Just War and Reparations

ISHA 2003-04

For the first time, ISHA conducted a year-long seminar on two linked themes: Just War and Reparations. Below are some of the issues we invited our Fellows to consider. We also held a public conference on these topics in Spring 2004 with invited guest speakers as well as our seminar participants. 

Just War

Recent events raise again the grave question: Can war ever be morally justified? At least since Augustine, the theory that states are sometimes justified in resorting to force has challenged the radical pacifist rejection of war as always immoral. Just war theory has itself been challenged by realism, which argues either that states, in fact, pursue power and self-interest rather than justice and morality, or argues that states ought (in the prudential sense) to do whatever they need to do to secure power and security.  In either case, the realist response to our question is skepticism about the relevance of moral, as opposed to prudential, concepts when it comes to the affairs of states.

In this light ISHA felt it would be valuable for scholars across a range of disciplines to take a fresh look at the justifiability of war. For example, just war theorists hold that there must be just cause for warfare and a probability of success, among other requisites. Can just war theorists provide a satisfactory grounding for these requirements? Similarly, can we justify rules for just conduct in war, and for just terms for an end to war? Pacifists argue that non-violent civil disobedience and economic sanctions are just as effective as war in dealing with an aggressor state. Is this view overly idealistic? Does the success of non-violent resistance depend largely on the moral character of the aggressor? Are just war theorists overly idealistic when they argue, against realists, that a state driven solely by interest in power and security, and lacking moral components such as justice, ultimately could not maintain the support of its citizens? Can a war be just if it is waged not by the state, but by an ad hoc group pursuing its own ends, and perhaps using unconventional tactics? Is either the threat, or practice, of any type of nuclear deterrent morally permissible?

War is not only an issue for social, political, moral, economic and historical theorists, but for artists and journalists. Wars are represented as just or unjust in fiction, the visual and performance arts, musical lyrics, and the news media. How do artists achieve representations of a just war? (Consider Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People.) Picasso's Guernica, Poussin's Rape of the Sabine Women, and Goya's The Third of May clearly depict the horrors of particular wars. But can there be visual pacifist arguments, or visual arguments for just war theory? How has music historically influenced listeners to embrace either pacifism or the view that a particular war is just or unjust? How does the news media's choice of stories, images, names and epithets affect our views about which wars are just or unjust, or whether we come to think that justice is irrelevant to questions of war.


Reparations, or making repair for harm done, is an ancient concept, which has recently surfaced in many debates, most notably in the demand for reparations by African Americans for centuries of enslavement. While this topic can be easily approached from the vantage of history, it has a less well known but an equally significant presence in other disciplines. Contemporary controversies also give this topic a certain resonance across disciplines. For instance, the art world and art historians are presently involved in discussions over the ownership of and compensation for paintings confiscated by Nazis that are now housed in museums in Europe and this country. In Women’s Studies, scholars are exploring the idea of compensation for sex crimes and the gendered dimension of reparations, most prominently in the demands of Korean “comfort women” for reparations from the Japanese government. Political scientists, philosophers and legal theorists are studying the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa to explore how admitting responsibility for historical crimes might act as an alternative to the complicated work of determining the amount and beneficiaries of reparations. Similar issues have arisen in the newly established democracies in Chile and Argentina of how best to deal with the atrocities of the military juntas. Individuals, states as well as corporate entities are being held responsible for present-day crimes, in cases involving the despoiling of the environment and harm done to persons, or historic wrongs such as slavery and colonialism.

The idea of reparations normally does not imply revenge but just recompense and it is connected to the notion of distributive justice when linked to continuing wrong and inequalities, whether they be sexual, racial or economic. It raises questions about the nature and scope of legal and moral responsibility, issues of our responsibility towards our history and how that responsibility shapes our identity as a people and a nation and our vision of a just future. All of this suggests the possibility of approaching the idea of reparations from a broad range of disciplines ranging from history, sociology, anthropology, law, economics, political science, psychology to the arts, literature and philosophy.

The result of linking the two themes has been a successful consideration across a wide variety of settings and problems--from the legal history, theory and philosophy of Just War to considerations of Reparations in relation to slavery and its aftermath in the USA, as well as the Armenian genocide. Presentations this year included an ISHA first--a video documentary in progress (on the Armenian genocide) by Eileen Claveloux. For further information, contact our seminar Fellows below.


Arlene Avakian
Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
The Armenian Genocide. 

Anne Broadbridge
Department of History
Gengis Khan and Just War. 

Eileen Claveloux
Department of Art, Architecture and Art History
Video on the Armenian Genocide. 

Ann Ferguson
Department of Philosophy
The Philosophy and Politics of Just War. 

David Mednicoff
Department of Legal Studies
Just War and International Relations. 

James Smethurst 
W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies
Reparations for Slavery in the Twentieth Century. 

Ron Welburn
Department of English
Theories of War in the European Conquest of North America.