War and the Virtues in Aquinas’s Ethical Thought

Topics: Thomas Aquinas, Virtue, Just War Pages: 25 (9951 words) Published: May 17, 2013
Journal of Military Ethics, Vol. 9, No. 3, 245Á261, 2010

War and the Virtues in Aquinas’s Ethical Thought
University of Dallas, Texas, USA ABSTRACT This article argues that Thomas Aquinas’s virtue ethics approach to just war theory provides a solid ethical foundation for thinking about the problem of war. After briefly indicating some shortcomings of contemporary views of international justice, including pacifism, legalism, progressivism, realism, pragmatism, and consequentialism, the article examines Aquinas’s question ‘On War’ in the Summa Theologiae. It then attempts to show that Aquinas’s thinking on war is rooted in his understanding of the virtues by providing a brief overview of how the cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance) and theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity) are connected to just war considerations.

KEY WORDS: Thomas Aquinas, just war, cardinal virtues, theological virtues, virtue ethics


In recent years there has been much scholarly debate regarding war and the moral basis for using military force in order to uphold international law, protect human rights, and combat the threat of terrorism around the world. Surprisingly, though, the recent scholarship on war contains relatively little discussion of just war principles from the perspective of virtue ethics, and the few scholars who mention virtue tend to focus on one or two particular virtues rather than offering a systematic account of how the virtues are connected.1 For traditional just war theorists like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, however, a comprehensive understanding of the cardinal and theological virtues provides the ethical foundation that is necessary for considering questions about the justice or injustice of war. In particular, I would argue that Aquinas’s insights into war and virtuous human action remain remarkably relevant to contemporary debates about the just use of military force.2 For Aquinas, war, like every human endeavor, must be animated and duly ordered by the cardinal and theological virtues if it is to be regarded as just and conducive to the common good. In his question ‘On War’ in the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas outlines the core principles of just war theory: for a war Correspondence address: University of Dallas, 1808 E. Northgate Dr. Apt. C, Irving, TX 75062. E-mail: rgorman@udallas.edu 1502-7570 Print/1502-7589 Online/10/030245Á17 # 2010 Taylor & Francis http://www.informaworld.com DOI: 10.1080/15027570.2010.510865

246 R.R. Gorman to be just it must be waged by a legitimate authority for a just cause and with a right intention.3 In order to understand these principles more fully, Aquinas’s brief remarks on war should be read in their proper context, that is, in relation to the virtues that direct human beings to their proper end. For Aquinas, prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, as well as faith, hope, and charity are the essential virtues of a well-ordered life, and a correct understanding of these virtues provides a durable ethical framework for thinking about just war questions.4 Why Virtue?

The Thomistic virtue-centered approach to understanding moral human actions has been jettisoned by most modern scholars, so why should just war theorists be concerned with a seemingly antiquated conception of the virtues? I would suggest that today, instead of a coherent ethical foundation for considering complex moral issues like war, we are left with fragments of a tradition that do not provide satisfactory answers to many of the most pressing questions. In contemporary ethical discourse there are numerous ideologies that offer different perspectives on the problem of war, including pacifism, legalism, progressivism, realism, pragmatism, and consequentialism. These rival theories each grasp important elements of the truth about human action, but they fail to provide as comprehensive and integral an understanding of the moral complexities of...
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