First Things - Religion and Public Life First Things on your tablet & mobile
Login forgot password? | register Close

A Moral Moment Missed?

Richard John Neuhaus’ “Internationalisms” (Public Square, December 2004) fails to discuss the current war in terms of just war theory, which include just cause, right intention, competent authority, reasonable chance of success, proportionality of ends, and last resort. For example, in the essay’s section on “defining success,” Father Neuhaus writes, “Finally, success will be if, three or thirty years from now, Afghanistan and Iraq have reasonably decent and stable governments, operating under something believably like the rule of law . . . .” This lacks the specificity to qualify as a serious application of just war theory. If we don’t know if it will take three or thirty years, of what value is the criterion of “reasonable chance of success”? (I wonder in passing what the Pentagon chiefs would say to a planner who said an invasion would take “three to thirty years” to succeed.) And if we face, as perhaps we do, thirty years of counterinsurgency, what would this say about the criterion of “proportionality of ends”?

I do not believe the erudite Fr. Neuhaus meant his essay to be a serious, detailed application of just war theory to our current circumstances. Yet in the midst of what he acknowledges will be “a very long struggle,” doesn’t FIRST THINGS owe its readers just that?

Craig White
Nairobi, Kenya

RJN replies:

We have in fact published serious explorations applying just war doctrine to current conflicts. The real-life utility of just war doctrine is a perennial question. One always hopes there is a connection between theory and action but, quite apart from affecting policy, there are many questions of great moral moment that must be engaged simply because we are moral beings and aspire to being responsible moral beings. The definition of “success” as I discussed it is a political question, not a military question for the Pentagon chiefs. Finally, the “preserving, clarifying, and refining of just war doctrine,” such as was done by James Turner Johnson in the January issue, is an indispensable service. Readers may agree or disagree with such presentations of the teaching and also with the teaching’s application to what they understand to be the facts of a particular conflict. And that, it seems to me, is just as it should be.

A New Formula

In his response to the many fine commentaries on the twentieth anniversary of the publication of The Naked Public Square (November 2004), Richard John Neuhaus states that he would now write less about “transcendence” and more about the human capacity for reason, including moral reason. He adds, “Natural law enters here, but someone has to come up with a better term than natural law, which is too easily seen as a peculiarly Catholic thing.” Permit me to propose as a nonthreatening, not overtly religious formula for addressing questions of moral reason in the public square the term “the received moral wisdom of the American people.” The natural law arguments related to homosexual marriage, the sanctity of human life, and other issues can easily be subsumed under this formula. Some might criticize this term as a synonym for unexamined popular prejudice, but they would expose themselves to the charge of harboring an elitist contempt for the convictions of the American people.

This formula is perhaps better suited to rhetorical use in public discourse than for rigorous intellectual analysis (where the battle to vindicate natural law should continue), but “the received moral wisdom of the American people” is far from being an expression of empty propaganda. I suspect that most students of American culture fifty years ago would have been comfortable with the term and could have identified its principal tenets with ease. That their successors might now be stumped by the expression demonstrates the intervening decay of the intelligentsia.

Adrian Straley
Tuscaloosa, Alabama

RJN replies:

I am sympathetic to the point but not persuaded. Human beings, including Americans, are endowed with a natural moral wisdom, and are also prone to acting against it. Using the phrase “the received moral wisdom of the American people” in political discourse would likely encourage sinful pride, which would be most unwise.


I am grateful to Fr. Neuhaus for his kind words about my essay on “The Pledge of Allegiance and the Limited State” (Public Square, December 2004). I would like to make one correction, however: I teach at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis“St. Paul, not in Houston.

Thomas C. Berg
University of St. Thomas
School of Law
Minneapolis, Minnesota

In a notice of Leonard Sussman’s A Passion for Freedom reference was made to the American Jewish Council. That should be the American Council for Judaism. Also, it might have been more explicitly stated that Mr. Sussman’s views on Judaism and Zionism are his own and not those of Freedom House, the organization he led for many years.