What is a “Just War”?

It seems the British government stands on the verge of yet another foreign military adventure and, as ever, it is accompanied by profuse proclamations of piety and moral imperative. So, I thought it worth considering the old precept of the Just War (Bellum Iustum), as laid out by the theologians of the School of Salamanca (cribbed from Wikipedia), a school much revered in Austro-Libertarian circles for its pioneering work in economics.

Growing from Aquinas arguments was the School of Salamanca, which expanded on Thomistic understanding of natural law and just war. Given that war is one of the worst evils suffered by mankind, the adherents of the School reasoned that it ought to be resorted to only when it was necessary in order to prevent an even greater evil. A diplomatic agreement is preferable, even for the more powerful party, before a war is started. Examples of “just war” are:

  • In self-defense, as long as there is a reasonable possibility of success.
  • Preventive war against a tyrant who is about to attack.
  • War to punish a guilty enemy.

A war is not legitimate or illegitimate simply based on its original motivation: it must comply with a series of additional requirements:

  • It is necessary that the response be commensurate to the evil; use of more violence than is strictly necessary would constitute an unjust war.
  • Governing authorities declare war, but their decision is not sufficient cause to begin a war. If the people oppose a war, then it is illegitimate. The people have a right to depose a government that is waging, or is about to wage, an unjust war.
  • Once war has begun, there remain moral limits to action. For example, one may not attack innocents or kill hostages.
  • It is obligatory to take advantage of all options for dialogue and negotiations before undertaking a war; war is only legitimate as a last resort.

Under this doctrine, expansionist wars, wars of pillage, wars to convert infidels or pagans, and wars for glory are all inherently unjust.

By the way, I am not asserting ‘Just War Theory’ provides the authentic libertarian position, for one thing, it seems to presuppose a state authority, which many libertarians would not accept. Nor does it end all dispute, even if it is accepted in principle, but it does provide a framework to judge the weasel-words of our politicians, who seize upon certain elements of the above definition, with scant regard for the others.


  1. This is the wrong approach to oppose intervention with.

    Of course, overthrowing a murdering socialist scumbag like Assad would be “just” (just as overthrowing Saddam was just).

    The point is not whether it is just – but whether it is SENSIBLE.

    Whether a new regime would be better or worse than Assad.

    This is where the thinking of the interventionists totally breaks down – as they do not tend to think about the matter at all.



    1. “The point is not whether it is just – but whether it is SENSIBLE.

      Whether a new regime would be better or worse than Assad.”

      The moral case must be looked at, as this is the case being made. The question you describe as ‘sensible’ is not separate to this. If it is the case that the attack would do more harm than good, then it fails the just war test.



  2. Richard if people had concentrated on morality last night the government would have won the debate – they would have just waved photographs of gassed babies and won any moral debate (rightly denouncing as kooks anyone who denied that the regime did it). Actually I AGREE with you that “well what happens after you have overthrown Assad?” is a MORAL question – but most people (including most MPs) think of it as a practical question.



    1. Interesting. I was about to hit publish on a case against action in Syria based – very indirectly – on Randian morals. I was also listening, while cooking dinner, to Amy Peikoff who repeated pointed out (in the context of Rick Santorum’s love of “sacrifice” at CPAC) that if you don’t do self-interest at the moral level then how do defend against the argument “but the government could do such a good job of that” (not quite her wording).

      This is Yaron Brook, a fierce advocate of self-interested morallity:

      Syria — What American interests are at stake?

      Assad is a brutal dictator allied with Iran and Hizbollah, sworn enemies of the US.

      Opposition is comprised of strong elements of Islamists allied with Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, also sworn enemies of the US.

      We have no will to impose a positive outcome.
      So… I say — let them fight it out…
      We should stay out of it.

      People are forever condemning war “for oil” etc, but in this case naked self-interest leads to the more enlightened and peaceful conclusion.



      1. As you said elsewhere just two minutes before posting here, intervention in Syria would likely “f*ck everything up more so”, so your use of Syria makes a very poor example for your case actually.

        Even an altruist has a “duty”, as someone put it, to vote against intervention if they believe it will make things worse for the person they intend to help. This is not being a “pussy” it is rational action (from false premises but at least consistent).


  3. Regardless of the issues regarding getting involved, I was merely showing admonishment at referring to the current situation as a ‘peaceful conclusion’

    IMO Parliament have shown themselves to be pussies for saying, essentially, ‘not our problem’ Again, whether this is the right or wrong course of action in the current situation is debatable, but I just find the Randian/Libertarian ‘bugger everyone else as long as I’m alright’ position foolish and selfish/



    1. “I just find the Randian/Libertarian ‘bugger everyone else as long as I’m alright’ position foolish and selfish”

      Who is saying this? I have commented on the Syrian issue over a few different posts, and at no time have I said this or anything like it, as far as I remember, and if I have given this impression it was not my intention.

      As for this post, I thought it worthwhile to consider the concept of a ‘just war’, not to make the case that intervention in Syria was or was not just, but rather that the morality of such intervention is not to be determined solely upon whether Assad is a tyrant or whether his government forces were responsible for the recent chemical weapon attack.



  4. Yaron Brook usually has a very good grasp of policy matters. He is also a living repeated line that Objectivists are “intolerant” – after all Objectivists are atheists and Y. B, is a friend of Glenn Beck, a passionately religious man.

    Tolerance does not mean pretending to agree with someone, it means saying “I do not agree with you (I think you are profoundly mistaken), but I will defend to the death your right to hold this opinion”.

    As for the Syrian debate – both sides in Parliament depressed me. As both were obsessed with the “United Nations” and “international law” (in the modern sense of “world governance”).

    There is no great threat to liberty than “international cooperation” or “the international community”, in everything from attacking so called “tax havens” (i.e. places where taxes are high – but not as absurdly high as in most places) to the endless wars that would result if the doctrine of a “responsibility to protect” was accepted.

    If BOTH sides in the debate in Britain are pro U.N. and pro “international community”, hope fades for this land.

    As for Syria itself.

    Syria has been ruled by beasts all my life.

    It may be ruled by different beasts in future (Islamist beasts rather than socialist beasts) – but it will continue to be ruled by beasts.



  5. With technology having changed the nature of war, a nation like the UK has the capability to know if another nation is planning to attack. This course can be averted by use of any political, economic, international relations tactics (e.g. sanctions, threat of cyber attack, threat of releasing rebel forces -as Jordan did Russia; King of Jordan threatened that if Russia went into Syria, they will release Chechen rebels to disrupt the coming Olympics) which in effect averted a full blown war.
    =No need for war. There are ways around it.

    I oppose even a “Preventive war against a tyrant who is about to attack.” “Preventive” bit is too vague. Preventive = Preemptive. How do you prove that the other party was “going to attack?
    I believe that, as a matter of definition, a nation can legitimately retaliate only AFTER an attack. Law needs to be clear.
    (Albeit this law might be meaningless considering a.) nations often coerce others into attacking first / fake being attacked -9/11. Pearl Harbour, and b.) what if the “attacker” was an international organization living in many nations? Does this justify drones, for example?

    Other than self defense (even this is hard to define), I don’t see a case for a “just war”.

    “War to punish a guilty enemy.” This I oppose too. Who decides which nation is “guilty”? Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Who decides? (U.N? ICC?)

    It’s not that I feel “‘bugger everyone else as long as I’m alright’”, more like I know what I want, but I have no right to decide for others what they might want. I’m all for introducing new ideas like woman’s rights and democracy to those who might not know, but we have no right to impose a certain set of values onto another. Therefore I can’t justify “War to punish a guilty enemy.” It’s a matter of value. And everyone is different.

    p.s. icon’s actually my dad, pls excuse, technical thing.



    1. Thanks for the comment, Ayumi. I like the icon.

      I’ve not heard that about the King of Jordan, but something similar Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia was supposed to have said:


      As for any other nation threatening the UK, I find it hard to imagine – except perhaps Argentina trying to grab the Falklands. The UK government is far more likely to be the one doing the threatening. I suppose ever since the advent of atomic bombs, launching an all-out war has been almost unthinkable, so other, more limited means have become the norm, and this doesn’t seem to have changed since the end of the Cold War.

      With regard to a “Preventive war against a tyrant who is about to attack”, and who could decide if this was the case or not, I don’t think there is any such authority in the world for judging the rights and wrongs, but this doesn’t mean that individual actors will not have to choose whether acting in such a case is right or wrong.

      Overall, an important point which I think gets overlooked is that the idea of a just war is not something which can be decided at the beginning, and then used as a carte blanche for whatever is done in the prosecution of the war, and the conduct of the war and its success also affect whether the war can be viewed as just.



  6. Sorry my mistake! Thanks for the correction Richard. It wasn’t King Abdulla of Jordan, it was Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandar, (Supposedly he’s a close Bush family friend). Better fact check before I post ei? But yeah, the quest to overcome human evil…

    Maybe the only way for a more balanced, sane world is something like a large scale spiritual awakening of the masses, we don’t have to be enlightened, just a little bit more awake. “War” then, just becomes silly.



    1. As I understand it, one of his nicknames is ‘Bandar Bush’, indicating that friendship. He’s quite a shady character, as far as I can tell, and seems to be one of the key players from Lebanon to the Gulf.

      As for the large scale spiritual awakening, sounds like a good idea, although war has been a constant companion of humanity since Cain slew Abel, and this may not change. We don’t fight the French like we used to, of course, and I believe there are less wars these days than previous centuries.



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