Moral jousting over war and peace
In weighing the morality of a possible attack on Iraq, both hawks and doves are saying they have all the support they need in the thought of a 4th-century African bishop.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
That's because they're finding that the ancient "just war" theory of St. Augustine of Hippo asks necessary moral questions for a modern nation considering a preemptive strike. Could such an attack be necessary to protect innocents? Have all other options been exhausted? Answers aside, both camps are using the same time-tested questions as a moral compass in uncharted waters.
For example, Roman Catholic bishops in Washington Tuesday met to draft a statement questioning the morality of a preemptive war on Iraq, the wires report. Cardinal Bernard Law said the document would question whether the Bush administration had met the ethical standards of just war. While a number of moral theorists in public essays have used the same criteria to say waging war against Iraq may be a moral duty.
Americans flock to the ancient just-war theory, scholars say, because it brings a desirable moral dimension to a pragmatism that accepts war as sometimes necessary. But although scholars generally agree the standards apply to Iraq today, users of the theory are debating whether it will provide adequate moral guidance through all 21st-century conflicts.
"The issue [with Iraq] is how can you justify preemptive strikes, and just-war theory speaks to that," says Susan Thistlethwaite, president of Chicago Theological Seminary. "But terrorism makes just-war theory mute. Just-war theory assumes a nation-state, but war is changing. Who actually are you fighting?"
"To say just-war theory doesn't have anything to say to terrorism is to overstate it," says J. Bryan Hehir, president of Catholic Charities USA and a leading just-war theorist. "It has to be adapted to a range of new circumstances.... [Moral theories] form the basis of what it means to be human, so the principles won't change."
Just-war theory presumes war to be immoral unless adequately justified. Those who would declare war must show they have six elements firmly in hand: just cause, competent authority, right values, right intention, exhaustion of alternatives, and probability of success. When fighting, warriors must target only combatants (not civilians) and expect a final outcome whose benefits will outweigh the battle's high costs.
Over the centuries, St. Augustine's principles from "City of God" provided a road map for Thomas Aquinas and others to navigate the moral terrain of warfare. Alternatives were always available, for instance, through Christian pacifism's teaching that war is always immoral and through the expediency of realpolitik, best exemplified by Prince Otto von Bismarck, which separates politics and morality so they occupy separate spheres without overlapping.
Yet just-war theory continues to claim the widest allegiance, especially in the United States, where leaders have invoked its standards to justify every major war in the nation's history.