Ethics of War

Arguments as to the ethics or morality of war are as old as war itself. In debate, although academics believe war is something that should be avoided wherever possible they recognize that sometimes it is a lesser evil – for example, the Allied forces overthrowing the Nazis during World War II believed Nazism had to be stopped for the good of Europe. Studying ethics of war helps to clarify the context of what is right or wrong, and also contributes to debates on public policy, government and the action of individuals. The issue of the morality of war – and as such, attempts to prevent future wars – could be said to have led to the creation of formal codes of conduct, like the International Court of Justice at the Hague and the Geneva convention, rules of engagement for soldiers, and punishment of soldiers and others for war crimes.

There are a multitude of ethical issues surrounding the subject of war. It is no stretch of the imagination to say people involved in fighting wars do not want to, and certainly in the case of conscription have little choice. Some of the major issues in the area of ethics and war are those of legitimate authority; just cause and right intention; innocents and proportionality; and non-combatant immunity and terrorism. Can a war ever be just? The concept of morality in war may be considered contradictory — that there simply cannot be such a thing as an ethically condonable war or warfare. It is disputed among critics that moral remorse is an appropriate response to a just war. Norman (1995) argues that the understanding of war as an act of justice provides no grounds for remorse. However, the logical and actual response to those who see themselves engaged in a just war is a moral triumphalism.

It could be argued a just war is more a matter of preventing or curbing evil than it is of promoting good. Just War theory is a Christian philosophy – although one does not need faith to support it — that believes taking life is fundamentally wrong and lays down specific conditions on how war should be fought. It is there to instruct states how to act in times of conflict. However, more contemporary war theory is that war is always bad, even if fought the ‘right' way. Even wars initially perceived as being just can come to be seen as unjust if they are not fought in a way adhering to Just War theory. War poses ethical problems as it obligates people to do things that would be illegal and/ or immoral at any other time, an obvious example being soldiers killing their enemies. In the vast majority of these cases, the soldiers will be strangers and have personally done no harm to each other; war can also involve holding innocent communities hostage to punish the enemy, destroying the environment and plundering national treasures to promote economic, political and ideological agendas.

It is said that "killing is prima facie wrong because human beings have a right to life, and the nation-state must be preserved at all costs." War theorist A. J. Coates emphasizes "the criterion of legitimate authority has become neglected of all the criteria that has been traditionally employed in the moral assessment of war… For many the central moral issue raised by terrorism is that of non-combatant immunity… to regard terrorism in this way, however, is to make an enormous, and almost always unwarranted, moral concession, since the distinction between combatants and non-combatants (or "guilty" and "innocent") is one that applies only to a state of war."

A distinction is made between wars and terrorism, whereby wars are waged by legitimate authorities and terrorists are considered outlaws or criminals, not combatants. Ethical considerations look at whether it is ever right to go to war. Pacifism is the moral opposition to war and other violent acts. Those who are pacifist believe conflicts should be settled in a peaceful way. There is a number of reasons for this: Religion, faith, the belief in the sanctity of life and the political belief that war is wasteful and ineffective among them. Some consider this notion to be more than a singular opposition to war, but a general lifestyle choice promoting justice and human rights.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Ethics of 21st Century Military Conflict
E. L. Gaston; Patti Tamara Lenard.
International Debate Education Association, 2012
Defending Humanity: When Force Is Justified and Why
George P. Fletcher; Jens David Ohlin.
Oxford University Press, 2008
A Moral Military
Sidney Axinn.
Temple University Press, 2009 (Revised edition)
On the Ethics of War and Terrorism
Uwe Steinhoff.
Oxford University Press, 2007
The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America's Wars
John Tirman.
Oxford University Press, 2011
What We Owe Iraq: War and the Ethics of Nation Building
Noah Feldman.
Princeton University Press, 2006 (New edition)
The Origins of Western Warfare: Militarism and Morality in the Ancient World
Doyne Dawson.
Westview Press, 1996
Humane Warfare
Christopher Coker.
Routledge, 2001
Just War, Not Prevention
Nichols, Thomas M.
Ethics & International Affairs, Vol. 17, No. 1, April 2003
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
The Slippery Slope to Preventive War
Crawford, Neta C.
Ethics & International Affairs, Vol. 17, No. 1, April 2003
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
War and Peace: Of Law, Lawlessness, and Sovereignty
Mays, Antje.
Journal of Power and Ethics, Vol. 1, No. 2, April 2000
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb
Dennis D. Wainstock.
Praeger, 1996
An Encyclopedia of War and Ethics
Donald A. Wells.
Greenwood Press, 1996
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