Who wants war? An exchange.

Author:Griffiths, Paul J.

The intense debate in the United States since September 11 about the meaning, history, and contemporary applicability of just war theory--much of it conducted in the pages of FIRST THINGS--has been instructive and for the most part at a high level of conceptual and ethical sophistication. It has also been good for the intellectual life of the Catholic Church and for the moral and civic health of the U.S. The vigor of the debate certainly shows the continued liveliness of the Catholic tradition, and given the deeply Protestant nature of this country, it is to say the least surprising that the dominant public vocabulary for the discussion of war is one provided by the Catholic Church.

However, there is one aspect of the debate that is, to me, simply puzzling. It is the question of whether the ius ad bellum--the principles governing thought about when it is proper for states to go to war--does or does not contain a presumption against bellum, against, that is, the use of lethal violence by the state against other states or the citizens thereof. Proponents of the view that there is no such presumption (George Weigel, James Turner Johnson, and others) assert with vigor that the classical theorists from Augustine onwards assumed that engaging in war was among the proper and ordinary functions of a legally constituted sovereign authority. If, then, they claim, debates about the propriety of particular wars are begun by stating a general presumption against war, this will be to skew the debate and to misrepresent the tradition. Those who disagree with this position (Rowan Williams, Stanley Hauerwas, and others) have typically done so on historical or exegetical grounds. But it appears to me to be easy and quick to show that the position advocated by Johnson and Weigel is wrong on simple logical grounds, grounds that do not require decisions about controversial and difficult exegetical matters such as what Augustine thought or what Aquinas meant. Here's how it goes.

Consider any action permitted under some (but not all) conditions to some agent. Any action so defined is, ex definitio, denied to that same agent under some conditions: that's the force of the some/all distinction. There is, then, for any action so defined, a presumption against it for the agent in question; or, what is the same thing, a presumption that it does not follow just from the nature of the agent that the action in question may rightly be performed by that agent. Superadded to the nature of the agent must be the relevant conditions or circumstances, whatever these are. Only when these conditions are met--these circumstances in place--is the agent permitted to perform the action. Otherwise, not. The frequency with which these conditions or circumstances are in place is not to the point; what is to the point is only that there be some such conditions or...

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