Among the positions people hold about the relation between war and morality is one which asserts that wars, unlike other human enterprises, cannot be subject to moral assessment: wars simply cannot be evaluated morally. In this article, Richard Wasserstrom analyzes and finds such a view wanting, though attempting to explore the reasons which incline many to adopt such a stance. He then goes on to suggest plausible criteria for evaluating war morally, and responds to a line of argument which would insist that unilateral pacifism is the only moral, because effective, response to international conflict. He proceeds to an analysis of the "strongest argument against war": that which sees modern war as causing the death of "innocent" persons, and concludes with some reasons for believing that an absolute ban on the intentional killing of innocent persons (a view he attributes to a number of moralists, including Elizabeth Anscombe) is an extreme and finally indefensible view.
Before we examine the moral criteria for assessing war, we must examine the claim that it is not possible to assess war in moral terms. Proponents of this position assert that moral predicates either cannot meaningfully or should not be applied to wars. For want of a better name for this general view, I shall call it moral nihilism in respect to war. If it is correct, there is, of course, no point in going further.
Reprinted from Stanford Law Review, Vol. 21, no. 6, pp. 1636-1656, June 1969, by permission of Stanford Law Review, Fred B. Rothman and Co., and the author. © 1969 by the Board of Trustees of Leland Stanford Junior University.