A Conversation for St Thomas Aquinas' Conditions for a Just War

Of Course It's Justified!

Post 1

John Luke

As far as I can see the first rule of (understanding) human behaviour is that *everyone* feels justified in what they do. From exceeding the speed limit to bombing civilians, from being late for work to abusing little children, they all feel that they are in some way 'justified'. If you went into a prison and asked for a show of hands from the *really* guilty - not just those who were found guilty by the legal process - how many hands would you see? B*gg*r all! (See 'The Shawshank Redemption')

It is very difficult for people to admit that they have done serious wrong because, I guess, they would have to admit that there was something wrong with them. We can easily admit that we were tired, misled or that we can't perform at 100% efficiency all the time. We can even admit that we were under unbearable pressure, but how many could say "Yes, it was wrong and I knew it at the time and I could have stopped myself but I didn't" without adding some form of escape clause?

Even the most heinous act, by some people's standards, is regarded as acceptable by others and often by a large number of them. Think about September 11th, the Holocaust, the Inquisition, etc, etc, etc.

The good friar, Thomas, was talking through his aquinas; all wars are justified from someone's point of view or they wouldn't go to war in the first place. (This includes everything from supermarket price wars through pub brawls to domestic shouting matches.)

The world would be a better place if Thomas and the other saints and scholars of all denominations, past and present, spent their time teaching people to understand and get on with each other, to tolerate different views and to resolve disputes.

A major part of this would be learning to admit that one could be partially or fully wrong, sometimes. And what chance is there that those who think they are guided by god will admit they are wrong?

Thanks for nothing, Thomas.

smiley - peacedove

John Luke

Of Course It's Justified!

Post 2


Well at first I thought your post was sarcasm, but guessing from the lack of smileys, I can guess that it probably wasn't...
All wars may be justified from SOMEONE'S point of view, but are they justified in SOCIETY'S point of view? That's what is important here. To be honest, I don't give a damn what Osama may have thought about the attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon, or whether he thought it was justified. And I wager that almost all of civilized society feels the same way, and thats what is important, NOT what the perpetrator thought.
Aquina was simply writing down what should be basic ethical sense.
If I didn't know better, I'd say you were simply trying to throw mud at the Catholic Church, rather than make a point about the topic...

Of Course It's Justified!

Post 3

Researcher 168963

>The world would be a better place if Thomas and the other saints and >scholars of all denominations, past and present, spent their time >teaching people to understand and get on with each other, to >tolerate different views and to resolve disputes

But he did at least make people think about *why* they were going to war, and if they had an alternative. Surely that in itself served to promote peace.

Of Course It's Justified!

Post 4


"All wars may be justified from SOMEONE'S point of view, but are they justified in SOCIETY'S point of view? "

I think the point still stands. How can we say one groups perception of justified is so much more valid. The current climate is a prime example. Yes, everyone seems to hate Osama, but do you not think that the Americans and Brits have comitted atrocities, in war and other wise, also. Will they be dubbed "justified" by the "civilised world"?

Of Course It's Justified!

Post 5


One group's perception of justified IS more valid, if a majority of the world supports it. A few thousand years ago, most of the world agreed that Slavery was alright, hence, it was justified. Now, most of the world agrees that slavery is wrong, hence, it is unjustified. The majority is what is important; they are society, and they decide what is 'right' and 'wrong', what is justified or unjustified.

Of Course It's Justified!

Post 6

John Luke

Oops, I forgot my manners....
Thank you, Dastardly, for the article. It's good.

And, Talyma, I try to avoid sarcasm because I regard it as being counter-productive. I slipped up in this case - but only on the last line! I didn't mention the RC church (or any church) and I didn't sling any mud. Disagreeing with someone's views is not mud-slinging.

I seriously disagree with these so-called rules and I'll explain why. (This could be a long posting.)

Rule 1 says, basically, 'Do what your King (Emperor/Chief/Bishop/etc) says.'
"Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?" (Mandy Rice-Davis). Of course he would; those in power (or in the corridors thereof) always support the status quo.
This means that the peasantry (or let's just say the non-ruling class) must go to war when the king says so but mustn't take arms to defend themselves against the King and his men or for any other reason. I think that the last three centuries or so of political progress, depsite occasional setbacks, has shown the falsness of Rule 1.

Rule 2 says that there must be a just cause. This is either a) a rehash of Rule 1 or b) a statement of the obvious. Aquinas clearly intended a) with the Church being the final arbiter of what is or isn't just. (= 'Do what your bishop says.') Otherwise, as I suggested in the first posting, there has to be feeling of a just cause or nobody would show up for the war.

Rule 3 is another way of saying that there must be a just cause. If you are fighting for a just cause then you must be fighting against the bad guys. You know, the ones with the black hats who don't shave and probably eat babies for breakfast.

Rule 4 says that war must be the last resort. That would be the one right after the second-last resort, wouldn't it? And the second last resort is .... Anybody?? We, even the uneducated peasants among us, do not need the foremost Doctor of the Church to tell us that it is better to try to resolve our disputes peacefully.

Rule 5 talks about 'proportionate war'. What nonsense! If the previous 4 rules have been followed then the war is a just war (R2), initiated by your country's leaders (R1) against the forces of evil (R3) who are not amenable to reason (R4). Why go easy on them? Hit them hard and hope for an early end for the sake of all concerned but particularly for our own soldiers.

Think about the effects of Rule 5. The good guys (that's us) arrive on the battlefield with 1,000 soldiers to find that there are only 500 black hats waiting for us. Under Rule 5, therefore, we must give half of our men the day off so that we can meet the enemy with proportionate force. Ha!

War is not a game where each side should field the same number of players and obey a gentlemanly set of rules. War is the breakdown of ethical behaviour and any rules (including those under the Geneva Convention) will only be followed as long as it suits the participants, especially when they are winning.

I summarise Aquinas' rules of war like this. "The King's divine right to rule is confirmed by the Church which is guided by God. The King's subjects must fight the King's wars and accept any hardship imposed on them. If they don't they will go to Hell."

I respect anyone's right to belive this if they want to but include me out.

Sorry to be so long-winded.

smiley - peacedove

John Luke

Of Course It's Justified!

Post 7


Well said. I wish those things had occurred to me back when I was reading his stuff.

Of Course It's Justified!

Post 8


Alright, I concede. Well said smiley - smiley

Of Course It's Justified!

Post 9

John Luke

Ah no! Don't give up so easily. I was hoping for a debate. After all if Aquinas' ideas have been well regarded for so long they must have or have had something going for them.

Even if you can't support his views now, can you suggest why they were accepted by so many for so long?

On the basis of his 'rules of war' should we still regard Aquinas as a great and innovative thinker?

Does somebody know more about the good doctor and his other ideas that we could discuss? Dastardly or Xanatic, perhaps? Or anybody else?

smiley - peacedove

John Luke

Of Course It's Justified!

Post 10


Partly I'd say they were accepted because Aquinas is considered a great thinker. So nobody dared to say that he was wrong because people would just think they were being stupid. And secondly, I can't remember when I read them earlier that I found anything wrong with them. So I guess if you don't think about it, they seem to make sense.

I heard someone say somewhere that Aquinas in a fit of rage destroyed an android that his mentor had build. If that is true, the guy has a lot to answer for I think.

But I can't remember the other philosophical things for Aquinas. If you give me a quick summary we can discuss.

Of Course It's Justified!

Post 11


Tut tut.

Rule 1: The proper authority must declare war. This prevents me from declaring war on xxxx (<--whoever) and forming the 'Peace Front' which will put car bombs on your children's school bus or something like that. That's murder, not war. Hence only the proper authority can declare war.

Rule 2: Just cause. This means that you don't go to war over trivial rubbish. It also means that you are perfectly entitled to say 'No' if you don't beleive it is a just cause.

Rule 3: Black hats. This means that you may have believed that German destiny crap and joined up, but when you find out about Belsen etc. you gotta call it a day.

Rule 4: Last resort. This means you go to war AFTER the talks have broken down. Just because its obvious doesn't make it a bad rule.

Rule 5: Proportionality. This means that if a French guy goes mental in London killing and looting because of some pervceived 'war' against the English, you are not allowed to nuke Paris. This is to try and stop wars from escalating from border clashes to full-on genocide type wars. In the same manner, if someone treads on your toe while in a pub, you don't whip out the ouzi and let fly. Makes sense to me.

"The King's divine right to rule is confirmed by the Church which is guided by God. The King's subjects must fight the King's wars and accept any hardship imposed on them. If they don't they will go to Hell."
Wrong. Please see above!!!

Of Course It's Justified!

Post 12

John Luke

Greetings, Maolmuire.

Thank you for entering this debate.


I suppose we should go back a step and try to get an agreed definition of 'war' to assist us in debating the matter sensibly.

I was using the word 'war' in the sense of the application of the force of arms by a large number of people to achieve some political goal. This would include all the major conflicts which ARE usually called wars but also revolutions and the like which are sometimes called 'Wars of Independence' and sometimes not. It would also include terrorist 'campaigns' and guerilla warfare.

Would you be prepared to accept the above as a working definition? Or if not can you propose a definition for us to work with.

Proper Authority
If you agree with my definition (or something close) then the concept of 'the proper authority' for declaring war loses much of its validity. Obviously, if a country or state decides to go to war then only the properly appointed government can make such a decision. The minister for education, for example, could not unilaterally declare war on behalf of his country. But wars are not only waged by whole countries against other countries, are they?

When the ruler or rulers of a country seriously err in their duty to some or all of the citizens then the citizens may eventually have no recourse but to take up arms to free themselves from tyranny. (It has happened a few times.) They DO have a natural right to take up arms and declare war. Then, if they win their freedom, they become the 'fathers of their nation' and get streets and cities and (in one case that I know of) whole countries named after them. But if they fail they are terrorists and murderers and get themselves strung up.

Just Cause
My suggested definition of 'war' excludes the possibility of anybody going to war over 'trivial rubbish'. (More precisely, I suppose, my definition means that if it's about something trivial, it won't be called a war.) In any event what is trivial rubbish to some could be deadly serious to others. While there may be hot-heads in governments and revolutionary organisations hungry for 'the glory of battle' (Bleh!, as you would say yourself), most people do not want war in any form and only agree to it when the alternatives seem to be worse.

For Good, against Evil
This follows automatically from the just cause. If your cause is just and the other guys are opposing you then THEY must be the bad guys even if they are clean shaven and wearing white hats.

But what if you discover - as you suggested - that some of the things that our side are doing in the name of the war are abhorrent? Like a German soldier finding out about Belsen or a British one finding out about the fire bombing of Dresden? I don't think that there is an easy answer. The chances are that you are already caught up in a situation you can't get out of. Do you desert and get shot or keep on and hope it will all work out?

Last Resort
It is obvious, as you say, that avery other option should be tried before going to war. But sometimes it is also obvious that one or both parties would 'negotiate' until Doomsday (i.e. stonewall) rather than concede. The party with the upper hand is traditionally more patient and reasonable but they are not inclined to yield anything worthwhile to the upstarts.

Proportion in War
As I said in my earlier post, by the time it gets to be a shooting war there seems no reason to hold back. Rules are no longer relevant, the rule of law has broken down.

Countries and organisations will commit sufficient resources to achieve their goal. If three ETA members shoot up a Spanish police station, should only three civil guards be sent to deal with them? Should Margaret Thatcher have responded to the invasion of the Faulklands by counting soldiers and weapons and carefully sending the same number?

As we are tallking about war I don't think your examples - Frenchman in London, Toe in pub - are revelvant. However you are correct to say that the way to keep things reasonable in a dispute is to avoid escalating the matter. At each stage of a war (but not usually of a pub brawl) the parties are likely to consider carefully the consequences of escalation and act accordingly. There is a 'proportion' at work here but is is the probability of acheiving the desired result for an acceptable cost.


I look forward to reading your views on the above.

PS ... Two small points ...
1. I don't think 'tut-tut' has any place in a reasonable debate.
" Tut-tut; Interjection expressing rebuke, impatience, or contempt."

2. Is an ouzi an uzi weided by an ouzo drinker?

smiley - peacedove

John Luke

Of Course It's Justified! (Maybe)

Post 13


Hi John Luke, you made some valid points. I'll have a go at them anywaysmiley - smiley!!!

Definition of war? Tricky one. Bearing in mind that usually at least one side in a war does represent the 'legitimate' government I would accept your definition.

The proper authority clause still holds true I think. If you have a situation where the people are rebelling against the government, and keeping in mind that the ultimate source of authority *IS* the people, then if a rebellion has popular support, the authority clause is met. Of course, this could lead to some strange situations. In the American revolution I think support for the revolt was about 50/50 until Washington & co. actually started to win some battles. In the latter part of the War of Independance the revolution certainly was justified (having met with the demands of the proper authority clause) but how about earlier when the support for the revolution was only lukewarm? Does the decision of the Continental Congress to fight for Independance meet with the proper authority criteria? Another problem when dealing with the proper authority clause in this manner is one of constituency. If the people of (just for instance) Spain and France as a whole want peace, and the Basque people want to fight for freedom, are they justified? Is the 'permission' of the people of the Basque region enough to meet the 'proper authority' criteria?

Just cause seems to be fairly straightforward.

For good against evil. I don't think any country anywhere has a spotless record. If you find out that your country is prosecuting the war in a heinous manner then there are a number of options open to you. In the West you can become a concientious objector, and possibly get sent to jail. You could join the army but refuse to carry a weapon, and possibly get sent to jail. During WWII a Congressional Medal of Honor was awarded to just such a person- he refused to carry a weapon and instead became a medic, winning the medal in the Pacific campaign. In the West, its unlikely that you would be shot for such a stance. In other parts of the world such a stance may be far more life threatening. Also, the US armed forces tell their troops that they are not obliged to carry out an illegal order. How that would pan out in real life is another matter altogether... If you were caught up in a war were your side was using dubious methods then I suppose you'd have to compare them to those used by the other side. Perhaps that way you could still hang on to your white hat. In any case it certainly wouldn't be an easy decision to take.

Last resort. Even if the negotiations do last until Doomsday is that not better than war? The methods used by the Indians against the British were better than war: they were effective, and casualties were much lower than if they had decided on a violent revolution. On the other hand, if they had tried such tactics against Stalin or Hitler I don't think it would have done them any good whatsoever. 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland achieved no political change, the situation was static for the most part. It is only when negotiations began that change took place. (Though it could be argued that the negotiations would never have taken place if they hadn't been preceded by 3000 deaths).

The proportion in war bit. Most European wars were limited wars, of short duration and limited objectives. Alsace-Lorraine passed back and forth between Germany and France, because neither country wished for total war, just enough to bring the other side to the table at a disadvantage. Subjugation or complete destruction of the enemy was not envisaged. I suppose that the other side of the 'proportion' coin is that you must know when you are beaten and act accordingly. To say that the rule book goes out the window once war is declared is innaccurate. No, Maggie isn't going to send *exactly* 4056 marines to the Falklands, but neither is she going to order a nuclear strike on Buenos Aires, and chemical and biological attacks on the rest of Argentina (though I admit, we are dealing with Maggie here, so I can't be sure about that!smiley - smiley). Likewise, when things go out of proportion, things can get very messy indeed. MacArthur charged for the Chinese border despite orders from Washington to halt his advance. Washington believed that it had achieved its goal of protecting South Korea and that North Korea could be brought to the table with the U.S. holding all the trump cards. Once MacArthur went overboard and the Chinese became directly involved the strong negotiating position that the US had was thrown away, and thousands of more lives would be lost before the war finally ceased.

"I don't think 'tut-tut' has any place in a reasonable debate.
" Tut-tut; Interjection expressing rebuke, impatience, or contempt.""

Tut-tut smiley - winkeye I believe your definition should say *mild* rebuke....

Is an ouzi an uzi weided by an ouzo drinker?
LOL! Yes, but only if he's drinking shots!!


Of Course It's Justified! (Maybe)

Post 14


Dang, I hope you are all still subscribed to this thread. I would love to hear your thoughts on America/Iraq and the Just war. Bring it on.

Of Course It's Justified!

Post 15

arwen, doing nasty essays. being a student should *not* involve work!

I studied just war for A-level coursework recently, and the problem i found with it is that it doesnt work with democracies, as it was designed for legitimate authority to be a sovereign, who was obeyed without question. Nowadays, legitimate authority means government, who we have voted in. the trouble then is that if we have to vote whether a war is justified, we need the facts, and which government gives the facts as they stand, instead of facts that support their argument?
also, have their ever been any wars that have really been justified by this criteria? with proportionality and reasonable hope of success, you never really know what will happen until afterwards, e.g-we may have 'won' the first world war (so success works) but the outcome of that was the second world war (not so good)

Of Course It's Justified!

Post 16


The only points worth debating are 'just cause' and proportionality. Self defence implies someone has already attacked you, therefore their half of the war is unjust but yours is just. Unless they are arguing that they are preventing a worse evil - pre-emptive self defence, the George Dubya doctrine. This is rationalised retrospectively, and you can't prove it one way or the other beforehand. If we take out Iraq, then the current regime will not gas the Kurds, invade Kuwait again, nuke Israel or supply bioweapons to al-quaida to spread smallpox in downtown USA. We will never know whether that threat was real or not.
Proportionality is not about ensuring we match the republican guard soldier for soldier only, it is about killing as few non-combatants as possible, and ending the war by killing as few people overall as possible. Hence the debate over Hiroshima and Nagasaki - justified by reducing the overall death toll of the war, unjustified in terms of the morality of the use of the second bomb at all, and the targeting of civilians.

The bottom line is that I don't think we disagree. The victor will always have been justified, and Thomas A was trying to codify a set up that his lords and masters could use to demonstrate how just they were - though in a time when battles were faught in a day, in a very localised, pretty much hand to hand manner, and civilian casualties were minimal by comparison with today's 'collateral damage'.

Of Course It's Justified!

Post 17

arwen, doing nasty essays. being a student should *not* involve work!

non-combatants is a tricky issue. who are you including in that? medics and munitions workers, although not fighting themselves, are helping other people fight, so are they guilty? also, can you say a soldier is more 'morally guilty' than a civilian, just for doing a job? also, when just war was pioneered, women weren't allowed to fight. so is a woman that wants to fight less guilty than a man who has been conscripted? it also makes conscripted soldiers more guilty than the government who declare war, and give orders, but do not fight.
Kenny says that the debate isnt innocent or guilty, but about causing harm, but we still have the problem with medics and munition workers.

Of Course It's Justified!

Post 18

Largo LaGrande

There are actually quite a lot of rules to do with these non-combatants in the Geneva convention, let's see if I can remember any...

I was a medic in the service, and there were quite a lot of different rules concerning us. For example, we carried weapons, but could only use them to defend ourselves or our "patients", thereby we could not actively attack the enemy.
The enemy was not allowed to fire at us, or any installation, vehicle etc. with the red cross-symbol (works for the red crescent, too).
We would see to all the injured, regardless of which side they were fighting on.
We would have access to our medical equipment even if captured.

The list probably goes on, but these are some main points.
Of course, oftentimes the rulebook more or less goes out of the window in a war; for example, we were told by some officers that removing the red cross-symbol would be a good idea, because snipers love to aim for it...

The moral point of whether or not medics constitute morally justifiable targets is interesting, and this is by no means meant to be a complete answer, just thought I'd tell you what I know about how the boys in Geneva see it.


Of Course It's Justified!

Post 19


I was not making a point about guilt or innocence - Kenny has the good point here. The Aquinas rule for a 'just war' is that it should be proportional - so armed forces should only be killing other armed forces as far as possible - not unarmed villagers, medics, munitions workers, women. It is seldom posssible in modern day conflicts to eliminate the deaths of non-combatants, but if we wish to characterise our actions as as just we had better be seen to be trying to keep them to a minimum.

To address your point about the moral status of people, we all make our choices. Volunteers are just that. Conscripts choose whether to conscientiously object or not. Or dodge the draft, or not. The armed forces have the right to refuse to obey an order they know to be unlawful - the Nuremburg trials clarified that one. We all have choices and we all live with the consequences of our choices.

Of Course It's Justified!

Post 20


This is interesting. I didn't know medics carried weapons. I would have thought you would have been safer without. If the enemy was not allowed to fire at you, why would you need a weapon of self defence? There is an echo of Thomas' rules again here - the enemy is not allowed to attack you, but you still require the right to self defence...
Did you ever have to put these notions to the acid test?

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