Just Tech Theory: An Adaptation of Just War Theory for Moral Use of Technology

Reading Time: 11 minutes

By Brennan R. Denzel, Boston College

            Whether it be laptops, phones, stoves in the dining halls, or building-access key cards, college students would find it difficult to complete their studies without using some form of technology. The broad umbrella of “technology” extends beyond its collegiate iterations from the relatively simple, such as the toaster, to new complex fields, such as self-driving cars. These technological feats, while astonishing, beg the question: are they necessary? Or, furthermore, are they moral? A toaster, though unnecessary, is seemingly moral. It would be difficult to find any issue with changing the texture of bread. However, questions about the environmental impacts of the toaster’s production and the working conditions in the theoretical toaster factory must be examined. Thus, judging the morality of a particular technology does not simply concern the act but also prior conditions and subsequent effects. An adaptation of Just War Theory’s similar three-staged format and certain principles provides a necessary new viewpoint for considering if individual technologies and their usages are moral.

Just War Theory

            Though not the main focus of this paper, a brief understanding of Just War Theory helps to make Just Tech Theory more apparent. First and foremost, pacifists would dismiss Just War Theory on the grounds that killing and other forms of violence are always wrong. On the contrary, the Christian tradition holds killing within the context of war to be a neutral act, neither right nor wrong. Just War Theory is based largely on the work of Saint Augustine and later passages of Saint Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. It is a doctrine of principles for leaders to consider towards the goal of moral military conflict. The principles are divided into three stages: Jus ad Bellum (justice to war), Jus in Bello (justice in war), and Jus post Bellum (justice after war). Some debate exists on the exact list of principles included in the doctrine, but the quick outline of the following paragraphs will suffice to communicate the general ideas.

            First, the Jus ad Bellum principles are to be contemplating before war starts. They begin with the apparent Principle of Just Cause. Obviously, the reason for waging war must be just and cannot be solely for selfish gains or punishing entire peoples. One just example is the use of force to intervene in the event of basic human rights violations. The Principle of Right Intention attempts to further clarify this point, as it only permits just causes if they are also the sole causes for war; a party cannot fight an oppressive regime morally if their intent is to steal power for themselves. Next, the Principle of Competent Authority stipulates that public officials must be the ones to declare war. These officials must be elected or appointed in a just political system to be seen as having proper authority to decide to use military action. Finally, the last two principles are more self-explanatory. The Principle of Probable Success states that lives must not be lost to a war that is a foregone conclusion, and the Principle of Last Resort says that all other non-violent and diplomatic options must be explored before taking military action. All in all, the Jus ad Bellum principles are an intentionally difficult hurdle for many conflicts to clear and hopefully prevent any unnecessary loss of life.

            The Jus in Bello principles are considerations for justice during war, but they also must be debated before the war alongside the Jus ad Bellum principles. If preliminary analysis concludes that the Jus in Bello principles cannot be reasonably satisfied, then the war is not moral before it even begins. To start, the Principle of Distinction clarifies who can be a target of military action. Only combatants can be targeted; it would be unjust to attack innocent civilians and surrendered or injured soldiers posing no imminent threat. Next, the Principle of Proportionality deems that any military action must be a proportional response to a previous action or to a posed threat. Judging the proportion of a potential threat creates potential grey area within the Principle of Proportionality, as does a second interpretation, which states that some loss of innocent life is inevitable if it is proportional to a posed threat. This second iteration seems to be in conflict with the Principle of Distinction, demonstrating how difficult wartime decision making is. These Jus in Bello principles make the image of a just war blurrier, hence the necessity for Just War Theory to attempt to remove any lack of clarity.

            Unlike the first two stages, the Jus post Bellum doctrine is still being developed. Unfortunately, many wars have been waged throughout history without considerations for how to rebuild nations after war, how to help veterans transition back to everyday life and cope with injuries and PTSD, and how to support grieving loved ones. By adapting Just War Theory for moral use of technology, a “war on technology” is not being declared. If used morally, technology can improve the quality of life of countless people around the world. If used immorally, however, it can widen the gap between powerful, wealthy parties and those left without any opportunities or resources. Thus, Just Tech Theory can be formed by adopting Just War Theory’s three stages to create the “a Priori” (prior to), “in Actum” (in the act), and “a Posteriori” (in the aftermath) stages, each filled with adaptations of the above principles and new unique propositions.

Just Tech Theory

            This development of Just Tech Theory is based largely on Catholic ideals, beginning with the work of Augustine and Aquinas in Just War Theory and continuing to the contributions of Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, Pope Francis, and Catholic Social Teaching. A couple themes permeate throughout the principles of Just Tech Theory. The first is articulated beautifully by MacIntyre, who believes that context is essential to moral decision making. He claims that there “is no such thing as ‘behaviour’, to be identified prior to and independently of intentions, beliefs, and settings.”[1] The Principle of Right Intention can be seen clearly in MacIntyre’s writing. Any behavior involving technology, in its production or its use, is fueled by intentions. In order for technology to be used justly, those intentions must be moral. Furthermore, one’s “beliefs and settings” can be rephrased to say one’s “context.” No action is independent of its context; everything people do is informed by their background. For Just Tech Theory, two important contexts emerge: a person’s human identity and their residency on Earth. More specifically, these contexts provide two guiding questions: How is this technology helping to fulfill some human need or desire, especially for the least fortunate? What are the environmental implications of producing and using this technology?

            The second theme is found in both Catholic and secular contexts. Philosopher John Rawls famously presented his view of “justice as fairness.”[2] Rawls’ theory allows for one exception to justice as fairness, that being if an action “improves the expectations of the least advantaged members of society.”[3] Despite his Christian identity, Rawls’ work is not typically categorized under any religious group. However, these concepts sound eerily similar to the Catholic Social Teaching’s Option for the Poor and Vulnerable. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops holds that a “basic moral test is how our most vulnerable member are faring” and cites Matthew 25:31-46 as the basis for putting “the needs of the poor and vulnerable first.”[4] This prioritization of the “poor and vulnerable,” who Rawls would call the “least advantaged members of society,” brings moral actors back to the guiding question of how a technology helps to address a need or desire, especially for the marginalized. Within the contexts of one’s human identity, residency on Earth, and duty to help the least fortunate in mind, the basic principles of Just Tech Theory can be developed.

Just Tech Theory A Prior Principles

            This paper is the author’s first attempt at conceiving a Just Tech Theory, so it is inevitable that some key principles will be omitted accidentally. Additionally, the goal of this paper is not to say, in essence, it is immoral to have nice things. On the contrary, the goal is to argue that people can have any technology they want so long as it is produced, attained, and used morally. With that being said, the first principles of the “a Priori” stage are adaptions of the Principles of Just Cause and Right Intention. The Principle of Just Cause, like in Just War Theory, suggests that the reason for making the technology must be just and cannot solely be for selfish gains. For Just Tech Theory, tension arises around the profitability of a product. If the creation of a technological product is solely for the creator’s monetary gain, it is inherently not a moral technology. As stated above, a technology ought to address a human need or desire, particularly a need of the least fortunate. To return to the earlier example of a toaster, the toaster’s functionality fulfills a desire to have toasted bread and is thus moral. However, MacIntyre’s note on intention is significant here. If the inventor of the toaster simply aimed to profit, it would be an immoral invention. The Principle of Right Intention again further clarifies this point, as a technological product must be created for solely a just cause. An inventor who hopes to both fulfill a need and to gain personal riches is not acting morally. His intentions are tainted by selfish desires. These two principles extend to how the product is priced, which must be considered a priori, or prior to, the product’s use. If one considers the Option for the Poor and Vulnerable, then pricing must be tailored such that all people who may benefit from the product can reasonably attain it or be positively influenced by it. Another Catholic Social Teaching is Solidarity, which at its core “is the pursuit of justice and peace.”[5] To draw on Rawls, if a technology is not made available in a manner that is fair to the marginalized members of society, then the more fortunate ought to stand in solidarity with their fellow human beings and not have the product. So as much as people love crunchy bread, the toaster may in fact be immoral.

            The next principle of a Priori Just Tech Theory also has financial implications. The Principle of Just Means argues that the means by which a technology is produced, such as the acquisition of funding and materials, must be just. A simple example to articulate the first point is that a person could not rob a number of people and subsequently use that money to fund the development of their new technology. A more complicated example is that a company or individual inventor cannot accept donations or investments from immoral parties. The owner of an emerging technology must research into the moral practices of their investors, as counterproductive as it may be. The second point expresses that materials must also be attained morally, potentially calling into question the environmental impacts of certain mining practices and the use of existing harvesting technologies. The Principle of Just Means works towards the same two guiding themes given above. It hopes to allow fair opportunities for the less fortunate to get their own technology produced and considers one’s context as a resident of Earth. Additionally, the brunt of negative environmental effects is often placed on the poor and vulnerable, making the contemplation of context even more important.

            The next principle shares some environmental overlap with the Principle of Just Means. However, in addition to the environmental impacts of the acquisition of resources, it is necessary to acknowledge the projected impact of use. The Principle of Just Production considers the environmental impacts of production and use. One such example is pollution generated by automobiles. Another is the mining of certain precious metals needed to make electric car batteries. While the electric car seems more moral than its gas-filled predecessor because of lower pollution, environmental effects still exist from mining and potentially the development of electricity needed to charge the car. Sustainable energy solutions would certainly boost the electric car’s case as a moral technology. The Principle of Just Production has a second component, however, which concerns the workers involved in production. It would be difficult to find someone that disagrees with the fact that the exploitation of workers makes the production of a technology immoral. Child labor, slavery, inhumane working conditions, and insufficient pay are just the obvious examples of exploitation. Again, working to ensure the safety and fair treatment of the most vulnerable members of society must be a priority.

            The final “a Priori” point is an adaptation of Just War Theory’s Principle of Last Resort. Just as all non-violent and diplomatic options must be exhausted before taking military action, Just Tech Theory’s Principle of Due Diligence argues that all reasonable options for making the technology available to the poor and vulnerable must be exhausted. This involves pricing, as articulated previously, and distribution. As with the Principles of Just Cause and Right Intention, if a technology is not fairly available to the least fortunate members of society, Catholic Social Teaching calls on the more fortunate ought to act in solidarity.

            A potential criticism of Just Tech Theory would be to say that it reverses the progress of technological advancement made in recent years. This criticism would be correct. This Just Tech Theory does not so much as abandon the existing social priorities of capital gain and technological advancement as it adopts the priorities of the Option for the Poor and Vulnerable and considering environmental impacts. The two sets are simply not compatible. The newly adopted set both aim to rise the average quality of life. The word “average” is most significant in this statement, as demonstrated by the following hypothetical scenario: there are two people, one an extremely wealthy person and the other a homeless person. Both are given a $5 USD bill. The extremely wealthy person’s quality of life does not change at all; the $5 is a proverbial drop in the ocean. The homeless person’s quality of life, on the other hand, can greatly increase. That $5 may allow them to eat today, or it may be the last $5 necessary to buy a tent for shelter. It is thus moral to prioritize the poor and vulnerable, whose unfair treatment only begins with the fact that they have to experience the worst of climate change without having caused it. In fact, in his Laudato Si’, Pope Francis argues that ecological approaches need “to incorporate a social perspective which takes into account the fundamental rights of the poor and the underprivileged.”[6]

Just Tech Theory In Actum Principles

            Similar to the second stage of Just War Theory, the “in Actum” principles must be examined before the production or use of technology. The first principle, entitled the Principle of Rejection, relates to the Principle of Due Diligence presented above. While all people or groups of people should have the opportunity to use a technology, they should not be obligated to do so and retain the right to reject it. A society may wish to reject the use of all or some technology in order to preserve their valuable culture and traditions. Therefore, they should not feel forced to “keep up” with the rest of the world.

            Next, an adaption of the Principle of Proportionality finds a place in Just Tech Theory. The technology must properly address a need or desire. Some environmental resources will be used, the amount of which must be proportional to the scale of the problem. Environmental impacts will inevitably exist, but they must be kept to a minimum and proportional to the need or desire being addressed. This principle also extends to new iterations of the same product. For example, “classic” fridges have evolved into smart fridges. However, the standard fridge serves perfectly well. Furthermore, many people do not have access to any fridge to preserve their food. Thus, any resources used and pollution created to produce and transport smart fridges does not satisfy the Principle of Proportionality because it is not addressing a need or desire. Food does not necessarily need to be preserved in a fridge, and the desire to preserve food this way is satisfied by standard fridges.

Just Tech Theory A Posteriori Principles

            Between the “a Priori” and “in Actum” Principles, most of the considerations for just use of technology are covered. However, in the “a Posteriori” stage, it can never be harmful to revisit the guiding questions. Employing a Principle of Environmental Totality takes into account all of the potential environmental impacts outlined in the Principles of Just Means, Just Production, and Proportionality. Additionally, a final Principle of Total Improvement aims to determine if the technology is manufactured, acquired, used, and producing with special concern given to the poor and vulnerable in an attempt to improve the average quality of life.

            Like Just War Theory, the last stage of Just Tech Theory requires further development and ought to be considered before the inception of any new technology. Throughout this paper, it has become apparent that Just Tech Theory and capitalistic societies seem to be in conflict. People are asked to set aside their own personal gain and desires to advance technology to instead foster environmentally friendly living and fair treatment of the poor and vulnerable. A complete reset of social norms would be needed for Just War Theory to be feasible, but perhaps it is a shift in social norms that will allow humans to achieve higher moral standards. Capitalism and Just Tech Theory can exist harmoniously, so long as the top priorities remain the Option for the Poor and Vulnerable and acknowledging our identities as human beings and residents of Earth. Money can be made, but maybe people ought to start asking what their money can do others.


MacIntyre, Alasdair. “After Virtue.” In Justice: A Reader, edited by Michael Sandel, 315-328. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Pope Francis. Laudato Si’. Vatican City: Vatican Press, 2015.

Rawls, John. “A Theory of Justice.” In Justice: A Reader, edited by Michael Sandel, 203-221. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

“Seven Themes of Catholic Social Teaching.” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Accessed December 6, 2021. https://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/catholic-social-teaching/seven-themes-of-catholic-social-teaching.

[1] Alasdair MacIntyre, “After Virtue,” in Justice: A Reader, ed. Michael Sandel (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 318.

[2] John Rawls, “A Theory of Justice,” in Justice: A Reader, ed. Michael Sandel (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 204.

[3] Rawls, 217.

[4] “Seven Themes of Catholic Social Teaching,” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, accessed December 6, 2021, https://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/catholic-social-teaching/seven-themes-of-catholic-social-teaching.

[5] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

[6] Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, VI (Vatican City: Vatican Press, 2015).

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