Killing As a Moral Good
Just war theory is often forgotten in the practicalities of fighting a war, but it is crucial for helping soldiers understand themselves and their actions within the larger context of battle. A proper understanding of the morality of killing is necessary for the soldier to come to terms with the violent nature of his task.
Yet there is disagreement among Just War thinkers about the appropriate way to understand justified killing. The dominant position in modern Just War theory is the “presumption against killing,” introduced by James Childress. Childress holds that there is a standing moral duty not to kill, and that at times, the duty not to kill conflicts with a similar duty to justice. The evaluation of justice in war, for Childress, comes down to whether a person’s duty towards justice overrides their standing duty not to kill. If it does, then killing becomes morally permissible as long as it is in pursuit of justice.
There is a certain appeal to Childress’ argument: it emphasizes killing as a last resort and that allows the government, the general, and the soldier to say, “I didn’t want to do it, but I had to. The enemy forced my hand.”
Yet there is also a major problem with Childress’ presumption against killing. Killing, for Childress, can never be anything more than a “necessary evil” used to achieve a moral goal. To put it another way: The ends justify the morally evil means of killing.
The fundamental problem is that Childress argues that one always has a duty not to kill. That duty does not disappear when the demands of justice override it, but rather Childress argues that the duty not to kill still remains in effect and prevents excess violence (it keeps one from targeting civilians, killing surrendered enemies, etc.) As a result, any killing one does, even justly, is a moral evil that is simply allowed under certain circumstances.
If that were the case, then pacifism would be the only morally good position. A morally good intent does not justify an intrinsically immoral act. If killing is intrinsically evil – if we have a standing moral duty not to do it – then one cannot simply suspend one’s moral obligation because of circumstances. If one cannot kill morally, one should not kill at all.
Ultimately, in Childress’ model of Just War, the individual soldier can never be anything but a murderer who is allowed to get away with his crime.
There is another approach to Just War theory that avoids the “necessary evil” problem, and still articulates moral limits to killing. In opposition to the “presumption against killing” model, James Turner Johnson advocates a “presumption for justice.”
Johnson argues that rather than starting from a presumed duty not to kill and then looking for ways to override that duty, the classic Just War tradition (Augustine, Aquinas, Vitoria, etc.) begins from considerations of justice and what it requires in a particular situation. Justice, not a duty against killing, is the ever present demand and determines the morality of killing. In Johnson’s model, just killing is not a necessary evil, but a morally good act in service of justice.
One must be careful not to confuse “morally good” with “desirable.” In Johnson’s model, war is still a last resort, but not because there is a standing duty not to kill. It is a last resort because the goal of war is peace, and if a just peace can be achieved without violence, it ought to be. If war must be fought, however, it can be fought without committing intrinsically evil acts.
The difference between the two models becomes clearer with a side-by-side comparison. In both models, a soldier who kills an unarmed civilian is committing a morally evil act. However, a soldier who kills an armed, fighting enemy in combat looks very different in each model. In Childress’ model, he is still committing a morally evil act, but it is one that he is permitted to engage in because his duty not to kill has been overridden. He is allowed to use the evil means of killing to pursue a moral good. For Johnson, the soldier who kills an enemy combatant is committing a morally good act in service of justice.
The idea of killing as a moral good is an important one because it can help soldiers and military leaders understand their own moral actions in war. Killing always leaves psychological scars. For the soldier, the misguided view of just killing as a moral evil that one is allowed to “get away with” adds to that psychological distress. He sees himself as a murderer who deserves punishment, and when doesn’t receive that punishment, he tends to punish himself. That self-punishment is one cause of the high rates of depression, substance abuse, and suicide among veterans.
Johnson’s view of killing in service to justice, rather than in conflict with justice, will help soldiers understand that they are not doing anything morally wrong when they justly kill in combat. Nothing can erase the horrible experiences of war, but by understanding his actions morally, the soldier can find respect for himself.