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Just War Theory

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  • Published
    30th Mar, 2022


Wars are always destructive, and thus the politics and morality of war are always in question.

  • It is rare in recent times, however, that an invasion has proceeded with so little concern for justice and morality as the Russian attack on Ukraine.


What is ‘just war theory’?

  • The just war theory is a doctrine, also referred to as a tradition, of military ethics which is studied by military leaders, theologians, ethicists and policymakers.
  • The purpose of the doctrine is to ensure that a war is morally justifiable through a series of criteria, all of which must be met for a war to be considered just.
  • Just war theory deals with the justification of how and why wars are fought. The justification can be either theoretical or historical.
    • Theoretical aspect: The theoretical aspect is concerned with ethically justifying war and the forms that warfare may or may not take.
    • Historical aspect: The historical aspect, or the “just war tradition,” deals with the historical body of rules or agreements that have applied in various wars across the ages.
  • For instance, international agreements such as the Geneva and Hague conventions are historical rules aimed at limiting certain kinds of warfare which lawyers may refer to in prosecuting transgressors, but it is the role of ethics to examine these institutional agreements for their philosophical coherence as well as to inquire into whether aspects of the conventions ought to be changed.

Dimensions of Just War theory:

  • The criteria are split into two groups:
    • "right to go to war"
    • "right conduct in war"
  • The first group of criteria concerns the morality of going to war, and the second group of criteria concerns the moral conduct within war.
  • There have been calls for the inclusion of a third category of just war theory dealing with the morality of post-war settlement and reconstruction.
  • The just war theory postulates the belief that war, while it is terrible but less so with the right conduct, is not always the worst option. Important responsibilities, undesirable outcomes, or preventable atrocities may justify war.

Mapping the background of the theory

  • Egyptian ethics: A 2017 study found that the just war tradition can be traced as far back as to Ancient Egypt.
    • Egyptian ethics of war usually centred on three main ideas, these including the cosmological role of Egypt, the pharaoh as a divine office and executor of the will of the gods, and the superiority of the Egyptian state and population over all other states and peoples.
    • Egyptian political theology held that the pharaoh had the exclusive legitimacy in justly initiating a war, usually claimed to carry out the will of the gods.
  • Mahabharata: The Indian Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, offers the first written discussions of a "just war" (dharma-yuddha or "righteous war").
    • In it, one of the five ruling brothers (Pandavas) asks if the suffering caused by war can ever be justified.
    • A long discussion then ensues between the siblings, establishing criteria like proportionality (chariots cannot attack cavalry, only other chariots; no attacking people in distress), just means (no poisoned or barbed arrows), just cause (no attacking out of rage), and fair treatment of captives and the wounded.
    • The war in the Mahabharata is preceded by the context that develops the "just cause" for the war including last-minute efforts to reconcile differences to avoid war.
    • At the beginning of the war, there is the discussion of "just conduct" appropriate to the context of war.
  • Sikhism: In Sikhism, the term dharamyudh describes a war that is fought for just, righteous or religious reasons, especially in defence of one's own beliefs.
    • Though some core tenets in the Sikh religion are understood to emphasise peace and nonviolence, especially before the 1606 execution of Guru Arjan by Mughal emperor Jahangir, military force may be justified if all peaceful means to settle a conflict have been exhausted, thus resulting in a dharamyudh.
  • Christian theory: The Christian theory of the Just War begins around the time of Saint Augustine of Hippo The Just War theory, with some amendments, is still used by Christians today as a guide to whether or not a war can be justified.
    • War may be necessary and right, even though it may not be good. In the case of a country that has been invaded by an occupying force, war may be the only way to restore justice.

Opponents of Just War theory:

  • Opponents of the just war theory may either be inclined to a stricter pacifist standard (which proposes that there has never been or can there ever be a justifiable basis for war) or they may be inclined toward a more permissive nationalist standard (which proposes that war only needs to serve a nation's interests to be justifiable).
  • In many cases, philosophers state that individuals do not need to be plagued by a guilty conscience if they are required to fight.
  • A few philosophers ennoble the virtues of the soldier while they also declare their apprehensions for the war itself.
    • A few, such as Rousseau, argue for insurrection against oppressive rule.
  • Some people argue that the Just War doctrine is inherently immoral, while others suggest that there is no place for ethics in war. Still, others argue that the doctrine doesn't apply in the conditions of modern conflicts.

Here are some of the arguments that have been put forward:

  • All wars are unjust and have no place in any ethical theory
    • morality must always oppose deliberate violence
    • just war ideas tend to make violence OK, rather than restrain it
  • War disrupts the normal rules of society that morality goes out of the window.
  • The just war theory is unrealistic and pointless
    • in a conflict "the strong do what they will, and the weak do what they must"
    • the decision to wage war is governed by realism and relative strength, not ethics
    • morality thus has no use in war
  • If God 'requires us to make war' it would be wrong to disobey him, regardless of the requirements of the Just War theory
    • in the Bible, God is frequently on the side of those waging wars that don't conform to just war theory
  • The overriding aim of war should be to achieve victory as quickly and cheaply as possible
    • if the cause is just, then no restrictions should be placed on achieving it
    • the rules of conduct of war are mere camouflage because they are always over-ruled by 'military necessity
  • The existence of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons of mass destruction requires a different approach to the problem
    • these weapons can only be used for unrestricted war and so the condition of proportionality can't be met if they are used
    • using these weapons guarantees civilian casualties, and thus breaks a basic rule of the conduct of war
    • since these weapons can't be uninvented they render just war theory pointless
    • in recent times it has become possible to target such weapons quite precisely, so the problems above only apply to indiscriminate versions of such weapons
    • the ethics of weapons of mass destruction are a different topic
  • Terrorists are inherently uninterested in morality, so following any ethical theory of war handicaps those whom terrorists attack - thus a different approach is needed


The Just War theory bridges theoretical and applied ethics, since it demands an adherence, or at least a consideration of meta-ethical conditions and models, as well as prompting concern for the practicalities of war. The theory helps the nation-states to assert their power and control where they believe their national interest resides.  But the moral and ideal goal of global common which is expected in the idealist school of thought is where perpetual peace seems to be achieved. Hence the responsibility of the nation-states should be towards not justifying narrow self-interests but to serve the concept of global brotherhood.


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