C.S. Lewis, Just War, and the Locus of Authority

In a 1939 letter to the journal Theology, C.S. Lewis raises a very important, and too little discussed, question of just war theory: who is responsible to decide whether a war is just?  Too often, just war debates focus on the six traditional just war criteria, whether they are sufficient, and whether they have been fulfilled in a particular case.  But Lewis objects, “It is plain that equally sincere people can differ to any extent and argue for ever as to whether a proposed war fulfils these conditions or not.  The practical question, therefore, which faces us is one of authority.  Who has the duty of deciding when the conditions are fulfilled and the right of enforcing his decision?”  To this, Lewis offers a very interesting and uncomfortable answer.  To be sure, he grants from the start, no subject must obey a decision that he knows to be wrong and unjust; indeed, he must not obey.  But just how responsible is he to determine whether it is wrong or unjust?  Lewis is inclined to think that the ordinary citizen has, in fact, relatively little responsibility on this front.

He uses the analogy of a hangman.  Assuming that a Christian may legitimately be a hangman, we will of course say that

“he must not hang a man whom he knows to be innocent.  But will anyone interpret this to mean that the hangman has the same duty of investigating the prisoner’s guilt which the judge has?  If so, no executive can work and no Christian state is possible; which is absurd.  I conclude that the hangman has done his duty if he has done his share of the general duty, resting upon all citizens alike, to ensure, so far as in him lies, that we have an honest judicial system; if, in spite of this, and unknowingly, he hangs an innocent man, then a sin has been committed, but not by him.  This analogy suggests to me that it must be absurd to give to the private citizen the same right and duty of deciding the justice of a given war which rests on governments; and I submit that the rules for determine what wars are just were originally rules for the guidance of pinces, not subjects.  This does not mean that private persons must obey governments commanding them to do what they know is sin but perhaps it does mean (I write it with some reluctance) that the ultimate decision as to what the situation at a given moment is in the highly complex field of international affiars is one which must be delegated.” 

One can certainly feel the force of Lewis’s argument here.  To generalize it, surely we must acknowledge that the subject’s duty of determining the justice of laws to obey is not as thorough and comprehensive as the lawmaker’s duty of determining the justice of laws to enact.  Otherwise, every citizen would be his own lawmaker and there would be no authority.  And of course, this objection is not simply to protect authority, but to protect the subject from the awful, paralyzing weight of responsibility that he should have if he must thoroughly sift every judgment made by his leaders before going along with it.  If I should be guilty of sin every time I obey a law that should not, on the whole, have been made, then this would be a heavy burden indeed on every conscience, and an intolerable demand on each citizen’s time, since he must be forever researching the pros and cons of every decision.  

What Lewis draws our attention to here is perhaps the crucial, but often-neglected, dimension of authority–epistemological authority.  Although, within a suitably circumscribed sphere, authorities can make right what might otherwise be wrong, or make wrong what might otherwise be right, more importantly their job is to help decide for us what is right, in a situation where this determination is complex and very difficult to come by.  Submission to authority means, therefore, a willingness to suspend judgment, to defer to another’s conclusion, even if one cannot see all the reasons for it, even if, indeed, it may seem thoroughly unpersuasive at first glance.  Otherwise, again, we put unbearable burdens on each conscience, and reneder impossible any kind of collective action.  

 This much I think we must grant, despite our hesitation; to be sure, we must leave room for conscientious objection, for open debate questioning the law and the authorities, and yet these must be the exception, rather than the rule–most citizens, most of the time, will be justified in obeying political authorities without investigating all the ins and the outs.  But I expect we are likely to be far more hesitant about this principle when it comes to war, especially in a generation scarred by the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.  


But can we offer a rational defence of this hesitance, without demanding that every hangman be a judge?  Well, yes, I think.  There are a couple routes.  First of all, while adopting as a general principle that ordinary citizens do not have the same responsibility to determine the justice of political decisions as authorities do, we might well want to say that their responsibility is raised as the stakes are raised.  In ordinary mundane decisions, we can generally assume that the authorities are making reasonable calls and that we needn’t second-guess these decisions.  In life-or-death decisions, such as capital punishment, then, although we needn’t put ourselves in the position of the judge and the jury, we may want to prick up our ears and be especially attentive to make sure that justice is being done, and be ready to speak out if there are anomalies that suggest it is not.  In decisions involving the life and death of tens of thousands of people, and of whole nations, then we should be far more attentive, far more questioning.  As a people, we do incur a certain degree of guilt if so much blood is shed wrongly, and so we ought to be diligent in demanding a clear explanation of a just rationale for war.  We don’t demand to know every detail, but we can and should ask for a coherent account, and if one is lacking, we should suspect that something rotten is afoot.  

But there is perhaps a more basic problem with the hangman example.  For the closest analogue of the hangman in a time of war is not the ordinary citizen, but the soldier.  Like the hangman, the soldier has signed up for the job of doing the dirty work.  He has in a very special way submitted his own judgment to that of his commanders; the justice system cannot work if the executioner is forever demanding to see all the evidence, and the military system cannot work if the soldiers are forever cross-examining every deployment order.  I would suggest that, although they have a serious responsibility to determine the justice of the system they choose to serve before they sign on the job, once they have so signed on, the hangman and the soldier have in fact less responsibility to determine the justice of orders than ordinary citizens.  In a controversial court case involving the death penalty, I would suggest, ordinary citizens have more duty to be protesting what they see as an unjust decision than does the hangman.  So, when a war is undertaken, soldiers may have to stay silent when those on the home front raise foreceful objections.  I would suggest that we have to give a more complex account of vocation, then, than Lewis’s simple citizen/leader dichotomy.  Lewis asks, for instance, 

“What is the alternative?  That individuals ignorant of history and strategy should decide for themselves whether condition 6 (‘a considerable probability of winning’) is, or is not, fulfilled? — or that every citizen, neglecting his own vocation and not weighing his capacity, is to become an expert on all the relevant, and often technical, problems?”  

Well no, that’s not the only alternative.  We are to weigh our vocations.  And some private citizens have a particular vocation to ask questions of those in power, to investigate the truth of their claims, to weigh the consistency of their rhetoric and to sift expert opinions?  Journalists, for instance, ought to have a crucial vocation within a modern society to inform the citizenry and to ask questions of those in power.  So when it comes to the possibility of war, the stakes are high enough that we should ask questions, and some will have the vocation to do a lot of cross-examination.  Perhaps Lewis is right and our default, if we live in a generally just society, should be to trust our leaders, but if this cross-examination uncovers evidence that contradicts what our leaders have told us, then we should not.


If we cannot be discerning and critical at this point, before the shots have been fired, before loved ones have been killed and we’ve been hardened by the ubiquity of death, before the fog of war has engulfed us, then when will be critical.  Lewis, like Paul Ramsey, operates under the assumption that ius in bello should be much easier to discern, and much easier for Christians to witness consistently to, than ius ad bellum: 

“a clear Christian witness might be attained in a different way. If all Christians consented to bear arms at the command of the magistrate, and if all, after that, refused to obey anti-Christian orders, should we not get a clear issue?  A man is much more certain that he ought not to murder prisoners or bomb civilians than he ever can be about the justice of a war.  It is perhaps here that ‘conscientious objection’ ought to begin.”


The problem is that history, above all the six years of history that followed Lewis’s writing of this letter, simply does not bear out this rosy optimism.  On the contrary, it seems generally to have been much easier for governments to convince their people that a war is being fought justly than that a war is being entered into justly.  Civilian deaths can always be covered up, or else dismissed as accidents.  Or perhaps a people, sufficiently hardened by war, can be brought to the point where they just don’t seem to care, as was the case by 1945, when the US and UK engaged in airborne atrocities on a scale that almost defies imagination.  If we are to be vigilant witnesses against the injustice of war, we must start by doing so when a war is first proposed, not after it is well underway.  Otherwise, if we start by simply trusting that the authorities know what they’re doing, then it’s almost certain that once we’re in the heat of conflict, when the alternative can be portrayed as treason, we will continue so trusting them, no matter what they command us to do.  

2 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis, Just War, and the Locus of Authority

  1. Peter Escalante

    Weighty and well-put considerations. Part of the problem might be relieved by insisting that armed service must be volunteer, and not standing (meaning, no standing armies). David Urquhart has some interesting thoughts and proposals along these lines.paxP


  2. My mom, who was born in Vietnam, yesterday brought up the case of Viet Cong disguised as peasants, saying that even shooting (putative) civilians was less clear than it might appear. This does not, of course, deal with abuses, so my dad suggested rigorous court-martialling. Perhaps, I thought, the obvious cases of immorality were far more limited than one would expect. Wartime rape is never anything short of monstrous, but how many other things can a soldier with little information normally refuse to do?


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