International Justice

CJ354 Endicott College

Just War Theory

Jeff McMahan, a philosopher who specializes in normative and applied ethics, wrote two posts for a NY Times blog summarizing and critiquing just war theory. I’ll try to summarize the two posts briefly: While just war theory can be traced to writings as early as Augustine, only since the 17th century has the theory begun to evolve in conjunction with international law. And during the aftermath of WWII a consensus began to emerge of just war principles that coincided with law as codified in the United Nations Charter and the Geneva Conventions.

Both just war theory and international law distinguish between the justification for the resort to war (jus ad bellum) and justified conduct in war (jus in bello). In the jus ad bellum section of classical just war theory, there are typically six principles of jus ad bellum: just cause, legitimate authority, right intention, necessity or last resort, proportionality and reasonable hope of success. Jus in bello comprises three principles: discrimination, necessity or minimal force, and proportionality.

In the past 15 years, the changing character of wars has become apparent and has caused many theorists to revise the classical just war theory. I think it is interesting to consider the changes made to the classical just war theory in context with human rights abuses and the massacre of civilians during war.

McMahan explains one aspect of the classical theory: the theory holds that in an unjust war fought in accordance with the principles of jus in bello, only the accessories who have instigated the killing (the political leaders) are responsible for it and have therefore done wrong, while the perpetrators (the unjust combatants) bear no responsibility and have done no wrong. But how can a combatant’s actions be considered permissible when his aims are unjust? This reminded me of many defense cases of war criminals we discussed in class. International law has decided that following orders and one’s duty is not a defense for committing human rights violations. As McMahan points out, assurance that unjust combatants do no wrong provided they follow the rules makes it easier for governments to initiate unjust wars.

McMahan gives examples of several other moral inconsistencies in the classical just war theory that relate to human rights violations that we have discussed. I definitely recommend going through and reading both posts. Enjoy!

Part 1:

Part 2:


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