Outline the concepts of just war and pacifism

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Outline the concepts of just war and pacifism

Outline the key concepts of Just War and Pacifism. A01 [21] The Just war theory maintains that war may be justified if fought only in certain circumstances, and only if certain restrictions are applied to the way in which war is fought. The theory that was first propounded by St Augustine of Hippo and St Ambrose of Milan ( 4th and 5th centuries AD) attempts to clarify two fundamental questions: ‘when is it right to fight?’ and ‘How should war be fought?’.

Whereas Pacifists are people mainly Christians who reject the use of violence and the deliberate killing of civilians but claims that peace is intrinsically good and ought to be upheld either as a duty and that war can never be justifiable. However, Realists agree that, due to the nature of humans, force is a necessary action to be used to maintain a just and ordered society.

Therefore, since the Second World War, people have turned their attention to Just War again establishing rules that can serve as guidelines to a just war- the Hague and Geneva conventions. Many Christians had taken the view that war may be justifiable under certain circumstances, and only if fought observing certain rules of conduct. Wars against the Muslim control of Jerusalem in the 11th-13th centuries were sometimes seen as holy wars which were popularly regarded as Crusades. Some philosophers based their justifications on the stories in the Bible.

For example, St Paul in Romans 13:4 wrote that rulers are servants of God ‘…for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil’. In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas gave an outline (the first three criteria of a just war) on the Justification of war and the kinds of acts that are allowed in a war in Summa Theologica. His ideas became the model of later scholars such as Franciso Suarez and Francisco de Vitoria. The first three conditions necessary for a just war were listed by Aquinas which included right authority, just cause and just intention.

These and the three additional conditions that were later included, were referred to as ‘Jus ad Bellum’-rules about when it is right and just to go to war. Aquinas asserted that just authority meant that war could only be started by legitimate authority: ‘the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged’. He wrote that sovereign authority which has been elected legitimately has the sole authority to declare war.

This meant that, there can be no private armies of individuals who can start a war and, equally, an incompetent government or sovereign does not have the authority to initiate war. Just cause, is considered to be one of the most important conditions of jus ad bellum. Aquinas once stated that, ‘…those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault’. It was considered that self defence against physical aggression was the only sufficient reason for just cause.

Finally, Aquinas wrote that the war fought with just intention, was to be for ‘the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil’. Kant once said that sovereigns could not fight wars for immoral intentions only for good motives. During a state of conflict, right intention should mean for peace and reconciliation. Therefore, soldiers cannot use or encourage a hatred of a minority in war.

Their intentions must always be virtuous. In the 16th and 17th century, Suarez and de Vitoria added three additional conditions: proportionality in the conduct of war, only entering war as a last resort, and only fighting when there is a reasonable chance of success. Hence when dealing with proportionality, a state should never wage war that causes relatively more suffering and destruction than the actual wrong done by the enemy.

Therefore, in any case, excessive violence, death and damage should be avoided. For example, it was not proportionate for the atomic bombings of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan that were conducted by the United States during the final stages of World War II in 1945. Additionally, all peaceful attempts at resolution must have been exhausted before violence is used. War cannot be chosen as a first response but as the last resort.

Also, there should a reasonable chance of success during a war. It’s immoral to enter into a hopeless war, thus magnifying the suffering and loss for no constructive reason. There have always been rules of conduct in war, although such rules have often been ignored. In Christian tradition, there are conditions of conduct that limit the degree of destruction and who may or should not be killed. These conditions were referred to as Jus in Bello- rules governing how war should be fought.

The principles include: only legitimate targets should be attacked, proportionality and that, agents of war should be responsible for their actions. An act of war aimed indiscriminately using chemical/biological weapons at the entire cities or of extensive areas along with their populations, is not only a crime against God but one against humanity and should be condemned.

Also, it is unfair and unjust of attack non-combatants (civilians, or innocents) because it is against their right and therefore they cannot be justly attacked. However, the Just war theory comes under criticism from those who advocate pacifism. They maintain that war is always wrong. Pacifism is described to be the opposition of all forms of violence as a means of settling disputes, either between individuals or between countries.

The Christian argument for pacifism is based on Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount where he rejected the option to use physical force even in defence of himself against unjust aggressors. An example includes the incident at Gethsemane where Jesus ordered Peter to drop his sword and not to resist the authorities (Matthew 26:52).

Mennonites and Quakers are two groups that emphasise pacifism. Members of this group conscientiously object to violence and have been often persecuted as a result. They believe that Just war theory ignores the essential pacifist stance taken by Jesus. An absolute pacifist claims that it is never right to take part in war, even in self-defence.

They believe that peace is intrinsically good and should be upheld whether as a duty or on that it is better for humans to live at peace than war. They think that the value of human life is so high that nothing can justify killing a person deliberately. These pacifists claim that they would prefer to die rather than raise their fists to protect themselves. This is because; killing in self-defence is ‘an evil that makes the moral value of the victim’s life less important than our own’.

They rely on the fact that there can be no justification for killing which stems from the scriptures of the bible ‘thou shalt not kill’ (Exodus 20:13). Absolute pacifists usually hold this view as a basic moral or spiritual principle, without regard to the results of war or violence, however they could logically argue that violence always leads to worse results than non-violence in other words, there can never be any good that comes out of war or violence.

On the other hand, Conditional Pacifists offer a more flexible approach which allows the use of violence under certain circumstances. Pacifism is a word defined by Martin Caedel to describe those who prefer peaceful conditions to war but accept that some wars may be necessary if they advance the cause of peace.

Conditional pacifists usually base their moral code on Utilitarian principles – it’s the bad consequences that make it wrong to resort to war or violence. These pacifists accept that sometimes our duties to uphold peace and non-violence may conflict with the duty to save or defend lives against aggression. Utilitarian pacifists claim that wars generally do not produce favourable results but in certain circumstances, they can be acceptable.

Such examples may include wars to protect people from genocide. To conclude, the Just war theory accepts that human nature is evil and most often use force to maintain a just and ordered society. Therefore, past philosophers and the present generation have offered moral guidelines that serve as justifications for the act of war. Whereas, pacifism which firstly originated from Christians believe that war and the act of violence is intrinsically evil and that peace should be the resolution of all conflicts in the society.

Comment on the views that a pacifist can never accept the principles of Just war A02 [9] Pacifism can never accept the principles of Just war due to their firm belief that, all violence or force should be forbidden. Additionally, some pacifists would argue that the advantages of the just war theory does outweigh the disadvantages simply on the ground that there is no morality towards violence and that there is no place for ethics in war.

Firstly, the criteria for a just war is considered to be unrealistic and pointless because, once the combatants have gone into battle the results of the war are unpredictable and such soldiers are unlikely to adhere to any conditions of a just war making the moral guidelines irrelevant. Pacifists argue that the results of war will always be bad since there can never be any positive outcome in war because; it leaves more damage on peoples’ lives.

For example, the holocaust that occurred during the Second World War left more harm on the victims rather than the justice the so-called Nazis were supposed to achieve. A pacifist would argue that it will be inhumane to the point of cruelty to suggest such an incident like the Holocaust was just to serve for the greater good. Therefore a pacifist would argue that war is a waste of resources given by God, a cause of immense suffering, including suffering of innocent people and they believe that war encourages greed, hatred and prejudice. Secondly, Pacifists believe that life has an absolute value.

They argue that the indiscriminate mass destruction brought about by the use of nuclear and biological weapons violates the sacredness of human life. It is though that the social and moral damage caused by war is too great, and that it should be abandoned. They maintain that non-violence and non-resistance will change the minds of, or disarm those who use violence.

Hence, Pacifists encourage non-violence resistance will goes against the principles of a just war. However, the deontological objection to a just war is favoured by absolute pacifists. Similar to Reihnold Neibuhr’s (1932) claim; it is inevitable that humans are prone to violence or the act of violence simply because , human nature is evil(imperfect). This means that most Pacifists are most likely to have a consequential approach towards the matter.

Jeff McMahan once pointed out that Pacifism is difficult to maintain as it places extraordinary limitations on individual rights and self-defence which, in an era of weapons of mass destruction and the practice of genocide, may ultimately appear unacceptable. For this reason, Pacifists may claim that wars generally do not produce more favourable results, in specific examples. They can be acceptable. Additionally, most Pacifists accept that if someone is threatened by a dangerous person then the use of violence can be permitted since it would be considered to be self-defence.

Therefore, due to the inconsistencies evident in Pacifism, most Christians still accept that the use of violence can be justified in the society. To conclude, Pacifists do believe that the weaknesses of a just war theory does outweighs its strengths simply because, it lacks purpose and morality. However , others do have different views; which means that they actually accept the principles of the just war theory.


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 19 April 2016

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