Skip to main content Accessibility help

Contemporary Just War Thinking: Which Is Worse, to Have Friends or Critics?

  • James Turner Johnson


The increasingly widespread and energetic engagement with the idea of just war over the last fifty years of thinking on morality and armed conflict—especially in English-speaking countries—presents a striking contrast to the previous several centuries, going back to the early 1600s, in which thinkers addressing moral issues related to war did so without reference to the just war idea.



Hide All


1 The conception of just war here was substantially defined by the canonist Gratian in his Decretum and the work of his two generations of successors, the Decretists and the Decretalists, and summarized and placed in a theological framework by Thomas Aquinas. This conception reflected and incorporated the influence of Western churchly thought; the recovery and development of Roman law, including the ideas of natural law and ius gentium; and the practical experience of government and warfare. The classical conception of politics as directed toward the common good defined by three goods or ends (order, justice, and peace) was directly reflected in the major requirements of bellum iustum, just war: the good of order in the requirement that such uses of force be authorized by a temporal ruler with no temporal superior, the good of justice in the requirement that such uses of force be for regaining that which had been wrongly taken and punishing evildoing (not self-defense against attack, which was taken to be guaranteed to all individuals and communities directly by natural law), and the good of peace in the requirement that all just uses of force aim at reestablishing and protecting peace as the result of a just order within the political community. In these just war requirements, sovereign authority was given priority because of the sovereign ruler's personal responsibility, given in the natural law, to maintain order, justice, and peace; the ability to initiate the use of armed force followed from this responsibility. The conception thus defined endured well into the modern period and was only finally reshaped into an importantly different idea in the mid-seventeenth century. For detailed examinations of this historical development, see my early books, Ideology, Reason, and the Limitation of War (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975) and Just War Tradition and the Restraint of War (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981). For more recent summary treatments of the framing of the idea of just war in this historical tradition, see my Morality and Contemporary Warfare (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999), pp. 4451; and Ethics and the Use of Force (Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate Publishing, 2011), pp. 1620.

2 For a detailed discussion of this transition, see my Ideology and Just War Tradition, cited above; for more recent summary discussion, see my Morality and Contemporary Warfare, pp. 51–57.

3 Of the many translations and edited publications of this work, I prefer Hugo Grotius, De Jure ac Pacis Libri Tres, vol. II, in Scott, James Brown, ed., Classics of International Law (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925).

4 Johnson, Ethics and the Use of Force, pp. 75–100.

5 Carnegie Institution of Washington, Classics of International Law (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911–ongoing).

6 Niebuhr, Reinhold, The Nature and Destiny of Man (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1964), vol. II, p. 283.

7 For important excerpts, see Reichberg, Gregory, Syse, Henrik, and Begby, Endre, eds., The Ethics of War (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), pp. 357–59. The entire work is included in the Carnegie Institution series cited above.

8 Niebuhr later returned a bit more positively to the idea of just war in an article coauthored with the Episcopal bishop and theologian Angus Dun, which made use of several of the categories drawn from just war thinking (but without systematically engaging the historical tradition as a whole) to argue against a pacifist interpretation of the meaning of Christianity. Niebuhr never again returned to this argument in later writing. See Dun, Angus and Niebuhr, Reinhold, “God Wills Both Justice and Peace,” Christianity and Crisis 10 (June 13, 1955), pp. 7578.

9 Osgood, Robert E., Ideals and Self-Interest in America's Foreign Relations (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1953).

10 The historical development of these two kinds of pacifism is examined in my The Quest for Peace (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987).

11 National Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Challenge of Peace (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1983), pp. iii, 22 and 26.

12 Ramsey, Paul, War and the Christian Conscience (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1961); and Ramsey, Paul, The Just War (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1968).

13 Walzer, Michael, Just and Unjust Wars (New York: Basic Books, 1977), p. xiv.

14 Ramsey makes this point numerous times, in various ways, but the most concise and focused statement of it is in The Just War, pp. 142–47.

15 Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, p. xvi and elsewhere.

16 Ibid., pp. 61–62.

17 Childress, James F., “Just War Theories: The Bases, Interrelations, Priorities, and Functions of Their Criteria,” Theological Studies 39, no. 3 (1978), pp. 427–45.

18 The Challenge of Peace, pp. 27–28, paragraphs 83–84.

19 Bellamy, Alex, Just Wars: From Cicero to Iraq (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006); Brown, Davis, The Cross, the Sword, and the Eagle (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008); Charles, J. Daryl, Between Pacifism and Jihad (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2005); Phillips, Robert L., War and Justice (Norman, Okla.: Oklahoma University Press, 1984); Totten, Mark, First Strike (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2010); Weeks, Albert L., The Choice of War (Santa Barbara, Calif.: Praeger Security International, 2010); and White, Craig M., Iraq: The Moral Reckoning (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2010).

20 Elshtain, Jean Bethke, Just War Against Terror (New York: Basic Books, 2003).

21 McMahan, Jeff, “Just Cause for War,” Ethics & International Affairs 19, no. 3 (Fall 2005), pp. 121, at p. 1.

22 McMahan, Jeff, Killing in War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

23 Rodin, David, War and Self-Defense (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

24 Ibid., p. 187.

25 Orend, Brian, The Morality of War (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2006), p. 4.

26 Yoder, John Howard, Nevertheless: The Varieties and Shortcomings of Religious Pacifism (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1971).

Related content

Powered by UNSILO

Contemporary Just War Thinking: Which Is Worse, to Have Friends or Critics?

  • James Turner Johnson


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.