Paul J. Griffiths
The intense debate in the United States since September 11 about the meaning, history, and contemporary applicability of just war theory”much of it conducted in the pages of First Things”has been instructive and for the most part at a high level of conceptual and ethical sophistication. It has also been good for the intellectual life of the Catholic Church and for the moral and civic health of the U.S. The vigor of the debate certainly shows the continued liveliness of the Catholic tradition, and given the deeply Protestant nature of this country, it is to say the least surprising that the dominant public vocabulary for the discussion of war is one provided by the Catholic Church.
However, there is one aspect of the debate that is, to me, simply puzzling. It is the question of whether the ius ad bellum ”the principles governing thought about when it is proper for states to go to war”does or does not contain a presumption against bellum , against, that is, the use of lethal violence by the state against other states or the citizens thereof. Proponents of the view that there is no such presumption (George Weigel, James Turner Johnson, and others) assert with vigor that the classical theorists from Augustine onwards assumed that engaging in war was among the proper and ordinary functions of a legally constituted sovereign authority. If, then, they claim, debates about the propriety of particular wars are begun by stating a general presumption against war, this will be to skew the debate and to misrepresent the tradition. Those who disagree with this position (Rowan Williams, Stanley Hauerwas, and others) have typically done so on historical or exegetical grounds. But it appears to me to be easy and quick to show that the position advocated by Johnson and Weigel is wrong on simple logical grounds, grounds that do not require decisions about controversial and difficult exegetical matters such as what Augustine thought or what Aquinas meant. Here’s how it goes.
Consider any action permitted under some (but not all) conditions to some agent. Any action so defined is, ex definitio , denied to that same agent under some conditions: that’s the force of the some/all distinction. There is, then, for any action so defined, a presumption against it for the agent in question; or, what is the same thing, a presumption that it does not follow just from the nature of the agent that the action in question may rightly be performed by that agent. Superadded to the nature of the agent must be the relevant conditions or circumstances, whatever these are. Only when these conditions are met”these circumstances in place”is the agent permitted to perform the action. Otherwise, not. The frequency with which these conditions or circumstances are in place is not to the point; what is to the point is only that there be some such conditions or circumstances, and that they be of the kind that (at least logically) may not be in place.
It follows from the unimpeachable (I think) argument of the preceding paragraph that the onus probandi for any action permitted to an agent only sometimes, in particular circumstances, rests with those who would argue that the action is permitted to the agent now, in these circumstances. And, once again, this is just another way of saying that there is a presumption against the action in question.
Let’s apply this to an everyday case from Chicago, where I live. It does not follow from being human and over fifteen years of age that it is proper for a person to have a driver’s license in Illinois. Tests must be taken and passed in order for the license to be granted. Getting a driver’s license is, then, an instance of an action permitted under some (but not all) conditions to the members of the set of human beings over fifteen and resident in Chicago. There is a presumption against it by the state of Illinois, and the burden of proof lies upon citizens to show that the conditions have been met, which is to say that the presumption can be rebutted.
Another example: it does not follow from belonging to the set of human beings with valid tickets for a particular flight that a given person may properly board that flight. Various other tests must be met, as travelers by air since September 11 know all too well, and the burden lies upon those would-be travelers to do what is necessary to pass them. And so on.
The case of legally constituted sovereign authorities and declarations of war is logically indistinguishable from these. It does not follow just from being such an authority that a state may properly declare war; further conditions must be met. These conditions are specified by the ius ad bellum . And that there are such conditions is just what it means, logically speaking, for there to be a presumption against the action in question”and, further, for the burden of proof to rest upon those who would show that the conditions have been met. There is in this sense”the only interesting sense, conceptually speaking, so far as I can tell”a presumption against war enshrined in the just war tradition. And if this is right, Weigel, Johnson, et al., must be wrong, at least about this matter.
That the anti-presumption-against-war crowd is wrong is derived from the logic of the matter alone. It is simple confusion to think otherwise, and Johnson’s recent effort (see FT January) to construe presumption-against in terms of worries about the inherent morality of war, or about the nature of prima facie duties, amounts to nothing more than the blowing of thick clouds of smoke. The position I’ve advocated is compatible with thinking war often justified, sometimes justified, or (even) never justified. What it is not compatible with is thinking there is no presumption against war in the tradition. The presence of reasoning about ius ad bellum suffices to show this to be false.
It might seem that what I’ve argued is, if true, trivial. But I don’t think it is: it shows where thought must begin on this question and how it must proceed. And that is never trivial. I suspect, too, that the anti-presumption-against-war advocates agree that it is not trivial. So, at least, their vociferousness in arguing the confused counter-position leads me to believe.
Paul J. Griffiths is Schmitt Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His latest book is Lying: An Augustinian Theology of Duplicity (Brazos Press).
A father had spoken many times to his ten-year-old son about the dangers of playing with matches. When the son nonetheless persisted in indulging his fascination with matches inside the house, the father spoke firmly to him again, then grounded him for a weekend, then compelled the boy to write a hundred-word essay on why playing with matches is dangerous for himself and his family. Finally, when the father caught the son lighting matches in the garage, right beside the family gasoline can, he took the lad inside and vigorously displayed his paternal disapprobation in a manner uncomfortable to the filial posterior.
Would any meaningful moral description of this situation say that its moral logic, or the father’s moral reasoning, began with a “presumption against spanking”? Of course not. The beginning of the exercise of parental authority is precisely that: the father’s recognition that he has a moral obligation to inculcate in his son the habits of prudence and obedience, and thus to protect his son (and the rest of the family, and possibly the neighborhood) from the boy’s own childish irresponsibility.
Or take Paul Griffiths’ automotive example. The state of Illinois claims the sovereign authority to regulate the use of motor vehicles within its boundaries. Through the actions of its legislature and the relevant regulatory agencies, Illinois sets numerous conditions on that use: myopic people have to wear glasses or contact lenses while driving; people with retinitis pigmentosa are forbidden from driving at night; teenagers must reach a certain age and demonstrate certain skills before they obtain driver’s licenses; people with a habit of driving after knocking back a dozen Budweisers lose their licenses. Does any of this reasonably constitute a “presumption against licensing drivers,” which the state can “override” when certain other conditions are met?
If any possible action to which reasonable moral conditions apply is, by reason of those conditions, an action against which there can be said to be a “presumption,” then there is a “presumption” against almost any imaginable action, including state action. Perhaps that’s true, at some stratospheric level of abstraction. But what does it illuminate about things? What, to get down to cases, does it teach us about the proportionate and discriminate use of armed force in the pursuit of the peace of order, justice, and freedom?
Let’s clarify one thing that really shouldn’t need clarification, but which evidently does. If by “presumption against war” we mean that those thinking within the just war tradition ought to prefer that there not be wars, fine. Having spent nine years of my professional life working for the World Without War Council, I don’t have any problem with that; and I rather doubt that James Turner Johnson, a scholar and army veteran, would, either. But the very fact that that statement of the obvious has to be made suggests one of the problems with the way the so-called “presumption against war” operates today: it subtly suggests that those who do not accept the smuggled pacifist premise within the “presumption””that the use of even proportionate and discriminate armed force is, at the outset of the moral analysis, presumptively deplorable”are somehow thought to be warmongers. How any of this constitutes an advance in moral reasoning or moral sensibility over the classic just war understanding”that the use of armed force can be noble or wicked, just or unjust, depending on who is using it, toward what ends, and how”is unclear to me.
There are several other problems with the “presumption” and its current functioning among religious leaders and religious intellectuals (not to mention political leaders throughout Western Europe). As I have argued in these pages and elsewhere, the “presumption,” by detaching the just war way of thinking from its proper political context”the right use of sovereign public authority toward the end of tranquillitas ordinis , or peace”tends to invert the structure of classic just war analysis and turn it into a thin casuistry, giving priority consideration to necessarily contingent in bello judgments (proportionality of means, discrimination or noncombatant immunity) over what were always understood to be the prior ad bellum questions (“prior” in that, inter alia , we can have a greater degree of moral clarity about them). A similar inside-out distortion of thinking happens when the “presumption” gets to work on the ius ad bellum . For here, the “presumption” tends to give higher priority to what were classically understood as important but secondary criteria, like “last resort” and “probable chance of success,” over the classic first-order criteria: competent authority, just cause, and right intention (about which, to repeat, we can have a greater degree of moral surety).
Then there is the sad and, to my mind, unmistakable fact that people who have adopted the so-called “presumption against war” tend to get things wrong, time and again: as the U.S. bishops got the dynamics of the Cold War wrong in their 1983 pastoral letter, “The Challenge of Peace”; as most religious leaders and intellectuals got it wrong in predicting a Middle East Armageddon in the first Gulf War and the recent Iraq War. When a moral lens constantly yields a distorted view of reality, then, I submit, something is wrong with its prismation.
The “presumption” has tended to give theologians and religious leaders a bloated sense of their own role in decision-making about war and peace. Judging from the way the “presumption” works out in practice, religious leaders and religious intellectuals now imagine that their function is to set a series of hurdles for public authorities to jump”then, if those hurdles are judged to have been successfully surmounted by the politicians, religious leaders and theologians will reluctantly give their blessing to the use of armed force in question. This hubris is in contradistinction to the clear teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church ”for the Catechism , while assuming a serious dialogue among government officials, just war analysts, and the public, nonetheless teaches (at § 2309) that “the evaluation of these [just war] conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.” The hubris has gotten so out of hand, in fact, that one prominent “presumption against war” advocate recently proposed that the Catechism be amended, so that a consensus of bishops, the faithful, and theologians (the last presumably shaping the judgment of the first two) be required for judging a given military action morally legitimate. One knew that certain members of the theologians’ guild thought themselves a parallel magisterium, but a parallel government, too?
Finally, and much as I appreciate rhetorical high spirits, I hope Professor Griffiths will permit me the observation that it really doesn’t advance the ongoing debate to suggest that James Turner Johnson is blowing smoke when he explains how James Childress’ seminal 1978 article on prima facie duties and the just war tradition jump-started the “presumption against war” trope. Rather, it’s a matter of recognizing the philosophical and theological roots of this influential, if misguided, notion for what they are.
George Weigel is Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?