The use and abuse of justice

By Tao Yanghua (
Updated: 2011-05-10 11:28
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On a theoretical level, war can be classified into two types: first, the just against the unjust; second, the unjust against the unjust. But no sooner do we apply this theoretical clarification into an analysis of a concrete case than we are confused. For in a concrete case, such as "the war against terror," we easily find out that each side claims its just cause while condemning the other side as representatives of evil. The terrorists declare they are launching a "holy war" against the degenerate Western culture while Americans claim that they are fighting the war against terror in order to defend the civilized world from dark forces.

What's the implication of this? Some conclude from this that so long as each side can claim a just cause, then justice is in fact only a tool for each side to conceal their self-interests. They say that war in its essence is about force and interests, not about justice or injustice, and in order to get a clear understanding of war, we should divorce morality from force and interests. And still there are others who conclude that justice is in fact a servant of power. They say that it is the strong side who determines whether the war is just or not, while the voices of the weak side have to be silenced. Now, it is against these points of view, which I think is wrong and dangerous, that this article is written.

First, that most war is about force and self-interests should not lead us to ignore the fact that there are a few just wars; it is just the same that there are so many bad people should never lead us to conclude that there are no good ones. In a word, the divorce of morality from an analysis of war will make us blind to the fact that there could be qualitative difference between two wars.

Second, the divorce of morality from an analysis of war will leave a moral vacuum in the practice of war. It is true that people always use morality as a tool to conceal their self-interests, but it is a demonstration that they are dominated by a bad morality—egocentric—while not a demonstration that morality itself is bad. It is only by providing a true morality that we can fight the bad morality. The divorce of morality from an analysis of war will leave no hope for change, a change from a bad morality to true morality.

Third, true morality is rooted in our conscience and is supported by a natural law that transcends any earthly power. Earthly power can claim justice is in their hands, but if that claim directly contrasts our basic moral instincts, then conflicts will arise. It may be possible that some earthly power will try to eliminate the basic moral instincts in our hearts, but hopefully they will never succeed in doing this and even if they succeed they are near the total destruction of themselves.

Tao Yanghua is a Ph.D. student with School of International Studies at Renmin University. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the China Daily website.