Is There Morality in War?

October 4, 2009

In attempting to answer the question whether all means are legitimate in the conduct of war and whether in war there is morality, we will look at two opposing viewpoints, namely the just war theory and pacifism. However, in order to be able to take the position of one of the two viewpoints, we have to go beyond them and discuss the problem of the state of nature and the possibility of a law of nature. These concepts are extremely important when one decides to accept a position against or for “just” warfare.

Two philosophers who looked at society without government or before government were Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, referring to this society as the state of nature. Hobbes describes man’s state of nature simply as constant war of each individual against another, a state in which morality and justice play no role whatsoever. A man will do anything in order to preserve his existence. John Locke also recognised this society as lacking political structure, but insisted that even in this kind of society there is a certain law of nature, which teaches mankind against harming one another and teaches equality and independence. The two opposing views led both philosophers to different conclusions on how a state should be organised. Hobbes held that the only solution was unconditional and unlimited power of the government, while Locke stressed the rule of the majority.

These two viewpoints seem to me to be essential in determining a route one will take in his beliefs about warfare. Taking a view that war is a state of nature would ultimately mean going against nature in trying to prevent wars. The position of the just war theory is somewhere between the extreme view that war is essential to man’s nature and the other extreme of refusing to use violence even in cases of self-defence as is the case with pacifism. The theory deals with recognising the conditions in which war would be morally necessary.

The just war theory started developing with the Christian Church and is today being used in international law. Central to this position is the idea that “the state’s use of violence in war is similar to its exercise of force in internal jurisdiction”.[1] Even thinkers such as Augustine held that just as a ruler may use force against wrongdoers inside the state, he may also use it against external wrongdoers. The theory is divided into the theory of jus ad bellum and jus ad bello. Jus ad bellum deals with what makes it right to wage war, while jus ad bello identifies the actions which are morally right to take during war. The conditions for jus ad bellum are that war may be waged only by a legitimate authority, it may be used only for a cause which is just, it must be the last choice, and there must be a very strong indication that it will be successful. The most important conditions of jus ad bello is that war must be fought in such a way as to do less harm and evil than would have happened if it had not been waged and that the killing of innocent people is not permitted. The major problem that arises from these conditions is the one concerning the distinction between who are the innocent people and who are not. From different ethical perspectives people make different conclusions on whether soldiers and officers are guilty or not.

The position of the just war theorists seems to stand on the same grounds as utilitarianism. The essence of utilitarianism is the greatest good for the greatest number. This necessarily implies not sparing a few for the welfare of thousands. This is actually one of the conditions of jus ad bello. To make sure that less evil will come about if the war is fought is a utilitarian approach. That the world really functions in such a way can be proven easily; all one has to do is analyse the wars in the last century and the policies of the allied forces. If one agrees with Hobbes then the just war theory appears to be the best of all possible ways in which mankind is able to “tame” its natural urges. However, this gives rise to another problem altogether. It is supposed that “utilitarianism is scrupulously impartial between persons, in the sense that no one is allowed to count for more or less than anyone else”.[2] How then does one decide to sacrifice a bodyguard for the life of a president who can also be replaced like the bodyguard? Presidents and bodyguards are replaced all the time.

It may be viewed that every war is in a way seen as just by the party that wages it. Even in cases of conquest, a nation will argue that the reason of its wanting to expand is to protect it from being conquered itself. So, who decides whether a war is just or not? When there is no balance of power in the world a nation can argue that the wars it fights are just, without a force of equal power being there to oppose it. According to Nietzsche, the whole world is a will to power. The powerful will do all they can to stay in power and the oppressed will ask for freedom and equal rights just in order to make the powerful less powerful and to become powerful themselves. He accepts that today’s society has a higher value of peace than of war, but he sees it as something anti-biological. “Life is a consequence of war, society itself a means to war.”[3] Are we then to believe in the just intentions of those in power when they wage wars on nations that demand more power?

The main contrasting current to the just war theory is pacifism, according to which all killing of human beings is intrinsically evil. This is a case of absolute pacifism, but all pacifist theories share in common the view that no violence can be justified, even in the case of self-defence. Pacifists believe that the rejection of violence is the path to creating a Utopia.

It has been mentioned that the just war theory assumes that the state is justified to fight against external wrongdoers in the same way as it is justified to enforce law and order inside it. If we accept the extreme pacifist view that all violence is wrong then that would mean rejecting the state, “for crime control is one of the main purposes of the state”.[4] This puts the just war theorists in a great advantage when supporting their arguments that pacifism cannot serve in international law just as much as it is useless in the law of the state. We do not even have to analyse the pacifist view of warfare, because war is simply not allowed under any circumstances. It can be compared to Kant’s categorical imperative. We cannot imagine a world, in which killing would be made a universal law, therefore we should not kill.

Pacifism relies on the assumption that if a certain number of individuals take the pacifist approach towards violence, that attitude would spread around and affect more and more people. This kind of global reaction in present day society is simply not achievable. The pacifist attitude cannot be made a global one due to the government systems in the world. There is not one single government in which everybody has equal power. Equal power should be distinguished from equal rights. The possibility of everybody having equal power would destroy the meaning of the word “power”. The word necessarily demands that there be somebody superior who possesses power and somebody inferior to recognise this power.

War itself can never be considered to be a moral act. The cause might reflect some morality from the utilitarian approach, but the act itself is never moral. However, cases always arise where morality plays a part in war. Since the birth of war itself, soldiers had some mutual agreements on how a war should be fought. This has to suggest at least some morality. The Ancient Greeks used to form truces for just long enough until each side has time to bury its dead. Every so often we hear of instances of soldiers killing people during the funerals of those already killed and we are shocked; we are much more shocked than when we hear about four soldiers being killed in the frontlines. This is because we have come to accept that the frontlines are an acceptable place to kill enemies, a place where one dies with honour. This proves that some aspects of morality can be applied to completely immoral acts.

It is a great risk to say that all means are legitimate in war and to say that the end justifies the means. The same question appears again on what ends are noble ends. It is highly probable that Hitler held his ultimate end to be a very noble one and did not actually like the means he had to take. Self-defence is assumed to be a noble end, but even here we come across a problem of what one sees as a good grounds to take up self-defence. This is an extremely ambiguous problem when dealing with individuals defending themselves. With the case of nations the problem becomes much greater.

It seems to me impossible to dismiss any of the theories mentioned as completely wrong. All of them have elements that are essentially true. To decide which means would be legitimate in the conduct of a particular war one would have to examine the circumstances under which the war is fought. The sound judgement behind the decisions would have to rest completely at the mercy of mankind and the appropriate authority figures. All we can do is hope that the choices following the just war theory really lead to a noble end and to the minimizing of the possible evil.


[1] Jenny Teichman, Pacifism and the Just War, Oxford 1986, 46.
[2] Geoffrey Scarre, Utilitarianism, London 1996, 21.
[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, London 1968, 33.
[4] Jenny Teichman, Pacifism and the Just War, Oxford 1986, 38.

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