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

| February 14, 2013

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.

From the late twelfth century to the early seventeenth century a well-defined tradition on just war enjoyed broad cultural acceptance in the West. This framed the resort to force in terms of the responsibilities of sovereign political rule and the political ends of order, justice, and peace, and established limits on conduct in the use of justified force. This tradition had been shaped by philosophical, theological, and political thinking on natural law, by military thought and practice, by legal traditions reaching back into Roman law, and by accumulated experience in the government of political communities. In the cultural context of the Middle Ages, all these overlapped and interpenetrated one another to an important degree.

But under the conditions of the Modern Age this cultural consensus broke down, and the various fields of influence that had shaped the earlier tradition on just war became increasingly distinct from one another and so tended to lose contact with one another. In some arenas creative efforts to engage the idea of just war disappeared altogether: for example, the Spanish Jesuit Francisco Suarez (1548–1617) and the English Puritan William Ames (1576–1633) were the last important theological writers to do so until the twentieth century. In other arenas the ideas defined and set in relationship with one another within the historical just war tradition were redefined and rearranged into new frames of thinking, in which these ideas remained, but their links to earlier just war tradition were downplayed and gradually forgotten.

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Category: Article, Issue 27.1, Special Section: Just War and Its Critics, The Ethics of War and Peace

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