Application of Pacifism and Just War Theory

Just War Theory and Pacifism

This paper seeks to establish a working description of pacifism. Then, it gives a short description of the just war tradition. In addition, it compares and contrasts the principles of just war theory and pacifism in conflict resolution. In the end, it shows that pacifism is preferable to just war, both in the outcome and in principles.

The definition of pacifism relates to the dispute within and between states. Pacifists believe that even defense of self or others are not justification for war (Charles, 2009). However, in this case, we cannot question the right of people to defend themselves and those close to them against threats. The problem here is the application of force by states during a conflict. It is argued that we must reject the idea that pacifism is an entirely rejection of violence. Arguably, the very word “pacifism” has been coined to denote anti-war-ism. Therefore, the useful word holds relatively precise definition that it is appropriate not to abolish or blur. Moreover, the individuals currently defined, as pacifists are by no means dedicated to a decline of every possible type of violence (Cahill, 1992).

Contrary, the just war theory attempts to control war to render it less devastating. Nevertheless, even in a just war, the cost involved to attain the required end is normally extraordinarily high. The safeguarding of ideas, political systems, and people is a noble cause and can be achieved without war. Even in controlling violence, there is nothing like war without a price. The most devastating and most obvious price is the loss of life. Other prices include political, economic and environmental collapse. Altogether, pacifism rejects war as it promotes alternative approaches to addressing interstate disputes (Trzyna & Kauffman, 2006).

As seen from the just war theory, states can respond like individuals when they are attacked (Johnson, 2014). This means they could practice their right to self-defense by fighting back. The theory posits just reasons for entering into war, just approaches of fighting the war and just methods of ending the war. Nevertheless, these practices may lead to a bigger problem than the one being addressed: the continuation of war as an approved approach to dispute resolution. The approval of war as an appropriate evil appears in different levels. There exist subscribers to the just war theory and the just war theorists. Some realists find it needless in trying to make war moral or just. While they have differing views about the approach to the issue of warfare, in the end, both teams agree that war is unavoidable. The just war theory holds that there may be a morally sound or just war. For morality to control war in some manner, “jus in bello” and “jus ad bellum” norms must exist. This means that there must be justice during a war and vice versa (Trzyna & Kauffman, 2006). These phrases lead to deep issues. Jus ad bellum demands that people must make judgments regarding self-defense and aggression. In contrast, “jus in bello” means that people must make decisions regarding violation or observance of the positive and customary rules of engagement. The just war tradition applies these norms to provide wars of warfare and regulate war.

The just war theory is being shaped by the American way of war in the 20th century. When Americans enter into war, the aim is to defeat evil. The undoing of evil justifies the war, grounded on the Augustinian theory (Cahill, 1992). This has been the historical inspiration for people in the U.S. to murder one another and others since the U.S. revolution. The early ancestors went into war for limited and particular goals and conducted a war in a manner that would not shred the social structure. This principle led to self-imposed barriers both in the application of violence and resorted to violence. Concurrently, U.S. leaders consider war as an instrument of State Policy. The intersection of these two themes defines the evolution of U.S. approach to war during the Civil War. The military necessity of absolute war expanded the concept of just war and combatant, leading to the evolution of the associated law of war (Trzyna & Kauffman, 2006).

A good example is during the Civil War. At this time, the former U.S. President Abraham Lincoln requested Francis Lieber to organize a code of law for the military. Lieber came up with two documents. One of them talked about the issue of guerillas particularly regarding the law of war. The other one was the first modern statement of the law of war as it developed on the foundation of the just war. Nevertheless, closely akin to the Augustine’s interpretation, Lieber believed that the civilian population may be viewed as a legit target for destruction in case of collective war guilt (Cahill, 1992).

In this sense, Lieber cited that “military necessity” was the indispensable measures to securing the “ends of war.” Therefore, military necessity permitted the direct destruction of limb or life of the armed enemies and of others whose destruction was incidentally unavoidable. In addition, war prevailed as a condition of an armed dispute between sovereign governments or nations. Here, the citizens of a hostile nation or state would be no less an enemy than the nation’s or state’s soldiers, they were subjected to the hardships of war. Since the preservation of justice and restoration of peace were the ultimate objectives of a war, the murders of otherwise innocent civilians are viewed as necessary in the quest for quick recovery. According to Lieber, sharp wars are brief. With this regard, General Sherman’s burning of the town of Atlanta and matching to the sea reflects this “total war” picture (Johnson, 2014).

Pacifism relates to the oldest religious attitude to war. It entails the basic thought that it is never right to kill (Charles, 2009). The idealistic method considers it appropriate for people to let others murder them instead of defending themselves. It is bad for people to commit sin by pursuing murder. Pacifists would not engage in this sinfulness by killing. They seek to overcome evil by doing a good deed. The decline to participate in any war of aggression and they believe in preparedness for one’s life and property when attacked. This is a brave, radical and bold approach (Fiala, 2008).

Arguably, pacifism is considered as the appropriate measure regardless of its outcome: it is simply right. However, it is a successful method of ending a war and overcoming evil when it is joined with passive resistance (Johnson, 2014). When two countries are engaged in a war, they appear to be tacit consensus they will battle until one wins, and the defeated side will remain as a subject of the winner. Pacifists believe that even if one is a winner, there is no need of the being acting as a subject to another. If we argue that our lives are not protected by all means, particularly evil means, then, we would logically be passively resistant even when threatened. To the conqueror, the ultimate resort is to threaten and murder their subjects (Cahill, 1992). Nevertheless, it is believed that this attitude will finally collapse under the weight of the underlying evil. This will not occur as long as violent resistant prevails to legitimize the conqueror’s repression. Sometimes, pacifism theory is questioned for being impractical because not all people may act in this manner. However, the truth is that war is impractical unless a majority of the population agrees to behave in that manner, as well.

Both just war and pacifism theories are questionable. Pacifism must address its idealism. For example, can the theories cope with the changing state of violence? Are they approaches that deal with international war than terrorism? Secondly, can the theories maintain an appropriate conscience at the cost of the suffering of others? Pacifism is stronger when considering war one’s self or against one’s nation’s possible participation in international battles of conquest. All these issues illuminate that there are problems with both just war theory and pacifism (Johnson, 2014). The two are attempting to address a situation has already gone critically wrong. In this sense, neither of the theories is right for they have never been allowed to the state where countries are considering murdering each other. They are responses to circumstances that already contain evil and neither of them is right. At best, they are the least bad options for the conditions. While nations must decide which is appropriate to adopt in particular conditions, it is pointless to argue about which one is right. Getting to this point indicates massive human failure and neither just war nor pacifism alone will generate real peace (Fiala, 2008).


Cahill, L. S. (1992). Theological Contexts of Just War Theory and Pacifism: A Response to J. Bryan Hehir. The Journal of Religious Ethics. Vol. 20, No. 2: 259-265

Charles, J. D. (2009). Between Pacifism and Jihad: Just War and Christian Tradition. New York: InterVarsity Press

Fiala, A. G. (2008). The Just War Myth: The Moral Illusions of War. New York: Rowman & Littlefield

Johnson, J. T. (2014). Just War Tradition and the Restraint of War: A Moral and Historical Inquiry. New York: Princeton University Press

Trzyna T. N. & Kauffman, R. A. (2006). Blessed are the Pacifists: The Beatitudes and Just War Theory. New York: Herald Press

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