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What Constitutes a Just War: Is It in the Declaration of War or How It Is Fought?

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The theory specifies conditions for judging if it is just to go to war, and conditions for how the war should be fought. Although it was extensively developed by Christian theologians, it can be used by people of every faith and none. The aim of Just War Theory is to provide a guide to the right way for states to act in potential conflict situations. It only applies to states, and not to individuals (although an individual can use the theory to help them decide whether it is morally right to take part in a particular war).

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In order to compare and contrast different perspectives on just war theory with the western tradition of just war theory, it is first necessary to lay out the principles of western just war theory. This essay would first of all like to recognize the over-simplification of the monolithic term of a ‘Western’ just war theory. Just as the non-western world is consisted of several different cultures and traditions, each with its own beliefs and traditions for waging war, the Western world is no different. The just war of Clausewitz for example, would be very different from the just war of Grotius, Rawls, or Walzer. Despite this difference however, this essay argues that the academic literature of the different strands of western just war thought have developed to encompass certain similar key principles, to the extent that while calling it a monolithic ‘Western’ just war theory might be an oversimplification, it is still nevertheless sufficient for a comparative analysis with non-western just war theory. Western just war theory can be divided into two main parts– -jus ad bellum (right to go to war) and jus in bello (right conduct in war). In recent years, the issue of post ad bellum (a just post-war settlement) has been added as well, although research still focuses mainly on the first two components. Jus ad bellum governs the necessary criteria that must be met before a war that is declared can be considered just. Such criteria include, but are not limited to, legitimate authority, the need for a legitimate authority to declare the act of war (usually the state), just cause, the need for a proper reason to go to war, usually correcting a suffered wrong as well last resort, the declaration of war only after all other means of resolving the problem have been tried. Jus in bello, on the other hand, refers to the criteria necessary for a just conduct of war and governs the actions taken by armies in war. Such criteria include, but are not limited to, distinction – the need to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants, proportionality, the need to prevent excessive military damage and fair treatment which governs the treatment of prisoners-of-war and related issues such as torture. While the long tradition of western just war theory cannot be limited or simplified to these concepts, for the purposes of comparative analysis and discussion, it is these key principles that this essay will focus on, in order to show how non-western theories provide their own unique and valuable perspective on these concepts.

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A collection of objections found in the “revisionist” work of McMahan, Rodin, and others is currently roiling the just war community. Central to this conflict with traditional just war theory is the moral equality of combatants. Traditionalists, along with international law, roughly hold that all soldiers on either side of a war are legitimate targets and are entitled to equal moral protections. Revisionists respond that soldiers fighting for an unjust cause are culpable for posing an unjust threat, and therefore enjoy no moral protections. To deny this would be like insisting that a criminal and the policeman giving chase are equally legitimate targets of violence. Whether revisionists are ultimately correct, many of their arguments have a cogency that makes one question how the traditional view has gone unquestioned for so long. Extending this “law enforcement” analogy to warfare, others are questioning soldiers’ de facto license to inflict deadly violence on one another. In law enforcement, we typically think that police are required to warn offenders or give them an opportunity to surrender before targeting them with force. Revisionists argue that our moral duties to one another can’t be changed significantly just by having our leaders declare a state of war. Thus, we need more reason than we usually think to simply kill enemy soldiers (see Statman, 2005; and Gross, 2006). The possible result of the revisionists’ arguments is that the position of contingent pacifism seems to be rising in popularity. A contingent pacifist believes war can be justified, but perhaps (or probably) never actually is. As revisionists offer arguments for a host of new moral restraints on warfare, some philosophers have begun to appreciate how very unlikely it is that any war will meet this high burden (Walzer, Michael, 1977).

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Overall, the 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. A few of those practicalities have been mentioned here. Other areas of interest are: hostages, innocent threats, international blockades, sieges, the use of weapons of mass destruction or of anti-personnel weapons (for example, land mines), and the morality and practicalities of interventionism.

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Walzer, Michael. Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations. Basic Books, 1977 1st ed., 2015, 5th ed.

Orend, Brian. 2013. The Morality of War, 2 ed. Broadview Press.

Rodin, David. 2005. War and Self-Defense. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sorabji, Richard, and David Rodin, eds. 2006. The Ethics of War: Shared Problems in Different Traditions. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

Statman, Daniel 2005. “Targeted Killing.” In Timothy Shanahan (ed.), Philosophy 9/11: Thinking About the War on Terrorism. Open Court.

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What Constitutes a Just War: Is It in the Declaration of War or How It Is Fought?
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