Dangerous Distortions of Doctrine on Just War

Over at the Witherspoon Institute, Robert C. Koons has a post on just war theory and the Iran crisis. His own summary of the article is as follows: “It would be wrong for the United States to engage at this time in an attack on Iran or to participate substantially in an Israeli action.” His explanation as to why it would be wrong is a substantial distortion of Catholic doctrine on just war and on the basic principles of ethics. Furthermore, if his view were adopted by the U.S., there would be a real danger of grave harm to hundreds of thousands of innocents due to a nuclear attack.

1. His most fundamental error is the most common error that authors on Catholic ethics make today: ignoring the infallible magisterial teaching on the three fonts of morality. Many years ago, before Pope John Paul II and the Catechism of the Catholic Church taught on the basic principles of ethics, and before a number of recent magisterial documents on particular intrinsically evil acts, one might have argued (perhaps incorrectly) that the three fonts of morality was at that time merely a theological opinion, or a non-infallible magisterial teaching. But at this point in time, it is infallible under the ordinary and universal Magisterium. Even so, the vast majority of Catholic authors, writing on any topic in morality, utterly ignore the teaching of the Magisterium in Veritatis Splendor and the CCC on the three fonts.

First Font: intention — the purpose or reason for which the act was chosen. The intention is in the subject, the person who acts.

Second Font: moral object — more specifically, the knowingly chosen act with its inherent moral meaning as determined by the moral object, i.e. the proximate end, in terms of morality, toward which the chosen act is intrinsically ordered. This inherent ordering of the act toward its moral object makes the act either good in itself or evil in itself. The moral object is in the act itself, not in the subject.

Third Font: circumstances, especially the consequences — If the reasonably anticipated good consequences morally equal or outweigh the reasonably anticipated bad consequences, for all persons affected by the act, then the third font is good; otherwise, it is bad. It is always a sin to choose an act, knowing that the act will do more harm than good.

The Magisterium definitively and infallibly teaches that the morality of any act depends on the three fonts of morality. If all three fonts are good, the act is good; it is at least morally permissible without sin. If any one or more fonts is bad, the act is a sin; it is always a sin to knowingly choose that act, for as long as one or more fonts remain bad. Neither the principle of double effect, nor the principle of cooperation with evil, nor just war theory, nor anything else, can contradict this teaching. Therefore, if any proposed war or military action has three good fonts, it is moral. Anyone who says that a war can be immoral, despite three good fonts, has rejected the teaching of the Magisterium on the basic principles of ethics.

Robert C. Koons does not base his analysis of a proposed war or military attack against Iran entirely and solely on the three fonts of morality. Yet he claims to be presenting and applying the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church on a grave matter of morality. Such is his first error.

2. His second error is to replace the magisterial teaching of the Church on ethics, as it applies to all knowingly chosen acts, with his own version of just war theory. Koons writes: “Just war theory lays down seven criteria that must be met in order to justify the initiation of war….” His entire article is based on the premise that these 7 criteria are the basis for evaluating the morality of war. Where do these 7 criteria come from? He does not say, and the Magisterium has never taught that there are 7 criteria. Theological opinion on the criteria for a just war varies considerably.

Koons presents these 7 premises, but he does not prove or support them. His conclusion may follow from his premises, but some of his premises are not in agreement with Catholic teaching.

3. On the one hand, Koons uses the term “just war theory”. On the other hand, he treats his version of this theory as if it were a dogma.

In my understanding, just war theory is no longer a theory. The Magisterium has definitive teachings on what makes a war moral or immoral, first and foremost the three fonts of morality. The more specific magisterial teachings on just and unjust war are merely an application of the three fonts to that particular type of act, especially to the evaluation of the third font, circumstances, which, in the case of war, can be very complex.

In any case, just war doctrine is not based on the 7 criteria that Koons proposes. So all that he proves in his article is that an attack on Iran by the U.S. is contrary to his own unsubstantiated version of just war theory, not contrary to magisterial teaching on morality and war.

Now let’s consider the specifics of what Koons proposes:

4. Koons: “Given our assumption of the worst-case scenario, the first condition of just war theory, just cause, is easily met, at least at first glance. Defense of innocent human life, whether in one’s own country or in that of an ally, provides a just cause for military action.”

The cause of the military action, to defend innocent human life, is essentially (though Koons never uses these terms) a consideration of the second font of morality: the deliberately chosen act, with its inherent moral nature as determined by the moral object. If the war is inherently ordered toward a defense of the innocent, then that moral object of the war is good, not evil. And if there is no other moral object, at least not one that is evil, then the act is not intrinsically evil. It is a good type of act, not an evil type of act.

Any evil in the moral object of an act would make that act intrinsically evil and always immoral. If an act has three moral objects, and one is evil, while the other two are very good, the act is nevertheless intrinsically evil and always immoral. If the moral object of the war is the good of defending innocent life, and there is no evil moral object beside it, then the war is not intrinsically evil.

By Koons’ own analysis of the worst-case scenario, an attack on Iran would have a good moral object: to defend countless innocent lives against death or serious bodily injury from a nuclear attack. The moral object is good; the war or military strike is not inherently evil.

5. Koons: “The second condition, proportionality, also poses no obstacle. The harm resulting from a tightly focused attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be far outweighed by the unimaginable scale of death and suffering resulting from an Iranian nuclear attack on an American or Israeli city.”

In the three fonts of morality, the intention is not proportional. Any bad intention makes the first font (intention) bad and the act a sin. If a person has a very good intention and also a lesser bad intention, the act is a sin due to that bad intention. Similarly, if an act has three moral objects, two of which are good, and one of which is bad, the act is intrinsically evil. The two good objects cannot proportionally outweigh the one bad object.

Proportionality does apply to the third font: circumstances. If the reasonably anticipated good consequences morally outweigh the reasonably anticipated bad consequences, then the third font is good. So the condition of proportionality is essentially a consideration of the third font. Typically, in theological tracts on just war, this font is broken down into several considerations:

Catechism of the Catholic Church: “At one and the same time: — the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain; — all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective; — there must be serious prospects of success; — the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.” (CCC 2309)

These criteria are an evaluation of the circumstances. The circumstances of war are very complex, since many different good and bad consequences can result from war. And this is why magisterial teaching and theological works sometimes propose a list of criteria to be met. But in the end, all of these criteria about proportionality are simply an evaluation of the third font of morality.

Koons evaluates the circumstances to the conclusion that the good consequences of avoiding a nuclear attack on a city far outweigh the bad consequences of military action on Iran’s nuclear facilities. So far, we have two good fonts: moral object and circumstances.

6. Koons next evaluates the intention for going to war (or making a military strike).

Koons: “The third condition, right intention, simply requires that the just cause be the real reason for the action, and not merely an excuse for hostile action motivated by malice.”

For an act to be moral, all three fonts of morality must be good. However, the good intended end need not be the same as the good moral object. So, for a war to be just, the intention need not be the same as the just cause. But in the case of just war, generally the defense of the innocent would be the good end in all three fonts.

If the intention is only good, and the other two fonts are also good, then under the teaching of the Magisterium on the three fonts of morality, the act of deciding to take this military action is moral. I suggest that the intention of Israel to defend itself against a nuclear holocaust that would destroy the nation is an entirely good intention. And the intention of the U.S. government to use a military strike to protect U.S. cities against a similar devastation is also entirely good. There appears to be no ulterior motive, such as to gain money or power or resources, on the part of the U.S. leaders, nor on the part of the Israeli leaders.

So at this point in the discussion, I have concluded that all three fonts of morality are good, and the attack is moral. And it would seem that Koons has concluded the same. Without using the term ‘three fonts of morality’, he has discussed each of the three fonts and concluded that each is good. But now the theological problems begin. Koons has seven criteria, not only three, and so he is unwittingly adding four fonts to the three fonts of morality taught by the Church: “comparative justice, competent authority, last resort, and probability of success.”

These four criteria must either be erroneous, i.e. not truly necessary for the war to be just, or they must be found within the three fonts of morality, which were his first three criteria.

Koons: “Comparative justice means that the nation initiating the war must be significantly less guilty in the relevant respects than is the prospective enemy.”

Let’s use the analogy of the individual using deadly force in self-defense. Suppose that a hardened criminal guilty of many grave crimes, serving multiple life sentences in prison, is attacked unjustly, with deadly force, by a prison guard, a man with no criminal record and a wife and six kids. Can the criminal kill his unjust attacker? Yes, he can. It does not matter if the criminal is guilty of several past murders and of many assaults within prison. The idea that the defender must be “significantly less guilty” in the same type of crime as the attacker is not true. The criminal is innocent within that situation, and the prison guard is guilty. If all these facts are presented in court, the prison should be found not guilty.

Koons has a different point of view: “Even if the cause for war were the likely use of Iranian nuclear weapons against innocent civilians, this situation is a murky one, since the United States is the one nation that has actually used nuclear weapons against an enemy and, in at least one case (Nagasaki), against a civilian population center with no significant military installations. In addition, the United States has never officially apologized for the nuclear attack on Japan nor disavowed the future use of its nuclear weapons in such an indiscriminate fashion. Until both the United States and Israel renounce such unjust use of nuclear weapons and make such institutional reforms as are needed to prevent it, we cannot claim that the comparative justice condition has been met.”

It is patently absurd to claim that a nation cannot defend hundreds of thousands of innocent non-combatants against an unprovoked nuclear attack until the nation apologizes for a past grave action. There is no such principle in Catholic moral theology, and it is contrary to reason. The situation is not murky. The U.S. government has an obligation, as a positive precept under the eternal moral law, to defend its innocent citizens, regardless of other errors made in the past or present by that government.

It is also absurd to claim that the U.S. must make institutional reforms, that would take months or years to implement, before it can defend its innocent citizens against an nuclear attack that could be launched in a shorter period of time. Essentially, Koons is arguing that the U.S. must permit a nuclear holocaust, which the U.S. is able to prevent. Is this idea compatible with Catholic teaching? Not at all.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another’s life. Preserving the common good requires rendering the unjust aggressor unable to inflict harm. To this end, those holding legitimate authority have the right to repel by armed force aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their charge.” (CCC 2265)

It is as if Koons is saying that an individual cannot defend himself against an unjust deadly attack, unless he first apologies to someone else for a past offense, and first reforms other injustices in his own life.

Koons’ next condition is last resort: “War, even when there is a just cause, must always be the last resort, used only when all just and peaceful attempts to prevent aggression with an appropriate chance of success have failed.”

This condition is in the third font, the circumstances. However, I caution against taking this condition too literally. If war or self-defense is an absolute last resort, no defense is possible. There will always be some persons arguing that more diplomacy, more sanctions, more of some other option might succeed before it is too late.

But under Catholic moral teaching, the entire third font is evaluated as to its good and bad consequences. We cannot separate the third font into four parts, and then claim that, if any one of the four part is bad, the act is a sin. (And this is what Koons is unwittingly doing.) Instead, the third font is always considered in “the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned.” (Veritatis Splendor 79).

Koons: “Just war theory resolutely opposes any surprise attack, such as that of the Japanese on Pearl Harbor, precisely because such an unanticipated action can never be a last resort. Sneak attacks do not provide the prospective enemy with an ultimatum that it can meet and thereby avert the catastrophe of war.”

The idea that a surprise attack cannot be moral is false, because the idea that war can only ever be a last resort is false. It may be the case that nation A suddenly discovers that an imminent attack (such as a nuclear bomb attack) is about to be launched by nation B. If there is no time for negotiations, or if even an attempt at negotiations would likely cause the enemy to strike immediately, then a just war can be undertaken immediately, without attempting any other options first. The positive precept to defend innocent lives takes precedence over the alleged rule that other options must be tried first.

Koons admits as much: “The condition of last resort does not rule out the permissibility of a preemptive strike against a potential enemy, so long as the enemy is committed in a practically irrevocable way to launching an unjust attack — that is, so long as the unjust attack is ‘imminent’ in this narrow sense. However, it is hard to believe that an attack involving the use of nuclear weapons could truly be imminent before a single one of those weapons has actually been built.”

But he does not believe that the attack from Iran is imminent. He asserts that Iran has not yet built a nuclear bomb. The problem with this approach is Iran might build a nuclear weapon secretly, as the U.S. did in the Manhattan project. The IAEA has suggested the possibility that Iran has hidden undeclared nuclear facilities. The Fordow facility was hidden and initially unknown. Iran might build a nuclear bomb and ready an attack before the U.S. or Israel realized that they have a nuke. So it is foolish and exceedingly dangerous to assume that no nuclear weapons have been built.

In addition, Iran is capable of building dirty bombs very quickly. They have thousands of kilograms of low enriched uranium, verified by the IAEA. It would not take them long to pair this radioactive material with conventional explosives, and launch a series of dirty bomb attacks against major cities.

See my post on pre-emptive war for more on the idea of defense as a “last resort”.

The condition of “competent authority” is often discussed in just war doctrine. However, Koons’ version of this condition is overly-narrow and false: “The necessity of competent authority follows necessarily, since only a sovereign state can engage in discussions and negotiations with the required credibility, and only a sovereign state can declare, prior to its attack, that a state of war exists.”

He describes the most common case in just war, but other cases could exist without competent authority. For example, Judas Maccabees wages war against a kingdom that invaded Israel, but he had no authority. He and his brethren and other citizens banded together in response to a gravely unjust attack on their nation and their religion, and they waged a just war. Now we could extend the idea of competent authority to the citizenry in general, when competent government authority is unable or unwilling to act, or does not exist. But Koons does not do so, and so his version of this condition is not absolutely necessary.

The final condition, probability of success, has to be weighed in the third font with all of the other parts of the third font. Again, it is a serious moral error to break the third font into parts, and then claim that if any part is bad, the act is a sin, without regard for whether the totality of the good consequences outweighs the bad.

For example, suppose that nation A attacks nation B, and nation B knows that it cannot succeed in defending itself. Under Koons’ analysis, nation B cannot mount any defense, due to the anticipated failure of the war as a whole. But what if, when one city is attacked, that particular attack can be successfully repelled? Is not the military action in defense of that city moral? It is moral, because the defense has three good fonts.

Or what if nation B realizes that an unsuccessful defense will nevertheless weaken nation A, so that A cannot go on to attack nations C, D, E, etc.? The good consequence of an unsuccessful defense are that subsequent war and destruction is prevented. The bad consequence of not defending itself is that several other nations will likely be destroyed also. So the concept of ‘success’ has to be weighed within the third font as a whole, and not separately.

In conclusion, based on Koons’ own analysis of the three fonts of morality, which are his first three criteria, a pre-emptive strike against Iran is moral. When and how to launch that attack is a matter of prudential judgment. We must attempt to do as much good and as little harm as possible. But the U.S. and Israel have a positive moral obligation to defend innocent lives by preventing a nuclear attack from Iran.

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

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