Just War Theory outlines conditions under which the use of force by a state actor can be morally justified. Philosophical traditions have addressed the moral justification for war since ancient times, all over the world. The problem can be easily framed. Morality in general forbids harming another being due to a simple reciprocity of duty and obligation. Moral duties derive from universal principles, commands that are applicable in all situations no matter the participants. A moral duty against causing harm can be readily derived from this configuration of shared desire and the universality of moral duty.

All moral agents, indeed all sentient beings, desire to avoid pain and therefore violence and harm that can cause pain. Given this shared desire, an agent avoids being the cause of harm to others because they want others to avoid being the cause of harm to them. An agent who desires to harm others but not to be harmed themselves must embrace an inconsistency that explains why they are permitted to harm while others are not. The two desires are considered inconsistent because, with respect to a desire to avoid harm, the agent who wants to harm is the same as other agents. One must articulate a reason that they would be permitted to harm while others do not share the same privilege.

A successful Just War Theory must provide an account of circumstances that suspend a general moral duty to some extent. A Just War Theorist must argue against the grain of morality and identify a configuration of conditions or events that render immoral acts morally permissible. In fairness to Just War Theorists, the circumstances identified are generally fairly narrow. When facing an invading force, when other paths to resolution are exhausted, and when violence now will not preclude a peaceful resolution later, Just War Theorists will generally agree that the use of force can be morally justifiable.

When one compares those conditions to the causes of war over the last two hundred years, one labors to find a “just war.” World War II often enjoys the status of a morally justifiable war, but the designation becomes more fragile in light of the atrocities committed by all parties, the imperialist motivations that motivated war in Europe, and the Iron Curtain that divided erstwhile allies in the aftermath. For the most part wars prosecuted by so-called “great powers” find their justification in greed, in power, and in revenge.

The wars familiar to a 21st century person are the wars of empire, of colonization, of hegemony. An examination of the Roosevelt Corollary and the Bush Doctrine readily shows motivation to assert sovereignty beyond national boundaries. While the overt reasoning includes preserving security or preventing worse consequences, the actions that follow from those foreign policy frameworks reinforce the dominance of one group by the subjugation of others. Just War Theory serves only to identify heroes and villains in propaganda in service of imperialist ends.

In the clash of empires the proper protagonists are the people trapped between clashing villains. Imperial governments act out of disregard for people other than their own, and even then often only their own wealthy and privileged citizens. The interests of the owner class become the interest of the imperial state. If a foreign country is not a peer considered either ally or enemy, it is merely a collection of resources and territory, both prize and battlefield of proxy wars. For all the good intentions of scholars, Just War Theory fails to safeguard against improper violence. Instead, it advances a contradiction to support imperialist interests and transmute violence into a noble duty.

John Rawls described society as “a cooperative venture for mutual advantage.” There is a value proposition underlying the formation of an organized community and submitting to its laws. While an individual loses freedom, they receive a wealth of opportunities to cooperate with others to secure more resources than any of them could secure alone. The freedom of the individual outside of community is a meager freedom that promises no security, but community allows a person to get everything they need for themselves by participating in formal and informal support networks. Given that people are generally born into their communities rather than forsake primal independence to join, the value proposition should be understood as framing what community does for people and what people do for community.

The value proposition also provides a motivation for obeying a community’s laws. Law makes up the fabric of society, defining the rights and duties of citizens to the community, and of the community to the citizens. Knowing those duties and knowing that they will be enforced by the collective power of the community defines a space in which cooperation can take place. All individuals involved can be secure in what the law promises, and they can form cooperative agreements within the framework of law.

The benefit of law only follows when all individuals in the community follow the law. Citizens then have motivation to obey the law and abide by the consequences when they do not. Even the most cynical perspective can recognize that the law provides more advantage than disadvantage. The value of predictability alone motivates a self-interested preference for obedience to the loss of security in a lawless society.

When the laws are arranged to systematically disadvantage a group, members of that group will not experience the same sense of protection as members of the privileged group. In such a case breaking the law has no connection with forfeiting security. One who already lacks that security must then evaluate upholding on the basis of expected gains agar mere avoidance of consequences.

In addition, one must always consider two paths: obtaining a benefit within the boundaries of the law or obtaining a benefit outside of those limits. If breaking the law offers a greater benefit or a benefit that one could not obtain through lawful means, breaking the law becomes a pragmatic option. Where obtaining a benefit lawfully is made impossible due to systematic disadvantage stemming from the arrangement or enforcement of the law, the motivation for individuals from disadvantaged groups to obey the law becomes thin.

Where privilege bounds economic success, the ability to secure basic needs will differ across advantaged and disadvantaged identity groups. Members of the advantaged group may look at their peers and elders and reasonably believe that they can secure their living by conforming to expectations. No degree of conformity and obedience protects a systemically disadvantaged group because their group identity alone is nonconforming. Gains can be erased when the advantaged group decide to raid what they perceive as undeserved rewards, as happened at Rosewood and other race riots.

In that light the consequences of property crime become equivocal across legal and illegal acquisition. In either case one’s gains might be taken at a later time. If the illegal path presents a shorter and more certain path than the alternative, property crime becomes a rational choice. Where past injustices disrupt generational wealth for disadvantaged groups, property crime may also serve as a means of reparations, a restoration of unjust takings.

In liberal democracies police officers work to apprehend perpetrators of petty theft or the drug trade while ignoring wage theft undertaken by managers against workers. Unwarranted taking is a criminal matter only when the working class takes from the owner class. Public money pays for police officers to apprehend shoplifters, and members of disadvantaged groups provide ready scapegoats. When the owner class steals from the working class, the only remedy lies in expensive civil courts, giving the owner class the advantage of wealth. Confronted with these asymmetries, members of disadvantaged groups do not enjoy the protection of the law at all. One loses no security by breaking the law if one is unable to rely on its protection.

You take a walk around your block and see a cloud of black smoke. When you find the source, you see flames licking the walls and roof of a house. A window is open on the second floor, and coils of cinder-flecked smoke writhe into the air. Someone is leaning out of the window and calling for help. They want to jump, but need someone to catch them.

No sirens or flashing lights appear to be approaching. The person pleads with you to stand under the window and just try to catch them. They tell you that the door to the room is too hot to touch. Shingles fall off the roof around the window.
What do you do? What should you do? Firefighters appear to be nowhere near. If they are not nearby, the person could pass out from the smoke, unable to jump to safety before the fire truck arrives. No one else is nearby, and all you have to do is stand under the window, break the person’s fall, and help them get away from the burning house.

If it is clear to you that helping the person is the right thing to do, you should be likewise ready to respond to calls for social justice, to investigate systemic bias, and to remedy injustice directly. In Buddhist philosophy the simile of the house of fire demonstrates the motive to help all people achieve liberation. Underlying the simile is an assumption that one is morally required to answer calls for aid, to put oneself at risk to save another in distress.

Social injustice has inflicted physical, psychological, and social damage in all societies. Class warfare is not an imagined future. The present day exploitation and destruction of working people and the world they inhabit is owner class warfare against the working class. Our world is burning, we are buried in debt and desperation, and we are divided and suspicious of one another. We need to heal, not ignore, the diversity of traumas wrought on us by capitalism, by the owner class, by the martial class. Escape for ourselves only is not enough. The house is on fire, and a lot of people need rescue.

If one supports a law or government policy, one can be presumed to support the associated consequences. It is not clear why one would desire a certain law to go into effect if they did not desire its consequences to follow. Expressing dissatisfaction with unexpected consequences could be consistent with support for a policy, as when one’s support wavers when once unexpected but undesirable effects come to light. Nevertheless, desire for expected outcomes can be readily inferred from desire for the policy that will cause them.

Capital punishment provides a straightforward example of support for both a law and its consequences. If one supports capital punishment, one then supports the resulting deaths. One may believe that those people justly convicted and sentenced deserve to die, or one may believe that the ultimate consequence is an acceptable cost for deterring others from crime. Without such an attitude toward death, one’s support for capital punishment would be incoherent. While it would be consistent for a supporter of capital punishment to desire that no one is mistakenly executed, they have nevertheless found desirable the execution of at least some people.

When considering rectification of historic social injustice, a person who supports only gradual change must also support the consequences of sustaining injustice. If a person believes social injustice is wrong and should be corrected but not immediately, they have implicitly accepted the resulting limitations on the life and well-being of the the disadvantaged group. Arguing for gradual change or maintaining a status quo of injustice implicitly argues that the oppressed accept the limitations on their health, wealth, and well-being in order not to discomfort the privileged.

Requiring gradual change to rectify social injustice places an unequal value on the lives of the disadvantaged and the privileged. Members of disadvantaged groups face shorter lifespans due to bias in healthcare, hiring, and education. If a welfare program’s food assistance does not allow for a family to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, or not enough of any food, people who rely on that program will suffer the effects of hunger. When the disruption of generational wealth places most of a population at an economic disadvantage, members of that group will more often suffer the effects of hunger. As long as the structure of social institutions maintains this situation, human lives will be shorter and more painful. Webs of disadvantage like this one render social institutions as a whole prejudiced against disadvantaged groups.

If one understands that support for a law entails support for its known consequences, one must also recognize a shared culpability when those consequences manifest. When members of a privileged group reject the discomfort of negotiating new boundaries or receiving less undeserved deference, they express a disregard for human life. They bear moral responsibility for the lives lost to that disregard. Instead, members of privileged groups should study the dynamics of injustice in their society, forsake their privilege at every opportunity, and demand immediate rectification. Asking people to wait means asking them to die.

English-speaking political theorists identify John Rawls as among the most important political philosophers of the 20th century. Rawls developed a rational theory of justice in liberal democracy using a thought experiment inspired by social contract theory. He imagines organizing a state where none of the organizers know their position in the society they create. Assuming the organizers are rationally self-interested, Rawls claims that they would establish two principles of justice. The Equality Principle states that rights and freedoms should be as extensive as possible while being distributed to all citizens equally. The Difference Principles states that social and economic inequalities should be evaluated by their benefit to the least advantaged, and competition for prestige positions should be fair and open to all.

From the examples he employs, Rawls imagines that the United States political economy reflects the principles of justice. The Bill of Rights defines an equally distributed system of rights and freedoms, political positions are won in open and fair elections, and capitalism allows anyone to earn economic success on the free market. Rawls argues that the competition inherent in republicanism and capitalism ensures beneficial outcomes regulated by free choice of the citizens.

Like John Stuart Mill, Rawls overestimates the benefits of republican capitalism. Economic inequality is maintained by concentrating wealth, effectively transferring it from the working class to the wealthy. The worst-off individuals are both the most vulnerable and the most exploited. Their liberty is limited by their lack of wealth. Comparing American capitalism to the Nordic model or social market economies of Europe, the poorest benefit from increased regulation on the market and constraints on economic advantage influencing electoral politics.

Rawls published Theory of Justice in 1971. To frame the United States as conforming to the Difference Principle in the shadow of the civil rights movement and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr requires overlooking substantial injustices. Charitably, Rawls may have acknowledged the shortcomings in American political economy, but his emphasis on competition shows substantial sympathy with capitalist justifications of the market. The Difference Principle requires one to evaluate inequalities based on how the losers in the competition fare, so Rawlsian argments should be marshalled to support social justice and a welfare state.

Fortunately, Rawls’s positive assessment of capitalism can stand apart from the Difference Principle. The Difference Principle does not assert that there should be inequalities; it merely sets the conditions for inequalities to be just. While Rawls composed his theory of justice for liberal democracy, he succeeds in framing a notion sufficiently general that it applies to political organization generally. Recuperating the work of Rawls and Mill from their commitment to liberal democratic capitalism enables anarchist and socialist arguments to be framed in the language of academic political theory.

A community may organize so that power concentrates in a few decision-makers who organize and direct the efforts the everyone else. The small number of decision-makers relative to the rest of the population constraints the number of opportunities to lead or wield social or political power. A small number of people will hold power over the rest, and very few people will be able to attain those power positions. Power in such a society can be represented by a pyramid with the few “at the top” ruling the many “below” them.

A community may also organize to limit the scope of any social or political power. In such a society leaders or decision makers oversee a small or narrowly defined domain to organize or direct only a few people, or only within a specific circumstance or activity. Opportunities to wield social or political power may be numerous even if the scope of that power remains relatively small. Many people, potentially every person, may find an opportunity to lead in some capacity. Power in such a society can be represented by a horizon with many “leaders” who must cooperate with one another to achieve large scale shared goals.

The Pyramid and the Horizon represent an abstraction of power distribution in a society as one might find it. Political states throughout the world tend toward the Pyramid, ruled by an elite few who organize and direct the many. The Horizon appears in less formal associations or small communities.

When set against the the history of politics and political states, the Pyramid serves as the preferred tool for conquerors and rulers who rely on coercive power. The rising political class forms or allies with a martial class to compel obedience from the working class that forms the majority of the population. The monarchies that arose in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire exhibit this pattern, as do monarchies in India, China, and Japan. Governance aligns with the interests of the political class generally, the martial class where needed to maintain loyalty to the political class, and the working class only to ensure continued support for the political and martial class. Since the political class needs to prevent unified resistance from the working class, they need only to serve the interests of a defined subset at the expense of the rest. Much of the political class’s influence over the working class can be accomplished by propaganda rather than serving material interests, convincing the privileged subset that their interests align with the political class and against the rest of the working class.

The Horizon pattern emerges organically in small communities or in response to systematic oppression by the political class of an established Pyramid. Anarchists and collectivists, generally committed to cooperative power, tend toward the Horizon when organizing for reform or revolution. Distribution of power prevents the formation of a well-defined political class since any person may exercise power in some domain but will be subject to power in other domains.

As such, the political class and its supporters perceive the Horizon as a threat. Establishing a Horizon existentially threatens an established Pyramid and will diminish the power and associated wealth or control over resources that the political class enjoys. The political class will work against any reform that distributes power more broadly, preferring to maintain systems of oppression rather than sacrifice their privilege and power. Pyramid propaganda will frame the Pyramid as the only viable model and argue that the Horizons generally collapse into instability. However, no political entity can survive under constant attack, and a move toward the Horizon attracts sustained attack from any Pyramid. Historically, evidence for Pyramid reactions to such threats can be seen in the wars against France instigated by aristocrats who feared their privilege at risk in the wake of the French Revolution, the framing of anarchist collectives as bent on destruction, and the assassinations of civil rights leaders carried out by the FBI under COINTELPRO.

Nevertheless, the Pyramid instantiates injustice throughout its system of governance. The political class leverages their influence to concentrate wealth and resources, utilizing the martial class to suppress active resistance. Continued extraction of wealth from the working class reinforces established power as it enables the political class to purchase support from the martial class and often a select privileged subset of the working class established to divides the working class.

Since the Pyramid cannot sustain itself without that pattern of exploitation, support for hierarchies of power entails support for continued oppression and abuse of the majority of people for the benefit of a minority aristocratic class. Accepting the status quo of the Pyramid means accepting the rampant death and destruction leveled against a divided working class and whatever foreign states the Pyramid can exploit through the threat of military force. Concentration of power will always produce such abuses because the political class needs to enact abuse to maintain its position. Reform of the Pyramid is impossible. To achieve justice a community must move toward the Horizon.