Traditional Wisdom

War's Endsby James G. Murphy

Georgetown University Press. 240p $29.95

Announcements of the irrelevancy, demise or uselessness of the just war tradition are commonly made. Those making the claims are sometimes adherents to the tradition of pacifism and nonviolence who are disillusioned with efforts to treat war as a morally legitimate enterprise. Or they may beso-called “realists,” who find talk of moral restraint in warfare foolish and naïve.


And yet the number of books published in recent years that take just war thinking seriously and offer thoughtful exposition, commentary and revision of the tradition suggests there remains a large audience of readers who find the wisdom of that politico-moral tradition still worth considering. For that readership the book under review will offer many rewarding reflections.

James G. Murphy is an associate professor of philosophy at Loyola University of Chicago. The book is largely devoid of theological materials, with no appeals to Scripture or official church teaching in the development of his argument. That will certainly limit the persuasiveness of Murphy’s arguments to just war critics, since one common charge against just war thinking is precisely that it fails to reflect the teaching and witness of Jesus and the early church. As a work of political philosophy, however, the book ought to be taken on its own terms.

War’s Ends is focused on what has been called the jus ad bellum segment of the just war tradition—that is, the determination of whether one should go to war. It addresses who should make that determination, with what justification, for what goals and under what conditions.

The author excludes from his treatment the jus in bello elements of means, that is, how to actually fight a war in a moral manner. He also largely avoids the study of recent proposals concerning the jus post bellum, how to end war justly and establish peace. Over the centuries there have been a variety of lists for jus ad bellum criteria. Murphy argues for six: competent authority, just cause, right intention, reasonable success, last resort and proportionality. He also proposes that this is the proper order for the criteria both in terms of importance within the tradition and because the later criteria logically depend on the earlier.

The crucial point, repeated often throughout this well structured volume, is Murphy’s belief that any acceptable theory of just war is context-dependent.Assessing the morality of war must be done within the context of an overarching theory of the good. Drawing upon Augustine’s view of peace as a positive good rather than merely the absence of violence, Murphy argues that a satisfactory philosophy of peace in national or international societies entails 1) protection and promotion of human rights, 2) establishment and maintenance of a just order of political institutions and 3) the fostering of harmonious social relations among the group’s membership.

Skilled and proper governance is required to attain peace, not simply abstention from violence. The just war tradition is meant as a source of moral guidance for political leadership. “Political decisions to go or not to go to war are not judgments in favor of war as such or avoidance of war as such but are choices of appropriate means to pursue the good and human well-being,” Murphy states. Here he stands in line with the oft-misunderstood view of the German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz that “war is politics carried on by other means.” Wise political governance is about determining what policy will attain the public good of peace, rightly understood. Simply avoiding war at all cost is no more a proper end of governance than is going to war for any reason. War is an instrument that may or may not be able to attain the public good of peace in a given situation. Making ethical judgments about all wars independent of their context is to abandon the work of morally wise political discernment.

Following two opening chapters in which Murphy makes his case for a positive view of peace and the central role for political judgment when determining the morality of a given war, he then devotes a chapter to each of the six jus ad bellum criteria on his list. Each of these later chapters builds upon his foundational premises and contains a number of insightful and provocative ideas.

Among the ideas Murphy offers I found several especially worth noting. In agreement with much recent writing by just war thinkers, Murphy denies that self-defense is the mainstay of just cause within the tradition. It is, of course, one of the possible just causes for resort to war but it is not the sole one, nor even the most important one in the tradition. The goods of justice, international order and peace all have their salience for determining just cause in our present circumstance.

Sovereignty is a much discussed idea in our age of globalization, what with genocides and other humanitarian crises vividly present in our memories, and the author outlines a sensible approach to the question. Murphy’s focus on the importance of good political governance for true peace leads him to adopt a strong bias for humanitarian intervention, even to the point of considering unilateral action in certain cases.

Of particular assistance for understanding the jus ad bellum is the chapter on right intention. Even many proponents of just war do not always understand this central element of the tradition. Murphy deftly explains that intention is not to be confused with motive. Intention answers the question, “what are you going to do?” not “why are you doing that?” Intention is also not to be confused with just cause. As Murphy writes, “It is one thing for a state to have just cause to go to war; it is quite another for it to have worked out a contextually appropriate response, involving a well-crafted intention.”

Right intention refers to specific action; it has to do with clarity about what precisely one is seeking to achieve by the decision to use armed force. A state may intend too little or too much through waging war, and the challenge of right intention is to achieve a proper match between legitimate, concrete goals and strategic military action. Correctly understood, the classic criterion of right intention ought to address many of the issues that some just war theorists now discuss under the new rubric of jus post bellum.

In a book of this kind, one that argues for a number of particular interpretations and proposals, the reader is bound to have questions. In his treatment of preventive war, as distinct from pre-emptive attack, I found Murphy unpersuasive. I also wonder if the extensive scope he gives to “remote” right intention does not wind up treating the entire realm of statecraft as falling under the jus ad bellum criterion. I also think the author is a bit too reliant on one account of Aquinas’s thought in his dismissal of the idea of there being any presumption against war in Thomas.

These reservations as I have expressed do not in any way deny the value of Murphy’s book. There is much to chew on and engage in this well written addition to the recent literature on just war.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Paul Ferris
3 years 11 months ago
Is it possible to discuss Jus ad bellum without also discussing Jus in Bello in an age when it is in the power of modern man to destroy all life on the planet ? Just asking. If the author of the book, James G. Murphy, and the author of this article, Kenneth Himes, are concerned to discuss war's ends in the context of peace, I recommend a chapter XIX in Etienne Gilson's book, Spirit of Medieaeval Philosophy, where he provides a lengthy analysis of what peace in human history and society means from both spiritual and political perspectives. Gilson references Augustine, Aquinas and other philosopher theologians from history.
Paul Ferris
3 years 11 months ago
Just read the first two chapters of Kenneth Himes book Christianity and the Political is excellent...
3 years 11 months ago
After Vietnam the US military reconsidered the strategic aspects of ad bellum .They arrived at a set of principles announced as the Weinberger doctrine in November of 1984. These are six conditions that should be met prior to the decision to go to war. These were, briefly 1) vital interest; 2) sufficient force; 3) clearly defined objectives; 4) continues reassessment of relationship between ends and means; 5) public support; and 6) last resort. As one of the few civilian students at the US Army War College, I wrote a capstone paper comparing the six principles of Weinberger principles to the just war doctrine. In looking at it now, I realize that the nature of warfare has changed in several ways. Nevertheless the paper is available here, ( for anyone who may find it useful.


The latest from america

In her new memoir, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, Senator Kamala D. Harris, Democrat of California, positions herself as an underdog, a savvy “top cop” and, most of all, Shyamala Gopalan’s daughter.
Brandon SanchezJanuary 18, 2019

The fascinating premise of Mary Gordon’s lovely little book On Thomas Merton is that, except for his extensive correspondence with Evelyn Waugh and Czeslaw Milosz, Thomas Merton was without literary peers who could perceptively judge, critique and improve his writing.

Ron HansenJanuary 18, 2019
Sagal knows what it is to run away from problems, to need to be needed, and how much can be achieved through stubborn persistence.
Emma Winters January 11, 2019
The simple lessons of Jean Vanier on humility and Christian love always bear repeating.
Colleen DulleJanuary 11, 2019