What is Just War?

An interview with Baylor professor and just war scholar David Corey.

We have a morality problem.

David Corey is a foremost scholar on the just war tradition and a professor of political philosophy at Baylor University. He spoke at Trinity on November 13 on the ethics of war, the confusion of morality, and the roots of modern rationalism.

When and where does the tradition of just war begin?

It’s really hard to give it a certain point. I know we want that for the tidiness of the account. One reason it’s hard to say is that a tradition, by Latin definition, is something that’s handed down. So who’s the first person in a tradition: the person who receives the thing that’s handed down, or the person who does the handing down? That’s a problem in and of itself.

It has beginnings in Roman antiquity. Cicero is frequently cited. Some of the early church fathers have positions that are close to this tradition. But the first person to really give it a fairly coherent treatment, even though it’s not in one place, is St. Augustine. You’ve got to cobble it together from various books, from his letters, so it’s not like he wrote a book called “The Just War Tradition” or “The Just War Theory.” There’s some in City of God and in some of his pastoral letters. He hands it down to St. Thomas Aquinas—and I’m skipping a couple figures—and Thomas Aquinas is fully aware of having received something from Augustine with respect to the ethics of war.

Why do you avoid the word “theory?”

I think there are just war theorists, and I think those theorists have just war theories, but if you want to describe the entire thing, it’s a tradition and not a theory. A tradition is made up of people’s just war theories, but the problem is that they don’t all agree. In fact, they disagree in various respects. If somebody says, ‘I’m an advocate of the just war theory,’ I would say there’s no such thing. If they say, ‘I’m an advocate of Augustine’s just war theory,’ I’d say ‘Okay, that’s fine.’ Augustine does have a just war theory, Locke has a just war theory, and so on.

You use a lot of literary examples. What effect are you going for there?

It is premeditated on my part. On the one hand, I think people have very high emotions with respect to ethics and war, and if I use real world examples, they have a dog in the race. So I try to avoid not only contemporary life but even American culture, because they have dogs in that race. I also recognize that I’m at Trinity, so I try to choose books that the students have read, so they can be like a common place and so I can validate the experience of students reading those texts as if to say, “These texts matter. You can use these texts to think about ethical problems.”

Could you describe the doctrine of double effect?

Oh, yes. It’s the idea that an act can have multiple effects, but you’re only morally responsible for the effects that you intend. And intent is pretty weighty there. It’s not just knowing that the effect is going to happen, because you can know that lots of the effects are going to happen. The one that you actually aim at bringing about, the one that you intend, that’s the one you’re morally responsible for. And then I gave some conditions—I don’t want to burden you with these conditions—but in order for that doctrine of double effect to kick in, whatever it is you’re aiming at, it’s got to be good. It can’t be evil. And you can’t use those other effects, those side effects, as means to an end. Those are some of the conditions that I stipulated.

So, moral ambiguity is not a modern invention.


Could you talk a little bit about we see moral ambiguity differently? Moderns, pre-moderns, and so forth?

Right. I think it troubles us because we presuppose that the human condition has all these rational conditions and we just can’t see them, and if we just think harder about it we could save ourselves from the human condition. Moral ambiguity really bothers us. I mean, it bothers everyone. But I think we’re prone to deny it, and the ancients, instead of denying it, tried to give an account of why it exists. For the ancient Greeks, they used polytheism to explain different morals, because there are different gods and they ask different things of us. Poseidon is mad, but Athena is happy. For the Christians—let me just say for Augustine and the Christians following, it’s not that there are multiple gods—of course, there aren’t. But something about the fall makes it so that we cannot escape moral ambiguity. So those are two different ways—the account of the fall on one hand, polytheism on the other–that you try to describe a phenomenon that is real. And I think—so I think Christianity does a good job of that, I think ancient Greek religion does a good job of that. What doesn’t do a good job of that is modern rationalism, which has its feet in Pelagianism.

Maybe you could describe the term “community of co-sufferers.”

Oh, yeah. I think living properly towards our neighbor requires honesty, and I think one of the things we need to be most honest about is that none of us is perfect, none of us has all the answers, none of us is completely not culpable. So I think whatever differences we have, we are jointly suffering this human condition of ambiguity and conflict. And if we’re honest about that, then suddenly, we’re almost on the same team. Even if we’re disagreeing, then at least we can both recognize that we’re co-sufferers of the fall. And that’s part of why we disagree and part of why we’re at odds. Why not be honest about this?

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