Applying John Rawls’ Principles to the Israel-Hamas War

by Laurence Houlgate
(Emeritus professor of philosophy at California Polytechnic State University)

Part 1 – Preface

On August 6, 1945, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima instantly killed 80,000 Japanese people.  Tens of thousands more died of radiation exposure. Three days later (August 9) another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, killing an estimated 40,000.  Most of those who died in these blasts were non-combatants and most of the non-combatants were children and women.

In 1995, one year before his death, the renowned American philosopher John Rawls wrote an article titled “50 Years After Hiroshima.” (Dissent Magazine). Rawls invited his readers to reflect on the question, “Was the bombing of the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki really a great wrong, as many thought then, or is it perhaps justified after all?

College students today are reflecting and debating about a similar question:  “Is the bombing of Gaza City and other parts of the Gaza Strip orchestrated by the Israeli government really a great wrong, as some have recently said, or is it perhaps justified after all?”

For many protesting students, reflection and debate is useless.  They think that they know what is right and what is wrong.  There have been hundreds if not thousands of reports of emotional university students loudly taking sides on the justice of the current Israeli-Hamas conflict, but they do so without giving any explanation at all as to what the words “just war” mean.  They have been barraged with photos and videos of death and destruction.   Emotions of retaliation and revenge take hold and moral judgments are made before the protesting students know anything more about the war than what the photos show on social media.

The Rawls article provides a template for rational reflection.  He answers the Hiroshima question (above) by setting out six moral principles that govern the conduct of war – jus in bello — of democratic peoples. Rawls assumes that the conduct of war by non-democratic dictatorial governments such as those in Japan and Germany were not guided by any principles that would qualify as ‘moral’.  Their end was “the domination and exploitation of subjected peoples, and in Germany’s case, their enslavement if not extermination.”

In what follows, students should apply Rawls’ principles of just war only to the conduct of the Israeli government, not to the conduct of Hamas leaders.  The Hamas government of the people of the Gaza Strip, like the WW2 governments of Japan and Germany is totalitarian. It is not a democracy “of the people, by the people and for the people” (Lincoln). The goal of Hamas’ leaders is the destruction of Israel through Jihad (Holy War).  There are no moral limits to jihadist acts of war so long as the acts achieve this goal.

Before applying Rawls’ principles to the conduct of the Israeli government (Part IV), students should come to agreement about the facts relevant to the ongoing war with Hamas (Part II), and the nature of the principles of a just war (Part III).  Principles without agreed-upon facts and/or facts without agreed-upon principles will leave students unable to come to mutual agreement about how to answer questions about the justice of the Israel-Hamas War.

Part II – Facts about the Israel-Hamas War

A. The war between Israel and Hamas started on October 7, 2023, when “scores of Hamas gunmen swept into Israeli towns and military bases near the border with Gaza, opening fire on people in their homes, on the streets, and at a music festival attackers fatally shot the elderly, women and young children, according to survivors; others were burned after attackers set their homes ablaze.”

B.  Hamas has said the aim of the attack was “to free Palestinian prisoners, stop Israeli aggression on al-Aqsa Mosque, and to break the siege on Gaza.” (Washington Post)  Other supporters of Hamas said that the October 7 attack was a continuation of the 1948 Nakba (catastrophe) of Israel’s displacement of Palestinian Arabs (Al Jazeera).

C.  The vast majority of those killed in the Oct. 7 assault — around 70 percent — have been identified as civilians, not soldiers, by Israeli authorities. According to Israeli police, health officials have identified at least 846 civilians killed in the fighting.  Israel’s official estimate of the final death toll of the Oct. 7 attacks is about 1,400 people (including civilians, soldiers, police and foreign nationals).

D.  Israel’s response to the Hamas attacks was almost immediate, starting with the bombing of sites in Gaza where they believed Hamas fighters and their leaders might be hiding.  At this writing (27 November), the bombing has killed over 14,000 people in Gaza City and the Gaza Strip.  Of the 14,000 killed, 69 percent, or 10,000 are women and children (Lauren Leatherby, New York Times).

E.  Israel’s foreign minister Eli Cohen said, “We reject outright the UN General Assembly despicable call for a ceasefire. Israel intends to eliminate Hamas just as the world dealt with the Nazis and ISIS (Times of Israel).

Part III – Six Principles

Rawls announces at the beginning of his article that the bombings of Japanese cities were “very great wrongs.” He sets out six principles that guided him to this conclusion. Here is a brief summary of each principle. [Rawls gives a longer more detailed statement of the principles in the 1995 article: ]

1.      The aim of a just war waged by a decent democratic society is a just and lasting peace between peoples, especially with its present enemy.

2.      A decent democratic society fights only against nondemocratic societies that caused the war and whose aims threaten the security and free institutions of democratic societies.

3.      A decent democratic society will defend itself only against those who are responsible for organizing and bringing on the war (the principle of responsibility).  Civilians are not responsible and thus will not be attacked.  Except for the upper ranks of the officer class, soldiers are also not responsible for the war because they are conscripted. But “the grounds on which they may be attacked directly are not that they are responsible for the war but that a democratic people cannot defend itself in any other way.”

4.      A decent democratic society must respect the human rights of the members of the other side. Every human (by definition) has these rights, including enemy soldiers and civilians.  “In the case of human rights in war, civilians…can never be attacked directly except in times of extreme crisis.”  An extreme crisis exists only when the democratic society is on the verge of losing the war and will have “enormous and uncalculated moral and political evil” imposed on it by the enemy.

5.      Democratic peoples should foretell during war the kind of peace they aim for and the kind of relations they seek between nations.  This will show the public the nature of their aims and the kind of people they are.

6.      Practical means-end reasoning in judging the appropriateness of an action or policy for achieving the aim of war or for not causing more harm than good should always be framed within and strictly limited by the preceding principles (1-5).  War plans and strategies, and the conduct of battle must lie within their limits, except in times of extreme crisis.

Part IV – Applying Rawls’ Principles of Just War

What follows are six questions for thought and discussion. Each question is about an application of the principles in Part III to the facts set out in Part II.

a. Does Israel aim to achieve a “just and lasting peace” with the Hamas government of Gaza?  (Principle 1).  If not the Hamas government, then with whom does Israel aim to achieve a just and lasting peace?

b. Is the Hamas leadership threatening the security and free institutions of a democratic society? (P 2).

c. Is Israel’s bombing of Gaza consistent with the Principle of Responsibility, that is, is Israel defending itself only against those who are responsible for organizing and bringing on the war in a way that does not harm those who are not responsible for organizing and bringing on the war (P3)?

d. Is Israel respecting the human rights of all the people of Gaza, including enemy soldiers and civilians?  Or is this a war of extreme crisis in which the human right to life can be ignored (P4)?

e. Has Israel announced or foretold the kind of peace they are aiming for and the kind of relations they seek between themselves and the enemy (Hamas) and/or the people in the Gaza Strip? (P5)

f. Is Israel using means-end reasoning in a way that is consistent with P1 – P5, assuming that defending themselves against Hamas is not an extreme crisis?

Part V – Conclusion and a final question

John Rawls wrote, “It is the task of the student of philosophy to look to the permanent conditions and the real interests of a just and good democratic society.” He finds it “hard to understand” why it was thought at the time by many Americans that questioning the morality of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was “an insult to the American troops who fought the war.”

Rawls responded that “it can’t be that we think we waged the war without moral error!”  Just and decent civilized societies “depend absolutely on making significant moral and political distinctions in all situations,” including especially the atomic bombings that killed hundreds of thousands of people in the two cities of Japan.

I leave students of philosophy with a final question. What do you think?  Is the Israel-Hamas War being conducted without moral error?  Are there any significant moral and political distinctions on both sides that have not been made in declaring whether this is or is not a just war?  If so, what are these distinctions?

— Laurence Houlgate


Leatherby, Lauren. 25 November 2023. “Israel Gaza Death Toll.” New York Times

Live Blog. Times of Israel. “Cohen Slams Despicable UN Resolution Urging Ceasefire.” 27 October 2023.

Rawls, John. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Harvard U.P.

Rawls, John.  Summer 1995.  “50 Years After Hiroshima.” Dissent Magazine

Suleiman, Ali Haj. 12 November 2023. “For displaced Palestinians in Syria, Israel war evokes Nakba and solidarity.” Al Jazeera.

Washington Post. October 17, 2023. “The Israel-Hamas War Reasons Explained.”

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10 thoughts on “Applying John Rawls’ Principles to the Israel-Hamas War

  1. Students protesting this war are motivated by more than photos of its atrocities. While many should do more homework, many more are reacting to the much larger context of Palestinian suffering over the last 75 years. It is easy to denounce Hamas, but it requires more nuance to ask how such terrorists were created and why they were voted into power. Netanyahu’s extremism, including his refusal to deal with the more moderate Palestinian authority, only complicates the question. Six simple rules taken from a different war can hardly be applied with such facility to the ongoing tragedy of two peoples, each claiming the same “holy land.” As Israeli novelist Amos Oz wrote, In the Palesitinian-Israeli conflict there are two sides to every question “and often both are wrong.”

  2. I am not going to single out anyone as key fomenter of tribulations in the middle east. All I will claim is that animosities, suspicions and resentments go way back to well before I was born. That is a short time, in tortoise years, but longer in human ones. Principles, no matter how universal, can only bring satisfactory resolutions when secured by commitments. I have no memory as such of the birth of Israel…that was the year of my own birth, so I only know the history of things. And history tends to have gaps, commissions and omissions, installed to make someone look better; someone else look worse. Agendas, goals and objectives differ.

  3. Excellent piece! I have a few points to add.

    First, I have a good friend who is hibakusha (survivor of an atomic bombing). She was ten years old and reading a book a little more than a mile from ground zero when the bomb exploded at Hiroshima. She was only slightly injured, but she very nearly died of radiation exposure. I helped her rewrite her memoirs, and we spent many hours discussing the events.

    My own assessment is complicated. The Japanese were willing to surrender months earlier if only the Allies promised to respect the Emperor. But Roosevelt had agreed to the “unconditional surrender” specification and Truman refused to renege on that promise. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were therefore unnecessary and immoral.

    HOWEVER, all too often we fail to take account of what the actors in historical events did and did not know when they made their decisions. It’s the fog of war. Truman’s knowledge of Japanese intentions was based on its public pronouncements, primarily its propaganda, which was ferociously defiant. Truman did not know that a careful diplomatic strategy would probably have yielded peace without the need for either an invasion or the use of the Bomb. Therefore, I conclude that, while he made what was, in the final analysis, the wrong decision, I think that his decision is excusable because he lacked the information necessary to reach the best conclusion.

    Another point: there is only one way to conclude a war successfully, and that is to convince the enemy that he is defeated. The facts on the ground aren’t as important as the enemy’s perception of those facts. The worst way to fight a war is to impose a steady flow of casualties on the enemy. That can go on forever. You need something dramatic, something that stuns and demoralizes the enemy.

    Israel’s strategy with respect to the Palestinians is just about the worst possible. They are imposing a steady stream of casualties on the Palestinians without ever doing anything to change Palestinian minds. They have been for years killing roughly ten Palestinians for every Israeli killed. (Side note: most of the Palestinian casualties come not from bombs and bullets but from all the constraints on normal civilian life imposed by the Israeli occupation. Roadblocks delay emergency trips to the hospital with deadly consequences. Inadequate sewage systems and irregular electricity supplies encourage the spread of disease. Unemployed youth commit suicide by cop)

    Thus, Israel has been stoking the hatred of the Palestinians for decades. The Israeli government believes that it can eventually intimidate the Palestinians into a sullen acceptance of their fate at Israeli hands. It doesn’t work that way. Hitler’s Blitz on Britain didn’t intimidate the British. The Allied bombings of Germany killed huge numbers of Germans but never broke their morale. The American bombings in Vietnamese were equally ineffective. Every hunter knows that the worst thing you can do is wound an animal without incapacitating it, but few governments, especially the Israeli government understand that principle. In the case of hunting animals, you must kill a wounded animal — but genocide of millions of Palestinians is not an option.

    The only moral solution to the conflict is a peace based on the creation of a viable Palestinian state. Israel refuses to recognize this truth, and so the killing will go on forever, with one possible exception. At some point, the Palestinians will obtain a weapon of mass destruction: a nuclear weapon or a biological weapon. They will use this weapon and cause so much destruction that they will shock the Israelis into making a choice between outright genocide and making peace.

  4. Is it right or wrong? that depends on whether you are killing the people or if you are part of the group being killed!
    Everyone has justification for what they do, everyone thinks, in their own mind, that what he is doing is perfectly rational.
    The age of enlightenment has passed, now we ( may be) entering an age of fanaticism.
    Fanaticism offers a world free from ambiguity, a world without fear where you are focused on your task, and if you die your God will take you you his Heaven and all your Sins will be expiated!
    It is demeaning to sit in judgement of anybody in these circumstances half of the population were children under fourteen years of age!

  5. I have been very curious about Rawls. This is a great topic, essentially it could be part of a collection about why evil exists.

    ” soldiers are also not responsible for the war because they are conscripted.”. Sorry, Mr Rawls, I don’t agree with this part. My view is that one should never fight a war believed to be unnecessary, unjust, etc, and should be a conscientious objector.

    There’s great stories about the father of all philosophers, Socrates, that I think set a pretty powerful example, when he was ordered by the ‘government’ to kill someone -don’t remember who, and for what-, and he just went home! Even though he knew he himself could be killed. I think this is a magnificent story about what to do in these cases.

    I agree about ‘protestors’. I believe most of them are simpletons, half-baked, and self-righteous. Protests should be backed by powerful arguments, not simply by histrionics. The worst thing is when the protests degenerate into riots.

  6. ”Just and decent civilized societies “depend absolutely on making significant moral and political distinctions in all situations,”.

    The problem is that none of the parties is just: one is bad, the other worse. This is clearly demonstrated by the fact that neither party is NOT attacking civilians. The Hamas are mad because people like these never put human life above their insane ideologies (and is it not this the reason why ANY states waged a war? When did ‘just wars’ ever happen? I know of none of them.).

    The definition of war: two mad parties who send OTHERS to war (they never go to war themselves, although in the past there have been the madmen who did just that), who will kill people who are strangers to them, simply because they are strangers to them.

    People don’t wage wars, they don’t want it. Governments do. And when you have a madman leading a state….

  7. Ironically, most ‘leaders’ who have waged wars, are just lunatics and idiots who happened to be in a position of power. Even in Sun Tzu the first word of advice goes something like this:

    ‘The best way to win a war, unless it can be won very quickly and easily, is never to start it. Every attempt should be made to avoid it, for a war becomes very soon unsustainable: it will cost ten thousand pieces of gold a day, people on both sides will die and starve to death, and the dead cannot be resurrected.’.

    The fools who easily wage wars without making every attempt to first avoid it, are completely stupid.

    ” In a fight, the most intelligent person will stop first.’. -Schopenhauer

  8. First, a disclaimer.
    I never served in the military. What I think I know about war is through books, and minimally, through family, co-workers and friends. (side disclaimer to the disclaimer: while people don’t mind talking to an ‘outsider’ about being in the military, they aren’t forthcoming with someone who has no shared experience about either lethal actions or history they are ashamed of)

    I will comment first on principles 3 and 4, which are basically to wage war such that civilian life is sacrosanct, and even the killing of enemy combatants is minimized.

    I can think of zero examples where this has been the case. The highest priority seems to be the immediate tactical mission whilst suffering the fewest casualties.
    In practice, successfully completing the mission has a higher priority than civilian life. A corollary of this is that, in modern times, the enemy’s civilian population is viewed as auxiliaries to the actual combatants. This makes them a legal target.
    In total wars between nations, we have come to the point where the war is against an entire population. How else could there be any rationalization of mass bombing? If you pay taxes, you contribute to the war effort, you are a just target. Or so goes the thinking.

    Now for principles 1,2 and 5 and6.
    All thoughts I have on them stem from how I have come to view Israel/Palestine.
    It seems to me very similar to European settlers in North America and the people already living there. North America was not colonized. The native peoples were displaced.
    The vision and attempt of Nazi Germany’s Lebensraum was based on the same concept. Taking land from a people already living on it and replacing them with your own people.

    Which obviously raises the question of what should be done regarding the people already living there?
    I cannot think of any manner of accomplishing such an objective without extreme injustices. Even genocide.
    No people/state (other than the Nazis) could publicly state such an objective for a future peace between the warring people, or even admit it to themselves. So ‘they’ bumble along, without anyone on the side of taking the land able to state a just solution that reconciles their territorial goals with the reality of the situation.

    If we stare into the abyss and it looks back, most of us look away. It is too disconcerting.
    (please forgive that blatant plagiarism, but I thought it fitting)

  9. The chief moral imperative of war is to prevent it.
    It is impossible for any war, however just, to be conducted without moral error.
    WW2 fought oceans away from the US, is not comparable to a micro local war more akin to a home invasion, where the threat is immediate and existential (i.e., a case of #6 exception for “times of extreme crisis”). I might have compared the Ukraine war instead.
    Is ethics incumbent only on the side that is ethical? In a way yes, in a way that’s a suicide pact.
    He says we need to know the facts before doing moral deliberations. YES! But in war, facts are particularly hard to ascertain and to divulge; later, even if divulged, professors must edit them so as to avoid being nonviolently defenestrated by peaceful scholars.
    Wars are complicated things. Most of Rawls’ 6 principles seem vague and/or unconvincing. Ex.: the aim of a just war could just be self-defense with limited hope of “lasting” “peace.”
    But he makes the great point that soldiers are innocent (and i’d specify, not unnecessarily, ‘even’ if they are men).
    Hiroshima was not a war, it was a bombing action. When is the bombing of civilian areas justified? This is the question. We now know more about the military significance of Dresden. But still, I would have absolutely wanted to at least warn the Dresden population, as, e.g., Israel has done when bombing Gaza so people could take refuge, e.g., in huge networks of tunnels–though it appears Hamas sometimes bars civilians from tunnels, just to up Gazan casualties. That, and Hamas bombing Israeli cities, are not a factor in Rawlsian analysis.
    (On the question of causes vs effects in Israel-Palestine, they are easy to confuse, but anyway the key causes lie outside Israel-Palestine. What lies within I-P is the great suffering that both sides have endured. Horrid, atrocious situation.)
    At Hiroshima and Nagasaki, advance warnings and tunnels would not have helped. I don’t get why the US could not have invited Japanese brass to witness effects of a bomb detonated elsewhere. But I was not there, did not know the knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns. When the world fails at preventing, the die is cast–lots of moral errors are destined to happen, pace Rawls, and a few are so momentous as to haunt humanity forever, irrespective of our guilt.
    BTW, I don’t get why/how we failed at the not overly challenging mission of preventing the Russia-Ukraine-NATO war, which, predictably, has destabilized the world and brought us closer to WW2+1.

  10. I think NATO is a very good, and smart example of ‘avoiding wars’. Avoiding wars does not mean being a pacifist or being weak. If Putin would have lived 50 years ago, the United States would have already dealt with him, directly. But obviously, lessons have been learned, although slowly.

    Obviously, I assume I ignore other aspects that I don’t know about, or understand. But personally I believe direct war is fought only by primitive people. Whatever the case, the sad fact is that civilians pay the price, whilst the people who wage wars, are protected by bodyguards, armoured cars, and fat bank accounts. It’s easy to wage a war, when you know you aren’t the one risking your own skin for it.

    One should never fight, unless attacked. And if attacked, one should not fight anyone else, but the attacker. Not a bunch of people living nearby, just because they happen to be there. That is despicable. I cannot imagine those poor old people being held as hostages….the last part of one’s life should be as tranquil as possible, to say nothing of the children there, who had just started living it.

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