Article: The Complex Debate – Moral Justification of the Rules of War

Kathleen O'Hare News

War has been a constant presence throughout human history, and as civilizations have evolved, so too have the principles and rules governing the conduct of warfare. However, the moral justification of these rules, encapsulated in international humanitarian law and the Geneva Conventions, remains a topic of intense debate. To many, especially those with strong religious convictions, the idea of attempting to justify taking a life in any circumstance, even when wrapped in rules, is an anathema. How can we, as a society, reconcile the harsh realities of conflict with our moral and ethical values?

For committed Christians, this moral dilemma is particularly pronounced. The core Christian belief in the sanctity of human life, exemplified in the fifth of the Ten Commandments, “Thou shalt not kill,” stands in stark contrast to the inherent violence of war. From a Christian perspective, attempting to legitimise killing by applying manmade rules can seem deeply problematic.

In the face of ongoing conflicts like the one between Israel and Gaza, where violence appears to perpetuate in an endless cycle, it’s easy to be horrified by the idea that death, suffering, and violence could be considered acceptable because of what are often seen as artificial rules. The question that arises is whether these rules are, in fact, artificial, or if they serve a higher purpose in minimising the suffering and protecting the rights of individuals in armed conflicts.

These contrived rules of war have been carefully crafted through international humanitarian law and the Geneva Conventions. Their primary aim is to mitigate the human cost of conflict. In developing these rules, the architects of international humanitarian law have presented strong arguments for their moral justification. These include the minimisation of suffering and the protection of non-combatants, two principles that align with the Christian values of compassion and mercy.

One key element of these rules is the concept of proportionality, which states that the harm caused in an attack must not exceed the anticipated military advantage. This provision is intended to ensure that the use of force is morally justifiable by preventing excessive and unnecessary harm, a principle that echoes the core tenets of Christianity.

The fundamental underpinning of these rules is the principle of upholding human dignity, even in the midst of conflict. This principle emphasises the moral value of every individual, regardless of their affiliation in the conflict, aligning with the Christian belief in the sanctity of all human life. The question, then, is how can we attempt to build rules of war that ignore these Christian core values?

These rules are not arbitrary; they are the result of international consensus and agreements among nations. The fact that numerous countries have come together to establish these rules reflects a shared moral commitment to minimise the brutality of war. While individual beliefs may vary, the international community has made a collective effort to strike a balance between the harsh realities of conflict and the preservation of human dignity.

In today’s world, where we are inundated with news on television and radio, many of us have become desensitised to the brutality of life and to the position where human life is no longer considered sacred. It is not uncommon to hear reporters stating that conflicts must adhere to the rules of law, which may seem to brush over the grim fact that at the core of all wars, human life is often treated as a commodity with little or no value.

However, the heart of the matter remains: Can any rules truly justify the taking of a life in any circumstance? For some, the answer is simple. The only rules that should apply are the Ten Commandments, with the fifth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” serving as the ultimate moral guide. This perspective maintains that no human-made rules, no matter how well-intentioned, can ever override these fundamental moral principles.

As we continue to witness destruction and conflict worldwide, we can only hope and pray for a quick and peaceful end to all fighting. The vision of living side by side in peace is a shared aspiration, regardless of one’s faith or beliefs. It is a universal desire for a better, more peaceful world.

Despite the ongoing debate and the many perspectives on this complex issue, it is clear that the moral justification of the rules of war remains a deeply philosophical and ethical question. While international humanitarian law seeks to strike a balance between the exigencies of conflict and the preservation of human dignity, it may never fully align with the deeply held beliefs of all individuals, especially those who subscribe to a strong religious or moral framework. In the end, the question of whether these rules can ever be morally justified will continue to be a subject of passionate discussion, reflecting the diversity of perspectives in our complex world.