What is the basic moral logic that grounds the just war framework’s evaluation of war? Let us begin with a tale of two kinds of presumption. By presumption I mean a foundational idea that serves a basis for generating and judging other ideas and for guiding behavior. The basic presumptions that ground our moral actions carry extraordinary weight as we contemplate what to do in a given situation, particularly in morally complex circumstances in which there appears to be a clash of goods or a conflict of duties. What is the basic presumption that guides just war?

The question has become contentious of late. Employing a phrase popularized by the US Catholic Bishops in their 1983 pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace, some insist that just war thought begins with a “presumption against war.” This has been recast in a variety of ways, including as a “presumption against violence” or a “presumption against harm.” According to this logic, the primary function of the just war moral framework is to prove the need to overcome this presumption in extraordinary cases.

This presumption was supercharged by the advent of modern war’s heightened destructiveness—including and especially the specter of nuclear war that still hung heavily in the Cold War air in which the Bishops’ letter was written—so much so that this position goes under the sobriquet “modern war—or nuclear—pacifism.” Nevertheless, this presumption is not grounded only in modern war.

Some five years prior to the publication of the pastoral letter, the ethicist James Childress, hearkening from a Quaker background, set out a similar notion in an influential essay in a Jesuit theological journal. Childress championed the logic of prima facie duties. These are duties that act as a kind of golden mean between absolute duties—which allow no exception—and merely relative duties—which carry no real prescriptive hold. Prima facie duties are “intrinsically binding” but can, on further evaluation, be overridden in particular circumstances by more stringent prima facie duties. War, Childress insists, is morally problematic because it runs contrary to the prima facie duty of nonmaleficence—or, in its positive spin, benevolence—which rules out injuring or harming other persons. For Childress, then, similar to the Bishops, the just war framework serves to sustain or object to the prospect of overriding this prima facie obligation.

Taken together, the logic of the presumption against harm that grounds both The Challenge of Peace and Childress’ prima facie duty of benevolence asserts that the just war tradition’s primary function is to identify those—rare—exceptions that compel Christians to override more fundamental moral obligations.

The second proposed presumption on which just war rests stands resolutely against these claims. Let me get at this with an illustration. Often, when I talk about just war, and frequently when I write about it, I’ll compare deliberation about going to war with deliberation over—typically—less contentious questions, such as, say, when one ought to perform a life-saving medical procedure. Imagine the sad scenario in which a highly capable surgeon is confronted with a child whose leg injury has become severely gangrened and who must now make the decision whether to remove the diseased limb. What kind of presumption would guide the surgeon’s decision to proceed with the amputation? Surely nothing but a presumption to recover the health of the child and to save his life. Correlative with this is a presumption against those things that threaten the child’s health and life.

A similar logic guides just war. Focused on the responsibility to respond appropriately to wrongdoing, just war’s basic moral motivation is grounded in a presumption against injustice. As we will see in next week’s overview of the just war criteria, this is simply baked into the framework. The just warrior does not even begin to contemplate the prospect of going to war until and unless there is a sufficiently grave injustice already—or imminently—in existence.

Going back to our surgeon, it is only the presence of a sufficiently grave injury presenting a sufficiently grave threat that the benevolent doctor would even consider harming a child by hobbling him. To be sure, the surgeon, in some general sense, begins with something that appears like a presumption against harm. That’s to say, he does not walk down the street contemplating lopping off the legs of the children around him and waiting for any excuse to do so. In the same way, just warriors do not countenance inaugurating conflict unilaterally, they only ever permit responding to conflict already engaged.

The problem with the presumption against harm logic is that it only works in a world in which the only person I need to be concerned about is me. But the Christian realist understands that morality isn’t only concerned with what I—or “my team”—do but also about how I—or we—react to what others do. My adhering to the presumption against harm might well keep me from deciding, with no provocation, to kick in the face of my neighbor. But it’s the presumption against injustice that puts the steel in my moral resolve to rescue my neighbor when someone else is unjustly kicking in his face.  

It seems obvious to me that if one presumption overrules another, then it is that presumption—not the one overruled—that is the primary ground of action. Just war insists that the duty to protect the innocent, to take back what has been wrongly taken, and to punish evil trumps the duty not to harm. This might sound like Childress’ allowance that one–more “stringent” prima facie duty can overrule a lesser prima facie duty. Instead, however, what we ought to see revealed to us is that the claimed “duty not to harm” requires an important amendment in order to remain a duty at all. It should be clear that we do not, in fact, have a duty not to harm, tout court. Rather, we have a duty not to unjustly or unnecessarily harm. This is a different thing altogether.

To deny this qualification is to allow the presumption against harm its harmful–if unintended–effects, including its promotion of an excessively biased view against military action that not only underestimates the necessary—I mean morally appropriate—role of war in statecraft but that also fails to grasp the place of war in responsible Christian love. Just war, as I’ve stressed, if it is to be just, must only ever be a response to the violation of order, justice, and—therefore—peace. Restoring this lost peace—bringing things a little bit nearer to shalom, to the way things ought to be—is the heart of the just war struggle. Understanding this, and disciplining our thinking and acting accordingly, helps properly form the Christian character and arms the believer to meet Christian obligations in the world.

Even the followers of The Challenge of Peace or Childress seem to tacitly admit this. Consider Pope Francis, whose periodic—read all-too-frequent—misguided rhetoric on the ethics of war calls to mind the deficiencies of the Catholic Bishops’ letter. Francis seems to intuitively understand that maintaining a “presumption against harm” is insufficient. Over the years, Francis has pilloried weapons manufacturing as an “industry of death” and, correspondingly, has declared those who produce arms to be “merchants of death” who will have a hard time accounting for their actions before God. He went so far as to group them with human traffickers and slavers. Directing his fire to the just war tradition itself, the Pope suggested “we can no longer think of war as a solution, because its risks will probably always be greater than its supposed benefits” and opined “every war leaves our world worse than it was before.”

Curiously, however, in the same address in which he condemned the arms industry, Francis groused about perceived moral failings among the political leaders of powerful nations in the 20thCentury. Considering WW2, for instance, he complained: “The great powers had photographs of the railway routes that the trains took to the concentration camps like Auschwitz. Tell me why didn’t they bomb those railroad routes?” Francis is referring to aerial photographs of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps that were taken by Allied air forces in 1944. The photographs were probably taken inadvertently during an intelligence flyover of the synthetic oil and rubber plant at the Auschwitz III forced labor camp known as Monowitz. The photographs capture train lines, gas chambers and crematoria, burial trenches, and hordes of prisoners. But while the photographs have become a source of debate regarding what the allies knew regarding the deathcamps and when they knew it, military planners, it has been argued, never analyzed the photographs in 1944. The photographs played no real role in decisions to bomb or not to bomb the rail lines. Francis also pointed his finger at world leaders who did nothing to stop the extermination of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in 1915; a systematic slaughter that would eventually claim somewhere between 800,000 and 1,500,000 lives.

I call these critiques by Francis “curious” because it makes one wonder with what precisely Pope Francis wanted the allies to bomb those rail lines. How, precisely, if arms manufacturing is condemned outright, were world leaders to stop the Armenian genocide? The 20th Century ought to have convinced us, including us Christians, that those folks who have embarked upon genocide cannot usually be simply talked into stopping. Neither prayer nor harsh language—at least directly—are sufficient to force such bad people out of their bad deeds. If soft power cannot get those who are murdering the innocent to stand down then hard power is necessary to knock them down. If stopping genocide is a good thing, then those who want to stop it need the tools to do so. That war produces great evils goes without saying. But the fact that just wars have stopped some great evils—and prevented others—is equally true. Francis seems to know this. Shame on him, then, for suggesting those who fight our wars or those who help arm them are, simply, kin to slavers and traffickers.

Francis’ obnoxious assertions alert us to what might be the most ghastly effect of the presumption against harm claim. To insist that just war is an exception to the duty of benevolence is to assert that what just warriors are doing in a just war is, itself, an exception of the duty of benevolence, whatever the necessity of their doing so. In light of the reality of moral injury—spiritual wounds that come from doing or allowing to be done those things that go against deeply held moral norms—the presumption against harm canard insists—however inadvertently—that just warriors, even as they fight and kill and die in efforts to rescue the threatened—are doing something that stands in violation of moral norms. This unnecessary moral paradox is decimating the men and women who rightly fight our wars.

As already insisted upon above and in the first essay in this series, a, if not the essential norm of Christian morality is neighbor love. In this I stand in agreement with the Catholic Bishops and Childress. But, against them, I assert the basic moral logic of the Christian realist just war tradition is primarily concerned with helping Christians reflect on how to meet the obligations of this kind of love through, not despite, war.

This reveals the just war moral framework to be essentially casuistic. Casuistry has gotten a bad rap because it has been misused in order to fund moral laxity and deny the rigor—or even existence—of moral rules. But the honest Christian casuist operating with a well-formed mind does not doubt the existence of binding moral norms. The casuist merely questions how to interpret and apply the rule in light of context, particularly in those scenarios in which moral goods appear to be in conflict. I do not doubt that I am supposed to love my neighbor. But how precisely do I love my neighbor in that above scenario in which one neighbor is unjustly kicking apart the face of another neighbor and will not stop? I know I am supposed to love both of them. I also know it’s not sufficient to say I’ll love one of them—let’s say the victim-neighbor—now and love the other one—let’s call him the enemy-neighbor—later. I have to love both of them this very instant. But it is also clear that I cannot love both of them in exactly the same way in exactly the same moment. The casuist—analyzing the conflict situation before him, comparing it to normative paradigms, identifying relevant presumptions, assessing the details of context, referring to reason, authority, and experience—attempts to move from the general rule to the specific manifestation of that rule in the present moment—seeking to know how the given rule regulates moral behavior now.

Faced with the ethical complexities that arise when trying to respond morally to intractable human conflict, the Christian, discipled under just war’s tutelage, asks the essential question: what does love look like in this moment, in these circumstances? Love, guiding every exertion in the life of the believer, authorizes–nay, requires–the Christian to come to the aid of the threatened even as it demands proportionality, discrimination, compassion, and, when possible, mercy to those who do the threatening. The just warrior attempts to apply the dictates of love, not to shirk them.

Just war is not an exception to this obligation to love. It is a manifestation of this love in the last resort.