order to protect the innocents of their own is this a just statement. It is very difficult to draw a conclusion as to who innocents are. If we say that soldiers are not civilians as they are actively taking part in the war could you class nurse healing soldiers from the war as a civilian or not? If both sides within a war believe that they are justified going to war then they are both going to believe that all of their nations is innocent including the soldiers that are fighting and so it becomes even harder to define who is innocent within a war and who it not.

Finally, the major downfall with the just war theory is its impracticality. The theory is simply not workable in a war situation. Not only is it impractical as far as it is too simplistic and its ambiguous nature it also fails because it does not look at all the aspects of war and so cannot be used to control the conduct of the war or the decisions made in going to war.

In the case of last resort although it is a good idea not to jump to the idea of war as a way of solving a conflict to wait to the last resort is impractical. By the time a country has finally decided that war is the last resort the enemy may have prepared for such an event and so the chances of success are greatly diminished meaning that war is now not even an option. Not only that but waiting to go to war may have also prolonged the suffering of certain individuals waiting for the action to be taken.

The just war theory aims to achieve a high moral standard within the waging of war however this is unworkable even with the concept of comparative justice where a situation should be looked at from both sides without bias there will always be hostility and aggression towards the opponent meaning that there can never be a clear just intention only one of slight revenge.

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Discrimination is also a completely impractical concept. It is a good idea to have a just war theory that avoids unnecessary death and the killing of the innocent but within a war situation, it would be impossible for a soldier to always be able to distinguish between civilians and non-civilians when acting quickly upon first instincts. Also even with modern warfare technology mistakes are still made and missiles can kill innocent people completely going against the ideas put forward by the just war theory.

With the case of proportionality, it can never be said whether an action was proportional to the situation as it is never possible to know what the outcome of action would have been if it had been responded to in a lesser approach. If a country is never going to surrender can it be just to use nuclear weapons to achieve peace?

Despite the just war theory’s weaknesses, it is strong in that it recognizes that it may be necessary to go to war in order to achieve peace and so lays down a set of rules for nations to abide by when going into war ensuring that everyone has the same basis to work along perhaps making the waging of the war more moral. The just war theory provides criteria for the waging of war and so makes nations think carefully about their decisions and not act unnecessarily.

The just war theory is also strong as it can be used as a Christian ethic as its basis is taken from the Bible. Overall the just war theory is probably effective in its reduction of wars occurring if at every conflict the nation considers the criteria before waging war. However, these strengths are not strong enough to redeem the just war theory of its weaknesses. It is still too simplistic, ambiguous and impractical to be completely workable.

The theory is either going to be too simplistic making generalizations and not considering all aspects of war or too specific and exclude some circumstances. It is completely open to interpretation and with clever manipulation, the just war theory could be used to justify many immoral situations in war. It is also unworkable in that many points fail when it is realized that you cannot predict the future and that a war can never be just if both sides are not following the just war theory in which case war would never have started at all. Overall the just war theory can only be applied as guidelines for the waging of wars and not possibly a set of rules.

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What are the main features of the 'Just war theory'?. (2021, Sep 27). Retrieved August 14, 2022, from