There is a long tradition in philosophy of arguing over the idea of a “just war,” i.e. a war which is rationally defensible for at least one of the participants. In the West, we usually trace this back to the Greeks, but apparently, it goes back as far as Ancient Egypt, and the Chinese and Indians have their own Just War traditions. I don’t want to litigate the history of just war philosophy, rather I want to suggest that the very idea of a “just war” is problematic at best and, moreover, anti-human, certainly from the perspective of the people who are going to die in that war, a war that isn’t about justice for the vast majority of them

The idea that a war can be just or ethical is premised upon the idea that there is some kind of extra-human justice or ethical framework in the world. The belief in “divine” or “eternal” justice has been commonplace for much of history, regardless of which culture we’re talking about, but it’s simply not true. The universe is not a fair place, it does not know fairness or justice or ethics. It is indifferent. Human beings invented justice and ethics – actually, it’s probably more correct to say justice and ethics evolved with us, as there wasn’t one specific moment in time where a human being invented justice or even multiple specific moments in different cultures where this happened. This is all to say that, as much as justice can exist, it exists because humans exist, and it is as flawed and imperfect and irrational as human beings.

Moreover, justice is relative. When we desire justice it is do to some perceived personal affront, something that has happened to us, or a family member or friend. To the extent that any of us desire justice on issues that do not concern us personally, this is a projection of our own desires on to the world.

The realization that justice is a human construct is relatively recent1 and for most of human history, people believed justice was divine or, at the very least, extra-human. (This fallacious belief persists today, perhaps in the vast majority of people.) Philosophers theorized about justice and the average person appealed to justice, and then (some) governments attempted to make just laws and render just judgments.

But, in actuality, every theory of justice was biased, every demand for justice was biased, every “just” policy was biased, every court judgment was biased. And all (or, at the very least the vast, vast majority) of these biased attempts at or demands for justice were self-serving. 2 Nowhere is this more clear than with the “just war” theories.

Albert Schweitzer once claimed, “all life is life that wants to live.” That has always resonated with me. I don’t want to die. My girlfriend doesn’t want to die. Our dog doesn’t want to die. The flies my dog tries to eat don’t want to die. If we use this idea as our launchpad for our ethics, death is basically the worst thing that can happen to us. (I’m confining myself to human life here because expanding this idea to “all life” gets very, very difficult.)

But I think “no killing” is not quite enough. I think we should extend this idea further to believe that, in addition to wanting to live, people want to be treated well or, at the very least, as others want to be treated. The opposite of this treatment is therefore bad. As Judith Shklar puts it, “cruelty is the worst thing we do” – cruelty being the deliberate/intentional infliction of pain. I think this is an acceptable ethical base – human beings want to be treated well, therefore all human beings have, at the very least, an ethical responsibility not to intentionally treat others badly, and definitely shouldn’t kill other humans. You can certainly argue we need a stronger ethical standard than this and that this is a bare minimum, and that’s fine. (My point is that even a bare minimum ethical standard comes into conflict with the idea of a just war.)

If we want to avoid or prevent cruelty much or most of the time, this eliminates violence as a recourse to solving problems. But let’s grant that this ethical framework of ours is aspirational, that people are indeed cruel every day and violent every day. Let’s further grant that sometimes, in order to prevent cruelty, violence must be employed (i.e. the police arresting somebody who has committed an act of violence).3

People who are inclined to argue from first principles might use the state’s legitimate use of force as the jumping off point for trying to argue for just wars. I.e., just as the state can use force internally to punish violent or cruel people and prevent further violence/cruelty so can the state use force externally to punish or to prevent. This kind of analogous thinking strikes me as similar to claiming that the state’s finances should reflect that of a nuclear family’s, i.e. it claims to completely different situations are similar.

If we aren’t anarchists and grant that the State should have a monopoly over violence within its territory, it’s hard to say how that would extend outside of its territory, unless of course there was some kind of supranational organization that could be responsible. Since there isn’t – the UN isn’t in the position to actually resolve all interstate disputes – we’re left with the question of how to apply the idea of justice to disputes between states, particularly those involving violence of some kind.

Fortunately, philosophy has provided us with Latin phrases to defend the use of violence internationally, which makes it totally okay to kill people and have people kill people.

Jus ad bellum (“the right to go to war”)

The most common reason countries claim they can fight just wars is because the “cause” is just.

Is there a cause that you think justifies your death? It doesn’t matter what the cause is, merely if you believe in one. Because, I would argue, if there isn’t a cause that you would die for, it’s hardly just to believe there is a cause that someone else other than you should die for in your stead. If you do not believe that you should die for a cause, who are you to decide that another person, with the same desire to live, should die for a cause?

But that is essentially what someone arguing for a just war for a just cause believes – the cause is just and right enough that other people should die for it. But nobody should have to die for someone else’s cause. (At least that’s true if you believe that all life is life that wants to live.)

The arrogance of believing you have a cause that is so right and just that other people should die for it is just galling. It was one thing when most people believed in fairy tales about gods and bloodlines determining who should rule but now there is literally no “just cause” great enough for one person to send someone else to their death.

There are other claims for just wars:

  • “comparative justice” – one country must have suffered a greater injustice than another, which feels like a complete cop out and allows for completely subjective rationalizing over the reasons for war
  • “competent authority” – only states can wage war, which is not true in real life
  • “right intention” – basically the just cause argument with an even worse name (“I have the right intention to kill you!”)
  • “probability of success” – you should be likely to win, which doesn’t deter states from starting wars in real life
  • “last resort” – you’ve exhausted all peaceful alternatives – honoured more often in the breach, perhaps
  • “proportionality” – benefits outweigh the costs but from the perspective of the people about to die, there is no proportionality.

If we believe that all human life is life that wants to live, how is any of the above justifiable? To the people who could die, what about any of these justifications is actually justifiable? Would you die for these reasons?

If we go a step further and believe that cruelty is the worst thing we do, all of this is even less justifiable. For example, “right intention” doesn’t make cruelty less cruel. Nor does “proportionality.”

No Just Wars

As humans, we have a strong desire to rationalize our behaviour and the behaviour of those we support, including our family, our friends and our country. Many of us, if not most of us, also have the belief that the world we live in is fair. If the world is fair, it’s the consequences of our country’s actions that help us rationalize its behaviour. Wars our country fights are just. If we lose, it’s because of something our countrymen did to undermine our just cause.

At bottom, the desire to claim a war is just is basically a cynical propaganda exercise or rationalization or both. (I wouldn’t be surprised that the claim that a war is just normally starts out as rationalization by the aggrieved parties, and then those around them try to turn that into a propaganda exercise.) But why do the rest of us fall for it so often? Why do lay people with no stakes in historical wars that ended before our lives began argue about whether or not a war was just?

I think we do this in large part due to the Just World Fallacy, the subconscious belief most of us have that the world is actually fair. We do this mostly with previous wars, which we weren’t around for, simply by deciding the victor was the just side. When our preferred side lost, we can assign blame for the loss on some fatal flaw which made our side deserve to lose. As in sports when we assign post hoc deservingness judgments to the winning teams or athletes, or even in gambling when we decide someone is a particularly good gambler because they got lucky, we want the winner to deserve it and the loser to deserve it. Then, when the next war comes along, and we’re on the side of whoever is urging us on to war, all of this comes back. We listen favourably to arguments for war or we create arguments to make the war seem just if our leaders are doing a particularly bad job of explaining why the war should happen. Like that time the United States invaded Iraq because of September 11th.

Wars Might Be Necessary But They Cannot Be Just

Wars happen. They have always happened and they will most likely continue to happen, even as they happen less and less frequently. Some wars are necessary. I personally would argue that World War II was necessary and that the Korean War was necessary, to pick two wars my country was involved in. These facts don’t mean we should pretend that wars are anything other than self-serving for the leaders who decide we should fight. We shouldn’t clothe mass killing and cruelty in the language of justice. There is no justice to war. There is no justice in war. 4 Let’s accept that war is bad and that it is an unfortunate aspect of the human condition. Maybe one day we’ll be without it. But, for now, let’s stop lying to ourselves about why we fight.

  1. Morality evolved in three separate ways, as far as we know: The first is the “morality of sympathy”, or not wanting another creature to experience harm. The second form is the “morality of fairness”, or wanting someone else to be treated like you want to be treated. The last form is the morality of justice”, or believing everyone should follow the same rules. All of these moralities are completely intertwined with our ideas of justice (especially the last one, obviously), and all of these desires are relative to our immediate community, not the world at large. If the desire for justice is something that indeed evolved, it evolved for small groups of people, not for nation states.
  2. My two favourite examples of bias in philosophy are Hegel spending inordinate amounts of time coming up with an elaborate theory of history only to conclude that the culmination of history was the German monarchy he happened to be living in at the time and Rawls’ supposedly objective thought experiment that ended up defending the American welfare state he just happened to be living in at the time. We’re not good at being objective when it comes to justice and morality.
  3. Let’s assume that anarchist claims that we can live in a society without a government monopolizing the use of force are not legitimate. If you are an anarchist and disagree, I look forward to hearing about your successful free society sometime in the future.
  4. There’s no perfect justice period, but that doesn’t mean we should stop striving for some semblance of justice in our lives and societies.
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