In my War & Christian Conscience class we're reading a book called "War in the Twentieth Century," edited by RB Miller, and today I read a chapter by JF Childress entitled, "Just-War Criteria."
So Childress says there is a prima facie duty of nonmaleficence, which, in plain English, means that we have a moral duty toward every human to not hurt, kill, or cause them inordinate suffering. HOWEVER, just war theorists (and anyone who thinks war is sometimes or always necessary) believe that although we have this obligation, sometimes other things trump that obligation. For example, it may be right to kill others in a just war whose actions are being handled justly, for the greater prima facie obligation of justice, or protecting innocent people, or keeping some greater evil from happening.
This is, of course, where pacifists differ from just war theorists, because we believe that there will never be an obligation which will trump the prima facie duty to not kill humans (except in cases like when someone is brain dead, or someone is dying anyway and we put them out of their misery perhaps, or maybe there are a few other mercy kinds of killing--so maybe pacifists believe that violent killing is always wrong).
I think this is an interesting way to think about the whole issue of war and peace and what actions are justifiable in order to bring about good ends. Childress says that there will always be conflicts of prima facie obligations, and we have to decide which ones are more morally binding.
For example, imagine you make a promise to a friend to have lunch with them tomorrow, but then your child wakes up sick. Obviously your prima facie obligation is to care for your child, and break the promise to your friend.
This doesn't mean the prima facie obligation to keep promises has no effect on your subsequent actions, however, because you aren't likely to just not show up to lunch with your friend. Probably you will call or email that friend and explain the situation, and try to reschedule. You will show regret for breaking the promise. Your friend will be disappointed that you can't have lunch that day, but will understand your higher obligation to care for your child.
We probably make choices like this every day without thinking about it, in effect putting the duties to which we are morally bound on a hierarchical scale, but it becomes more difficult to decide what to do when the decision becomes a matter of life and death.
So what do you think? Is there ever a time when it's OK to go to war? Does the justice of some other motive ever trump our obligation not to inflict harm on other people? Are there ever times when, because action has not been taken earlier, the most just course of action is to become involved in physical aggression (e.g. cases of genocide)?
For me the obligation not to kill stems from my belief in a God who created all of us as precious people, none of whom are better or worse than another. My belief is in a God who asks us not to harm one another as best we can, and asks us to leave vengeance to God's self. Because of my commitment to this God, and my firm belief in the equality of all people, the prima facie obligation to not kill overrides pretty much all other obligations--but that doesn't mean that the other obligations shouldn't change the way I act! I cannot sit by and just not fight people, because I agree with just war theorists and Christian realists alike that to know that evil is happening and to do nothing to stop it is worse than trying and doing the wrong thing. So my intention is to act in ways that bring forth justice and make war unnecessary so that other obligations do not collide with my obligation of not killing--or more concretely, so that I am acting in loving and caring ways for all the people God has created.