Let’s Get Ethical Pt 3: War and Peace

‘Bella, horrida bella’

How can war ever be justified? Does a moral threshold that makes war acceptable exist? For the finale of my ethics series, I wanted to go out with a bang… see what I did there… Anyway, the ethics of war explores the moral limitations and ethical boundaries of conflict. It’s almost a seesaw of balance between rules, principles, moral capacity and circumstance. All I am looking to find in this search for an answer, is more pro’s than con’s regarding wartime. But is it really that simple?

There are few wars that have been so popular globally that everyone supports it – what does this tell you? For me, it’s that that the concept of war has a never ending negative vibe, not because people are against it per se, but the connotations and domino effect post-war is phenomenal. I’m not saying i’m a ‘life is sacred’ pacifist, but I do believe war is less necessary than many believe. Nevertheless, individuals that go to war from your country are bound to make you proud in some patriotic sense.

Why do we go to war?

  • Economic and Territorial Gain
  • Religion
  • Nationalism
  • Revenge or Defense
  • Civil/Revolutionary War

Some thoughts to consider:

  • Pacifism
  • Sacred Life
  • Social and Political Goals
  • Trauma eg. PTSD and anxiety
  • Outdated Conflict

Some individuals reject the very notion that war can be related to morality; for some, there is no moral theory that could make war and fighting vaguely acceptable (pacifists), and for others. Is it ever morally right to kill or injure with intent? Does it depend on relativity such as revenge? Does it depend on scale of hurt or lack of personal relation? Where does the line sit? For me, I would be lying if I said I wouldn’t go to war for my country, or kill someone that had hurt my family – but does that mean it’s right? Is there a right answer?

The most famous route regarding the ethical assessment of war in the ‘Just War Theory’ (JWT). The primarily Christian theory aims to reconcile the defence of citizens, justice, and the taking of human life; the theory lays out the conditions concerning whether we should go to war and if so, how it should be fought. The very origin of the JWT has roots in Ancient Greece (shock), linking to the classical philosophy of Plato and Cicero, later developed by St.Augustine and Aquinas. This western concept ought to be distinguished from ‘Jihad’, the Islamic concept of holy war which is the only type of just war in Muslim legal theory.

JWT’s two main elements:

  • 1. Jus ad bellum: justifying the conditions of military force
  • 2. Jus in bello: conducting war in an ethical manner


(1) the war must be declared by sovereign authority, properly and openly.

(2) the war must have a just cause such as defence of common good.

(3) the warring state must have just intentions (rather than self interest).

(4) the aim of the war must be the establishment of a just peace.

The end of WW2 saw the customary addition of a few more conditions:

(1) there must be a reasonable chance of success.

(2) force must be used as a last resort.

(3) the expected benefits of war must outweigh its anticipated costs.

The reason Christian’s may follow the JWT is that many believe war is occasionally righteous and just. Protecting others and sacrificing oneself can be seen as an example of Jesus’ teaching, as fighting for what you believe to be right is a reigning theme in Christian history. However, this can appear at odds with the original 10 commandments – ‘do not murder’ and ‘blessed are the peacemakers’ can seem contradictory.

The main element to take away from this is that regardless of whether you think war is right or wrong, it appears many believe it to be the only solution to some issues. I don’t believe any war is as simple as mere ‘conditions’, but they provide the right relative guidance to the inevitable outcome of wartime. What do you think?

Published by Harriet Leslie

Hi! I'm Harriet. I am a writer for numerous websites, with a first-class BA in Philosophy and an MA in Medical Ethics and Law. I hope you enjoy my mini introductions to all things philosophy and ethics, many of which have been essays for academic purposes.

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