Is Pre-emptive War Intrinsically Evil and Always Immoral?

Over at National Catholic Register, Mark Shea blogs that pre-emptive war is always immoral. His conclusion is morally unsound and contrary to Catholic dogma on the basic principles of ethics, i.e. on the constitutive elements that make any act moral or immoral. Like the vast majority of bloggers who venture into the realm of Catholic ethics, he utterly ignores the teaching of Pope John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor — a teaching also found in many other magisterial documents — on the three fonts of morality. He does not mention the three fonts: intention, moral object, circumstances. He does not use the term intrinsically evil, nor does he define a pre-emptive war in terms of the moral object of the act.

The Roman Catholic Magisterium infallibly (under the ordinary and universal Magisterium) teaches that, to be moral, an act must have three good fonts (or “sources”) of morality. If one or more fonts is bad, the act is always immoral; it is always a sin. If all three fonts are good, the act is always moral — it is at least morally permissible without sin.

1. intention — the reason or purpose for choosing the act

2. moral object — the deliberately chosen act itself, with its inherent moral meaning, as determined by the moral object. The inherent moral meaning is the moral nature or moral species of the act; it is the type of act, in terms of morality.

3. The circumstances, especially the consequences.

Let’s apply the three fonts of morality to the idea of a pre-emptive war.

1. Intention: if the person(s) choosing the act intends only good, then this font of morality is good. An example of a good intention for a pre-emptive war would be to defend the innocent citizens of a nation against an imminent nuclear, chemical, or biological attack from another nation. A bad intention for a pre-emptive war would be to increase the power of the attacking nation, or to gain the wealth and resources found in the other nation.

2. Moral object: the moral object is the proximate end, in terms of morality, toward which the knowingly chosen act is intrinsically ordered.

In order to be intrinsically evil, a pre-emptive war would have to be ordered toward an evil end as its proximate (i.e. morally-immediate) object.

Some wars are intrinsically evil. For example, a war ordered toward the destruction of a religion or an ethnic group is a genocidal war, and would be intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. The current Iranian regime has suggested that it might undertake such a war against Israel. Another example of an intrinsically evil war would be a war ordered toward the direct killing of an innocent population. For example, there were fears in the U.S., not too many years ago, that the (now former) Soviet Union would destroy the U.S. with a massive first-strike; such a war would be intrinsically evil because it is the direct and deliberate killing of (very many) innocent human persons.

What is the moral object of a pre-emptive war? The term pre-emptive implies an action to prevent an act by another person or group. So a pre-emptive war prevents a nation from acting in some way.

Suppose that nation A learns that nation B is preparing an imminent attack on the innocent citizens of nation A, with nuclear bombs, or dirty bombs, or chemical/biological weapons. Nation A therefore attacks nation B, in a war which is directed toward preventing the aforementioned grave crime against its citizens. The moral object is not evil, but good: the defense of the innocent.

Mark Shea errs by assuming that no pre-emptive war can be defensive, unless an actual physical attack has occurred first: “The first requirement is that all just war must be an act of defense against an actual aggressor, not a preventative act of aggression against somebody you fear might be an aggressor one of these days.”

But just war is morally-comparable to using deadly force in self-defense. If someone threatens to kill you with a gun, are you morally required to wait until he fires the first shot? No, you are not. As long as the threat is severe and imminent, you can shoot first. The other person is still an aggressor, even if the threat has not yet begun to be carried out. From a moral point of view, a physical act of violence is not needed for a person to be an aggressor. It is in fact moral violence to threaten to use force or deadly force against an innocent person.

Similarly, if nation B is preparing the weapons and soldiers needed to make an unjust attack on innocent nation A, then nation A can defend itself. Nation A does not need to wait until the first shot is fired, or until some of its innocent citizens are actually killed, before going to war.

This conclusion is all the more clear in the example of a massive nuclear war. If nation B is preparing an imminent massive first-strike with nuclear weapons, which would literally kill millions of innocents with the very first act of the war, nation A is not morally required to wait until the aggressor is an “actual aggressor” by that first act. A pre-emptive war in that case is certainly ordered toward the defense of the innocent, and so it is not intrinsically evil.

3. Circumstances: we have already discussed some of the possible circumstances of a pre-emptive war. In general, for this font to be good, the reasonably anticipated good consequences must morally outweigh the reasonably anticipated bad consequences for all persons affected by the act. In the case of an imminent attack by nation B with nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons, the bad consequences of nation A refraining from war until the nation B actually attacks are very grave consequences: hundreds of thousands of innocents killed. The good consequences of a pre-emptive war is that the murder many innocents by nation B is prevented.

By applying the three fonts of morality, it can easily be proven that a war is not intrinsically evil merely because it is pre-emptive. A war can be morally a type of defense, of one’s own nation or of another nation, even if the nation being attacked has not attacked first. It is sufficient that the nation being attacked by a pre-emptive war was threatening some grave harm to innocent citizens in another nation, or even in its own nation.

If a totalitarian regime were killing massive numbers of its own citizens, such as in acts of genocide, another nation would be entirely justified in waging war against that regime, in order to defend the innocents in that same nation.

In all of the above examples of a just war that is pre-emptive, the moral object is good; it is the defense of large numbers of innocent persons. When the moral object is good, then the morality of the act depends on intention and circumstances. So it is certainly possible for a pre-emptive war to have three good fonts of morality.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states that: “A war of aggression is intrinsically immoral.” (n. 500.) But a pre-emptive strike is not morally an act of aggression. From a moral point of view, a physical attack on another nation can be inherently ordered toward defending the innocent. The inherent moral meaning of such an act is the defense of the innocent, and so the act is good, not intrinsically evil.

Now suppose that person A is being threatened with imminent death by person B. Some commentators claim that A cannot attack B with deadly force in self-defense, except as a last resort. But from a moral point of view, this is not true. (I will leave the legal point of view to the lawyers.)

For example, suppose person A tries, as a first resort, to talk person B out of killing him. If this first resort fails, then the result is the death of person A. No second resort can be tried. Suppose that, as a first resort, person A tries to run away, and person B shoots him dead. There is no way for person A to attempt a second resort, nor finally, after many failed attempts, a last resort. So it is absurd to claim that deadly force can only be used as a last resort.

And the same applies to a pre-emptive war. Suppose that nation B is threatening to attack nation A with nuclear weapons or dirty bombs. Certainly, as long as this attack is not imminent, nation A might try a series of measures to prevent the attack. Thus, the CCC correctly says that war should not be waged until “all peace efforts have failed” and “all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective.” But these efforts to find another means to avert an attack by the other nation are subject to a reasonable evaluation of the circumstances (third font).

Once the attack is imminent, a pre-emptive war is morally-required to defend the innocent. Nation A cannot continue to try one measure after another, until the attack begins, because then it will be too late, vast numbers of innocents will be dead. Is this example of pre-emptive war a last resort? Not really. The attack is imminent, not in the sense that nation A knows exactly when nation B will attack. It is rather a matter of likelihood. As the attack becomes more and more likely, as well as more and more imminent, nation A eventually judges that waiting will do more harm than good because of the ever-increasing likelihood of an attack and its grave harm. Waiting until the very last moment, or until all other measures are completely exhausted, increases the likelihood that even a pre-emptive war will be likely to fail, costing innocent lives that could have been saved by acting sooner.

So, concerning the timing of a pre-emptive war, as long as the moral object is good, the timing depends on an evaluation of the circumstances, especially the reasonably anticipated good and bad consequences of waiting versus acting. A pre-emptive war need not be a last resort, although other means to avert war must be attempted first — if the circumstances permit.

Suppose that nation A suddenly discovers that a massive attack by nation B is imminent. There may perhaps be no time for a resort to other means. The choice to attempt a peaceful solution, in such a case, would have little likelihood of success and great likelihood that many innocent lives would be lost. So, in such a case, a pre-emptive war would be morally-required to protect the innocent as a first resort.

The just war doctrine of the Church is often presented as a checklist of conditions that need to be met in order for the war to be just. However, this checklist, when it is correct, is merely an application of the three fonts of morality to a particular type of act and to particular circumstances. The Magisterium infallibly teaches that if all three fonts of morality are good, the act is morally permissible. There are no exceptions to this basic principles of the eternal moral law. Therefore, if a pre-emptive war has three good fonts, the war is morally permissible.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic moral theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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