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Available Future? Peace Ethics Reflections from the Perspective of Just Peace and Prudence

While mapping the future is a risky undertaking, perhaps the only thing riskier is doing nothing.”¹ 

However old the human desire to know the future may be, our ability to know is limited, and the outcome is uncertain. Nevertheless, human existence will mainly be determined by our actions because the future is not merely fate; it is also shaped by human decisions.

In order to consciously shape the future, humans require a concept which can guide their actions and which they accept to do so.

We have introduced the concept of “just peace” as a vision for the future into the political opinion-forming and decision-making process. With regard to the future of humankind, this concept is based on a simple insight: “A world in which most people are deprived of that which makes for a dignified life is not sustainable. It is still full of violence even if there is no war. Conditions of on­going grave injustice are in themselves violent” (translated from German).2 Justice or justness – understood to mean the realization of conditions under which humans can lead dignified lives – constitutes a worthwhile vision of the future: “the goal of just peace enables forward-looking politics” (translated from German).3 To move closer to this goal, however, requires a kind of politics that continually reflects on its moral responsibility.

Although the future remains uncertain, humans have acquired a scientific set of tools designed to minimize this uncertainty, or at least make it more bearable. Different varieties of futures research, futurology and foresight attempt to anticipate future events, so that action can be taken when they occur – or better still, before they occur. This raises the question of to what extent and under what conditions foresight can serve the goal of just peace. First of all, therefore, we will take a closer look at the available tools, before moving on to discuss the conditions.

Foresight as a human need

Particularly in times of an increasing perception of uncertainty, people have an inherent need to look into the future. Already in ancient times, they consulted oracles or seers before crucial decisions were taken, so that their actions could be guided by those prophesies. Even today, many people perceive the present to be uncertain, and considering ever faster changes in the political, economic, scientific and cultural sphere, they have wellfounded reason to do so. This affects not only individuals, but also entire societies, and especially the political leadership of states. Their decision-makers in particular struggle to gain the earliest possible notion or knowledge of what lies ahead or might lie ahead, so that they can possibly still influence the course of events.

Given the growing complexity of decision-making situations along with highly interdependent environmental and economic trends such as globalization and climate change, there is a growing need for a systematic way of dealing with uncertainty. Therefore, “foresighted and interministerial political action [is becoming] ever more important, but also ever more challenging” (translated from German).4 Global digital transformation and autonomization processes as well as new forms of conflicts are also considerably changing the coordinates of security policy – keywords here are cyber war, fully autonomous weapons, hybrid wars and transnational terrorism. In comparison to the pre-modern era, when considerations of different futures were mostly spiritual in nature, the methods of futures research have become increasingly scientific over recent decades. Now it is no longer a question of having relevant events predicted by a magical authority, or calculating probabilities of occurrence with mathematical precision. Instead, the idea is to prepare for possible future events.

“Government foresight means systematic approaches by state actors to continuously analyze possible future developments in a methodologically sound way, so as to be better prepared for them and – as far as possible – shape them” (translated from German).5 Transferred to the strategic policy context, this is primarily a matter of policy guidance beyond the short term, i.e. identifying key factors that are already apparent and relevant for forward-looking government action to shape the future. The goal is to “think for the future” – to identify new scope for action, increase the available options, and prepare for discontinuities and surprise events (known as “wild cards”). Foresight is mainly concerned with “making the invisible visible” by analyzing latent structures, assumptions and attitudes. Conventional risk analysis often considers only “established” risks, which can be relatively well assessed. Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld coined the phrase “known unknowns” for this kind of risk. The counterpart to this is “unknown unknowns”, i.e. new kinds of threats that cannot be captured using the tools of traditional risk analysis.6 In this respect , foresight is mainly the “management of uncertainty”.

Our description of the foresight method leaves the moral question as yet unanswered, however. It has to be ascertained that foresight as an instrument is in itself ethically neutral. “Thinking for the future” to deal with future events is initially independent of the attitudes and objectives of the actors involved. Its various methods can serve purposes which should not be pursued from an ethical point of view. Thus, in itself, it is not sufficient to serve the goal of just peace which requires, as mentioned earlier, a kind of politics that continually reflects on its moral responsibility. In addition, a concept from virtue ethics that is traditional but by no means outdated is required.

The virtue of prudentia

Prudentia personified is a woman with two faces: one looks forward, to see how the goals of a virtuous lifestyle can be achieved. But to do this she also has to look back into the past, to previous experiences, to develop an understanding of new contexts for action. Medieval allegories express this in their depiction of Prudentia. With an attentive gaze, she looks into the world in front of her, while at the same time holding a mirror up to her face, in which she looks into the past.7

Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle, attributed a leading role to prudence in the evaluation of actions. “A prudent man is one who sees as it were from afar, for his sight is keen, and he foresees the event of uncertainties.”8 The prudent man evaluates future actions from the perspective of knowledge that goes beyond the immediate situation; it is a question of what is useful to him and others in the long term. Firstly, he is familiar with the conditions that determine the current situation. But the prudent man is also capable of distancing himself from what the specific circumstances appear to demand.9

Prudent actions, in their chronological structure, are characterized mainly by their “foresighted concern about a desirable future” (translated from German).10 The scope for possible action is partially influenced by the past. An essential element of prudence is “[...] to obtain knowledge of the future from knowledge of the present or past”.11 At the same time, the future always appears to us in an intertwining of available and unavailable aspects. What will be, is available only up to a point to the acting person.12

Consequently, prudent actors too should engage with uncertainty.13 In their considerations, they should anticipate future dangers, possible side-effects and long-term consequences, and examine measures that could contribute to successful practice.14

Considering uncertainty is something wholly different than wanting to “force the future to happen.” Therefore, the attitude of the prudent person is characterized by openness and flexibility.

Aristotle distinguishes between a type of prudence or practical wisdom oriented to virtue (phrónēsis), and an adroitness that rejects it (craftiness, panourgía): It is impossible to be prudent without being virtuous at the same time. A person who acts prudently is guided by the standard of the good. The future to which prudent action is geared, is also a future that is qualified as good in ethical respects.15

When making balanced judgments about what to do in complex situations, someone who decides on their own on the choice of appropriate means may not take important aspects into account. Therefore, according to Thomas Aquinas, discussion among several people deserves preference.16 The prudent person, however, will not merely follow the experts’ advice. They will make their decision independently. Knowing about other perspectives in the discussion includes the possibility of going beyond one’s own point of view. In this respect, discussion always serves the exchange of ideas and the communication of values and visions, too. Therefore, a person who acts prudently will be guided by social, political and ethical goals.

Aspects of the classical concept of prudentia as a virtue can be found in foresight processes: the perspective of knowledge going beyond the specific situation; foresighted concern for a desirable future that is guided by a specific practical interest; an awareness of the available and unavailable aspects of the future; an attitude of openness and flexibility toward different future scenarios; and, due to the complexity of reality and contexts for action, a consultation model that includes all kinds of views, even contrary ones.

Yet for all its intelligence, creativity and logical rigor, foresight per se does not possess any prudence in the sense of the virtue prudentia. It is only through this virtue, however, that an ethically imposed application of the foresight instrument becomes possible. At the same time, prudence is not a marginal extension of thinking ahead. Rather, through its relationship to what is morally advisable, and also through its purposefully farsighted view of impacts and side-effects, it is a fundamental requirement for successful action toward the prospect of just peace.

Prudence, foresight and conflict prevention

The 2016 White Paper on security policy and the future of the German armed forces, and the German federal government’s guidelines, published in 2017, on “Preventing Crises, Resolving Conflicts, Building Peace” (Krisen verhindern, Konflikte bewältigen, Frieden fördern), set out a framework for international crisis management. Its goal is to prevent crises by means of systematic foresight. This premise of preventing violence is the fundamental idea of just peace.

In the concept of just peace, the spirit of non-violence makes itself felt in a very fundamental way in the manner in which the political situation is perceived, the extent to which it is accepted, and in the places where changes are called for. This orientation leads to a new emphasis on those questions that are associated with the prevention of violence. Preventive politics embodies the idea that an attitude of renunciation of violence can be translated into political structures – in other words, that it seems possible in principle to change political structures and mechanisms in such a way that they lead to a greater capability for peace in the international system.

At the same time, this idea implies that political priorities should be determined by peace ethics. If it is possible to make purposeful contributions to reducing violence, then this insight is also accompanied by an ethical obligation to follow it. After all, using violence in any form – even those forms that are based on serious reasons – not only entails grave consequences, harming and destroying lives. There is also the constant danger that the use of force will spiral out of control, and its intrinsic dynamics will undermine the achievement of the desired goal.17

Strategic foresight enhances present-day crisis early warning with new methods and approaches: by analyzing alternative possible developments and options for action, by pointing out and questioning mental models and assumptions, by enhancing the visibility and verbal expression of interests, goals, desires and priorities, and by promoting communication and collective learning. However, for successful crisis prevention it is important, after the early warning, to act prudently in the ethical sense. Firstly, this requires engagement with the history of conflicts, as the often interest-driven definitions of contemporary problems do not get to the root of the conflicts. Secondly, to act prudently in conflict prevention means devoting attention to the people concerned: to their educational opportunities and to the question of how they approach morality – and hence also their religion. One of the major challenges in many current conflicts consists in a disturbance of the so-called post-secular society. The importance of religion and hence also the ethical significance of the unconditionality of the awareness of God and the resulting ethical obligations have become completely unimaginable for many people. Thirdly, for the sake of prudence, a true pluralism of thought would need to be established, and it would need to sufficiently reflect on and respect regional traditions, customs and contexts. All of this would be a prudent form of prevention responsibility which governments would have to take and which would correspond to the prevailing spirit of non-violence within the concept of just peace.

Foresight reflects the situation of our times, in which many conceptions of the good compete with each other. Consequently, knowledge about possible scenarios does not put an end to questions about the normative criteria, or the striving for a future that is qualified as good in the ethical sense. According to our beliefs, the concept of just peace is one such normative criterion. To move closer to it requires, in addition to modern methods of futures research, the traditional virtue of ethical prudence.

1 (accessed May 29, 2018).

2 Die deutschen Bischöfe (2000): Gerechter Friede, No. 59.

3 Ibid., No. 60.

4 Stiftung neue Verantwortung (2013): “Policy Brief: Denken auf Vorrat – Strategische Vorausschau macht Deutschland fit für die Zukunft”. (accessed May 16, 2018).

5 Ibid.

6 Roth, Florian and Herzog, Michel (2016): “Strategische Krisenfrüherkennung – Instrumente, Möglichkeiten und Grenzen”. In: Zeitschrift für Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik 9, pp. 201-211, p. 204.

7 Cf. Fidora, Alexander et al. (2013): “Einleitung”. In: by the same author et al. (eds.): Phronêsis – Prudentia – Klugheit. Das Wissen des Klugen in Mittelalter, Renaissance und Neuzeit. Porto, pp. 7-11, p. 7.

8 Summa theologiae [Abbr. as S. th.] II-II, q. 47, a.1, c.  [Translation taken from; accessed May 18, 2018.] Here Thomas is quoting Isidore of Seville, cf. Etymol., Lib. X, ad litt. P (PL 82, 388). 

9 Cf. Mertens, Karl (2005): “Die Zeitstruktur kluger Handlungen”. In: Kersting, Wolfgang (ed.): Klugheit. Weilerswist, pp. 215-236, p. 215.

10 Ibid.

11 II-II, q. 47, a.1 , c. 

12 Cf. Mertens (2005), p. 219.

13 Cf. Mertens (2005), p. 220.

14 Quoted after Mertens (2005), p. 223.

15 Cf. ibid.; cf. also Koch, Bernhard (2017): “Klugheit”. In: Ebeling, Klaus/Gillner, Matthias (eds.): Ethik-Kompass. 77 Leitbegriffe. Mit einem Vorwort von Hans Joas. Freiburg im Breisgau, pp. 94-5.

16 S. th. I-II, q. 14, a. 1.3, c.

17 Cf. on the preceding two paragraphs Hoppe, Thomas (2001): “Motiv Menschenrechte? Die Idee vom gerechten Frieden als Grundlage der Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik”. In: Zentralkomitee der deutschen Katholiken (ed.): Sein ist die Zeit. 94. Deutscher Katholikentag Hamburg 2000 – Dokumen­tation. Kevelaer.



Dr. Franz-Josef Overbeck studied theology and philosophy at Münster and Rome. He was ordained a priest in 1989. Following his consecration as a bishop in 2007, he was an auxiliary bishop in the Diocese of Münster. In 2009, he was appointed Bishop of Essen. Since 2011, he has also held the post of Catholic military bishop for the German armed forces. In 2014, he became chairman of the commission for societal and social issues of the Episcopal Conference of Germany (Deutsche Bischofskonferenz, DBK); that same year, Pope Francis appointed him to the Pontifical Council for Culture. In March 2018, he was elected Vice-President of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE).