From Presumption to Prudence in Just-War Rationality

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Kevin Carnahan
Routledge Studies in Religion
  • New York, NY: 
    , June
     212 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Over the past half-century, Christian theo-ethical discourse on the just war tradition has included a debate about “presumptions.” Some theological ethicists have argued that the just war tradition is characterized by a “presumption against injustice” (PAI), such that the tradition’s advocates ought to be confident in using the tools of war to protect the innocent, and even punish wrongdoers. Other theological ethicists see the just war tradition as characterized by a “presumption against harm” (PAH), such that its main purpose is to restrain our impulses to warfare, and challenge those who argue for the necessity of particular wars to robustly prove their case.

In this book, Kevin Carnahan wades into this debate, not in order to make a case for either presumption, but instead to reorient Christian thinking about war altogether. Specifically, Carnahan argues that the “presumptions” debate unhelpfully reifies deontological ways of thinking about warfare, and that Christian ethicists should instead consider war from the methodological approach of virtue ethics. Prudence, as the “crown of the virtues,” ought to reign supreme in guiding just-war rationality.

Among the book’s strengths is the philosophical acumen Carnahan brings to his analysis of PAI and PAH. Each of these positions, and the reasoning of its major proponents—Paul Ramsey and James Turner Johnson for PAI, and James Childress and Richard Miller for PAH—is thoroughly analyzed and unraveled. Carnahan has a knack for spotting fuzzy or ill-defined elements in an argument and interrogating these elements in order to either expose the weaknesses of PAI or PAH, or to illustrate areas where the proponents of these positions have contradicted themselves. Therefore, I offer both an endorsement and a caution: if you are a scholar who has followed the PAI/PAH debates and find them intellectually stimulating or even critical to thinking about the just war tradition, chapters 1 and 2 of this text are indispensable; if, however, you are unfamiliar with these debates and with what is at stake in them for just war ethicists, you may find Carnahan’s style of inquiry in these chapters overly scrupulous.

In chapter 3, Carnahan analyzes Paul’s language in the New Testament epistles of “imitation” of Christ. Carnahan argues that Paul knowingly calls on Christians to strive for an “impossible ideal.” Interpreting Paul in this way provides Carnahan with scriptural support for his contention that Christians may sometimes be called upon to support coercive or violent force in order to manifest justice. In Carnahan’s own words, “though Paul did not endorse Christian participation in violence, an endorsement of such participation is coherent with his call for an imitation of Christ” (123).

Toward the close of the third chapter, Carnahan returns to the virtue of prudence. Using Paul, he creatively proposes that what we seek to imitate in following Jesus Christ are the agapic (Christ-like love), kenotic (self-emptying), pistic (faithful), and dikaiosynic (righteous) aspects of Christ’s atoning life, death, and resurrection. Christian prudence is shaped by these characteristics of atonement.

Finally, Carnahan makes an effort to apply his constructive proposals about prudence to just war thinking. He richly describes prudence as a virtue by which we morally interpret the world around us. As such, it involves our perceptions, our social context, our conscious reflection on that context, and the application of practical reason. In the final pages of the text, he applies this rich account of prudence to a case study involving the ongoing conflict in and around the Gaza strip. Here I found myself wishing for a clearer and more thorough application of Carnahan’s notion of prudence, though Carnahan himself states that he “does not pretend to exhaust the significant implications of reimagining just-war thinking as focused upon virtue” (168). 

From Presumption to Prudence in Just-War Rationality moves the debate about PAI and PAH forward in interesting ways, and assists in the process of de-centering this particular conversation to make room for new and creative thinking about the ethics of warfare. It is a text for specialists and those conversant with the just war tradition, and would be particularly interesting to discuss in upper level or graduate courses in philosophical and theological virtue ethics.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Anna Floerke Schneid is Associate Professor in the Department of Theology at Duquesne Univeristy in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Date of Review: 
March 28, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kevin Carnahan is associate professor of philosophy & religion at Central Methodist University. He has written one book and multiple articles on the subject of Just War and is currently a co-editor for the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics.


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