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The Virtue of Justice and War

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There has been a recent revival of interest in the medieval just war theory. But what is the virtue of justice needed to make war just? War is a complex and protracted activity. It is argued that a variety of virtues of justice, as well as a variety of virtues are required to guide the application of the use of force. Although it is mistaken to regard war as punishment, punitive justice—bringing to account those guilty of initiating an unjust war or of war crimes in its conduct— has an important role to play after conflict to restore the wrongs of war and help establish a just peace. Justice as fairness is needed to guide the distribution of resources and so reduce the grounds for war. Protective justice—protecting a community or innocents from harmful attack—helps define what constitutes a just cause for war and so constrains the occasions for war. The just principles set out the criteria to be met if war is to be morally permissible. In practice, this challenging demand requires that political leaders and military at all levels learn and exercise the virtues, particularly the cardinal virtues of justice, courage, self-control and practical wisdom. If we are to make war just and to make only just war, we need justice understood in its broadest sense. Such justice, as Aristotle noted, “is not a part but the whole of virtue.”

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  1. For a fuller account of the role of justice and all the other virtues in war, see Fisher 2011, especially chapter 6, “Virtues.”

  2. Aristotle distinguishes the three kinds of justice in Nicomachean Ethics, book five, chapters 1–5.

  3. His detailed anatomy of soldiers’ excuses is in McMahan 2009, chapter 3, “Excuses.”

  4. Such concerns were voiced by both the UN Secretary General and the British Government (see Smith 2008).

  5. For a fuller explanation of the just war principles, see Fisher 2011, chapter 4, “The Just War Tradition.”

  6. Indeed, St. Augustine did not consider private individuals, as opposed to public officials, had a right to use force in self-defense, see St. Augustine, On Free Choice of The Will, bk.1.chs. 5 and 6.

  7. I have used ‘practical wisdom’ instead of ‘prudence’ to translate prudentia which was Aquinas’ translation for the Greek phronesis in Aristotle, which is usually translated “practical wisdom.”

  8. The ‘Values and Standards of the British Army’ can be viewed at:

  9. The words are those of Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Sc iii.

  10. So, for example, the brave man endures danger for the sake of what is good, and chooses so to act because it is good (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1115b11 and 1116a11-12).

  11. The nature of our ethical reasoning—characterized as virtuous consequentialism—is explored in Fisher 2011, passim and especially chapter 7, “Virtuous Consequentialism.”


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Fisher, D. The Virtue of Justice and War. Philosophia 41, 361–371 (2013).

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