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Just War Thinking as a Social Practice

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 February 2013


The abstract for the International Studies Association panel that gave rise to this special section of Ethics & International Affairs referred to the “triumph” of just war theory. However, I think we ought rather to speak of just war discourse as occupying a particular niche. This is especially so with respect to discussions about policy: when and where governments should make use of military force, what type, and so on. In that context, appeals to the criteria of jus ad bellum and jus in bello complement (or sometimes compete with) thinking that draws on international law, various strategic doctrines (for example, counterinsurgency warfare, or COIN), notions of reciprocity between states, and a host of other considerations. The notion of “triumph” claims too much. At the same time, for advocates of the just war framework, the kind of recognition indicated by presidential and other official mentions of the idea is worthy of note. Some of these are due to constituency politics—that is, to the idea that “institutional” advocates of just war (say, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops) may influence blocs of voters. Other invocations are better interpreted as a recognition that the vocabulary of just war can serve (along with other ways of speaking) in the attempt to craft wise policy.

Special Section: Just War and Its Critics
Copyright © Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs 2013

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1 I develop the points mentioned in this paragraph at greater length in Kelsay, John, “The ‘Triumph’ of Just War Tradition and the Possibility of ‘Imperial Overstretch,’” in Lang, Anthony, O'Driscoll, Cian, and Williams, John, eds., Just War: Authority, Tradition, Practice (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2013, forthcoming)Google Scholar, n.p.

2 See Stout, Jeffrey, Democracy and Tradition (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004), esp. pp. 270–86Google Scholar. For Brandom, the main text is Brandom, Robert, Making It Explicit: Reasoning, Representing, and Discursive Commitment (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994), in which pp. 623–50Google Scholar provide a succinct account; as well, see Brandom, Robert, Tales of the Mighty Dead: Historical Essays in the Metaphysics of Intentionality (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002), esp. pp. 121 and 210–34Google Scholar.

3 Stout and Brandom connect the notion of social practice to an expressive account of normative discourse. In this, they follow some aspects of Hegel's account. I do not think this means that other accounts or theories of ethics are ruled out. Here, I wish to stress the idea that speaking of just war argument as a social practice connects it with the practice of citizenship in a constitutional democracy. As individuals or as members of groups that operate at the level of civil society, citizens may explain the nature and purchase of just war discourse in a variety of ways—for example, in connection with an account of the Christian life, or of concern for human rights. And I do not see any reason why, in principle, such citizens ought not to mention such matters when they participate in public debate. As a matter of democratic practice, one ought to expect many inputs into an argument about a use of military force. One will recognize just war argument with reference to a particular vocabulary, which many may utilize—viz., the criteria of jus ad bellum and jus in bello.

4 Walzer, Michael, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations (New York: Basic Books, 2000 [1979]), p. xviiGoogle Scholar.

5 Brandom, Tales of the Mighty Dead, p. 12.

7 See the account in Johnson, James Turner, Ideology, Reason, and the Limitation of War: Religious and Secular Concepts (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975)Google Scholar.

8 Stout, Democracy and Tradition.

9 An anonymous reviewer asks whether or not the account provided here should raise concerns about relativism and/or historicism. Interestingly enough, another reviewer thinks the account suggests a universality that is not explicitly articulated. I cannot deal fully with these issues here, given constraints of time and space. I will simply note that something like the just war criteria seems to appear in a number of cultural settings, connected with the need of human communities to accomplish a regulation of armed force and to develop a vocabulary associated with that task. The fact that such vocabularies may come to be associated with and perhaps qualified by a variety of religious and moral frameworks may suggest that we are dealing with something that is “practically” universal (because unavoidable), but “theoretically” particular or susceptible to a plurality of justifications.

10 See esp. the discussions in Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, IIaIIae, questions 47–56 (on prudence) and 57–122 (on justice). For a convenient version, see the translation of the New England Dominican Fathers at It is usually remarked that Thomas' famous and succinct statement of just war criteria actually occurs in connection with his account of the virtue of charity. This is quite true. Nevertheless, his discussions of political prudence (for example, at 47.10 and 50) make clear that this virtue, in connection with justice, is critical with respect to determinations of when war serves the common good.

11 Ramsey, Paul, The Just War: Force and Political Responsibility (Savage, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1983 [1968]), for example at p. 8Google Scholar.

12 Mead, Walter Russell, God and Gold (New York: Random House, 2007)Google Scholar.

13 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, IIaIIae, question 40, art. 1, as in Reichberg, Gregory, Syse, Henrik and Begby, Endre, eds., The Ethics of War: Classic and Contemporary Readings (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), in which a good selection of Aquinas' comments on war are found in ch. 15, pp. 169–99Google Scholar.

14 Ibid. A convenient selection of passages may be found at pp. 288–332 and 339–70.

15 To clarify, my analysis of just war as a social practice focuses on constitutional democracies, where established patterns of action allow citizens to engage in argument regarding state policy. It is of course true that historic interpreters such as Thomas Aquinas developed their accounts of just war reasoning in very different social and political contexts and, as indicated in note 9, that one may identify analogues of the just war framework in a number of cultural settings. In this sense, the vocabulary has relevance for settings other than constitutional democracies. I do think, however, that it is important to describe the ways the criteria of jus ad bellum and jus in bello function in particular social and political contexts. Thus, a focus on constitutional democracies seems important.

17 West, Bing, The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan (New York: Random House, 2011)Google Scholar.

18 The text is conveniently reprinted in Elshtain, Jean Bethke, Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World (New York: Basic Books, 2003), pp. 182207; the passage quoted is at p. 192Google Scholar.

19 Michael Walzer, “First, Define the Battlefield,” New York Times, September 21, 2001;

20 Let me make clear that What We Are Fighting For did call for right conduct in the sense of the use of means consistent with jus in bello norms. It did not address the kinds of questions raised in Walzer's op-ed, however; nor did the statement press the kinds of questions associated with overall proportionality, reasonable hope of success, and aim of peace. In that regard, the statement issued November 14, 2001, by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is noteworthy: “In light of the Church's teaching that the use of arms must not produce disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated, the effect of military action on the Afghan people must be closely monitored on an ongoing basis.” And a few lines later: “Probability of success is particularly difficult to measure in dealing with an amorphous, global terrorist network. Therefore, special attention must be given to developing criteria for when it is appropriate to end military action in Afghanistan.” See U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “A Pastoral Message: Living with Faith and Hope after September 11,” November 14, 2001;

21 Johnson, James Turner, in The War to Oust Saddam Hussein (Savage, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005)Google Scholar covers the first phase of the conflict very well. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' statement opposing the war emphasized the “presumption against war” characteristic in their formulations of just war argument, and indicated that “resort to war, under present circumstances and in light of current public information, would not meet the strict conditions in Catholic teaching for overriding” that presumption (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Statement on Iraq, 2002,” November 13, 2002; On Johnson's account, the Bishops' understanding of the just war framework may be characterized as a “just war pacifism,” in that there will always be some reason to count war as unjust. However, the post-9/11 “A Pastoral Message” did in fact support the NATO intervention in Afghanistan (see note 20). Michael Walzer's Arguing About War (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004)Google Scholar collects several of his shorter pieces on Iraq. All of the foregoing contribute to the early debate, however. There is much to say with respect to the fighting in Iraq after the fall of Saddam through the surge of 2006 and 2007 and to the present, and I hope to write about this in a future essay.

22 Stanley McChrystal, “Commander's Initial Assessment: 30 August 2009”; = topnews.

23 See, among others, Peter Baker, “Biden No Longer a Lone Voice on Afghanistan,” New York Times, October 13, 2009;

24 See Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on the Way Forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan” (remarks, United States Academy, West Point, New York, December 1, 2009);

25 See Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President at the Acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize” (remarks, Oslo Hall, Oslo, December 10, 2009);

26 One exception to this is O'Driscoll, Cian, “Talking about Just War: Obama in Oslo, Bush at War,” Politics 31, no. 2 (June 2011), pp. 8290CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

27 See United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC), A/HRC/14/24/Add.6, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston,” May 28, 2010,

28 Harold Hongju Koh, “The Obama Administration and International Law” (speech, Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law, Washington, D.C., March 25, 2010);

29 See, among others, Craig Whitlock, “Panetta: U.S. ‘within reach’ of defeating al-Qaeda,” The Washington Post, July 9, 2011; In retrospect, one of the factors missing in my own conversations during 2009 could be put this way: When Vice President Biden and others argued for targeted killings and other counterterror measures, rather than for COIN and the building of Afghanistan, they did so in part by expressing doubts that the Afghan policy could succeed. If one likes, one could say that they agreed with General McChrystal's assessment of the state of affairs (“The environment is so complex that there is no overarching solution”). They did not share his faith—or perhaps his hope—that given greater resources and stricter adherence to COIN, the situation could be reversed.

30 See David Sanger, “Is There a Romney Doctrine?” New York Times, May 12, 2012;

31 Miller, Richard, “The Ethics of America's Afghan War,” Ethics & International Affairs 25, no. 2 (Summer 2011), p. 103CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

32 Tesón, Fernando, “Enabling Monsters: A Reply to Professor Miller,” Ethics & International Affairs 25 (November 2011), pp. 165–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and McMahan, Jeff, “Proportionality in the Afghanistan War,” Ethics & International Affairs 25 (November 2011), pp. 143–54CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33 Miller, op cit.

34 Lucas, George R. Jr., “The Strategy of Graceful Decline,” Ethics & International Affairs 25 (November 2011), pp. 133–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

35 This allows for a brief comment on the sense in which Miller's account of the just war framework might be characterized as “more narrowly moral” than my own (or, as I read his essay, that of George R. Lucas, Jr.). Miller's essay does engage in considerable reflection on political and other realities, but seems to refer to these in the manner of complements or supplements to just war reasoning. If I read the essay correctly, the issue of killing, or more broadly injury, is the heart of just war reasoning for Miller. Hence, if one wants to render a political or policy judgment, one must refer to things that are outside the purview of the just war tradition. On my view, the political aims of the framework—by which I mean to highlight its role in fostering statecraft that is both wise and just—mean that just war reasoning involves attention to a wide range of values. This range includes concerns about killing and injury, but also involves reasoning about the impact on a state's ability to secure the welfare of its own citizens, the impact of various courses of action on international order, and military and strategic assessments related to the probability of success. The kinds of analyses needed to assist in judgments about such matters thus becomes part of just war reasoning, rather than suggesting that “current just war theory does not provide sufficient guidance in crucial tasks.”

36 On this point, see Jack Keane, “Al-Qaeda is Making a Comeback,” The Wall Street Journal, Tuesday, October 23, 2012, p. A17.

37 I do think the instatement of COIN helped correct one problem that emerged during the years in which U.S. focus turned to Iraq. That is, it appears that NATO forces prior to 2009 relied overmuch on air strikes, perhaps in violation of the in bello requirement of proportionality. In contrast, UN reports now consistently indicate that most Afghan deaths are the result of actions taken by insurgents—a fact that no doubt explains the various statements in which Mullah Omar has urged those associated with him to take greater care regarding harm to civilians. Insofar as Miller's reference includes deaths of U.S. combatants, I would place this in the context of an assessment of overall proportionality; it certainly is a factor in adjudicating the justice of (as Miller puts it) a strategy of “relentless” counterinsurgency.