How can "war" be an ethical dilemma? Surely it's just wrong!?! A glance back through history shows how complicated this topic is. In the ancient and medieval worlds, war was considered an honourable and attractive activity, something that "made a man out of you" and showed all the finest qualities of human beings in their best light. For example, the Roman poet Horace wrote in 13 BCE:
Horace wasn't being ironic - this was a widespread belief. Many ancient leaders attracted fame and glory through being victorious in war - Alexander of Macedon [right] became "Alexander the Great" because of an aggressive 8-year war of conquest that took his armies through Turkey and Egypt, across Iraq and Iran and down through Afghanistan into northern India. This was history's first war of annihilation and it is estimated that at least 200,000 soldiers died in his battles and a quarter of a million civilians were massacred in captured cities. Yet ancient historians looked back on Alexander as one of the greatest human beings who ever lived!
This attitude to war was just as common in the European Middle Ages, where warfare was a way of life for people born to be knights. This outlook started to be questioned during the Enlightenment, by thinkers like David Hume, Voltaire and JS Mill. However, it was probably the First World War that caused the biggest change in attitudes to war. The war poet Wilfred Owen repeated Horace's line in his famous poem Dulce et Decorum Est, but this time satirically, questioning whether there is anything sweet or beautiful about modern warfare.
Nonetheless, the Second World War is often used as an example of a war that was moral, because it was a war to destroy Nazism, a political philosophy dedicated to racism and genocide on a grand scale. Attitudes to war are quite mixed and can be grouped into three types:
This is the view that, far from being a bad thing, war is in fact a good thing, which brings out good qualities in people. This was a common view in ancient times and is still a view held in some cultures, but it is very unpopular in modern Western societies.
War tests courage to the utmost and courage might be seen as the most important moral quality. The importance of courage is that it is required by every other moral quality: a kind man is only kind up to a point if he lacks courage; similarly, if you don't have courage you cannot be truly honest, chaste or generous because the slightest threat will make you abandon your moral principles. War makes courage valuable in people's eyes: it identifies courageous people and it holds them up as role models for the rest; at the same time, cowardice is not tolerated during war and may be punished. It might be that only during wartime do people have a genuine admiration for the courageous and a desire to be more courageous themselves.
War tests other moral qualities too, particularly loyalty and self-sacrifice. There's a widespread feeling that these qualities become less common during peacetime and anyone who gets nostalgic for "the Blitz Spirit" (left), or feels that a stint of National Service would do young people some good, is clearly adopting this position. During wartime, communities "pull together" and neighbours help each other out; with the threat of destruction hanging over them, people put their lives into perspective, become less selfish and stop tolerating destructive behaviour.
Finally, war might be the most effective way of bringing about a more stable and harmonious world. This might sound contradictory, but the idea is that big superpowers (like America, Russia, China, etc) are much better employed fighting small wars in different parts of the world (Iraq, Chechnya,Tibet) than fighting each other. Constant small wars let countries "let off steam" and remind their rivals how dangerous they can be. All of this would make a catastrophic World War much less likely.
There are several objections to the militarist position:
The idea that war preserves peace is a controversial one and can be illustrated with quotes from two American presidents:
The pacifist position is the opposite of the militarist one, that war is a great evil, perhaps the greatest of evils, and the moral course of action is always to resist the temptation to go to war. In the past people who held this opinion were often taunted with cowardice or subjected to degrees of persecution, but it is an increasingly popular view in modern Western society, just as the militarist view declines in popularity.
In the First World War pacifists became known as conscientious objectors. Some refused to fight but about 7,000 were willing to help the country by working in non-combat roles such as medical orderlies, stretcher-bearers, ambulance drivers, cooks or labourers. Some pacifists, known as absolute conscientious objectors, rejected any involvement in the war. One famous "absolutist" was the British philosopher Bertrand Russell. By the end of the war, 8,608 conscientious objectors appeared before Military Tribunals. Over 4,500 went sent to do work of national importance such as farming. However, 528 were sentenced to imprisonment. Conditions were made very hard for the conscientious objectors and 69 of them died in prison. By the Second World War lessons had been learned and a more tolerant approach was taken. A total of 59,192 people in
During a war many pacifists will refuse to fight, but some will take part in activities that seek to reduce the harm of war (eg driving ambulances), but others will refuse to take part in any activity that might support the war. Many pacifists have bravely choosing punishment, and even execution, rather than go to war. Nowadays most democratic countries accept that people have the right of conscientious objection to military service, but they usually expect the objector to undertake some form of public service as an alternative. Recently, some pacifists have argued that it is right, not just to refuse to fight, but to refuse to pay taxes to the Government that would go towards supporting a war they disagree with. Others object to taking part in Remembrance Services to honour the dead of the World Wars: they argue that, although the soldiers died bravely, the orders they were following were wrong; moreover, these celebrations can be accused of glorifying warfare and supporting a militarist philosophy. Objectors often choose to wear a white poppy (left), in place of the traditional red poppy.
Pacifism has many criticisms. Firstly, pacifism can never be a national policy, for the obvious reason that it will only work if no-one wants to attack your country, or the enemy nation is also committed to pacifism. In any other circumstances adopting a pacifist stance will result in your country being conquered. This means that at best pacifists can only put moral pressure on a Government to pursue diplomatic solutions, at worst they can keep their own consciences clean while other people fight in the actual battles. To be fair, the idea of seeking non-violent solutions to disputes between nations now plays a significant part in international politics, particularly through the work of the United Nations. This might be seen as a result of pacifist principles gaining respect.Another criticism says that, because the world is not perfect, war is not always wrong. States have a duty to protect their citizens, and citizens have a duty to carry out certain tasks if the state finds itself at war. According to this argument, it doesn't matter that pacifists are motivated by respect for human life and a love of peace: their refusal to participate in war does not make them noble idealists, but people who are failing to carry out an important moral obligation. However, things might not be this straightforward. In the past, states like Britain and America took many Africans as slaves and this arrangement certainly benefited the citizens of the American South, in particular. But that didn't mean people had a moral obligation to support slavery, just because it was official government policy and benefited the citizens. In fact, the "noble idealists" won the day and slavery was abolished. In other words, people can never have an absolute obligation to obey the state, and objecting to war might be one of the occasions when they are justified in being disobedient.
A final argument says that pacifism has no place in the face of extreme evil. This boils down to the famous quotation often attributed to the 18th century politician Edmund Burke:
The Second World War is often cited as an example of a war against clear moral wickedness. In Germany, the Nazi Party had a stated policy of systematic cruelty, racial supremacy and genocide. Much the same could be said of Japanese imperialism in the East at the same time. In 1941, an editorial in the Times Literary Suplement read:
This is a powerful objection for the pacifist to grapple with. However, in fairness it must be said that the pacifist is not committed to "doing nothing". There are many other measures that nations can take to restrain other nations besides violence: there are economic sanctions, boycotts, diplomatic agreements and bringing in neutral nations as mediators or peacekeepers. Certainly, these measures were not used enough in the past and many people feel they are still not being used enough today: a powerful objection to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was that diplomatic steps had not yet been exhausted and there was more work for UN weapons inspectors to do which could have made the war unnecessary.
Natural Law is an approach to ethics that asks the question "how is it natural for people to live?" and concludes that a good life is one lived in accordance with nature. An obvious problem with this is that it's difficult to know exactly how humans should live naturally and the issue of war shows this very clearly. The Vikings and the Nazis both believed that war was a natural thing for young men to do - the Vikings believed that the afterlife was one big war between the gods and the giants and humans needed to get their practice in here on earth, while the Nazis believed that war directed at lesser people (ie just about everybody) was the finest expression of the Germanic spirit.
The Christian approach to Natural Law makes the opposite assumption - that the natural state for human beings is to live peacefully, making peace good and war bad.The first Christians accepted this in a straightforward way, refusing military service and even refusing to use force to resist their persecutors, who on many occasions rounded up Christians to torture and execute. Things got more complicated in the 4th century when Christianity was first legalised then made the official religion of the Roman Empire. Now that the Empire was a Christian Empire, it needed to be defended against barbarians (who were either pagans or Christian heretics) and neighbouring empires (the Parthians, who were Zoroastrian by religion and persecuted Christians even more enthusiastically than the Romans had). What was needed was some idea of the "Christian soldier" - unthinkable for the early Christians! - and the man who provided it was St Augustine of Hippo (354-430, right). Augustine developed the idea of the JUST WAR:
Auustine's conditions reflect his time and place: the Roman Empire was collapsing, Rome itself had been conquered by barbarians, armies were going rogue and either turning to mercenary work or setting themselves up as private kingdoms - rule of law seemed to be breaking down. Augustine was clear that only the Emperor (or one of his official representatives) had the right to start a war and that wars should be fought to punish wrongdoing and bring about peace, not just to grab territory or settle old scores.
Augustine's ideas were developed further by St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274, right) who added a third requirement for a war to be a Just War:
In a way, this is just taking Augustine's idea that Christian soldiers must not love killing for its own sake and making it a general rule - Just Wars are not only in support of a "just cause", they are also carried out in a moral way (accepting the other side's surrender, sparing civilians and prisoners, honouring truces, etc).
Philosophers have had mixed feelings about the whole concept of a "Just War". Some point out that Augustine and Aquinas introduced a valuable idea into warfare - namely, that there were moral rules governing war rather than just might-makes-right. Others think it is very regrettable that Christianity moved from being a religion of peace to one that was willing to endorse war; maybe the idea of a "Just War" actually creates more wars! It's worth remembering that if a war is a Just War then it's not just morally OK to fight in it, it's actually your moral duty and it becomes immoral not to take part in it! Just Wars have no place for pacifists!
These are the three traditional conditions for a Just War, but if you reflect you will realise they are not enough. Think about the Second World War: as German Chancellor, Hitler was a "legitimate authority" and the reunification of Austria and Germany was considered by most Germans (and many Austrians) to be a "just cause". In 1942, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr argued that the unfair Versailles Treaty imposed on Germany after the First World War by Britain, France and the USA actually led to the rise of Nazism. Many Germans only wanted to take back what was unfairly taken from them in the first place, to right a great wrong. Does that make German aggression in 1939 a "Just War"?
In 1983 the Catholic Bishops in America issued a statement updating the criterion for a Just War, adding new conditions:
It's worth asking yourself if any war in history has actually met all these conditions - has there ever been a truly just war?
First of all, consider the need for a "just cause". This is clearly open to interpretation and everybody waging a war thinks their cause is just - Palestinians firing rockets into Israeli suburbs, Taleban insurgents planting bombs at the roadside, Irish republicans blowing up crowded pubs, German stormtroopers rounding up Jewish families, American marines napalming Vietnamese famers, everyone thinks they're fighting in a just cause. Even St Augustine's idea that it was just to defend the Empire and its laws only seemed just to Roman citizens; the barbarians desperately trying to carve out a new home for themselves wouldn't have seen the justice in it. "Legitimate authority" is equally hard to define. Did Tony Blair and George W. Bush have the authority to declare war on Iraq in 2003? Many people today think that only the United Nations should have the authority to declare a war, but at the moment that isn't the case. "Right intention" can be just as vague, particularly because what leaders say is their motive and aim in going to war and then what actually ends up happening can be quite different. Britain and America say it is their intention to set up peaceful democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan and then leave, but many people (particularly in the Muslim world) distrust these intentions and think that the real intention is to control the supply of oil or even to eradicate Islam as a religion. It doesn't matter whether these accusations are true or not, it just shows that "right intention" is not something everyone can agree on.
"Comparative justice" is a very weak condition, because there is always justice on both sides in any dispute. The Germans had a case that the Versailles Treaty was unfair and the division of their territory was damaging to them as a people. Saddam Hussein had a point that Iraq wasn't harbouring weapons of mass destruction or supporting al-Qaeda as American and British leaders claimed. However, countries can never admit that their enemies have some justice on their side, because it would weaken their own standing internationally. The demand that war should be a "last resort" has a lot of support, but just how far is diplomacy expected to go? In March 2003 the US government anounced that "diplomacy had failed" to get Saddam Hussein to comply with various United Nations Security Resolutions and the invasion of Iraq began a few days later. But many people believe Iraq needed more time to comply with UN Resolution 1441 and that the United Nations needed to debate the matter further. Who can say when diplomacy really has failed, as opposed to leaders simply losing patience?
Other criterion are less problematic."Reasonable probability of success" is important because although last stands by doomed soldiers in the face of overwhelming odds make for romantic stories ("Remember the Alamo!"), it is irrational and wicked for leaders, from the safety of their offices, to send people to die in a hopeless struggle. "Proportionality" is also not very controversial. For example, defending national honour is very important for some people, but the lives of human beings should take priority over national honour.
"Discrimination" is another important idea, but one that is hard to put into practice. Many modern armies go to great lengths to minimise civilian casualties, for example using laser guided misiles that will target an enemy command post but leave nearby civilian homes unharmed. Some countries respond to this by using "human shields" - deliberately bringing civilians civilians to camp inside military targets or locating military targets in built-up areas specifically to make it harder for their enemy to discriminate in this way. And then of course, even the most advanced missiles do malfunction and destroy the wrong targets. A deeper problem arises with defining who is "innocent" in war. Groups like Hamas and Hizbollah don't make a distinction between "innocent" or "guilty" Israelis - Israelis are all, collectively, seen as guilty of occupying Arab land and mistreating the Arab population and Israeli civilians are considered legitimate targets for suicide bombers or indiscriminate missile attacks. During the Second World War, British Bomber Commnd had a policy of "carpet bombing" German cities like Hamburg and Dresden in order to break the German people's morale and bring a speedy end to the war. German U-boats sank Allied shipping bringing food to Britain for a similar reason. This raises a further question: is it more ethical to use indiscriminate weapons that bring a war to an end quickly, or discriminating weapons that allow a war to drag on for much longer? In 1945, the use of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki forced Japan to surrender - but the alternative plan, a seaborne invasion of Japan itself, would have been bloody beyond imagining: casualty figures were estimated in millions for the Allies, tens of millions for the Japanese. Was the indiscriminate atom bombing of two cities (with around 200,000 casualties) actually the more moral thing to do?
Throughout history, people have believed that war was commanded by God, or the gods. Many ancient religions believed in warrior-gods (Roman Mars, Greek Ares, Hindu Indra, Norse Tyr) and in many mythologies the gods actually arrange wars to see their human champions fight - Homer's epic poem The Iliad describes the war between the Greeks and the Trojans being engineered by the gods. For Vikings, death in battle was the only way to be guaranteed a place in Valhalla, an afterlife specially for warriors, while people who died in peaceful circumstances went to a miserable afterlife in a region called Hel.
The Bible seems to share this view. The God of the Old Testament is Yahweh Sabaoth ("God of Battles") and gives the Israelites specific commands to invade their pagan neighbours, destroy their cities and take their land:
These are not isolated quotes. The Old Testament God gives specific instructions about how armies are to be organised, who they are to attack, whether prisoners should be taken and what should be done with survivors. It's quite clear that the ancient Israelites regarded Yahweh Sabaoth highly precisely because they believed worshipping him brought them victory in battle; in times of peace they tended to lapse into worshipping fertility gods like Baal who was believed to make rain fall and harvests plentiful. God would punish this backsliding by inflicting more war on them, starting the cycle again.
As you can see, militarists have plenty of material in the Bible to justify waging war as something that God approves of - especially if the enemy is of a different religion or threatens your own religion. In the Middle Ages, this led to a series of wars known as "the Crusades" (left) where God was believed to invite Christian soldiers directly into Heaven as a reward for their courage in defending Christianity and defeating the Church's enemies (Muslims, Jews, other non-Catholic Christians). However, there are other commands in the Bible of a quite different character:
By the time we get to the New Testament, the commands to pursue peace rather than war become much more dramatic and unmistakeable:
Jesus himself seems to be a role model of peace, someone who puts up no resistance to his enemies, even though they torture and execute him, and seems to be commanding his followers to be similarly unresisting in the face of violence and aggression. This had led many people to assume that Jesus was a pacifist and that true Christians should be pacifists too. The Early Church seems to have taken this view:
However, the case for Christian Pacifism is not quite that clear cut.
Situation Ethics avoids lists of rules and says we should proceed from an outlook of AGAPE - universal love. We should then adapt this "Law of Love" to the situation we find ourself in. In many ways, this seems much more faithful to the teachings and behaviour of Jesus in the New Testament. Now, surely the Law of Love would not condone war. After all, it's difficult to act on agape while you're trying to kill someone, right?
War and pacifism turn out to be some of those big issues that expose a real problem with Situation Ethics. The first question raised is just who we are supposed to be showing agape to - our fellow countrymen and women (who include our family, friends and neighbours and who have a huge claim on us, having raised us) or just everybody, including the enemy and their fellow countrymen and women.
Most of us feel that, in war, our own nationals have a greater claim on us than the enemy's citizens and the "Law of Love" should first and foremost be concerned with what's best for people in our own country. It's quite easy to see how simply not getting involved in a war would be best for everyone in our country, so you'd expect Situation Ethicists to be strongly in favour of pacifism. However, Situation Ethics can never support absolute pacifism, because as soon as war is declared the situation changes. Now, many of our friends and neighbours are off fighting and putting their lives at risk. Does agape demand that we stand back and they do this without us? Perhaps the Law of Love means we should go to war with them, not because our own individual contribution will turn the tide, but because there we can comfort them and "watch their backs". In any event, resisting the war effort (say, by campaigning against it or witholding taxes) might put them at greater risk and this doesn't fit in with the Law of Love.
Of course, many Situation Ethicists would argue that agape should be extended to everybody involved, even the enemy. This is a very principled position and is similar to the view on human life taken by absolute pacifists.The Situation Ethicist then faces the same sort of dilemmas that confront the absolute pacifist:
In favour of Situation Ethics, two things need to be said:
Utilitarianism is a CONSEQUENTIALIST philosophy that avoids lists of rules and asks instead whether going to war or campaigning for peace will produce the most utility (benefit) for everybody concerned, on all sides of the conflict. War is something that, by it's nature, causes a drop in utility: people are killed or maimed, families are separated, populations become refugees, buildings are destroyed and land is laid waste. From a Utilitarian viewpoint, there must be major benefits to be gained from war to outweigh all of this. Some would say that no benefits could possibly outweigh the destruction and misery created by war; if this is true, then Utilitarians must be pacifists. Many people argue that the destructiveness of modern weapons of mass destruction means that any benefits gained from using them couldn't possibly outweigh the devastation they would cause; if this is true then Utilitarians will campaign for things like nuclear disarmament.
Of course, it's not as simple as that. For one thing, utility is notoriously hard to calculate, especially in something as complicated and unpredictable as war. At the outbreak of the First World War, many people expected it would be "over by Christmas" - it lasted four years and turned into one of the most devastating conflicts in human history. Similarly, the leaders who planned the 2003 invasion of Iraq did not predict the violent insurgency that would rise up in the aftermath. This becomes even more complicated when the Utilitarian tries to compare immediate and remote utility - do the deaths of hundreds of servicemen and thousands of Iraqis get "balanced out" if a stable, democratic Iraq is created in the future? Just how certain do you have to be that Iraq will become a safe, prosperous country and how long do you have to wait, in order to justify the bloodshed going on there now? There are no easy answers to this.
What exactly is meant by "utility" when it comes to war? The neutron bombs developed in the 1960s were capable of releasing deadly radiation that killed people but left buildings standing. In strict utilitarian terms, the neutron bomb resulted in greater utility than conventional bombs and therefore was a moral weapon - but most people found the idea of such weapons appalling. In fact, these weapons have all been retired from use and no country is now known to deploy them.
Utilitarians themselves don't agree about utility. For Jeremy Bentham utility means "pleasure". Now, surrendering to an enemy rather than fighting certainly produces more pleasure and less pain, even if the whole population is then enslaved. It might be argued that, in the long run, surrendering to an enemy like the Nazis would result in more pain than fighting them, but this calculation isn't obvious and it involves giving up a clear immediate pleasure (not going to war) to avoid a very remote and uncertain pain (living under an oppressive regime). J.S. Mill recognised this and argued that utility should mean "happiness", which includes many higher pleasures like "living in a free society". A problem here is that it's much harder to pin down "happiness" than it is to define "pleasure". At the moment, the Taleban would like Afghanistan to be governed by a strict interpretation of Shariah Law; the Western nations fighting the Taleban would rather Afghanistan became a democratic state. Which outcome would make Afghans the happiest? Is it even possible to answer that question? Preference-Utilitarianism proposed by Peter Singer runs into similar problems. There's a sense among the leaders of Western countries that it would be "better" for Afghanistan if it became a liberal democracy (with human rights, voting, education for women) rather than the Islamic state that the Taleban have in mind - but it's difficult to say what "better" means in this context. It's very difficult to come up wih a definition of "utility" that applies to the context in which wars are fought, for example: