Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

The Myth of Altruistic War


The Just War Revisited
Oliver O’Donovan
Cambridge University Press, 2003
ix + 139 pgs.

Oliver O’Donovan, one of the leading moral theologians in the Church of England, calls to our attention a vital point. If we take account of his insight, we can grasp immediately why the invasion of Iraq is an unjust war. (The book appeared before the invasion; O’Donovan bears no responsibility for my use of what he says.)

President Bush alleged that Saddam Hussein had concealed weapons of mass destruction: owing to the danger these posed, a preemptive strike to overthrow his government was in order. Of course, no such weapons have been found; the "danger" appears to have been a mere propaganda device to frighten our country into war. But let us suppose, contrary to fact, that Bush was sincere in his fears. Would he have had the right to initiate war?

O’Donovan, a scholar of great learning, cites a passage from Hugo Grotius that makes clear how classical just war theory responds to our question: "Grotius allowed defensive war against inuria non facta, ‘wrong not perpetrated,’ though with this strict qualification: The danger must be immediate . . . those who accept fear of any sort as a justification for preemptive slaughter are themselves greatly deceived and deceive others" (p. 49, quoting Grotius).

Our author is less successful when, departing from an account of the sources, he offers his own understanding of just war theory. As he sees matters, and here he has the authority of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas behind him, Christians reject altogether the notion of war as a clash of conflicting interests: "Christians refused to go along with this controlled recognition of antagonistic praxis and its associated virtues" (p. 5). Instead, he holds, Christians believe that a new order of peace has superseded the old antagonistic order. But the new "counter-praxis . . . must also be staged . . . against a backdrop of unbelief and disobedience, and here it assumes the secular form of judgment" (p. 6).

In brief, Christians do not fight to uphold their own interests, but to right wrongs. O’Donovan moves from this to reject a contention of Pope Pius XII and John XXIII. They held that under modern conditions, only defensive wars qualified as just: "Pius XII condemned ‘aggressive wars’ (using that term in a technical sense, to mean wars of reparation or punishment), and John XXIII condemned wars of reparation: ‘It is hard to imagine that in the atomic era war could be a fit means to restore violated rights’" (p. 54).

Our author objects: have not the popes here retreated from the "counter-praxis" of judgment to the old and discredited view? If war is justified only to defend one’s own interests, then self-assertion has taken the place of justice. The view "withdraws from the concept of an international community of right to the antagonistic concept of mortal combat; correspondingly, it is formally egoistic, protecting the rights of self-interest while excluding those of altruistic engagement" (p. 55).

O’Donovan’s argument rests on a suppressed premise. He assumes that if one supports wars of self-defense on grounds of justice, one would have to support other wars as well: only self-interest can explain the difference in status. This is by no means the case. If, e.g., the popes held that states lacked the authority to act on behalf of those not subject to their jurisdiction, why is their view that only defensive wars are acceptable one of "antagonistic praxis"? Given the horrors of war, "altruistic engagement" is a course of folly.



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