Thinking independently in wartime

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Walz offers a philosophical approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Photo courtesy of Andrew Shiva via Wikipedia.

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One of the fundamental questions that the University of Dallas asks its students to consider is, “What is Justice?” The motto of the university found on its seal, the injunction to love, truth and justice, implies that there is indeed such a thing as justice and indicates that every student should actively reflect on it in order to pursue it.

Unfortunately, it is often only tragedy that awakens human minds to the all-importance of justice. This has been evident in the past few weeks by the various responses to the war in the Holy Land. Many people, and indeed, many college students, are insisting on justice, though their views on what this justice is naturally differ. A person striving to be just ought to step aside in this situation to reconsider again what justice looks like, particularly justice in war.

Thankfully, the Christian tradition aids us in this consideration, and Thomas Aquinas provides a helpful starting point in laying out the conditions for just war. Unsurprisingly, the Angelic Doctor is not particularly easygoing in his assessment of what constitutes a just war. As with all moral acts, one must remember that everything that constitutes the act must be good for the whole act to be good. A failure in any aspect of the action renders the action wrong.

For Aquinas, just war has a three-fold conditional: it must be conducted under a legitimate sovereign, have a just cause and be oriented by a right intention. In discussing the topic further, Aquinas notes some side-points, for example, that it is illicit for clerics to fight and that though one is allowed to conceal one’s stratagem from the enemy, one cannot outright deceive him. In short, Aquinas is strict about the way in which war must be conducted.

The just war theory that developed from thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas has also helpfully divided the topic into questions of action “ad bellum” and “in bello,” that is, questions concerning how one ought to act in leading up to war and how one ought to act in carrying out the operations of war. Once again, for a war to be fully just, both justice “ad bellum” and “in bello” must be observed. Just war theory, then, is not only strict but comprehensive.

It is not my intention to labor over the points of just war theory, nor to delve particularly deeply into Aquinas and the subsequent tradition’s discussion. I intend only to outline the complexity and strictness that governs the justice of war. One who is pursuing the truth cannot back down from this complexity if he or she intends to remain an authentic thinker.

The University of Dallas prides itself on being a school for “independent thinkers.” It is crucial, however, that we understand what is meant by this phrase, particularly as it relates to justice.

Being an independent thinker certainly does not mean being an indifferent thinker.

It also does not mean that one ought to think so freely— and so contrary to any authority—that one blinds oneself to simple truth and winds up supporting terrorists.

Being an independent thinker means that one thinks without considering what is easy, convenient, satisfactory to one’s unruly impulses. Paradoxically, independent thinking requires obedience to tradition and the discipline of reason that allows one to pursue the good fully and freely.

The leisure that we have at this university to consider ethics in the abstract, to discuss questions of justice among friends and to consult professors on our philosophical hangups concerning topics like just war, is not a waste of time. It should not shame us that while there is injustice happening in other parts of the world, we remain here studying.

Only just recently, many on campus fasted for the end of the war in the Holy Land. Just as we can aid in the attainment of peace through our spiritual works, we can also participate in the pursuit of justice (there and everywhere) through the right use of our study.

Only by thoroughly pondering the questions of justice can we think independently. Only by thinking independently—and authentically—can we be a source of good in the world, unbending in our commitment to truth. Through our study, as through our prayer, we help to give to a suffering world the hope of whole and lasting justice.

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