Category Archives: Ethics – General

Summary of Just War Theory

Nuclear War: Nuclear weapon test, 1954

Just War Theory has a long history in the western intellectual tradition. St. Augustine commented on the morality of war from a Christian perspective, as did several Arabic commentators from the 9th to the 12th centuries. But St. Thomas Aquinas provided the most celebrated and still discussed the main outlines of just war theory.

Just War Theory traditionally has two sets of criteria. The first establishing jus ad bellum, the right to go to war; the second establishing jus in bello, right conduct within war.[10] In addition, some scholars have recently considered a third criteria, jus post bellum, right conduct after war.

While I am aware that in the real world might makes right and considerations of justice often appear irrelevant, that doesn’t mean that considerations of what, if anything, constitutes a just war are irrelevant. In fact, looking at the history of slaughter that defines our species, we might all do better to think clearly about when, if ever, violence is justified.

Jus ad bellum

1) Just cause – The reasons for going to war need to be just, and can’t be solely for recapturing things taken or punishing people who have done wrong. In addition, innocent life must be in imminent danger and intervention must be to protect life. A contemporary view of just cause was expressed in 1993 by the US Catholic Conference: “Force may be used only to correct a grave, public evil, i.e., aggression or massive violation of the basic human rights of whole populations.”

2) Comparative justice –  While there may be rights and wrongs on all sides of a conflict, to override the presumption against the use of force, the injustice suffered by one party must significantly outweigh that suffered by the other. Some theorists such as Brian Orend omit this term, seeing it as fertile ground for exploitation by bellicose regimes.

3) Legitimate authority – Only duly constituted public authorities may wage war.

4) Right intention –  Force may be used only in a truly just cause and solely for that purpose—correcting a suffered wrong is considered a right intention, while material gain or maintaining economies is not.

5) Probability of success – Arms may not be used in a futile cause or in a case where disproportionate measures are required to achieve success;

6) Last resort – Force may be used only after all peaceful and viable alternatives have been seriously tried and exhausted or are clearly not practical. It may be clear that the other side is using negotiations as a delaying tactic and will not make meaningful concessions.

7) Proportionality – The anticipated benefits of waging a war must be proportionate to its expected evils or harms. This principle is also known as the principle of macro-proportionality, so as to distinguish it from the jus in bello principle of proportionality.

Once war has begun, just war theory also directs how combatants are to act:

Jus in bello

1) Distinction – Just war conduct should be governed by the principle of distinction. The acts of war should be directed towards enemy combatants, and not towards non-combatants caught in circumstances they did not create. The prohibited acts include bombing civilian residential areas that include no military target and committing acts of terrorism or reprisal against civilians.

2) Proportionality – Just war conduct should be governed by the principle of proportionality. An attack cannot be launched on a military objective in the knowledge that the incidental civilian injuries would be clearly excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage (principle of proportionality).

3) Military necessity – Just war conduct should be governed by the principle of minimum force. An attack or action must be intended to help in the military defeat of the enemy, it must be an attack on a military objective, and the harm caused to civilians or civilian property must be proportional and not excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated. This principle is meant to limit excessive and unnecessary death and destruction.

Jus post bellum

In recent years, some theorists, such as Gary Bass, Louis Iasiello and Brian Orend, have proposed a third category within Just War theory. Jus post bellum concerns justice after a war, including peace treaties, reconstruction, war crimes trials, and war reparations. Orend, for instance, proposes the following principles:

1) Just cause for termination – A state may terminate a war if there has been a reasonable vindication of the rights that were violated in the first place and if the aggressor is willing to negotiate the terms of surrender. These terms of surrender include a formal apology, compensations, war crimes trials and perhaps rehabilitation. Alternatively, a state may end a war if it becomes clear that any just goals of the war cannot be reached at all or cannot be reached without using excessive force.

2) Right intention – A state must only terminate a war under the conditions agreed upon in the above criteria. Revenge is not permitted. The victor state must also be willing to apply the same level of objectivity and investigation into any war crimes its armed forces may have committed.

3) Public declaration and authority – The terms of peace must be made by a legitimate authority, and the terms must be accepted by a legitimate authority.

4) Discrimination – The victor state is to differentiate between political and military leaders, and combatants and civilians. Punitive measures are to be limited to those directly responsible for the conflict. Truth and reconciliation may sometimes be more important than punishing war crimes.

5) Proportionality – Any terms of surrender must be proportional to the rights that were initially violated. Draconian measures, absolutionist crusades and any attempt at denying the surrendered country the right to participate in the world community are not permitted.

Torture and the Ticking Time Bomb

 (This article appeared in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, December 16, 2014.)

Why do people torture others? Why do they march others into gas chambers? Because some are psychopaths or sadists or power hungry. Depravity is in their DNA.

Some are not inherently depraved but believe the situation demands torture. If others are evil and we are good, then we should kill and torture them with impunity. Such ideas result from the demonization of others, from a simplistic worldview in which good battles evil. If others torture, they are war criminals; if we torture are motives are pure. But the world is more nuanced than this. There is good and evil within us all.

The apologists for torture say they are protecting you. They may believe this but that doesn’t make it true. It may be in their interest to wage war, construct secret torture facilities or incarcerate millions in their home country, but it is probably not in yours. You or your children might be doing the fighting or the torturing, and you might suffer the reprisals from the policies of the rich and powerful. Dick Cheney will get another deferment.

Moreover the torture advocates can easily turn you into instruments of their perversion, unlocking the perversion within you, as the Stanford Prison Experiment shows. If the best government jobs program hires mercenaries, then some sign up. But be warned. Those who were caught and photographed at Abu Ghraib were sentenced to prison—scapegoats for those who authorized the policies. Donald Rumsfeld received a book contract.

So do you really feel safer knowing that your corporate-owned government wages continual warfare and tortures around the world? That they incarcerate millions of their own citizens in high-tech dungeons? That thousands languish in solitary confinement for years, some since they were children? That police often kill without repercussions? You may suffer no blowback. Perhaps your nationality, race or socio-economic class will shield you. But the depravity sown may also be reaped. If you are not among the rich and the powerful, the judge will not be lenient. If you are captured in a foreign land, being an American is not a plus.

Now I can construct thought experiments to justify torture or almost anything else. Should I imprison, torture or kill one to save a hundred? A utilitarian calculation says yes, one is less than a hundred. Torture’s defenders invoke such stories. They especially like the ticking time bomb scenario. It goes like this.

There is a ticking time bomb ready to blow up an American city. (If you’ve been to many inner cities in America, you’ll find little left for a bomb to destroy.) The bomb will soon detonate and the man who planted it is in custody. Surely we shouldn’t be squeamish about torturing him to save thousands of lives. Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, a horrific human being,  recently defended this argument. Scalia is a Catholic in good standing. So was the Grand Inquisitor.

The ticking time bomb story reminds me of Wittgenstein’s insight that we can be bewitched by a picture, seduced by simplistic examples that misrepresent the world. Think about the problems with this hypothetical story. You may kill this man before getting any relevant information, he may know nothing of the plan, there may be no such plan, or he may lie to stop the torture. In such cases your torturing was for naught, it did nothing but corrupt you. The image cheats because it assumes there is a ticking bomb and you have the man who planted or knows about it. In real life it never works that way.

In real life it works like this. There might be a bomb or an attack planned, and you may or may not have people in custody who knows something relevant. Now how long and how severely should you torture these people? If they don’t talk is that a sign that they don’t know anything or that you should up the torture? If you have twenty prisoners and are sure that one of them knows something important but you don’t know which one, do you torture all twenty? Should you torture suspects’ children to see if that induces them to give you the information you want? (The CIA of the United States threatened detainees in this way.) Remember you don’t know if that will work until you torture their children.  How many children do you torture before you stop? In such cases was your torture justified? Was it moral? Or did it engender hatred? Was it counter-productive?

In fact, if you are worried about enemies foreign and domestic, why not torture everyone who is a potential threat—college professors, torture opponents, ACLU members, Buddhist monks, grandmothers and bloggers who don’t like torture. Perhaps the enemies are among us like we thought they were during the McCarthy era. Maybe your colleague in torture is a spy. Should you torture him? Should he torture you?

The picture of the ticking time bomb bewitches because it’s a fabrication. In the real world the choice isn’t one person’s pain versus the suffering of thousands, it is the moral affront of torture and its repercussions versus the possibility of finding something useful. Remember too that the story portrays the decision as a one-time emergency choice, while in the real world decisions are made in the context of procedures and policies. That’s why the following questions need to be asked to. Should we have professional torturers who, like medieval executioners, are schooled in their practices? Maybe a torture major in college? Trade conventions showing the latest high-tech torture devices? These are not idle questions; they need to be addressed if we are to proceed.

So I ask. Do you really want to set a precedent of using barbaric practices that appeal to our worst instincts? Do we want to bring forth from human nature the savagery that which lies just below the surface of civility? Do you really want to create a torture culture and the people who inhabit it? Do you really want torturers walking among us? I think not.

Being A Deep Person


Yesterday’s post advocated for personal growth, the means by which humanity’s desperate need for better people might be satisfied. I recently read an article in The Atlantic that provided additional insight into the topic. It summarized a talk given by the conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks at the 2014 Aspen Ideas Festival. Normally I agree with almost nothing Brooks says, but here I found his thinking insightful. 

Brooks argues that American culture overemphasizes attaining happiness, rather than “a different goal in life that is deeper than happiness and more important than happiness.” We focus on power, wealth, and professional success, instead of cultivating the kind of personal qualities that will be discussed at our funerals. As Brooks says, we put “resume virtues” over “eulogy virtues.” Instead of emphasizing happiness and resume virtues, we should search for inner depth, for eulogy virtues.

For Brooks, the American rabbi and philosopher Joseph Soloveitchik captured the dichotomy between resume and eulogy virtues in his book, The Lonely Man of Faith. Soloveitchik differentiates between “Adam I” and “Adam II.” As Brooks explains:

Adam I is the external Adam, it’s the resume Adam … Adam I wants to build, create, use, start things. Adam II is the internal Adam. Adam II wants to embody certain moral qualities, to have a serene inner character, not only to do good but to be good. To live and be is to transcend the truth and have an inner coherence of soul. Adam I, the resume Adam, wants to conquer the world … Adam II wants to obey a calling and serve the world. Adam I asks how things work, Adam II asks why things exist and what ultimately we’re here for … We live in a culture that nurtures Adam I … We’re taught to be assertive and master skills, to broadcast our brains. To get likes. To get followers.”

But how do we nourish depth? What does it mean to be deep? Brooks says:

I think we mean that that person is capable of experiencing large and sonorous emotions, they have a profound spiritual presence … In the realm of emotion they have a web of unconditional love. In the realm of intellect, they have a set, permanent philosophy about how life is. In the realm of action, they have commitments to projects that can’t be completed in a lifetime. In the realm of morality, they have a certain consistency and rigor that’s almost perfect.

Brooks also thinks deep people tend to be old, and I agree. “The things that lead you astray, those things are fast: lust, fear, vanity, gluttony … The things that we admire most—honesty, humility, self-control, courage—those things take some time and they accumulate slowly.” He lists: Albert Schweitzer, Dorothy Day, Pope Francis, and Mother Teresa as examples of deep people.


Although I do believe we ought to become deeper people, I object to much of Brooks’ characterization of depth. “Large and sonorous emotions” and “spiritual presence” often hinder a life of depth. The Stoics and Buddhists believed, roughly, that fervent emotions impede a good life, and no one can accuse either group of being shallow. As for spiritual presence, the notion is extraordinarily vague. Perhaps Brooks uses the term to describe deep feelings generally. I’m not sure. But I state unequivocally that strong emotions and religious attachments often fetter personal growth.

“A set, permanent philosophy” can also be a hindrance to depth. If this philosophy results from a lifetime of searching and impartial inquiry, then it is a sign of depth. But in most cases a set, permanent philosophy is the first one to which the individual was exposed, and that typically signifies shallowness of thought and being. Also, an unreflective, permanent acceptance of the first philosophy one encounters often leads to dogmatism. And a dogmatic, unreflective person is essentially the opposite of a person of depth.

I agree that persons of depth often commit “to projects that can’t be completed in a lifetime,” but so do Nazis, fascists, Fox News anchors, and other horrific human beings. Being committed to tyranny, oppression or racism does not make you a deep person. Or if it does, it surely doesn’t make you a moral one. Yet Brooks says, “In the realm of morality, they [deep people] have a certain consistency and rigor that’s almost perfect.”

This is the fundamental flaw in Brook’s description. We can imagine the most committed Nazi, slave owner, exploitative capitalist or Fox News pundit having deep, spiritual-like emotions about philosophies which they consistently hold, and which they hope will continue on after their lifetimes. But such people aren’t moral.

This suggests that Brooks analysis only works if morality as ordinarily understood is not part of a deep life. By “morality as ordinarily understood,” I’m thinking of the late philosopher James Rachels’ account, in his best-selling university textbook, of “the minimum conception of morality.” The generally agreed-upon starting point for any moral philosophy is: 1) an effort to guide one’s conduct by reasons; and 2) giving impartial consideration to the interests of each individual who will be affected by one’s conduct. Needless to say, the committed Nazi or Fox news commentator don’t subscribe to this minimum conception. Thus Brooks idea of depth doesn’t preclude immoral people, as surely he intended it to do. 

The implications of Brooks’ view would also come as a surprise to Buddhists who advocate loving-kindness, or to religious traditions which advocate beneficence, or to the majority of moral philosophers who believe that compassion for, and connection with, our fellows is a large part of being “deep.” Yes, you could talk about intellectual or aesthetic depth without reference to morality, but I don’t think this is the depth Brooks has in mind.

I also object to Brooks list of deep persons. Three of the four persons he mentions are Catholics. (Albert Schweitzer was not Catholic and rejected much of traditional Christianity. Still, he might be called a Christian mystic or a death-of-God theologian.) Combined with Brooks’ references to “spiritual presence,” this suggests that he thinks depth is related to religion. The objections to this line of thinking are so apparent they hardly need noting. Yes, religious people can be deep and moral, but there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that religious persons are generally deeper or morally better than secular people. In fact, I think that conventional religion is generally an impediment to depth and morality, although this claim would take more time to defend than I now have. (As an aside, critics have claimed that Mother Theresa was no moral exemplar.)


Despite my objections to various aspects of Brooks thinking, for the most part, I agree with his overall sentiments. The deep, moral life is the one most worth living, and we generally don’t cultivate or value it. One can live such a life in many ways: by caring for your children, doing relatively menial work, singing, dancing, playing, creating, or in some combination of activities. As for happiness, when directly sought, it is often missed. Rather, it is the unintended by-product of a life explored in depth. Seek to live deeply, morally, and meaningfully, and you will have the best chance of living well.

A Final Caveat

I do realize how trite the above advice is for those who are destitute, incarcerated, oppressed, etc. As I’ve said many times, following Plato and Aristotle, one needs a good government to have a good life—the good life cannot be achieved by individual effort alone. Aristotle didn’t think that government could make people virtuous or happy, but good government by definition must provide the conditions under which all its citizens can flourish. This is how to adjudicate between good and bad governments. Judged accordingly, the US government is better than some governments but much worse than any Scandinavian government or most European government at providing the conditions in which all people can flourish. The US is clearly not the greatest country on earth.

For those who are systematically oppressed, I have little to offer, except to advise you to do your best to find opportunities in the injustice which surrounds you. That it surrounds you is a great stain on all of us, and our more advanced descendants will look back with horror that we tolerated so much injustice. It makes me ashamed of being human. Please accept my apologies along with most fervent wishes that you find inner peace nonetheless.

Non-Human Animal Suffering

No I am not a member of PETA, nor have I ever owned a pet. But a friend recently asked me to comment on an NPR article, “Ape Dread, Dog Worry: Animals And Anxiety,” about non-human animal suffering during medical experimentation.1

I have encountered this topic while teaching applied ethics courses and have adopted the utilitarian position that if animals suffer, they are worthy of moral consideration. Yet even on utilitarian grounds non-human animal suffering is justified if such suffering increases the net utility–roughly if it brings about more good/happiness than bad/unhappiness. For utilitarians the ends justify the means.

Still there needs to be strong justifications for imposing suffering on non-human animals. Our enjoyment of eating their flesh would not qualify, nor do many medical experiments; and I am not sympathetic with arguments that the suffering of thousands of non-human animals are worth a single human animal life. This probably does not follow given that non-human animals differ from us in degree, not in kind.

The arguments in the article about the psychological suffering of non-human animals are convincing. Combined with the fact that we are deeply connected biologically with all life–we share about 98% of our genes with chimpanzees and about 90% with cats–the argument that non-human animals receive strong moral consideration is overwhelming. Since we share common ancestors with all of life, respect for all life is respect for part of ourselves.

As  a consequence of these considerations we should further extend our moral sphere to the biosphere and eventually to the entire cosmos. Yes, we are literally animated star stuff; thus to care for the stars is to care for ourselves too.

1. utm_content=socialflow&utm_campaign=nprfacebook&utm_source=npr&utm_medium=facebook

Is It Moral to Invest in the Stock Market?


Suppose someone offered you the following proposition: Invest a dollar in the slave trade and you will make a million dollars in a week. Definitely a good monetary investment, but obviously an immoral one. At the other extreme if you could invest a dollar in WeHelpChildren Inc. and get a million dollars returned this is both a good monetary and moral investment.

Now suppose you let a million dollars sit in a credit union (much more moral than in a bank) and the money will stay even with inflation, or you could put the same money in an index fund and make on average 5% or $50,000. The latter is obviously the better financial move but the former could be the more moral move. And that’s because the credit union is a non-profit loaning the money to other members while the stock fund invests in for-profit companies some of whom are no doubt exploiting people, despoiling the environment, etc.

In fact, there is no doubt that someone, somewhere is being exploited by the corporations in which you are invested. On the other hand, some of that corporate investment is probably making the world better. No, I don’t trust GE or Monsanto either, but just because they are motivated by profit doesn’t mean light bulbs or even genetically modified food is bad. No matter what company I invest in, I’m just not clear what they are doing with my money. In other words, it’s unclear whether the investments in a stock portfolio are actually doing good or harm, or at the very least it is exceedingly difficult to find this out.

In the end, since one doesn’t really know what their monies are supporting, it may be foolish to forgo the added monetary gains, unless one knows for sure their investments are doing harm to others. And even if the added monetary gains are supporting an unjust worldwide economic system, one could always give away their gains when they receive them.  Given that the worldwide economy is so complex, I’m not sure we can feel confident no matter which way we proceed. All we can do is research the issue and try to use our monies–essentially our power in a capitalistic system–for the best.