Saturday, December 06, 2003

"Presumption Against War"?

Back in June 2003 the Ethics & Public Policy Center sponsored a discussion of "Just War and Jihad: Two Views of War" between just war theorist James Turner Johnson and journalist Christopher Hitchens. Johnson provides a brief account of the development of the just war tradition, and offers two recollections which I think are especially worth noting. The first concerns the principles of discrimination (against non-combatants) and proportionality, and how they came to dominate the discussion of just war since the 1960's. According to Johnson, these two principles were introduced into contemporary discussion of just war by his mentor, Paul Ramsey, in War and the Christian Conscience (1961) and in The Just War (1968). Unfortunately, Ramsey's consideration of these principles had an unanticipated effect:

". . . A lot of development of just war theory in the latter part of the twentieth century continued to depend so heavily upon Ramsey and these two jus in bello principles that the jus ad bellum side declined. 2 The emphasis was on whether you could expect to satisfy the criteria of discrimination and proportionality. Ramsey himself was bothered by this, though he had opened the door to it. He didn't like what he called a bellum contra bellum justum -- that is, a war against the very idea of just war. He himself never thought that the whole idea of just war was reducible entirely to these I two jus in bello principles. But he put so much emphasis there that many people, building on Ramsey, have made proportionality and discrimination the only principles worth looking at."

Likewise, Johnson is also critical of usage of the term "presumption against war", a notion introduced by the U.S. Catholic Bishops in the 1983 document The Challenge of Peace, and which has since become ingrained in contemporary discussions of just war (including the war in Iraq). The problem with this, says Johnson, is that such a presumption has no historical basis in the Church's teachings on just war, and -- like the inordinate emphasis on the principles of discrimination and proportionality -- only sows confusion in a debate over just war and foreign policy [emphasis in italics]:

"Historically this was an idea that was introduced around 1982, during the writing of what became the pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace, as a way of finding a meeting place between the pacifist faction and the just war faction of the American Catholic bishops. The idea was that this was something all sides could agree on: both pacifists and just war theorists could agree that there is a general presumption against war, and then they could go on from there. But it's an idea that really reshapes the purpose of the tradition. Instead of thinking of the use of force as something that has the potential of serving justice or not, depending on how and why it's used, the idea that there's a presumption against it means that it's inherently problematical, and that finding a limited justification for using force requires some serious arm-twisting and gyrations. In other words, it seems to me that in introducing the idea of a presumption against war, the Catholic bishops moved very significantly in the direction of pacifism, a position that force is always bad and that any use of it can at best be a lesser evil."

George Weigel clarifies the problem of adopting a "presumption against violence" as the starting point in the just war debate:

As a tradition of morally serious statecraft, the just war tradition begins with the moral obligation of legitimate authorities to defend the security of those for whom they have assumed responsibility. Real just war thinking begins, in other words, with defining the morally appropriate political ends to be sought in a given situation: for example, the vindication of international law and prudent statesmanship by the disarmament of a lawless regime feverishly seeking weapons of mass destruction. Real just war thinking gets to questions of means -- Can this be done through diplomacy and negotiation? Can this be done only by the use of proportionate and discriminate armed force? -- afterwards.

Thus, in the just war tradition, means get related to ends in a morally serious way. To start with calculations about means is to start in the wrong place -- and starting in the wrong place, in moral theology as well as in other areas of life, often gets you to the wrong destination. 2

  1. just ad bellum: the requirements for moral resort to war; jus in bello, the requirements for moral conduct in war, specifically the idea of non-combatant immunity.
  2. "What is the Just War Tradition For?". The Catholic Difference Dec. 2, 2002. Weigel addresses these issues at length in Tranquillitas Ordinis: The Present Failure & Future Promise of the American Catholic Thought on War & Peace, which I strongly recommend. (I have not read James Turner Johnson but needless to say it's on my list).