CHAPTER 23: On Doubtful Causes
Origin of moral doubts — The dictates of conscience, though
erroneous, not to be violated — Opposite opinions supported by argument,
or by authority — In doubtful and important matters the safer side of the
question to be followed — In such cases it is right to abstain from war
— Disputes settled by conference or arbitration — Christian duties
— Whether single combat is allowable in order to avoid war — In cases
of equal doubt the claims of the present possessor to be preferred — Where
neither party is in possession, claims to be divided — Whether a war can
be just on both sides, explained by a distinction.
I. THERE is much truth in Aristotle's observation that moral
reasonings can never amount to the certainty of mathematical demonstration.
Because in mathematical reasoning, all the figures are considered in the
abstract, purely by themselves, and without relation to the circumstances of
time or place, so that there is nothing to warp the judgment from the object
immediately under consideration. Besides the figures in general form a direct
contrast to each other. Thus, for instance, there is no intermediate line
between a straight line and a curve.
But it is not so in morals, where the least circumstances vary the subject,
and admit a latitude of interpretation, settling the points of truth and
justice between two extremes. So that between what is right and what is
unlawful there is a middle space, where it is easy to in. cline to the one
side, or to the other. This occasions an ambiguity somewhat like the difficulty
of deciding the precise moment, where the twilight begins, and where it ends.
From hence Aristotle concludes that it is sometimes difficult to determine,
between two extremes, what line of conduct ought to be chosen or rejected.
II. But it must be laid down as a necessary principle, that although
an action may in reality be just, yet if the party doing it, after weighing
every circumstance, cannot reconcile the act to his conscience, he incurs some
degree of guilt. "For whatever is not of faith, says the Apostle,
is sin;" where, by the term faith he means a deliberate judgment of the
mind. For God has given conscience a judicial power to be the sovereign guide
of human actions, by despising whose admonitions the mind is stupified into
brutal hardness,, For it often happens that judgment can point out nothing
certain, but hesitates; and when such doubts and hesitations cannot
satisfactorily be cleared up, the rule of Cicero is a safe one to follow, who
says, that it is an excellent injunction, which forbids us to do a thing of the
rectitude or impropriety of which we entertain a doubt.
But this rule cannot be applied, where of two things, in the choice of which
there is equal doubt, the one must be done, in which case that must be
selected, which seems to be the least unjust. For on all occasions, where a
choice cannot be avoided, the less of two evils assumes the appearance of a
III. But in doubtful cases, after examination, the mind seldom
remains neuter, but inclines to one side, or the other, persuaded either by the
merits of the case, or by respect for the judgment of those, who have delivered
an opinion upon the question. Now the merits of the case are derived either
from the causes, the effects, or other concomitant circumstances.
IV. To apprehend such distinctions properly, practice and penetration
are necessary, and where men have not in themselves a capacity for the active
exercise of judgment it behoves them to follow the maxims of others, who are
distinguished by their wisdom and experience. For, in the opinion of Aristotle,
those things are probably just, or true, which seem so to all, or to the
greater part of men of worth. And this is the method of judging pursued by
Sovereign Princes, whose engagements in the affairs of life allow them but
little leisure for study and deliberation Thus the ancient Romans never
undertook wars, till they had consulted the sacred college, established for
that purpose, and the Christian Emperors scarcely ever did so without advising
with the Bishops, in order to be apprized of any thing therein that might
V. It may happen in many disputed points, that the intrinsic merits
of the case, or the opinions of the learned, are equal on both sides. When that
happens, if the matters in discussion are of no great importance, there is
nothing to blame in the person, that makes his choice either way. But in
matters of moment, where the lives of men are at stake, the decision should
incline to the safer side, according to the proverbial maxim, which pronounces
it better to acquit the guilty than to condemn the innocent.
VI. War then being an object of such weighty magnitude, in which the
innocent must often be involved in the sufferings of the guilty, between
wavering opinions the balance should incline in favour of peace.
There are three methods, by which independent nations may settle their
disputed rights without coming to the decision of the sword.
VII. The first method is that of conference. For, in the words of
Cicero, "there being two methods of deciding quarrels, the one by
discussion and the other by force, the former, a peculiar characteristic of
man, and the latter, of the brute creation: when the first of these methods
fails, men are obliged to have recourse to the latter." Mardonius, in the
Polyhymnia of Herodotus, blames the Grecians, who, being united in one
language, might settle their quarrels by messengers of peace, by heralds, and
negotiations, rather than by war.
VIII. The other method is that of compromise, which takes place
between those, who have no common judge. Among innumerable instances of this
kind in ancient history, we may select that given by Xenophon in his account of
Cyrus, where that prince takes the king of the Indians for arbitrator between
himself and the king of Assyria. The Carthaginians in their disputes with
Masinissa prefer a settlement of this kind before a decision of war. Livy too
informs us that the Romans themselves, in a dispute with the Samnites, made an
appeal to the common allies of both.
The office of deciding wars and putting an end to the contentions of armies
was assigned, according to Strabo, to the Druids of the Gauls, and upon the
testimony of the same writer, it formed a part of the priestly functions among
Surely then it is a mode of terminating their disputes, balancing their
powers, and settling their pretensions worthy to be adopted by Christian Kings
and States. For if, in order to avoid trials before judges who were strangers
to the true religion, the Jews and Christians appointed arbitrators of their
own, and it was a practice recommended and enjoined by St. Paul, how much more
ought such a practice to be recommended and enforced, to gain the still nobler
end of preventing the calamities of war.
These and many other reasons of no less importance might be advanced for
recommending to Christian powers general congresses for the adjustment of their
various interests, and for compelling the refractory to submit to equitable
terms of peace.
IX. A third method of terminating disputes, without hostilities, was
by lot, a practice commended by Dion Chrysostom in his speech on the
interposition of fortune in directing affairs, and it was commended long before
him by Solomon in the xviii. chapter of his Proverbs.
X. Nearly related to the last named method is that of single combat,
a practice recommended under the idea that by the risque of two lives a quarrel
might be decided, which would otherwise have cost the blood of thousands. In
Livy we find Metius addressing Tullus in the following terms, "let us try
some method of determining to whom the pre-eminence shall belong, without
wasting the blood of each people." Strabo says it was the practice of the
ancient Greeks, and Aeneas proposed it to Turnus, as the most equitable way of
settling their pretensions. It is described too as the custom of the ancient
XI. Although in doubtful cases, both sides are bound to devise every
means of avoiding hostilities, yet it is a duty more incumbent upon the
claimant than upon the immediate possessor of whatever may be the subject of
dispute. For it is a rule not only of civil, but of natural law, that, where
the pretensions are equal, those of the possessor are to be preferred.
To the foregoing remarks an additional observation may be made, that if any
one, knowing his pretensions to be just, cannot produce sufficient proofs to
convict the intruder of injustice, he cannot lawfully have recourse to arms,
because he has no OSTENSIBLE RIGHT, by which he can compel the intruder to
relinquish the possession.
XII. But where the right is ambiguous, and neither party has
possession, the pretender, who refuses to divide the claims, may reasonably be
charged with injustice.
XIII. From what has been said it will not be difficult to settle a
much agitated question, whether, with respect to those, who are the principal
movers of a war, there can be justice on both sides. For there are distinctions
proper to be made in the various acceptations of the word JUST.
A thing is said to be just, either as to its causes, or its effects. The
causes too may be confined either to justice in a PARTICULAR acceptation, or
they may be extended so as to include under that name every kind of rectitude.
Again, a particular acceptation may be divided into two kinds, one relating to
the ACTION, and the other to the agent. An agent may be said to act justly,
when, in what he does, he commits no breach of STRICT LAW, though his conduct
may not be conformable to equity.
In a PARTICULAR acceptation of the word justice, with regard to a matter in
dispute, it cannot in war, any more than in legal proceedings, apply to both
sides. For there can be no moral principle, commanding us, under the same
circumstances, both to Do, and to ABSTAIN from a particular action. It may
happen indeed that neither of two belligerent powers may act unjustly. For no
one can be charged with acting unjustly unless he knows that he is doing so;
but there are many, who are not aware of the nature, extent, and consequences
of their measures. Thus in a law-suit, both parties may sincerely believe that
they have justice on their side. For many things both in law and fact, which
would establish a right, may escape the notice of men.
In a GENERAL acceptation, an action may be called just, where the agent is
free from every kind of blame. Yet in many cases an agent may deviate from the
strict rules of legal justice, and be liable to no blame, when that deviation
is owing to unavoidable ignorance, there having been neither time nor
opportunity sufficient for him to know the substance, or perhaps existence of
the law. So it may happen in law-suits, that both parties are free not only
from the imputation of injustice, but from all blame, especially where either
of them is litigating a matter not on his own, but on another's account; as for
instance where a guardian is acting for his ward, he would not be authorized in
abandoning even a doubted right. Aristotle says that in matters of disputed
right neither side can be charged with injustice; conformably to which opinion
Quintilian, observes that an upright pleader may be engaged on either side of
the question. Aristotle further observes that passing a just judgment is an
ambiguous term, signifying that a judge determines either according to the
strict letter of the law, or according to the dictates of his own conscience.
And, in another place, he has said that giving a wrong judgment through
ignorance is no act of injustice.
But in matters of war and peace, where such weighty and varied interests on
all sides are concerned, it would be difficult to obtain a judgment purely
impartial, and abstracted from all personal motives, unless there be the most
clear and undeniable evidence on the points in question.
If we denominate a thing to be just, from its effect in conferring certain
rights, in this sense it is plain that in war there may be justice on both
sides. In the same manner, a sentence not strictly legal, or a possession not
perfectly just may nevertheless confer certain rights.
Next | Previous | Contents | Text